Leverage Sunday: "The Three Strikes Job" and "The Maltese Falcon Job"

SUPER_HAPPY_POWER_GO!

So let’s talk about competent protagonists.

The Leverage producers have a phrase they’re fond of: competence porn, the thrill viewers and readers get watching or reading about somebody who is really, really good at something. I prefer watching a protagonist become competent through the struggle with the antagonist, but I will not deny that I loved watching the five people who made up the Leverage team ply their skills from the beginning. They were all damn good at what they did, that’s why Victor chose them (except for Sophie; Nate chose Sophie). Some of my favorite Leverage moments are watching Parker leap off a building, Hardison hack the back of a hotel TV, Eliot facing four guys with baseball bats and saying, “This is hardly fair,” then seeing two more show up and saying, “Now it’s fair,” and kicking everybody’s ass. Sophie’s grifts are poetry; watching her hook Victor in the pilot is thing of a beauty. And then there’s Nate, the embodiment of Irene Adler’s “Smart is the new sexy,” quick-thinking, experienced, bold, smart, and powerful. It takes him an entire season to build his team of misfits into a family, and then he pulls off a miracle in the season finale and defeats the bad guy AND his nemesis Sterling. Nate is competence porn in the flesh.

So now what are you going to do with him?

One of the problems with an ace team is that they’re hard to defeat and that makes it tough to write story tension. The best stories have protagonists who are out-matched, out of their elements, on the run, and the Leverage team, ensconced in Nate’s apartment, eating breakfast at his table, having meetings downstairs in the bar, are never out of their element, even when they’re on the road. So to even the playing field, the writers focused on the rot from within: Nate’s a drunk. The first season finale is the team’s attempt to stage an intervention: help Nate bring down the man who let his son die, and Nate would come back healed.

It works to a certain degree: Nate sobers up. But he trades an addiction to booze for an addiction to power and vengeance, and season two is a little less fun because of that: Nate sober is mean as hell. Not only that, his thirst for vengeance on all the rich guys who prey on those beneath them means that he’s taking bigger and bigger risks and dragging the team with him. When he starts drinking the fourth episode from the end of the season, it’s the worst of both worlds: he’s drunk AND driven by his demons, which is how they end up in the mess with mayor of Bellbrook, MA, and a vicious arms dealer (Richard Kind and Paul Blackthorne, two of my favorite actors ever).

So the competent protagonist gives you a paradox of a problem:

How are you going to defeat him if he’s so damn good at what he does?
If he’s not that damn good at what he does, how are you going to portray him as competent?

This is one of the many reasons I like an incompetent protagonist who storms through her plot picking up skills and confidence and becomes competence porn: That’s an easy protagonist to write. But those protagonists pretty much work for one story, or if you’re on TV, one season because the payoff is the competence, that’s the reward at the climax. If you’re going to go on to a second book in a series, a second season, you’ve got a competence porn problem, how to deliver and still arc character.

Which is what “The Three Strikes Job” and “The Maltese Falcon Job” are all about. Throughout the season, as Nate takes bigger chances and ignores his growing problems, the three younger members start to bond together and Sophie leaves. Then at the beginning of “Three Strikes,” Nate gets hit with a triple: his friend in the state police, Bonanno, is gunned down; the hospital where he fights for his life brings back all the despair of his son’s death, and he can’t reach Sophie when he needs her desperately. When he goes to meet the team to look into the attack, he loses it and screams at them, and there’s a clear moment when they all realize he’s losing his mind. Hardison pulls him back by giving him the detective problem of finding out who shot Bonnano, but that moment in the beginning haunts the rest of the episode, driving it to the point at the end (the midpoint of the two-parter finale) where they’re trapped, their safe house blown, and on the run. Nate pulls them together at the beginning, but for the first time he has a team that’s actively angry with him and more than willing to tell him they don’t trust him. When even Parker tells him to shape up and “be the man we came back for,” he makes an even more audacious plan, a plan that would have worked except for one thing.

Nate-Sterling

Sterling.

Any Leverage episode with Sterling in it is fun because he and Nate are doppelgängers, so evenly matched that at the end of every confrontation they always both win. But this time, Sterling has Nate, trapping him when he goes back to his apartment for his son’s drawing (Sterling, you bastard). Nate still tries to work the angles as Sterling looks at him with real sorrow for how far he’s fallen, accepting defeat only when Sterling tells him he can’t finish the con unless he becomes a witness, in return for which, Sterling will let him go free. Defeated, Nate says, “And my team goes free, too,” and Sterling says, “No. Just you.”

That’s one of those moments when you realize that Sterling doesn’t understand Nate at all. Yes, he’s a control freak, and yes, he’s a drunk, and yes, his reckless thirst for revenge against white collar predators has brought them all down, but the idea that he would betray three people who have become not just his team but his children . . . Sterling, what were you thinking?

Nate gets back on his feet, plays the FBI against Sterling’s Interpol, and both of them against the mayor and the gunrunners, and even so, he’s about to get shot when Sophie walks in, saves his ass, and gives them an escape route by bringing in a helicopter. When Sophie saves somebody, she saves somebody.

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But Nate’s made a deal with Sterling and he’s going to keep it in his own way. As the helicopter touches down, Nate handcuffs himself to the railing and tells Sterling there’s a new deal: he’ll testify but only if his team goes free. Sterling’s stuck with it, especially since Nate’s been shot and is bleeding out on the pavement, but he’s not happy and neither is the team, stuck with a deal he made without them. Their rage is channeled into Sophie, who stoops to talk to Nate and gets kissed the way he’s wanted to kiss her for two seasons, only to get slapped hard, not for the kiss but for not bringing the team into the loop to make a plan to get them all out, no sacrifices. Nate’s won (and so has Sterling), but once again his team isn’t together and now he’s going to jail. The real victory comes in the last seconds when an FBI agent says, “Who are you?” and Nate says, “I’m Nate Ford. And I’m a thief,” taking a big step forward by accepting that he’s a different man than he’d planned to be.

From a writer’s point of view, this is great, great stuff. From a viewer’s point of view, it’s hard to watch because Nate is such a terrific character, and this season really breaks him down, destroys him so he can rise again, reborn, his internal conflict finally resolved.

The first episode back in the third season finds Nate in jail, competent as all hell again, so the writers will give him a new vulnerability, the threat of imprisonment in a foreign jail unless he brings down powerful master criminal, made worse by a team whose trust he has to win back. The fourth season will match the team against a billionaire CEO who is manipulating them to make money, always within the law. The fifth season they take on their greatest antagonist, after which Nate and Sophie retire because once you’ve taken on several major governments at once, there’s really no place else to go.

This second season was the grimmest of all because Nate’s real antagonist was himself, his tortured internal conflict between his illusion of being the omnipotent good guy and his denied reality of just being a very smart thief. It was a conflict that damaged his family and almost killed him–he’s bleeding out at the end of last episode–but in the end he’s still Nate Ford, not only a thief but the definition of competence porn.

Next week: “The Inside Job” and integrating back story.

21 thoughts on “Leverage Sunday: "The Three Strikes Job" and "The Maltese Falcon Job"

  1. Haven’t re-watched these yet. They were good, but they’re hard for me to watch; I’m fine with the rest of the season, but I don’t like watching Nate hit bottom in these. The thing I love is that moment when he admits to himself who he is now. It just occurred to me there’s a similarity between “I’m Nate Ford, and I’m a thief” and the way you introduce yourself at AA meetings. Doubt that’s a coincidence. That’s about understanding/acknowledging your problem right? And this was Nate acknowledging and accepting that he’s a criminal now, an important step in his recovery (and his arc). Feel like I should watch these episodes again, even though I don’t enjoy them too much. I want to take another look at them in terms of Nate’s arc.

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    1. I found I enjoyed them more knowing that this was him hitting bottom and that while he’s always going to be Nate Ford with issues, this is as low as he’ll go. Plus it’s really interesting seeing what happens to the rest of the team. They don’t disintegrate. The three younger ones bond. They still fight, but you can see them exchanging glances, communicating non-verbally all the time, something’s that huge for Parker. And their relationship with Sophie is solid; I hadn’t remembered that they all stayed in touch with her, calling her, Skyping, and that she really mothered them all the way through. And at the end, she’s the one who saves them; Nate gets them out of Sterling’s clutches, but Sophie saves Nate and takes the kids away in a helicopter. It was something I hadn’t thought of before, the internal workings of a team under internal pressure instead of external. It really is internal vs external conflict if you consider the team as a character in its own right.

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    2. OMG! You’re a Leverage fan too???? And just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be more enamored of you and your masterful writing…..I find your blog and the first thing I see is that you’re a Leverage fan. Like meeeee!! OK let’s take a minute here to bow our heads in respect and sorrow!!! That they’ve taken it away from us. Words simply CANNOT express my shock at this the most stupid of decisions!!! Best. Show. EVERRR!!!! That and Psych. Love all the characters and it was wonderful and hysterical to see them grow. Miss them like crazy. Thank goodness for the DVD’s!

      Ohhh Jennifer……you rock girlfriend. I just finished re-reading “Faking It” for the fifth time and am on to “Welcome To Temptation”. Best books EVAHHHH!!!! I LOL throughout them. They bring me such joy and it’s now like visiting friends. Would love to hear more from the Dempsey’s. I know you said that the characters go out of your head…….but…….but……just saying.

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      1. Hi, Jackie. We’re talking about Leverage on Sundays this spring. Go down to the Search box at the bottom and type in “Leverage,” there are a lot of posts.
        And thank you very much!

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    1. It’s so addictive in this show. And it’s so tough to write; these writers pulled it off for five seasons, really doing a caper movie every week. I knew I liked the show, but until I started taking it apart, I hadn’t realized how truly great the writing is.

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  2. First off, when I saw loveable Richard Kind I thought: “Seriously, he’s going to be a “bad guy? I’ll never buy that.” Then of course I did, not that he turns out to be a bad guy exactly because he’s a bit more layered, but still, was so impressed with his ability to pull off his character that I spent a lot of the episode just happy for his success.

    Secondly, I’m good with the competent characters here because I think they still arc–not just as people but re their individual skills. Think what works is that they become better by virtue of being a team. They sharpen their main skills, gain new ones from each other, gain appreciation of what they can’t do but others can, and are overall just made better people and thieves/cons.

    Parker’s joy alone when she stops stabbing marks she’s trying to pull a Sophie on is fab. Good use of action depicting character & fun running bit.

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    1. The character growth for all of them is terrific. Hardison grows up, Parker learns to be a human being, and Eliot lets down his guard. And both Sophie and Nate give up pretending to be something they’re not and fall in love. I can’t imagine five seasons of plot arc when you know every season might be your last because you have to complete those arcs every year. The next one we’re watching has a lot of Parker back story in it, but it’s integrated (as I remember) into the main plot, and looking at all five seasons, you can see it as the Point of No Return for her because she has a family that will risk anything to save her, and she understands that, which for Parker is huge.

      On the commentary they talk about Richard Kind playing against type so well, particularly in his Evil Speech of Evil when he explains that he’s not doing it for the money and that he’s been good for the city. He really believes that in spite of giving the money that’s supposed to secure the city to gunrunners. He’s really a horrible person in this, luring Nate and Tara into a warehouse to die, defrauding the city, betraying everybody else as an FBI snitch, but he really thinks he’s a good guy.

      Reminds me of all these CEOs who are making whining speeches about wealth being under attack. Every time I read another one, I think Evil Speech of Evil.

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      1. Totally want the DVDs now for the commentaries. Must put on gift wish list.

        Commentaries are my fave bits when they’re informative–usually by writers &/or directors. For movies & shows. But it can be hit & miss.

        For example, The Sex and the City series had some very good commentaries about characterization & story & were well worth a buy. But after watching a few commentaries of Madmen on DVDs from my library, I didn’t find them helpful at all so never bought them.

        So glad you’ve mentioned these otherwise I may not have known to bother for Leverage.

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        1. I already owned the seasons streaming, so I wasn’t going to bother with the commentaries until somebody here said they were good (thank you! sorry for memory loss of your name) and they are. A lot of the stuff is about camera angles, but they also talk about the writing, characterization, etc.

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  3. The team seeing that Nate is losing it and supporting him anyway was great. They are working together as a trio to try and keep things sane.

    I squeeed a little when Sterling showed up. Mark Shepard is a handsome guy, but as Sterling he makes some very punchable expressions. Having him realize how wrong he was about Nate at the end was good. He really doesn’t know who this guy is anymore.

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    1. It’s one of the reasons I really, really want to put “The Queen’s Gambit Job” in the rotation. Which means I probably will. Since it’s my blog and all.

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  4. My kingdom for an edit button; I submitted too soon.

    I thought this was a very funny 2-parter as well as dark. The episodes were kind of manic. (Like Nate?)
    Most of the humor came from Parker, Eliot, and Hardison, who are very good criminals with great lines. Of course Hardison has made a box of law enforcement jackets. Of course he can make a Japanese drink commercial for Eliot. (That Eliot likes and watches again!) Eliot may not like baseball, but he’s good enough to get a sandwich named after his cover (Roy’s Rueben!). Of course he counts down as he’s taking out the 13 guys on the ship. Parker is getting to be a good little grifter so sure, she grabs the photo of the mayor’s family and asks if there are any weird genetic things. She’s learned about people. And of course she could throw Tara off a roof if necessary but is aware enough now not to admit that she would. Her creepy giggle was hilarious.
    I enjoyed the sight gag of Nate racing up the stairs to press the elevator button on each floor to slow Sterling down. Both characters got progressively more tired, Nate physically, Sterling annoyed by this weird elevator nonsense.

    Competence porn could apply to how the show was put together. So many parts that fit so well.

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    1. That elevator bit is just classic comedy, made even better by the relationship between the two men because that really symbolizes everything about them.

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  5. I’ve been watching Leverage so I can at least lurk and know what you are writing about and have completely forgot to listen to the audio commentary. Good reason to go back and watch again and hear the producers talk :-p

    One of the things I am loving about the writing of this series is that as a viewer I know that the team (individually and collectively) are at the top of their skill set. I would never think to do half of what they do, yet while I am admiring their competency I never feel stupid for not predicting that twist or I can’t do that.

    And while suspension of belief is still required, in viewing 3.5 seasons so far I believe great care has been taken to keep it fairly even across the episodes and not give us any AS IF Moments.

    Great writing, by a team who clearly were competent writers, well versed in there subject matter and I think this show is a great example of giving every character the best lines (available at the time) and the best scenes.

    The more I watch, the more picky I am becoming as to what I do watch because I want – great story and community etc…..

    And yes to discussing the Queen’s Gambit Job

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    1. The only one that went too far for me was in the third season when Eliot took down an entire warehouse of goons with guns. I know they were deliberately using every badass trope at once, but still . . . . OTOH, Christian Kane really sells it, and as you said, you do suspend belief.

      One of the things I’m realizing is that my favorite episodes–“The Two Live Crew,” “The Rashomen Job,” “The Last Damn Job”–are episodes that play on my knowledge of the characters. They’re good if you don’t know the characters because they’re still well-crafted stories, but if you know the team, they’re sublime.

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      1. If anyone can take down a whole warehouse full of goons with guns, it’s Eliot. I also love Eliot’s varied skill set, and the number of things he’s picked up because of the women he’s dated – at least we know he pays attention to the women he sleeps with.

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        1. There’s a great Eliot line, I think in “The Lonely Hearts Job,” where Sophie is yelling at Eliot about sleeping with stewardesses that he doesn’t know the names of, and he says, “Flight attendants.” She says, “What?” and he says, “They’re flight attendants. They don’t like being called stewardesses. And I know their names.” The way he says it, in that steady growl of his, is just great characterization. He sleeps with a lot of women, but he doesn’t use them like Kleenex. I thint that’s the episode where it turns out he knows more about romance than the rest of them combined.

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  6. YES. That is what I love so much about Eliot–he’s not the cliche you expect him to be, not at ALL. He cooks! He sings really well but gets stage fright! He loves women and sleeps with a lot of them, but he doesn’t use them–he sees them as people, knows their names, appreciates them and learns from them.

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