The Avengers: The Wringer

The Avengers DVD releaseWe know little of the organisation Steed works for, and his bosses have only made very occasional appearances. This is Paul Whitsun-Jones’s second appearance as Charles, and this time we gain a deeper insight into him and his organisation than ever before. What emerges is not a pretty picture.

The spy game is a complicated business, fraught with difficulty. As Charles says, agents not only defect but can be bought. So what happens when an agent has defected or is no longer trusted or required? The organisation Steed works for sends them to a facility. It’s something nobody is proud of, apart from those who work there, so Charles “forgot about it, swept the whole thing under the carpet.” Those are the words of Cathy, who is the outside influence, the conscience of the show, and our viewer perspective character once more. The guilty-until-proven-innocent policy is horrifying, as is the torture Steed has to endure, but this is the shady world of espionage, and is very far removed from notions of justice or law and order.

The way Steed finds himself in that predicament is a very clever idea. Spies are being killed on a normally safe pipeline route between East and West in Austria, through unpoliceable forest. The only recent survivor is Hal Anderson, who claims that Steed is the traitor who is getting all those agents killed. Hal’s evidence is strong, but Steed raises a good point about the faked photography that places him in Vienna, where he was supposed to have murdered an agent and left his body floating in the river: “What happened to you when I pushed him in? Did you run out of film?” Of course, it makes sense that a witness to the crime with a camera would take photos of the crime, rather than just a generic shot that places Steed at the scene, so he has a very valid point, but that is ignored and Steed is sent off for torture. What follows is quite hard to watch, with noise and flashing images depriving Steed of sleep, and his captors messing with his perception of time. What is so astonishing about all this is how close Steed comes to breaking, showing the effectiveness of those nasty techniques. We are so used to Steed being able to handle any situation with a quip and a clever plan, that seeing him mentally dismantled in this way really makes the episode pack a punch. Meanwhile, Cathy never doubts him for a second, a further illustration of their rock-solid relationship. The theme of this one is trust. Charles doesn’t have any trust in his agents, not even Steed, and that almost leads to the downfall of the whole organisation. In contrast, Steed and Cathy, the latter external to the organisation, have built a bond of trust that is unshakeable, and that’s what saves Steed.

The Wringer benefits from some excellent guest performances. Paul Whitsun-Jones doesn’t have an easy job as Charles, a man who is trying to hold together an organisation in crisis, while brushing aside moral concerns. When Cathy admonishes him there is a moment where he blusters like a naughty boy, caught in the cold light of her gaze, until he pulls himself together to defend his position.

“There are rules. We make them, and occasional break them. That’s our privilege, Mrs Gale.”

That privilege inevitably extends to his subordinates, who decide to break them as well, none more so than the sinister “Wringer”, played with great enthusiasm by Terence Lodge. I believe fan opinion of his performance is divided, and I can see how it could be interpreted as scenery-chewing, but I thought he was great, a little weasel of a man with a creepy smile on his face while he delights in breaking people’s spirits and manipulating them to act as his puppets. A successful subject of his torture is Hal Anderson, played by Peter Sallis, and it’s another superb performance. He is a good man, grappling with confusion, feelings of betrayal, and a hole in his memory. If you needed an actor to play a nervous wreck, Sallis seemed to be the perfect choice for that job.

This is an episode that raises some important issues. There is the aforementioned theme of the importance of trust, but also the significance of rules and boundaries, the extent to which a secret organisation can lean towards lawlessness, the consequences of a world where kangaroo-court justice prevails, the horrors of psychological torture, the immorality of turning a blind eye to the treatment of prisoners, and the corrupting influence of power. Most important of all, problems “swept under the carpet” rarely stay hidden.   RP

The view from across the pond:

I think it’s safe to say that John Steed gets put through the wringer on this one, although the title refers to a sleazy little character played by Terrance Lodge. He’s a real creep but barring his hippy way of speaking, I couldn’t say what it was about him that really put me off.  Typically, I like people and it’s rare that even an appearance could make me dislike someone, but this guy drips with a sense of ickiness!  The problem I had with watching Steed go through his ordeal was that… we’ve seen it before.  Like so much of this season, a lot of it feels repeated.  Even the idea of Cathy getting to drill Steed’s boss makes no sense as we’ve established that she’s not employed by the same agency.  Why is she given any access to asking questions?  On the other hand, this one at least makes sense in the context of Steed’s job.  6 former agents have gone missing and Steed is asked to go find the latest one.  He’s then accused of being a double agent (been there, done that) and put in The Village (more or less) where he is tortured and brainwashed. Cathy gets to save him.  (Again.)

The thing is, it’s not a bad episode – in fact, I think conceptually it’s a rather good one – but I was just very “meh” about the whole affair.  So much so that when I saw Barry Letts, future writer of Doctor Who, as cast member “Oliver”, I couldn’t think who that was.  By the latter half of the story, I was becoming invested again but this was a far cry from the previous episode.  Yeah, I like that we again see Steed’s boss and it does create a sense that there is a bigger world here – a much needed concept for this show to succeed, if you ask me – but that doesn’t make the episode go down smoothly!  Even seeing Cathy shot doesn’t do much because we only see the aftereffect for one and, hey, guess what: been there, done that too!  

Even the Wringer himself proves to be a lackluster villain who doesn’t realize that the guy he originally brainwashed wouldn’t know him yet he speaks to him like they are old acquaintances which leads to his downfall.   And not one we get to see on-screen at that.  And I thought he was clever!   We know Steed hasn’t turned.  We know Gale isn’t going to be shot and killed.  These are not linchpins to hang the whole story on.  The gotcha moment has to be done differently; making us worry for the main characters doesn’t work unless you do what we saw in The Little Wonders where a machine gun wielding nun guns down a room full of people with Steed included.  (We even see Steed sprawled out like he is dead!)  

Cathy says of Steed that he’s a good agent but sometimes “takes the easy way out.”  I’m not sure that same doesn’t apply to the writers of this series.  It frequently feels like there’s a list of checkboxes they’ve been hitting and that makes them happy.  I don’t think there’s any way that could help this series go on for six seasons so I’m fairly sure the color season that’s coming next will improve things, but I’m hoping that splash of color isn’t the only change.  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Mandrake

 

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Avengers: The Wringer

  1. It’s kind of a shame that episodes such as this one with their heavy moral ambiguity after Diana Rigg joined the show and the series became much more farcical.

    Liked by 2 people

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