The Sell Out (Episode 2-09, November 1962).
Most people who know The Avengers at all, know the more famous Diana Rigg/Emma Peel seasons, with perhaps some basic awareness of Honor Blackman/Cathy Gale. But The Avengers started out as a more hard-boiled, harder-edged show, and did not really star Patrick Macnee as John Steed. The first season (now mostly lost) featured Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel, a doctor whom Steed drags into his plots on a regular basis. Hendry left the show, and Macnee succeeded to the throne as the lead actor in the series. But Hendry’s imprint remained throughout the second season, and you can see the producers trying to establish the same sort of dynamic between Steed and another Doctor, in the shape of Martin King (Jon Rollason).
The Sell Out is one of three Martin King episodes, and has the distinction of being the best. This is hardly cause to celebrate, as the other two are so mind-numbingly boring that even my passionate attraction to Patrick Macnee cannot make up for it. The Sell Out has a markedly different tone to either the Cathy Gale or Venus Smith episodes of the second season, even down to Steed sporting a tan trenchcoat and reporting to vague, shadowy superiors. In fact, it’s one of the few episodes where we actually see that Steed is part of an organization with a hierarchy. He’s ostensibly a member of the Ministry of Defense and has two superiors in season two: One-Ten and One-Twelve, both otherwise nameless entities a la Le Carre or Ian Fleming. That tendency is discarded in later seasons, right up until the sixth with the disastrous introduction of ‘Mother’ as Steed’s superior. But it’s interesting to see them here, even as a testament to how the show was shaped and changed.
The Sell Out follows Steed as he tries to discover who has been sending out confidential information concerning the whereabouts of a French national that Steed has been assigned to protect. Several attempts are made on the man’s life, and Steed is having difficulty knowing who to trust. Enter Dr. King, whom Steed enlists for assistance in keeping the Frenchman safe until ‘certain negotiations’ about a Middle Eastern nation can be concluded.
There is no mystery here, I’m sorry to say. It becomes pretty clear who the traitor is within about five minutes. Jon Rollason as Dr. King is dull as dirt, though I’m not certain if that’s his fault or the fault of a poor script. And yet, having rewatched The Sell Out under some duress, I conclude that my initial appraisal of it might have been unfair. There’s a lot to be said for the episode, and most of goes back to style and *sigh* Patrick Macnee.
Macnee pretty well carries the episode, as he does with most of the ones not featuring Cathy Gale. For anyone who likes Steed, that’s reason enough to sit through this one. His interactions with One-Twelve are entertaining, particularly as they give the lie to any assumption that Steed is representative of the status quo. He’s almost consistently insubordinate, preferring to do his work in his own time and according to his own judgement, rather than obey a shadowy dictator. Steed’s concern to both complete his assignment and discover the traitor lead him into some shadowy hallways, including a number of questions about his own position within the organization.
This is likewise one of the few episodes that boasts location shots in London, as well as perhaps the only time we see Steed driving a sports car. Steed is much more a hard-boiled agent in this series than in any other, his rough edges not yet smoothed out, and his chicanery and barely curbed violence almost shocking to anyone who only knows him as an elegant Edwardian gentleman. Yet Macnee makes him charming – far more so than I admit I ever liked James Bond – and does not sacrifice his inherent decency. Steed’s a bit of a cynical bastard, but he’s a likable cynical bastard. The entire episode feels like the first draft Le Carre short story, and I’m not certain you can argue against that.
So while The Sell Out is not for a viewer just starting out on The Avengers, it’s an enjoyable little episode for those of us who’ve seen them all.