While we again explore Steed's latter-day character to a greater extent, the main problem with this episode is that it's so slow! Even "Medium Rare" had a quicker pace than this. And as has been noted, the Purdey kidnap and the amount of traitors the Ministry has are getting overused. The one saving grace here is that none of Steed's friends die! That, and some obviously lame "set up" situations (the car park, planting the money in the bin) work against what could have been a classic.
Yes, Steed has changed. "It's only paper, you're Purdey" suggests the deep affection that he has for her, but also that he has mellowed with time; can you see the Steed of the first two series going this far for a friend over a job? The line about him hating guns and going on a cattle trail are nice, too. There's something almost clever about the way he's meticulously followed. If Steed is as good as his reputation, there is no way that he would be followed around like a rank amateur. He's leading them to the place of ransom, I just know it. Suzie is easily jealous of Purdey (mind you, comparing the two of them on all grounds, she has good reason!)—it's not often we see Steed get so personal in his conversations with his Girlfriend of the Week!
Gambit again has lost his edge. I really think he suffered when Jo and Pat's characters were expanded. While we see that he respects Steed, and is obviously jealous of Spellman having met Purdey's mother, I think that he suspects Steed just a little too easily. Also, would he fall for Steed's fighting tricks? He's noted before how ruthless Steed is, so why he thinks that Marquis of Queensbury rules would be involved, I have no idea. This episode tends to put a little sourness into their relationship that isn't quite justified.
Simon Oates is good as Spellman, and the ever reliable William "Shhhhhhweppes" Franklyn is suitably deep and subtle as McKay (you can perhaps see why he was promoted over Steed). It's a shame he doesn't get to give us the line, "After we've destroyed Norfolk!" though! A special mention must also go to the obviously fake Steed. Nice moustache!
According to the original transmission order, this is the last installment of a trilogy of episodes that, in the course of The New Avengers second season, dared to explore Steed and Purdey's human side. "Dead Men Are Dangerous," "Obsession" and "Hostage" will remain as the ultimate first-rate Avengers episodes written by the prolific Brian Clemens, and "Hostage" in particular as the swansong for a pair of iconic figures who gave us the best of The Avengers for so many years: Clemens-Hayers.
As with "Angels of Death" and "Medium Rare," in this episode the public has the chance to take a good look at the Ministry, its agents and big shots, becoming aware that the presence of traitors in it looked like a problem running beyond all predictions, in spite of the safety measures. This time, Spellman, "the rotten apple in the Department," walks along the Ministry hallways with total impunity, tricking not only his superior McKay but also Steed, Gambit and, at first, the public itself. By the way, it is evident that Simon Oates' childish face never prevented him from playing either likable villains ("You Have Just Been Murdered" and "Super Secret Cypher Snatch") or even Steed, through the stage version of The Avengers back in the early 70s.
Aside from a story that basically a novelty and the guest cast's fine performances, the interesting thing about "Hostage" is the treatment given to each one of the Avengers and the survey of interrelations between the trio. Naturally, Gambit has his reasons to accept Steed's "guilt" quite reluctantly; but even so, he must do his duty and turn Steed over, even by force if necessary. The scene is peculiar: Gambit aiming at Steed with his gun, Steed (compelled by Purdey's captors to keep his mouth shut) asking for a second chance and, in view of Gambit's obstinacy, finally spitting out the reason for his odd behavior. "That would be the last card," Gambit snaps, "Use Purdey against me." Nevertheless, the public has no doubt about the inevitable outcome. "I did warn you. I never fight fair," reminds Steed, camouflaging with fancy words his accurate blow that completely knocked Gambit out. And don't think Gambit's responsibilities in the line of duty didn't make Steed's blood boil—at the end of the episode Steed would get his own way, taking revenge on the younger agent's "insolence."
The reciprocal affection between Purdey and Steed is another gem. Kidnapped in the style of Tara King—that is, with the help of some chloroform—and once alert to her captors' intentions concerning Steed, Purdey emphatically sticks up for the most valued British secret agent's loyalty, assuring Steed would never sell any secrets to the enemy. Even so, Steed would do it... but again, in his own way. Initially, one perceives a strange contrast between this Steed and the irreverent character we knew during the Cathy Gale seasons, even though his long-lasting premise remains the same: "the end justifies the means." This time one feels Steed isn't willing to protect his country as long as his partner is in danger. That's why he feels compelled to rescue Purdey against all the odds, and goes on standing his girlfriend up, placing £5,000 in a garbage can as required, supplying his bowler hat with a gun and a bundle of firecrackers to be used at the right time, and, in particular, putting a special effort into secretly taking photos of the allied attack plans. When the case is over, though, Purdey asks Steed if he really would have given those documents to the traitor. "It's only paper," Steed replies. "You're Purdey." And Purdey rewards him with a kiss on the cheek.
Now, do you really think Steed would have betrayed his honor and country revealing true confidential information? Was it confidential information that he was dealing with after all? Or was he playing cat and mouse with the traitor?
Throughout the series we sometimes see Steed in seemingly no-win situations ("The Nutshell," "The Wringer," "The Forget-Me-Knot" and others) or displaying a slight hint of treason in his maneuvers. But has he ever done anything that could definitely tarnish his reputation as a loyal patriot? Hmmm... If he has, just let me know!
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