Monday, December 14, 2015

Masculinity Monday: 'Leverage' and the Man With Nothing To Prove

Sometimes I see a little gifset of Leverage on my tumblr dash, or I end up chatting with a friend who's just binged the whole show, or I happen to stumble across an old episode airing on TNT, and I think to myself, "Was this show even real? Did this really happen? Or was Leverage just some really complicated and surprisingly nuanced hallucination we all had a few years ago?

For those of you who blinked and missed it, or who weren't lucky enough to be basically stalking the show while it was on (it didn't get a lot of promotion, for all that it ran for five seasons), Leverage is a heist show that aired on TNT a few years back. It followed a group of four former criminals and one former investigator who all teamed up to pull cons on real bad guys. You know, real bad guys - like bankers and corrupt corporations and anyone who thinks they can get what they want by shoving down everyone in their way.

The team fell into pretty clear and set roles. They had a hitter, hacker, grifter, thief, and a mastermind. By their powers combined, they fight crime! Well, no. Actually by their powers combined they did crime, and a lot of it. But it was crime for a good cause. In each episode they would be approached by someone who heard about what they do and thought they could help. There would be a sob story of some sort about a nice working class person being taken advantage of by someone rich and powerful. 

Maybe a farmer who was being sued by a Monsanto clone because the big corporation wanted the farmer's fields so they were going to run her off her own land. Maybe a nice foster mother who saw her kids snatched away and her license revoked because she discovered one of the children was actually the mayor's biological child. That kind of thing.

The team would take the case (no matter how much they might complain, they always took the case) then spend the rest of the episode figuring out how to con this bad person out of a lot of money or respect or whatever they happened to value. It's a good show. You should totally watch it. Very emotionally satisfying. The real draw of the show, however, was the characters. 

We watch these awkward people, all of whom have broken and messed up pasts, come together and learn how to be a family. And I don't mean that in the sense that television shows usually mean that. I don't mean that we the audience feel really strongly about these characters and their relationships and call them a family even though on screen they act more like a bag of cats. I mean that the characters themselves called their relationship a family and then acted like it. It's a rare thing.

I'll be honest, I'm still not sure it was real, but real or not, I want to take today to be grateful for it. See, the reason I have so much trouble believing Leverage actually existed is because it really feels too good to be true most of the time. Especially when it comes to the male characters.

Don't get me wrong, I love the women of this show too. I've already gone into great detail on my adoration of Parker (Beth Riesgraf) and how the show respects and appreciates her past and her neurodivergence. There's another article coming on how Sophie (Gina Bellman) is phenomenal and amazing and a wonderful subversion of the usual tropes about femme fatales. Maggie's great too. Heck, everyone is great. This show is great. Everyone should watch this show.

But the point I'm making today is that when it comes to making characters who genuinely challenge your expectations, Leverage's finest work is done with its male leads. Each of the men in our core team takes some traits you're programmed to understand a certain way and then completely switches direction on you. Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton) is your classic brilliant mastermind who sees the chessboard and all of the pieces, even when they're hidden. Unlike your usual puppetmaster, though, Nate isn't all precise actions and a carefully controlled personal life. He's not even a romantic mess like Will Graham on Hannibal. No, Nate is a disgusting mess. He's a gross "get your life together so help me" mess.

It's never sweet or charming or funny how much of a mess Nate is. Sophie, his main love interest, is not amused. In fact, she even leaves him over it and makes his recovery a condition of his being allowed to work with them again. Nate is a complete and utter shitshow of a person, and that actually makes me love him a lot more.

Why? Because it's so blissfully human. Nate doesn't have cute and funny problems, he has terrifying, gut-wrenching obstacles that it's entirely possible he'll never really be over. The show doesn't pretend that just because Nate is in love or just because he has friends or just because he's really smart he's not still an alcoholic. 

In fact, the show makes it pretty damn clear that Nate would be much less of a mess if he weren't so good at figuring everyone else out. Only they don't frame it in a tragic way. He's not Sherlock from the BBC Sherlock who gets a pass on his behavior because he's so much smarter than everyone else. Instead, his family and friends are constantly calling him out on his behavior. He's being a dick. He's being a jerk. He's alienating the people around him because he refuses to deal with his problems. He's drinking again. 

Nate Ford is a good character precisely because he's frequently not a good person. The show makes it very clear that the tragedy in Nate's life doesn't excuse his actions, and that being a tough guy emotionally doesn't make him a "better man". It just makes him a mess.

So clearly there's some interesting stuff going on with the male characters. Nate is a defined subversion of what we expect from the "mastermind". But what about the others? Are they different too?

You bet! Next we have Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), the team's hacker. Hardison doesn't quite fit any stereotype the show might have tried to box him into, and as a result he's a really compelling male character. For starters, he's the hacker, yeah, but that doesn't mean that show decided to paint him as a socially awkward loser with no idea how to talk to a girl. 

Actually, as the show tells it, Hardison is possibly the most emotionally aware of all of them. He's caring and sweet and very comfortable with both his own feelings and other people's. His romance with Parker is sweet not because they're both bumbling idiots who have no idea how to be romantic with each other, but because he's not and he knows she might never be healed enough to like him back and he's okay with that.

Now factor in that Hardison is a young, physically imposing black man who just so happens to adore his Nana, stay up too late watching Doctor Who and dispense life advice that actually works, and you have one of the most complex representations of modern masculinity you're apt to find. Seriously. 

It's not that Hardison is without flaws or anything - he can be very jealous, his pride gets in his own way a lot, and he's kind of a whiner. It's just that his flaws aren't the flaws that this character is normally written to have. He's not insensitive or stoic or a complete wuss or a blushing virgin or a complete skeaze. Nope. He's a good human being with impressive insights into human nature and a natural talent for computers.

And - this is a little off topic for us, but what the hell - let's all just appreciate how good it is to have a character like Alec Hardison representing black nerds. There are precious few nerds of color on television, and even fewer who are given the chance to be interesting, complex people. Hardison is a huge deal when you take that into account. His race is never glossed over, but it's also never made a huge part of his character. It just is, and by allowing it to play into his personality but not define him, the show succeeds in creating a vision of black masculinity that is emotionally mature and intelligent and kind without making a huge stink about how progressive they are for doing it.

So there's that.

But the real meat of what I want to talk about today is the final main male character of the show. See, Nate and Hardison are great and all (really really great), but for my money, the most interesting character subversion is the one you least expect to be subverted. I'm talking about the tough guy, Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane).

Eliot is, as it happens, the reason I watched this show in the first place, so it was clear I was always going to have a soft spot for him. I remembered Kane fondly from Angel, so when I saw he was going to be in a new show I was pretty pumped and decided to track it down.* I do not regret that. 

As the hitter on the team, Eliot's character is easily the most conventionally masculine out of all of them. He's a brutally violent tough guy who doesn't say much and dates a string of beautiful women and is quietly competent at everything he does. It would be so easy for Eliot to be a cartoon. It would be so easy for him to fall into every pit trap for masculine characters with no defining features other than their affirmation of their own masculinity.

I mean, come on. Eliot's dialogue is basically a running joke about how manly he is. At one point they all discuss what they were doing a few years ago, and when pressed about why he doesn't remember anything his teammates do, Eliot explains that he was "Busy liberating Croatia." Because that's totally a reasonable thing for a human to say.

This isn't to imply that Eliot is unnecessarily bragging about his skills, though. The show is very clear that Eliot isn't overestimating his own abilities at all. He's the best. He's amazing. He's a one man army. He's the manliest man you'll ever meet and he makes Hardison feel just a little bit inadequate.

The subversion, then, is all the more interesting for how it's not even the subversion you're expecting. See, it never turns out that Eliot is secretly really chatty underneath or that he likes dolls or that he's into anything else really stereotypically feminine. In a weird way, that would be too easy. No, the interesting subversion comes from the simple fact that Eliot, paragon of traditional masculinity, does not care that he is a paragon of traditional masculinity.

What I mean is that Eliot likes being a guy who can take everyone in a fight, but he doesn't have a chip on his shoulder. He's not insecure. He's not trying to prove himself. In a very real sense, he doesn't have anything to prove. He is, for the most part, very comfortable in himself. He has his flaws and his scars, sure, but he doesn't let them define him. So Eliot can be a man who likes traditional tough guy stuff, but he doesn't consider this better or more important than anyone else's interests. 

Not only that, but he doesn't consider his macho skills to be any more important or impressive than his other skills. We learn, as the show goes on, that Eliot is also a very skilled chef - like Michelin star worthy. He's a gardener too. He can sing and play the guitar. He can play baseball. He likes kids. He's a halfway decent con artist when he has to be. He enjoys gardening. And for all that he is basically a living weapon, Eliot displays a lot of emotional sensitivity. He's not gruff and quiet because he thinks no one should ever talk about their feelings, but rather because he doesn't say anything unless he has something to say. He's just a quiet person a lot of the time.

In other words, what makes Eliot a compelling depiction of masculinity is how he turns all of the usual tropes of tough guys in action movies on their heads. He's just as likely to identify a form of gun just from the sound ("It's a very distinctive sound.") as he is to pick out a designer dress by the draping ("It's a very distinctive draping style."). The joy of Eliot is that he doesn't view one of those skills as better than the others, and he never pretends that he's somehow less of a man because of it.

Even better, Eliot's relationships with women are incredibly interesting. While he does sleep around a bit and seem to enjoy the company of a rotating door of beautiful women, we never run into any angry exes of his. The closest thing to a disgruntled former girlfriend he has is a sweet girl from Kentucky who misses him in an abstract sense but has clearly moved on with her life. Eliot doesn't "love em and leave em", he just has casual relationships with women who aren't interested in anything deeper. 

And, and, he credits a lot of these girlfriends as being the ones to have taught him his skills. He's not ashamed to say that the reason he knows yoga or the reason he learned how to make smoothies or the reason he keeps a rooftop garden is because one of his girlfriends got him into that. There's no shame in that for him. He's very secure in his masculinity.

That's what I'm getting at. Eliot is supremely secure in his masculinity, to the point where he really doesn't feel the need to prove it to anyone. Sure, he still gets into little squabbles with Hardison, treating him like the little brother Eliot never had, but that's not proving his masculinity. That's just messing around. 

It's interesting because Eliot could so easily have been a stereotype: he's got a tragic backstory and it's heavily implied he was abused. He's gruff and manly and never seems to settle down. But the show never lets that be the end of the story for him, and that's what makes him so phenomenal.

Really, all of the men of Leverage are amazing, precisely because the writers went that extra step to make them into fully realized characters. That really is worth celebrating. Any one of these characters on their own would be awesome, but to have Nate and Hardison and Eliot all sharing the stage in every episode allows a complex view of what masculinity can be. 

It shows that there is no one good way to be a man, and that no matter who you are, you're going to screw it up sometimes and you're going to get it right other times. By giving a wealth of different characters and subversions of classical masculinity, the show presents a much more realistic picture of what it means to be a man.

It's hard to remember sometimes when we talk all about how femininity needs better representation in the media, but masculinity really does too. We've gone so long with toxic masculinity as our standard for character development that it's hard to see what could possibly be different. Leverage offers a possible solution. Not throwing away all the old ideas of what a masculine character could be, but enhancing them and making them real. That's the path to good representation. And that's why sometimes it's hard to believe this show was actually real.

So unreal.
*This method of finding new shows via vague obsession with the actors in it usually steers me well. Half the reason I got into Captain America in the first place was because I loved Sebastian Stan in Kings. Christopher Eccleston's performance in Heroes is literally what got me to watch Doctor Who. And of course the time I watched Hannibal because I liked Hugh Dancy in Ella Enchanted and King Arthur. It does, however, steer me wrong sometimes, like when I watched Not Since You because Christian Kane was in it. Awful horrible ridiculous movie. Don't do it. Not even for the sake of Elden Henson. No way.


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