What Have We Learned From This Binge Watch 2: What Makes a Good Story Team Leader?

legends-binge-logo There was a new episode of Legends earlier this month (last new one until the end of January), and it showed why Sara is a good team leader, in the same league as Nate and Finch. For starters, she’s a real mother, in every sense of the word.

I hesitate to say that a team is a family because it isn’t always. Many teams stay professional without developing familial relationships. However, those teams aren’t in stories. In every team I looked at (admittedly not that many), once the team got over three, the team leader took on a parental role. Even Michael in Burn Notice acted as a parent/big brother to Nate, possibly because he really was Nate’s big brother; he pretty clearly mentored Jesse, too. Sam had been his friend, Fiona had been his lover, Madeline was his mother, but he pulled them all together so that they all went to Maddie for mothering just as they went to Michael for leadership. I know that sense of community is important in 21st century storytelling, I know that family is important in a lot of women’s fiction, I know that the family-you-make is really important in reality, especially now as politics divides so many of us. So it makes sense that a good story team also slowly becomes a family.

Which leads us to the story team leader as Mom or Dad.

If you define parenting as directing, mentoring, and watching over people you love so that they are productive and happy while you’re keeping them safe, I think that’s also a good defnitions for a good story team leader. In a team story, the relationships are where the real juice is; the plots are crucial, of course, but the relationships are why we keep going back, which is why even a bad episode of Leverage, for example, is fun to watch. I think of the last flawed season of that show, and I know rationally and technically that they had the perfect story act and finale in the first four seasons, but I still want season five, and I’d have loved six, seven, eight, to infinity and beyond, because I loved those characters. And one of the strengths of those relationships was that Nate basically adopted Hardison, Eliot, and Parker, and Sophie became Mom after the first season; Eliot makes that canon when he tells her “We need you to look out for us.” It’s one of the many reasons that the Leverage team is so compelling.

The leader-as-parent is less evident in Person of Interest, but I think it’s still there in Finch as the calm voice of reason directing the group while, below the surface, he obviously cares desperately about them. He acts as a wise father (telling Reese he needs a purpose), a scold (asking Shaw to stop killing people), and a disciplinarian (sending Root to her room when he locks her in the library), and they all accept and follow his rules (even Root voluntarily goes back to being locked in the library after they save Reese). And at the end of Season Four, that becomes canon when the Machine calls Finch “father.”

But somebody should have called Children’s Services on the first seasons of Legends. Rip was often abusive, yelling at his team, lying to them on several occasions including the night he gave them the reasons they should join his team=, endangering them constantly, not just because his plans were so bad but also because he was willing to sacrifice them to save his family (for an example, see what he did to Jax at the end, sending him to the engine room to be poisoned). His incompetence just increased his failings as a father to the team.


In the second season, however, Sara steps in and becomes the Good Mother. She’s younger than all but one of her team, but it doesn’t matter: she has the authority and she uses it to direct, counsel, discipline, and support. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also the best fighter they have so that when she says, “This tactic is best,” nobody argues. But I think the thing that makes her such a superior leader is that she knows her kids. She knows where each of them is strong and where each is vulnerable, she knows who’s best skilled for each task and how to direct them within a job, and she knows how to pull them back together after they’ve finished, making sure they’re all back to safety physically and emotionally. And it’s all done naturally through the give and take of the characters. Unlike Rip, Sara does not call them all together to make speeches and tell them who they are; instead they gather to make plans and then she tells them what they’ll be doing based on what they’ve decided, an entirely different approach that makes them a team instead of employees. Sara, in fact, is a damn good template for any story team leader.

The latest Legends episode, “The Chicago Way,” pretty much lampshades the whole Mom and the team as family bit.

• Ray and Nate are horsing around in the cargo bay which is dangerous (they blew a hole in the side of the ship the last time), and Sara shuts them down before they can do any real damage. “What do you think you’re doing? Don’t make me come down here again.” When she leaves, they mimic her like two junior high kids, and when she comes back and yells “Hey,” they shut up and all but shuffle their feet under her glare. “What’s wrong with them?” Jax, the youngest team member, says. “Sibling rivalry,” she tells him, which Ray and Nate reinforce later when they steal Al Capone’s ledger and one says to the other, “Bro hug?” and they do some geeky shoulder checking.

• When Mick refuses to leave the ship like a rebellious teenager, she says, “Fine,” and leaves Amaya to babysit him; but when Sara is captured, he steps up as Lancer and becomes the second-in-command, leading the rescue, fulfilling her faith in him as the oldest (skill-wise) of her kids.

• Sara tells Stein that she learned to respect the timeline from him, giving him that respect in return as a way of honoring the family elder. And because she’s noticed that he’s been different, she prompts him to confess his aberration and then supports him when she learns about his daughter.

• At the end, she flat out says: “Maybe some things are more important than history. You know, you, me, this team, we’re a family. A messed-up one, but still a family. I may not be able to save Laurel, but I can protect this family.”

I think the whole team-as-family is a way of marking the emotional growth of the group. They assemble (or are assembled) for a purpose, and once they evolve to all accept that purpose as their mission, they begin to connect because of the common belief, building those personal relationships among themselves that naturally fall into parent/child, elder/younger, and sibling connections. Once emotion becomes part of the team connection, the family analogy is inevitable.

So Nita, who is automatically mentoring Button, has that going for her, although I should hit that harder in that first scene. Nick is definitely in a superior position over Rab, so mentoring once things start to get dicey and they start working together is a natural (he’s already mentoring Dag). Nita wouldn’t mentor Mort, he’s her twin, so maybe that’s why he’s going to be more peripheral than I’d originally thought. Max is the fifth member, or at least the guy who keeps popping up, and while he’s Mammon’s right hand man, I think he’s a young Nick in a lot of ways. I can definitely see Nita taking over Rab and slapping Max down, not sure about the relationship between Nick and Button, but that has interesting possibilities. And then circling around all of them on the periphery are Mort and Dag and Daphne and Keres and Vinnie and Mammon and Sequins and Joey and the biologist-to-be-named-later. I can also see Nita trading off leadership with her Lancer, Nick, depending on whether it’s an island conflict or a Hell-ish conflict, the two of them acting as parents if you squint your eyes.

It may just be that I like the team-as-family approach because it plays to a romance writer’s strengths: relationships.

So then drawing from the Legends’ Binge Watch:
• The team leader has to show she’s the natural leader, not just announce that she is:
That’ll work for Button and Mort, and by the end of Act One, it’ll be natural for Rab, too. Max may take awhile.
• The team members have to begin to respect the leader and choose to follow her because of what she does, not what she says.
I think by the end of the second act, that’ll be a given because so much more about Nita will have come to light, and she’ll be so much more confident.
• The team leader has to show she respects the team members by asking for help when she needs it.
I definitely need this in the first scene, at least foreshadowed.

And then do all of that for Nick, too.

Plus there’s the general good advice not to lie to your team, put your team in danger to achieve your own selfish ends, or waste your team’s time while you navel gaze. Basically, do the opposite of whatever Rip Hunter does.

Worst Team Leader Ever.

9 thoughts on “What Have We Learned From This Binge Watch 2: What Makes a Good Story Team Leader?

  1. I think she has to not just ask for help, but share all the relevant information so that they can be proactive about contributing. None of this “Oh, by the way, there’s a bounty hunter chasing us through time, but I’m only telling you this because he’s currently shooting at you” crap.

      1. If they’d known, I have to think the competent team members wouldn’t have left a defenceless kid alone on a ship programmed not to respond to him, or at least Sara wouldn’t have. They also probably wouldn’t have left their only way of getting home undefended.

        Instead, I imagine they would have played the world’s most violent game of hide and seek (Mick’s idea) as a way of testing each other’s skills (Sara’s idea) and getting to know the ship (Snart’s idea). Sara would, of course, win.

  2. I was asking myself what the “leader as mother” dynamic does to romance, does it make the romantic partner another parent? If Nita is Mom, does Nick have to be Dad? If Nita has Button and Nick has demons, does that make the team a blended family? Does the dynamic of which parent is in charge affect that — I mean if Nita as mother is in charge of Nick as father, does that do weird things to US cultural expectations of men and power and make him seem weak?

    I was also thinking about my favourite of your team novels, Faking It (I love that book), and the fascinating team dynamic there, and how the team story pacing and the romance pacing get a little weird at the end. I’m not sure it works with these rules.

    1. Re: US gendered expectations of family structure– I know lots of sitcoms, at least, have the bumbling & incompetent husband/father trope where the wife runs the show. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, because those guys are incompetent; but I can also think of examples like Sons of Anarchy (where Clay is the physically powerful one and does scheme a lot, but Gemma controls Clay and exerts power over the rest of the gang, too, and explicitly positions herself as the mother of the gang). Hmm, but she’s sorry of the villain, and I guess most of the other examples I’m thinking of with a mother-in-charge dynamic have absent/incompetent fathers, and the mother’s often evil to boot.

      Ugh. Thanks, patriarchy…

      Maybe there are some good examples I’m not thinking of, where the strong mother isn’t Lady Macbeth or Queen Gertrude?

      Leverage: Sophie isn’t evil but she’s not the leader, and she does have power to influence Nate but not over him.

    2. It’s definitely pick-a-lane for romance/team. Which is always harder than I think it will be. (Thank you for loving Faking It, too.)

      I think in real families with good parenting, Mom and Dad are a tag team, and I think that’s where Leverage was in the end. Nate called the shots, Sophie said, “Maybe not,” and they talked about it. But Sophie was equal to Nate with the three younger ones, I think. When she left, they all called her for advice, and I don’t think by the end, Nate was doing anything that overruled her.

      I think with Nita and Nick, the leader has to be Nita because they’re on earth and she has the power base. Nick is a partner at the end, and they have that tag team thing going, and they’re smart enough not to put the team between them when they argue (another good parenting thing). I think good modern parenting isn’t about who rules the roost but division of labor, each working to his or her own strengths. Kids know who does what best.

      The big thing about the mom/dad (or mom/mom or dad/dad) model for romance is that working together is a huge way to communicate how a romantic relationship will go, too. That ability to read each other, figure out a plan, hand off power easily, change tactics in the middle of a job smoothly . . . those are all good indicators they’ll be able to handle anything that comes their way in the future. That’s why I loved those cons to get the paintings back in Faking It: they had to think on their feet as they worked through those different roles, playing off each other. I think that’s when Davy falls in love.

  3. You could tell that the writers really liked that “Rip would sell out his team to save his family” line, so solutions:
    1) This is a “kill your darlings” situation, and this concept should be dropped like a hot potato. Even when Nate “betrayed” the team in S2, it was his selfish way of saving them, not throwing them under the bus.
    2) Bring this concept up waaaaaayyy sooner, like, as a first 3-episode arc that gets resolved and bonds the team together much sooner. It also would give more development fodder to the Mick/Cronos arc.
    3) Actually play this up, such that Rip is clearly not the leader, but more like an ambivalent ally/foil, and not a full member of the team. Like if Sterling was a regular.

    1. Yep. I really like that last one, if the whole Rip-as-worst-team-leader-ever was just there to set up Sara.

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