For its first episode of the new year, Leverage chose to go after people who run TV commercials imploring you to bring in your gold so that they can pay you top dollar for it. When the troubled victim who'd been screwed and lied to by the villainess—the smarter and slimier half of a brother-and-sister team who told the mark, to her face, that it was too late to return to her the necklace for which she'd been underpaid, when in fact she was wearing the damn thing—brought her plight to Nate's attention, Nate nodded his head vigorously in sympathy. Over the course of four and a half seasons, Nate has gone up against some pretty big operators and scurvy cutthroats, but when the subject turned to dishonest, self-promoting gold buyers, it was all he could do to keep from wondering aloud what kind of a God would allow such vermin to live. It was good to see the show taking a stand against a true menace to society. Environmental polluters and international arms dealers and human traffickers who arrange cock fights on the side are certainly deplorable, and probably impact my life in any number of ways, but they don't just get up in my face braying about at, at 2 A.M., when I'm feeling vulnerable. I mean, I've seen those commercials, and I know how they leave you feeling dirtier just for not having lunged for the remote fast enough. Come to think of it, the choice of bad guys made this a smart episode to run on New Year's Day. Imagine what it's like to watch one of those things when you're hung over.
The victim was a toothless, scabby-faced meth addict who had pulled her dead junkie boyfriend's gold teeth out of his head with a rusty pair of pliers, in hopes of raising enough money to buy a donut with extra sprinkles. Wait, I'm sorry, my notes are a mess. In fact, it says here, the victim petitioning Nate for help was a very nice, attractive young woman who had sold the necklace that her English grandmother had clung to for strength all through the Blitz; she hadn't wanted to part with, but she had a mortgage and bills to pay, and with the clown college of her dreams not taking any new applicants, she had looked at the children's empty begging bowls, and weakened. Nate assured her that she had no reason to apologize for having tried to help her family in these tough times, but it was Hardison who was doing most of the talking. "Your story's not unique," he said. "There are thousands of desperate people who've sent in their gold and gotten these checks way below market value. It's a pattern of perfidy." "A pattern of perfidy?" said Nate. "M-hmm," said Hardison.
It was clear that something was up. Nate usually takes these meetings by himself, or else he has Sophie at his side, in case he's reluctant to take a case and he needs her there to appeal to his softer nature, or Eliot is just hanging around, if he has reason to think it could be a set-up, and he's afraid that Snow White might dry her tears and pull a knife on him. I always picture Hardison timing these scenes to coincide with his naps. Here he was not only present but thoughtful and solicitous. That lasted until the client was gone from the room, at which point he lit up like Times Square at, well, New Year's. (Seasonal episode. Very seasonal episode.) It turns out that Hardison has long been looking for his chance to run a con himself, which was news to me, but he looked so excited that I was happy to run with it. This, he thought, was the perfect opportunity. "There's no international crime, no Russians with guns, no Interpol. It's low-rent, low-danger, just two very smart dirtbags who like to hurt people."
This naturally set up expectations of a twist. What associates of Darth Vader and Josef Mengele would the dirtbags turn out to be fronting for? While waiting for the big revelation, there was considerable entertainment value in watching Hardison settle into the driver's seat and show Nate how it's all done. He certainly enjoyed his work; I think Aldis Hodge did more smiling in the first twenty minutes than he's done in the whole series up to now. Pooh-poohing Nate's standard speech about how there are only seven basic cons in the world, Hardison announced his decision to execute an entirely new, "twenty-first century con" of his own devising, "the double-pronged monkey", instead of "one of Nate's picturesque eighteenth-century cons." Establishing himself as one cool substitute teacher, he also dispensed code names with matching icons, "full financial, physical, and psychological profiles of our players", and evaluation forms soliciting the team members' "honest feedback." ("Nate never wants feedback!" cooed Parker.)
The con itself was, Hardison explained, modeled on video game design and involved something called "the Snake River Massacre treasure", a name that makes me wonder how many Evel Knievel fans are in the house. It also involved Parker dressing up like my Aunt Ruth to pose as an antiques dealer who, talking through her nose, said things like, "You're certainly free to take a lookie-loo;" a hunt, with explosives, for treasure in the secret tunnels beneath Portland, which gave Eliot the always welcome chance to put on a hard hat; a gratuitous, self-congratulatory, but equally welcome reference to the old stereo ad showing a listener slumped in a chair with his hair blown back ("'Cept," Hardison told Nate, "instead of sound, you're blown away by the power of my mind."); and a late-inning turn by Hardison himself as the attorney who would finalize the land deal he meant to use to snare the bad guys. It was only when she realized what the point of it all was supposed to be that Sophie expressed doubts. "Let me great this straight. The watch, the chest, the cipher, the Cantonese Bible, the tunnel cave-in, a staged, tragic death…for a land deal? I once pulled off a land deal with half a glass of champagne and a low-cut dress."
In the end, the dirtbags turned out to be just dirtbags, and the twist was that Nate had arranged his own side operation to pull victory from the jaws of defeat when Hardison's con collapsed, as he knew it would. It was, he explained, too perfect, too brilliant, to succeed in the end; that's why he himself never tried to come up with a dazzling Plan A but instead picked something from farther down the alphabet and counted on the inevitable setbacks and disasters to inspire him to be better than he knew he could be. I'm not sure how useful this line of argument really is for grifters or video game designers, but aspiring writers working on their own Leverage spec scripts should probably jot it down on a Post-It somewhere. Before it happened, there was the scene between an increasingly flustered Hardison and the increasingly wary bad guys where the whole plan did indeed fall apart, and which was like one of those old "Scenes We'd Like To See" features that used to appear in MAD magazine. Afterwards, there was the sight of a humbled, unsmiling Hardison coming to terms with the fact that there was a reason that, when next week's episode comes around, Nate will be in the driver's seat again. Which, sadly, is costing this episode part of its grade. It's just not right to see Aldis Hodge go out pouting after he's brought so much joy to the world.