Leverage Sunday: “The Rashomon Job:” Structure

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I was going to write on POV and community for this episode, and I will, later this week, but watching it again (for probably the twentieth time, it’s one of my favorite episode), I was struck by how well they pulled off two difficult structures: the frame structure and the patterned structure. So let’s start with definitions. A frame narrative is one in which the action story is bracketed by scenes of someone telling the tale. Charles Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, is sitting on the deck of a ship at the mouth of the Thames, telling his companions about a trip he took up the Congo to find a madman named Kurtz. All of the action is in the tale he tells which makes up the majority of the story, but all of the meaning is in the frame, the conclusions he draws from the story now that it’s over and he’s looking back on it. In the same way, Louis in Interview with the Vampire is in a dark hotel room telling a journalist how he became a vampire and the travails he’s gone through since; Louis’s life story is full of action and drama, but the meaning of the story is in the quiet, static frame, Louis sitting and talking about his experiences. Without the frame, the action in the middle is just an adventure story with no meaning; without the adventure in the middle, the frame is static and flat with nothing to illustrate its themes. The framed story is notoriously difficult to pull off or it will feel like two boring bookends with a flashback in the middle; the key is to structure it so that the middle doesn’t feel like a flashback, that you have, in essence, two sets of Now. A patterned structure is even harder to do. Instead of chronological acts, a story moving forward in a sequence, a patterned structure is made up of in dependent but related parts that when taken together make a pattern; by themselves, the parts each have one meaning, but taken together, they have an entirely new meaning. The best analogy is a patchwork quilt, each block is a design in itself, but when combined with other blocks becomes an entirely different design. Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies” is the best example I’ve found: A woman narrator talks about her co-workers’ discussion of rape fantasies, and then tells four of her own rape fantasies, each different, but each ending the same way as she manages to disarm her would-be rapist with emotion that leads them into a relationship. At the end, the reader discovers that she’s been talking to somebody in a bar, someone she’s attracted to, which changes the stories from individual comic vignettes into a deep insight into a frightened character. The danger with patterned stories, of course, is that they’ll just seem random, that the pattern won’t be established well enough to make the meaning clear. Which brings us to “The Rashomon Job.” “The Rashomon Job” begins at home, in the bar, the place the team feels most comfortable next to Nate’s apt. They’re watching a TV news program about the golden Dagger of Aqu’abi. This is the beginning of the frame, the static bookends that establishes the central conflict: years ago when they were solo criminals (Nate was an insurance investigator then), they each stole the dagger. This static frame–sitting and talking–launches the first four pieces of the patterned narrative, as each of them tells the action story of how he or she stole the dagger. The structure here is amazing: the four of them tell the same story with many of the same events, and yet nothing repeats. Instead, the stories form layers, each one adding not only more detail but another color to the story. Sophie the diva is the center of attention, the elegant queen of the museum and queen of the grifters, until Eliot tells the story and she’s a flirt, Hardison tells the story and she’s a shrill buttinsky, and Parker tells the story and she’s an incomprehensible madwoman. The key is that although all four are played for laughs, all four of those interpretations are Sophie, and putting them all side by side makes a pattern that shows the complex and maddening character that Sophie really is. Each character gets one less layer until the last, Parker, which is fitting because Parker really doesn’t have layers yet (she’s getting there). The fifth story is from Nate, as the insurance investigator on the scene, the guy who really does end up with the dagger and who then turns the story in an entirely new direction. Like all frame stories, the center action narratives would be fun to watch on their own, but the deeper meaning is in the frame: They all lost the dagger because they were working alone and therefore couldn’t see the big picture, the picture Nate always sees. If they’d been a team back then, they’d have had the dagger. So the last frame scene is them turning to the TV to hear the British CEO who now owns the dagger (and who is remarkably reminiscent of the jerk from BP who explained to America that the Gulf of Mexico was really not that much water when you compared it to the rest of the planet) talking about “the little people” which inspires them all to go steal the dagger again, this time as a team. At the end of the frame, they leave the bar as a team on a mission, united once more. My first thought when I considered this episode for this series of posts on community was that it wouldn’t work. It was fun, one of the best hours of TV I’ve ever seen, but it was really more fan service than community building; if you’ve watched the first two and a half seasons of this show, this episode is like a box of chocolates, each piece better than the last. But after taking it apart, I realized that this is one of the most community-focused stories that the series tells because it shows each one failing as a loner, something they clearly accept at the end as they band together once again to take down the bad guy. It’s also a great example of POV in story-telling, but later for that.

24 thoughts on “Leverage Sunday: “The Rashomon Job:” Structure

  1. I LOVED this episode! It was so much fun! It was interesting that Parker wasn’t in on the initial bravado argument even though she was there too. I was greatly amused how they all thought Coswell was so tough & with it except Nate. Nate’s version of him was the most fun and saddest.

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    1. Yes, but I don’t think that was the true version, either. The original theft was five years ago, before Nate’s fall and his acquisition of at least some humility. Everything in the show so far has emphasized what a bastard he was (he shot Sophie, he was pals/rivals with Sterling, etc.) so I think the Cosgrove in his version is seen through the lens of Nate’s arrogance just as the other four Cosgroves were seen through the lenses of the other’s criminal caution. The other four were never stupid, never made stupid assumptions, so I think Nate’s Cosgrove is probably the weakest interpretation of the three, although I think he got the details of Cosgrove’s crush on Sophie right.

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  2. And even Nate, for all his overview and insight, wound up with the dagger and the mystery solved because of the efforts of all of them.

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  3. I love this episode. It’s one of my favorites, which is funny given my loathing of “flashback” material. I think one of my favorite parts is Sophie’s indignation every time someone tries to do her accent. “What is that?! Is that supposed to be me?” so that, by the time Parker comes up with her nonsensical Sophie-gibberish, Sophie’s practically banging her head on the table. “I hate you all.” LOL! So good.

    I really enjoyed the layering with each story and how, every once in a while, you saw one of the other team mates in the background, showing you where they occasionally intersected and added a new twist to events (like Hardison as the choking diplomat, Eliot as the security guard, etc). Just an all round great, fun, entertaining episode.

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    1. These really aren’t flashbacks. They’re five separate stories held together by their frames. It’s really hard to tell the difference because the action stories are in the past, but one way to look at it is, do the flashbacks interrupt the action in the present? That’s what makes flashbacks so annoying, we had a good story going here and then you stopped to tell me something that happened in the past that explains the now? No. Instead, the five stories don’t interrupt the action in the now of the story, the now of the story is static, just making frames for each of the five stories. Those stories, even though set five years ago, each have their own now, and each is the action of the episode.

      Think of it as stories with prefaces (NOT prologues, that different). Think of the stories as pieces of mosaic set in the grout of the frame; you don’t look at the glass pieces and think, “That’s really screwing up the beauty of the grout.” A real flashback is a piece of gravel set in the middle of a smooth plaster wall. It interrupts.

      Listen, there’s a reason why framed narratives are so hard to do well and are so often screwed up by people who really just want a prologue and epilogue (no prologues and epilogues ever).

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      1. Why no prologue or epilogue ever? I don’t use them or find particularly useful, but I’m definitely interested in your reason.

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        1. A story starts when the conflict starts and ends when the conflict ends. Anything you stick onto the front or back of that dilutes the story for no reason. I’ve gone into this at length in other posts, but there is never a good reason to do a prologue or an epilogue.

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  4. I loved that episode. It was one of my favorites and such great storytelling. I may have to watch it again tonight.

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  5. I liked that episode, too. It was a fun way to watch a story from everyone’s different POVs. You almost feel as if you’re in the bar with them listening to their stories and trying to piece together what you think really happened. 🙂

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    1. Yes, without the dizzying, spinning camera shot that was used so very frequently in this show. Everyone got to take longer turns talking.

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  6. This one was total fun. And well executed. Also agree with Julie H that the Sophie accent bits added a cute touch.

    Think too, though, that the episode underscored for me how much pride each character takes in the work. It’s part of what ultimately makes them endearing. I mean they’re thieves, but their pride elevates what they do. Plus, it’s both an asset and a flaw at times. Yet as a community, something they all have in common. Makes everything they do more personal ergo more meaningful.

    Definitely hat’s off to the writer(s) of this one. Everything just clicked.

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    1. You know, just the LOGISTICS of writing this thing, figuring out where everybody was at all times, and where they were on two floors of the museum, and then what they were doing when they crossed paths and the different interpretations of each event . . . it boggles my mind.

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  7. I just want to thank you Jenny for introducing me to Leverage. I just finished watching season 5 and here you are talking about an episode that endeared me to Sophie. Her reactions to their interpretations of her accent made me laugh so much it’s one of the funnier things I remember about the episode.

    I just love the series, in particular season 4. At first I was skeptical about (SPOILER) Parker being the new Mastermind, but as soon as she said “We provide Leverage.” I was sold. Her intonation was spot on and reminded me of season 1 so much that I want to see what junior Justice League do. Just wonderful.

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  8. In the Focus department, a friend pointed out Patricia C Wrede’s blog, which is tightly focused on writing, and she stacked a year of blog posts and declared it book and sent it into the world. Her blog is here: http://pcwrede.com/blog/ and I recommend her writing as well, especially if you are exploring alternate fairy tales. Start with Dealing with Dragons, and (if you’ll take bossy advice on what granddaughters should be listening to) find Bruce Coville’s Full Cast Audio recording of it because it rocks like a rocking thing.

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