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? 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. 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. 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. 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.) 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.