In the final five minutes of the second of tonight's two back-to-back episodes, a scheduling ploy that I believe TNT executed specifically because it gives Timothy Hutton a laugh to know that I'm getting paid the same amount to watch twice as many minutes of his TV show, Leon Rippy reappeared for the first time in some half a dozen episodes to explain why he's been lurking in the shadows all season long. Given that I've been known to complain about shows using some half-assed shadowy conspiracy plot to make their sorrier episodes appear more substantial than they are by creating an illusion that it's all tied together somehow, you might expect me to be grateful to Leverage for having dropped a couple of hints that something like this was coming and then forgetting all about it until they were already a couple of episodes away from the finish line for the season. I kind of am, but I'm also glad that the tease is over.
But first things first. Tonight's first hour kicked off with Hardison inside a coffin, buried alive, just like Ryan Reynolds in last year's buried-alive movie whose title escapes me, Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 2, George Eads in the episode of CSI that Tarantino directed, Noomi Rapace in The Girl Who Played with Fire, and Laila Robins in some movie starring Maura Tierney and Adrien Brody that I once started watching on cable. I fell asleep before the climax, so for all I know, she may still be down there. Hardison got into this position, which really sucks for a claustrophobe, in the course of one of those cons that goes very, very badly. It starts out as an operation to take down Darlene Ricketts, who, with her two hulking, dialogue-deprived brothers, is running an embezzlement and identify-theft racket under cover of a funeral home.
Somehow, this leads to our heroes trying to rescue Hardison from the death trap he's been dropped into by a ruthless Mexican gangster, complete with an action setpiece in the cemetery (people diving behind headstones for cover, bullets nicking the stones, etc.), with Parker grabbing an automatic weapon and firing it into the ground to give the suffocating Hardison some much-needed ventilation. "Hardison!" she yells, seconds before the hot lead comes tearing through the wood, "move to your left!" How she knew which side was his left must be one of those ineffable mysteries of the grifter's art that we honest people can scarcely hope to grasp.
Convoluted as the plot got, there was a lot of funny stuff mixed in there. (There was also at least one deft piece of action, when Elliot disarmed the gangster's bodyguard. It's too bad that the slugfest that the two of them then got into went on so long that it was like the Hundred Year's War of fistfights.) There was a nifty scene with all the players at the funeral home, in which Nate and Sophie were required to improvise a eulogy to distract a roomful of mourners from the sight of Parker hanging outside the window and a nice spin on the show's beloved good-crooks-versus-bad-crooks paradox: The team members had trouble separating their revulsion at what Ricketts, who preyed on "the dying and grieving," was doing and their professional admiration for how well she did it. "Oh, she's good," purred Sophie, adding, after she heard herself, "Terrible, certainly. But what skill!"
Then there was the ongoing-character element, which, as much as anything, probably has to be counted as Leverage's perennial weak spot. It turned out that having Hardison buried alive was a great excuse for him and Parker to bond a little. Racing to the cemetery, she kept feeding him encouragement and tips for conserving his air via cell phone. Because Parker is very self-conscious about her lack of conventional social skills, she didn't think she was the right person for the job, but as Sophie pointed out to her, she was, because "You've spent a disproportionate amount of your life in air ducts." At one point, she even stretched far enough outside her emotional comfort zone to tell Hardison that he was her "friend." Then they rescued him, and he managed to get in some hugging time with every member of the team, except for Parker, whose walls had come back up. But later, when they were alone, he thanked her for saving his life and gave her a discreet kiss on the cheek, before walking out of the empty bar and into the night like Sinatra after singing "One For My Baby."
In the vacuum-sealed context of this one episode, all this stuff was handled pretty well, but in the larger context of the whole season, it confused the hell out of me. Based on what I'd taken to be several not especially subtle hints, I'd been under the impression that Parker and Hardison had already moved beyond the "my friend", peck-on-the-cheek stage. Was it all in my head, or did they get to a certain point and move back to square one after some traumatic mix-up that I missed because my cat was being especially adorable? Then, in the second episode of tonight's double header, all hell broke loose after the villain deduced—from their "body language", that sort of thing—that Nate and Sophie were now doin' it regularly.
Because Sophie and Nate have been seen in a shared state of semi-undress at least once since the season premiere, this shook me up less than the other members of the crew, who expressed concerns about how their entanglement might affect their ability to function on some future job. Nate and Sophie brushed the notion aside as too ludicrous to even consider. Suffice it to say that if their entanglement does not severely affect their ability to function on a job before this season is out, it'll mean that the show wasted a few minutes tonight that could have been spent watching Beth Riesgraf hang upside down in black leather or Aldis Hodge ramble on about frozen dessert toppings.
The villain in question was a handsome, sharp-featured bastard who was first seen counseling a roomful of telephone operators in his employ: "My father always told me, if they're not smart enough to hold onto their money, then they don't deserve it." My first thought was that he looked a little young to be the son of the Alec Baldwin character in Glengarry Glen Ross, but it turned out that he was the scion of a distinguished family of con artists, whose lineage went back to a 1920s swindler known as the Yellow Kid. "You can't con a con artist," Nate said, "so we'll just have to steal from him." The plan to steal from him required running a con on him—one of those big, all-in, The Sting-type dealies, with a roomful of fake salesmen and a side trip to Ecuador (with Eliot playing a jungle guide who dressed like Indiana Jones and talked like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now). There was even one of those scenes where, with a few well-chosen words to the right mark, somebody manages to basically acquire a whole skyscraper to use as a stage set. (The fake tycoon occupying the set was a chocolate mogul played by Nate, wearing a suit that looked as if he'd chosen it so that, when he had the best of the bad guy, he could add insult to injury by hosing him down with the squirting flower in his lapel.)
Of course, the whole elaborate con was just a smoke screen, intended to distract the bad guy while the team siphoned off his fortune and alerted the feds. The episode was kind of like the con: It had a lot of amusing stuff, such as a competitive chocolate-tasting exhibition between Sophie ("The Chocolate Whisperer") and a rival connoisseur, to occupy the viewer while assuring us, at the end, that a real plot had been going on somewhere else, where the mark couldn't see it. As the mark, David Rees Snell—Ronnie Gardocki from The Shield—gave a sort of tabula rasa upmarket-con-man performance. At first, when he was bombastic and self-regarding, I found myself imagining Bob Odenkirk saying his lines; at the end, when he added a smarmy grin, I substituted Will Arnett.
Then, just as I was shuffling to the refrigerator to look for a Pop-Sicle to cool myself off after all the excitement, Leon Rippy came bursting in, beating the final credits by a couple of minutes. Turns out his character is some kind of wheeler dealer who figured out Nate's M.O. and has been raking in the cash by betting against his targets. Now, he's looking to cut a deal with Nate in exchange for the names of some deserving monsters who have heretofore kept themselves off his radar screen. I got the impression that we're supposed to be hissing Rippy, but I found him almost cuddly, myself. I'm not even sure that the team, and the show, wouldn't benefit from the addition of a middle-aged, cynical sharpie who's full of ambiguous good cheer. I wonder how he looks hanging upside down in black leather.