Leverage Sunday: The Bottle Job: External/Internal Character Arc

Nate Drinks

“The Bottle Job” is one of the last episodes in Season Two, the season of Nate Ford’s descent into darkness, and it’s the clearest indication that Nate is close to hitting bottom because it’s the clearest illustration that Nate’s internal conflict is hurting the way he directs the team’s external conflicts and, by extension, hurting the team.

External conflict takes place between two characters struggling to achieve their goals, so Nate’s external conflicts are always easy to see: He’s going to take down some greedy guy in a suit who’s victimizing innocent people. It’s good clear-cut conflict, no gray areas. Nate’s internal struggle is also pretty clear: He wants to see himself as in control, the mastermind, cool and focused, but when he comes up against the white collar crooks who remind him of Ian Blackpoole, the man who let his son die, all the rage and guilt he’s buried surges to the surface and overwhelms his illusion of rationality. Until he faces the fact that he’s out of control internally, he’s not going to be able to make the changes that will finally give him peace and a clear mind, the things he needs to protect his team and, not incidentally, to sober up. Because he can’t let go of his past, he’s jeopardizing his future and the future of the community he leads.

Cora

As “The Bottle Job” opens, the bar that’s become a second home to the team (their first home is upstairs in Nate’s apartment) is having a wake: its long-time owner has died, and his daughter, Cora, a red-head with a sweet face and a broken heart, is rousted by Evil Mark Doyle and his two Evil Henchmen, Liam and Liam’s brother. Cora’s father went to Doyle, a loan shark, to pay for her mother’s medical bills and put the bar up as collateral, now Doyle tells her she has two hours to pay him the $15,000 plus interest she owes him or the bar is his. Unfortunately for Doyle, Nate thinks of Cora as his niece, and Nate does not react well when the children in his family are threatened. He calls in the troops, they set up and run a wire con in an hour, and Nate wins the bar back. Yay, the day is saved!

Except that Nate’s running on internal conflict now, his guilt and rage at Ian Blackpoole transferred to Doyle, and he decides they’re going to take everything Doyle has, humiliate him, and destroy him. It’s an insane decision–Doyle’s dangerous and so are the thugs guarding the safe Nate sends Eliot and Parker to break into, they have no time because Doyle’s about to fly home to Ireland to tell his terrifying father that Boston is theirs for the taking, and most of all, they’ve already saved the client–but Nate can’t let it rest. He denies that it’s reckless, his common sense defeated by his thirst for vengeance.

All of this is made much worse because, in order to make the wire con work, Nate had to drink with Doyle. Where in the first season he drank to dull the pain and rage, his sobriety this season has found him joining forces with this emotions, channeling them into torturing the marks beyond the call of duty. Nobody cares because the marks all deserve it, but now that Nate’s drinking again, it’s the worst of both worlds: he’s unleashed the anger and he’s drinking away his inhibitions, something made clear when he breaks Doyle’s finger after he’s been defeated. The finger-breaking isn’t part of the external conflict, that’s over; it’s evidence of the internal conflict, the honest man Nate thinks he is defeated by the raging sadist he’s become.

Scream

What does all of that have to do with community? It’s destroying it. In an earlier episode, Hardison says to Sophie, “We count on Nate to make the plan work, we count on you to take care of us.” But Nate’s plans are increasingly dangerous and ugly, and Sophie been driven away by Nate’s refusal to face his problems; she can’t face hers if she’s trying to keep him in check. So the other three team members draw closer together and watch Nate carefully: they’re still a family, but Dad’s a mean drunk and Mom’s on speed-dial, not there with them, so they have to watch each other’s backs. The place that’s supposed to their haven–their family–has become the most dangerous place to be.

This is an incredibly risky thing to do on a show that’s built on community. It’s brilliant character work, showing a man disintegrating from his internal conflict played out in external conflict, but it undermines the thing that brings the audience to the show: They want to see a great team in action–competence porn–that is also an emotionally bonded family. When the bonds of the community break, the bonds of the audience to that community weaken, too.

This has happened on two different shows aired this year. The first, Person of Interest, killed off a major character, the heart of the Machine Gang, and the team disintegrated because of it, one of the most important members quitting because he couldn’t save her. Losing and then bringing that team member back became the focus of several episodes as the PoI writers took a potentially damaging story line and used it to strengthen the community by showing the community dealing with its grief and then rebuilding itself. (The scene where Reese tells Finch he’s going to need a new suit and Finch realizes he’s coming back is one of my favorite scenes of the entire series; the look on Michael Emerson’s face is so poignant that you know exactly how much Reese and the Machine Gang mean to him.)

The other show is Arrow, a story with multiple subplots anchored by a central team of three. The Leverage producers have talked about their assumption that people tuned in for the cons, only to find out that scenes that viewers liked best were the five team members together in a room, interacting. I think Arrow was much the same: as long as all those insane, soapy subplots were anchored by three sane people in an underground lair figuring out how to stop crime, the show worked. When the writers moved away from the central three, playing the majority of plot points with people outside the team and drawing the protagonist away from his two partners, the show lost its center, and for some viewers, that’s resulted in a loss of faith in the authority in the text; that is, they don’t think the writers see what’s happening as a problem within the world of the story.

I think the key to any move that hurts a central team is in making it clear that the damage to the team is the result of internal conflict–the protagonist who lets his demons overwhelm his rationality and weaken the team–and that the story knows that’s a bad thing. The Leverage writers demonstrated over and over again that Nate’s detachment from the team was trouble, that he was going to hit bottom, and that the team was suffering from it. The Person of Interest writers showed Reese unraveling from his crisis of conscience over more than one episode, and then showed how the Machine and Finch brought him back. In both cases, viewers were uncomfortable but they stuck because it was clear that the writers understood that the disintegration of the team was a disaster, and they trusted the writers to fix it. The problem with Arrow is that it’s fairly clear that no one within the story thinks Oliver’s detachment from the central three is a bad thing, no indication that Oliver will pay for distancing himself from the team. In fact, Oliver’s hypocrisy and occasional outright stupidity is rewarded within the story. Two of the shows used the protagonist’s internal conflict to break down and then rebuild a stronger community through adversity, one presents its problematical protagonist and its community breakdown as story-as-usual and therefore not adversity.

I think it’s easy to look at external conflict and internal conflict as aspects of character alone, much harder to look at those conflicts as interlocked with everything else in the story. A story based only on internal conflict is boring and self-indulgent; a story based only on external conflict is shallow and insipid. A story whose external conflict is powered at least in part by its characters’ internal struggles not only adds depth and layers, it gives writers more leeway to do dangerous things in the story before pulling the narrative back from the edge.

Which is why next week we’re watching “The Three Strikes Job” and “The Maltese Falcon Job”: To watch Nate Ford hit bottom, resolve that internal conflict, and save the team he’s almost destroyed.

9 thoughts on “Leverage Sunday: The Bottle Job: External/Internal Character Arc

  1. I love this analysis. I think, too, with Sophie leaving, it was a smart direction to take the story; if they’d simply carried on with cons-as-usual, then Sophie as a team member would have been diminished. and everything they’d built toward creating that family would have felt shallow. The desire to tune in and watch cons in action would have been satisfied, but at a significant loss to the heart of what made them a team in the first place.

    And it was smart that it wasn’t just that Sophie herself wasn’t replaceable (because she was–her skill set–since they were able to pull off cons without her). Taking Nate to a dark place kept him from being the “perfect guy,” the perfect father figure, bland, banal. With the loss of Sophie–the loss of the heart, the inner compass, the center does not hold, and everything cracks. It’s a brilliant way to arch a story over a series, which is another issue when writing. Each individual show has to have its arc, and then there has to be an overall arc for that year, and then an even bigger arc for the show as a whole.

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    1. I didn’t like this season as much when it first aired, and studying this now, I realize it’s because I really wanted that team intact. I understand completely from an intellectual standpoint why the writers did it this way, but the one-two punch of Nate getting meaner and Sophie leaving took a lot of the fun out of the show for me, especially with the darker finale. OTOH, I loved the finale for the third season, but when I watched it again, while it’s still a lot of fun and completes the season arc, there wasn’t a lot of depth there, so I think my bias was at play: I watched Leverage for community and justice and fun, and a lot of this season was justice with a threatened, fragmented team and dark undercurrents.

      I think, too, the fact that it was a season-long disintegration had an impact. PoI was dark already, but it spent the first half of that season with its team intact, battling overwhelming forces, then gave them a victory at the midpoint of the season and killed a major character as an outcome of the victory, spent two (three?) episodes focused on mourning, retaliation, and the devastation to the team, and then showed their necessary climb out of despair as a much stronger threat emerged. It was a meteor impact as opposed to erosion, and because of that it was devastating but the pain wasn’t drawn out.

      It’s a tough line to walk. If you don’t threaten the team in a community-based story, you take all the tension away; if you do threaten it, you take some of the pleasure away. I think timing is key–don’t draw it out because that becomes a dull, grinding pain the background–but it’s also that clear knowledge that the story knows that whatever is hurting the community is bad because if the story recognizes it as bad, then it’ll be made right in the end. How much the bad harms the pleasure of getting to that end is the thing to gauge.

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  2. Agreed — it was a brutal season, and I almost stopped watching because I couldn’t understand why it was dragging out the erosion (great metaphor) for so long. I hadn’t known at the time about the actress leaving for her pregnancy.

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    1. The thing is, as writers we look at that and think, “That must have been tough.” But as viewers, we didn’t know, so as always, it has to work on the screen.

      I’m wondering if part of our difficulties with the second season wasn’t that contract with the reader: We signed up for a romp and got drama. It was good drama, but it wasn’t what we were expecting. With PoI, I expect pain. With Leverage, not so much. But I would have gotten bored if they’d just kept doing the same thing, so I think it’s a that line you have to walk by changing things up to make it interesting without changing it so much that the contract is violated.

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  3. I watched some PoI and Leverage last night and had weird dreams. I don’t know if those 2 things are related.

    The thread from Nate’s dad working out of the bar as a criminal, and then Nate saying that he understood Doyle because of what Jimmy Ford would do, and then having the cop say that Nate was acting just like his dad, which means that Nate is like Doyle, was well done. It’s clear, but not an anvil.

    The humor that the team got: Eliot making friends with the bodyguards using superhuman dart skills, Hardison’s weatherman, Parker caressing the safe, and the reveal with the cops, was classic. And needed, with that ending. The word melancholy is what comes to mind.

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    1. It’s just dark for Leverage. The fact that it happens at a wake starts that off: wakes aren’t gloomy but there is that subtext of mourning. Eliot saying, “You don’t collect debts at a wake, you just don’t.” Parker getting slapped on the ass by that henchman and then using that to pick their pockets while they leered at her.

      That thread about Nate’s dad is really important in season four and set up the double-episode finale for that season that I think is some of the best television I’ve ever seen. It’s not a happy show like the third season finale but it’s so satisfying so the grief and the pain in it are relieved at the end. There’s also an episode (although I can’t remember which season, three or four,) where Jimmy Ford comes back and there’s a father-son conflict that’s tough, but because Nate is back on his feet, it doesn’t destroy him, so it’s not nearly so painful to watch.

      Loved the cops.

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      1. Season 3, “Three Card Monte Job.” That one had to be tricky to pull off, because there would be expectations after the hints of what Jimmy was like during Nate’s childhood; it didn’t disappoint. I need to watch that whole season again to see where that episode lands in Nate’s character arc, but I vaguely remember feeling it was a positive thing for him. Another step in coming to terms with his past.

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        1. I haven’t started to rewatch 3 yet, but I remember that episode as being a really tough learning lesson for Nate, but one the team understood. They did that father-son relationship really well, especially in the season four finale.

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