Leverage Sunday: "The Lonely Hearts Job" Romance & Community

Leverage-Season-4 By the end of Season Four, the Leverage team has become a well-oiled machine, trusting each other without reserve and completely invested in the group as a permanent unit. This makes the team fun to watch, but difficult to write good stories about. They’re strong, they’re united, they’re secure when they’re with each other . . . they have no conflict. More than that, they can pretty much take out anybody who comes up against them. This is a group that has stolen a country. They have arch-criminals for breakfast. They’re legendary. So where is the story tension going to come from? 7f879eadf49550ab859f9ff240e39687 Within any large group there are smaller relationships as each member works out how he or she relates to individual members of the group. The Leverage stories have done a terrific job of evolving those relationships. Some of them have mimicked family relationships: the three youngest members have related to Nate as a father figure throughout, disappointed in his weaknesses, trusting that he’ll get them all out in the end. They’ve also cast Sophie as the mother figure because, as Hardison tells her once, they trust her to keep them safe. And they’ve also reacted to each other as siblings, teasing and fighting in the lighter moments, fiercely defending each other in times of trouble, the “nobody-hits-my-brother-but-me” trope in action (or as Eliot put it, “Nobody throws Hardison off a building. Except me.”) But they’ve also broken the family parallels. Hardison fell for Parker pretty much from the first episode and their romance arced over four seasons as Parker finally evolved into a person who could feel emotion and attach. Eliot and Parker have an understanding that they can’t share with the others because they can do the things the others can’t; because they’re broken in places that can’t be repaired, they’re more ruthless, and because they’re the physical members of a team that runs on brains and guile, they’re the people who determine how a job is going to be physically executed. Sophie and Parker have a mentor/pupil relationship because Parker needs someone to tutor her on how to be a human being. Nate and Eliot have a partnership, a meeting of two practical, intelligent minds. And Hardison has clearly become the son Nate lost as Nate mentors him into the world of masterminding cons. The pleasure of the team is in how beautifully they function as a whole, but the richness of the team is in how they relate to each other one-on-one. And then there’s the Nate/Sophie romance. The key to romance writing is in arcing the emotional growth of the lovers. The he’s-hot-she’s-hot-they-have-great-sex approach doesn’t convince anybody that two people are truly in love. In lust, yes; infatuated with each other, yes; in love for the long haul? Nope. To sell that to readers and viewers, you have to work outside courtship tropes to show who your lovers really are–their fears, their flaws, their needs–and how they grow together, shift their lives to accommodate each other, and come to love each other unconditionally, not because the other provides something they want or admire, but just because they love the other person. Season One Nate and Sophie’s romance has been simmering for four seasons at this point in the series. There’s good reason why they don’t act on their evident sexual attraction for each other in the pilot: they’re on the job, Sophie’s a crook, and Nate’s an honest man. That dynamic carries them through Season One, and one of the smartest things the writers do with that relationship is show why they don’t connect physically as they show how they’re slowly connecting emotionally. Yes, they’re attracted to each other, but more than that, they grow to care about each other as people. Nate escalates “The Bank Shot Job” because he won’t leave Sophie in the bank when he realizes it’s going to be robbed, even though Sophie is entirely capable of getting herself out. It’s not that he doesn’t think she can save herself, it’s that he can’t leave her. Season One Wedding Sophie struggles with his inability to define their relationship in “The Wedding Job,” then tries to help him as he falls deeper into alcoholism in “The 12-Step Job,” and finally realizes that she has as many issues as he does when she cons the team in “The First David Job” and Nate grimly takes her to task. They both have a lot of growing up to do, a lot of issues to put to rest, and any future relationship is going to rest on their ability to take care of those things first, while maintaining a steady presence for the team. They’re the symbolic parents of Leverage, and if they’re not rock solid, neither is the team. That’s all good romance writing. That is, there are no Big Misunderstandings or stupid too-afraid-to-love tropes keeping them apart. They’re fatally flawed human beings, and no matter how attracted they are to each other, neither is capable of anything but destroying the other in a relationship. As much as the viewer wants to see Nate and Sophie get together, he or she wants to see the team in effective action more–competence porn–and that means smart Nate and savvy Sophie are not going to let themselves become a couple yet. It would be terrible for the team and for each other. Season Two Kiss That balancing act continues through the second season until Sophie almost dies in a bombing and comes to the realization (at her funeral) that she has to get her act together, and in particular get her multiple identities together, before she can be of any use to anybody, either professionally or personally. Nate, shaken by her near death, tries to kiss her, but she leaves, telling him she’ll be back when she’s straightened herself out. The team copes with her absence by staying in touch with her individually, Nate calling to ask her to come back because the team needs her, but still unable to say, “I need you.” When she shows up at the end of the Season Two finale, she brings a helicopter to get them out safely, Team Mom to the end. Off in his own plan, Nate trades his freedom for theirs, finally able to say “I need you,” and kissing her passionately, which gets him slapped for deciding that he knew what was best for her and for the team. Sophie knows who she is now, but Nate’s still learning that he’s one of five, not Master of the Universe. (Still, that’s a great kiss.) Season Three In Season Three, with Sophie rejoining the team, the writers could go back to using one of the strongest methods of developing a relationship: two people working together in tune with each other. Nate’s very good at what he does, Sophie’s very good at what she does, but when they work together, they’re brilliant, picking up each other cues, turning on a dime together when the situation changes, always in step, every con they do together is a testament to how much they belong together. In their case, competence porn is sexual tension, too, drawing them closer and closer together. San Lorenzo 2 Plus, in Season Three, Nate figures out what he’s doing wrong with the team in general and with Sophie in particular. In the finale, he asks the team to go after the bad guy instead of ordering them to, finally saying, “Please.” He’s comfortable in his role as a criminal mastermind, so now he sees Sophie and the rest of the team as equals, and he is frank in his admiration of her and her skill. Small wonder that after stealing an election that makes Sophie a (dead again) legend, they go out for a drink and wake up together. After three years, the relationship that was under the surface has ended up under the covers, and that’s going to change everything. Friends w Benefits Season Four shows Sophie reassuring Nate that theirs is just a friends-with-benefits arrangement, but both the viewer and Sophie know that Nate’s toast. If there were ever soulmates, it’s these two. The rest of the team is annoyed they weren’t told but not surprised, and the new relationship is integrated smoothly into the overall community dynamics, with only Nate not sure that this is a good thing to do. Season Four And then comes “The Lonely Hearts Job,” when Nate has to court Sophie as part of the team’s con. In the tradition of fake-it-till-you-make-it; saying the words as part of the con is something he can do, and once he’s said the words, he knows they’re true, and he’s all in. The line between the con and reality disappears when he tells her, “I chose you,” and kisses her, a spoken acknowledgement they’re in a mature relationship, something he reiterates in the Season Four finale when he tells her that he’s going to make some changes, that he’s finally seeing what’s right in front of him, and kisses her again to seal the deal. That may also be why “The Lonely Hearts Job” feels a little weak in the context of the series: it’s a love story with a caper subplot instead of a caper story with a romantic subplot. That is, the caper is in service to Nate and Sophie, the means by which they express their feelings about the concept of true love (Sophie believes, Nate is cynical) and then test those theories by pretending to fall in love as part of the con to prove whether the missing wife is truly in love (Sophie) or a con woman (Nate). The episode brings them together in the climax by showing that they’re both right: the missing wife was a con woman truly in love with her mark; that is, People on the con can fall truly in love. That shift in emphasis from the clever con to the emotional love story weakens the episode, but it’s a trade-off I’m willing to take because it finally establishes that romance as solid and true at a time when it was it was about to jump the shark forever. Nate and Sophie aren’t stupid people; it was time. lev510thumb By Season Five, Nate and Sophie are, as show runner John Rogers says, a married couple even if they haven’t tied the knot. They’re completely relaxed in each other’s presence, talking seriously with each other about things other than cons, to the point where they’re basically Nick and Nora Charles, most explicitly in the Thin Man homage episode, “The Frame-Up Job.” Their love story as TV story is over, conflict gone, resolution achieved, with the viewer sure that they’ll be together forever. b39e56c3f92118bbbba5a036b09ad85d-1 That’s really impressive when you consider how many long-running shows have screwed up long-running romance plots. It’s particularly impressive when you consider that Leverage was never the Nate-and-Sophie show, it was always about the team, so the writers had to create this complex, escalating arc in the context of the team cons and the team growth, always using it in service to the main stories. Writing romance is extremely difficult to do well; doing it well as a running subplot to a caper series is a real coup. Season Five Next week: “The Radio Job” and “The Last Dam Job,” the double episode season finale that I think is the real series finale, even though I never wanted Leverage to end. So next week, we’re talking about endings.

28 thoughts on “Leverage Sunday: "The Lonely Hearts Job" Romance & Community

  1. I agree that the Last Dam job does feel more like the series end and that I didn’t want Leverage to ever end. Season 5 is almost a new series with the same characters or an epilogue.

    I do appreciate that the writers didn’t make the show about the romances and didn’t cause conflict in the romances just to introduce conflict. I really liked how Parker simply announces to the team that she and Hardison are dating. Castle writers pissed me off with this past season’s finale. They should have given me the HEA.

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    1. On the commentary, John Rogers says that they didn’t want to show anybody dating. I think because both couples know each other so well, that dating would have been stupid. They all needed to work out their issues (except for Hardison, who has none), and once they’d gotten themselves to a place where they could have mature relationships, they just moved right into them. Rogers describes Nate and Sophie as basically a married couple; they know each other well, they love each other, they’re comfortable with each other and sure of each other, so now they can just enjoy being together. I think that scene with the turtle really nails who they are together; it’s one of my favorites.

      If you’re a Nate-and-Sophie fan, hit You Tube and Vimeo for the romance compilations. They’re fun.

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    2. The Leverage team deserves kudos for writing a great broken female character – something television rarely gets right. (Season 6 of Buffy maybe?) I’ve enjoyed every minute of Parker’s story. Castle would be a different show if it had half the emotional resonance of Leverage.

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        1. I love Leverage, but, to borrow a quote, can’t think who from :P, ” ‘I swear to God, I’d rather leave [Leverage] loving [it] than lose [it] hating [it].’ “

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          1. I agree. They got out at a good time.
            I would have loved to have seen them reinvent it. They pretty much did every year the first five years, and it would have been interesting to see where it went.
            But yep, it stayed good right to the end.

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        2. Because apparently all cable shows cost “too much” after season five. Which is also why they killed off Eureka, Warehouse 13, etc.

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  2. If a story is a romance with elements of other genres thrown in, like action and/or mystery, should the romance be the main plot? Will it be weakened by having sub-plots from a different genre? I ask because currently I am addicted to Kdramas, and their new trend is to have a stories that mix genres. There are lots of different types of Kdramas, but the ones labeled romance seem to have a bit of everything and the kitchen sink. Sometimes the love story is the central plot, like in My Love From Another Star which is a romance/alien (read: superhero)/serial killer/suspense story. The main plot is definitely the romance because the heroine doesn’t care that the guy is an alien as long as he loves her, and the story is focused on making their relationship work. The super-human aspects and the suspense serve to further the romantic relationship of the couple. However, in City Hunter, a revenge/romance/action/mystery story, the romance serves to change the main character (the hero) into someone who fights for justice rather than a man bent on revenge. In that story, the romance almost falls by the wayside once the hero has completed his transformation, and the ending focuses on the action and the justice/revenge. The romance serves to change the main character into someone who cares about others, and this changes the path that he is on. The main plot seems to be his quest for answers and revenge, and the romance serves to alter the man, thereby altering his goal of revenge. I’ve only given two examples, so it could be said that I mislabeled City Hunter as a romance, but there are lots of other examples. I love this trend, and would like to incorporate the genre mixing into my own work, but I don’t want to weaken my stories.

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    1. Just to clarify, I am asking this here because you mention that using the romance as the main plot in this one episode weakens it, but in an acceptable way. Is Leverage a stronger show because it let the romance be a sub-plot most of the time?

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    2. It depends on the story. You have an action plot and a romance plot; make one the main plot and the other a subplot in service to it. Which is which depends on the story you’re telling.

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  3. “Lonely Hearts” is one of my favorites because of what it does for Nate and Sophie. Seeing Emma Caulfield again was a nice bonus, too. Lacey and Walt are another thing I like about this one. Part of the reason I like the caper is that it’s a change of pace from their usual kind of mark. Taking down evil rich people is fun, and what those stories say about money and power in our society is interesting, but it was nice that Walt wasn’t the usual vicious CEO. And since this one was about even con artists being able to find true love, their happy ending is a nice echo of Nate and Sophie’s relationship.

    Eliot sending the flowers at the end was fun. Of course Parker would love a plant that eats other creatures…

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  4. I have tried to watch Leverage many times so I can follow the examples of writing discussed here, but I just can’t get into it. I unfortunately will always see the actress playing Sophie as Jane from Coupling and Eliot is just Angel’s Lindsey with a better wardrobe. It’s silly as heck, but I just can’t separate them.

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    1. Just to clear, I’m silly for fixating on the actors’ previous characters. Didn’t mean Leverage is silly.

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    2. But the characters are so different. Jane’s a narcissist psycho who never sees anything but her own reflection, and Lindsey’s a smooth lawyer. Sophie’s a grifter who studies people all the time; Eliot’s a blue collar thug.

      Must be the faces and the voices.

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      1. I know, it’s silly. When I look at Sophie there’s no way for me not to say to myself, “Jane’s running a con? I don’t think so.” And I’m afraid Eliot will always be smarmy, weak Lindsey. Definitely the faces and voices

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    3. I sympathize. It took me well into the 3rd season to quit seeing Timothy Hutton – it was much easier once he just became Nate in my mind. OTOH, I’ve only seen a few episodes of Coupling and love CK in both shows. It helped that TH was the only one that took me out of the show.

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  5. We watched the Last Dam Job last night. It was fun seeing the show come full circle with the first episode. I love writers who can do continuity.

    That said, do we ever find out why Sophie is a grifter? I like the character but she’s just as much of an enigma to me as she was in the beginning. We have details of her background but what drives her? Just the challenge of a con? I sometimes feel like her character mainly exists to show Nate’s growth and character development. Kind of like Inara/Firefly.

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    1. Since you asked, I’d say no, we never know why Sophie is a grifter. Another spoiler, we never learn her real name either. She remains much of an enigma. She grows too, especially after the 1st David job.

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      1. Well, they say a name that is supposedly her real name in the season 5 finale. Whether or not you buy that is up to you, I guess.

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    2. I think grifting is like anything else: It’s what fills your needs. Sophie loves to act, so every grift is a performance. Plus she loves the thrill of it; that’s evident in every con she does. They’re all Great Performances, and the stuff she steals is her Oscars.

      I don’t think characters in general need their motivations laid out. If they clearly love what they do, if they’re excited by it and it makes them happy, that’s enough. We never find out why Hardison is a hacker, either, except that he’s really good at it and he loves doing it.

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      1. Ordinarily I would agree that not every character needs their motivation laid out but Sophie is a criminal. That seems important to know, why someone crosses that line. It was a huge part of Nate’s story. Hardison we get because it’s implied by the foster care background. (His technical brilliance might have landed him in Google/Facebook territory if his childhood had been more normal.) I don’t think the story suffers by not knowing everything about Sophie, it just seems a little odd when the writers do such a good job with everyone else. IMO and YMMV…

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        1. Yes, but “criminal” is a value judgment. You can say that anybody who breaks the law is a criminal, but that means anybody who blew dope in the seventies is a criminal and there goes three-quarters of the country over fifty, so the term is pretty much meaningless.

          Sophie has her own moral code; she knows she’s breaking the law, but she sees herself as an actress playing a role–they hit that over and over again, that’s she’s only a good actress when she’s grifting–but she’s horrified when she realizes that some of the people she’s had courier for her might have used children, and she’s appalled by most of the people they bring down, most of whom do what they’re doing legally. So the show’s definition of “criminal” is not a legal one.

          I think it’s also significant that until Sophie becomes comfortable in her own skin, she can’t act on stage, but in the finale, finally sure of who she is, confident enough to say yes to Nate’s marriage proposal, she goes on stage and she’s fantastic. So I think there’s a lot indicated in there without spelling out a traumatic incident in her past. Maybe she was just born to act/grift.

          I don’t think all people on the con have bad pasts. There are plenty of hackers who grew up in solid homes; they just like to hack. I did a lot of research on con artists when I was writing the Dempseys, and for a lot of them, it’s the thrill of using their wits to fool people. Look at Apollo Robbins, the best pickpocket in the world: “A soft-spoken man, Robbins has said, in various interviews, that he learned his skills from two brothers, that his father was blind, and that, as a child, he had braces on his legs.” How is any of that motivation? When you’re good at something, when you born to do something, you do it. I love this guy: ” But Robbins is self-taught, and his devotion to his studies borders on the monastic. Every moment not spent refining his technique or in some way expanding his knowledge of human nature and how to exploit it is, to his mind, time wasted.”

          It’s one of the reasons I think back story is so often a waste of time. “Why is he like that?” “Because that’s who he is.” It doesn’t matter why they became who they are in the story now, all that matters is who they are in the story now.

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          1. I really appreciate this statement! Value judgments and personal moral codes are more subjective than one realizes, especially when you’re writing.
            Back stories tend to distract me. I like to see how my mind pictures a character’s past, a passive third-party observer.

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          2. I think a lot of the time, writers use it for shorthand. “He was abused, therefore he’s a serial killer.” It’s not that there’s not a correlation, but it’s a stereotype. “He’s Irish, therefore he drinks.” “She was hurt once before by a lover, therefore she’s afraid to love again.” Back story is not character. You can give ten characters the exact same back story, and they’ll find ten different ways to deal with it. It’s not that back story isn’t important, it’s that it doesn’t determine character. It’s much better to demonstrate who the character is now, revealing him or her through actions, than it is to explain who he or she is now because of what happened thirty years ago.

            I’ve always thought that Parker’s back story was the weakest of the lot, and hers is the most complete. She had a drunken foster father who took her bunny away, so she blew up the house and went out on the street and became a master thief. That doesn’t BEGIN to explain why Parker is the way she is in the pilot. Pretty clearly, there was a piece of Parker that was always weird as hell and always will be weird as hell, which is why we love Parker. The idea that if she’d had a normal family she wouldn’t have been Parker just isn’t possible.

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          3. Also, Sophie, whenever she talks about grifting and particularly when she’s put on the defensive about the criminal element, is eloquent about the art of a good grift and how it transcends the mundane crime.

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          4. She makes a clear distinction between her grift and the cons of the guys like the Mako (grandson of the Yellow Kid!). He enjoys dominating people, taking all their money and leaving them penniless, and she finds that absolutely wrong. She just wants to steal the two Davids from rich people. I think it’s most clear in the Rashomon job when she points out that she ran a long con with two separate identities in the same building. She’s really proud of the fact that she was two different people for four months and nobody put it together because she’s just that good an actress.

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  6. The key to romance writing is in arcing the emotional growth of the lovers.
    I love this.
    I don’t watch much TV and have never seen an episode of Leverage. But I love what you have to say here on character, and romance, and story arc.
    I’d recently written another romantic suspense where the antagonist had rudely inserted himself into what I’d intended to be a contemporary romance. I went along with his presence and finished the story, but I knew something was missing. I sent it off to an editor friend for copyedits. Her main comment was I hadn’t properly arced the romance. The suspense was fine. I went back in and added two more chapters keeping that in mind, did a bit more tweaking, and wow! What a difference. I might actually like this story. : )

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