According to some insane law of basic-cable drama, it probably stands to reason that as soon as Leverage had shifted locations and left Boston, one of the few cities that non-hockey fans in the U. S. associate with hockey, it was going to do a hockey episode. It starts out with a terrific setup. A teenage boy has contacted Nate and shows him and Eliot footage of his dad getting smashed around on the ice: Dad is Craig Marko, the “goon” for a minor-league team called the Oregon Otters. Watching the film, our heroes sum up his style as that of “a punching bag who punches back.” He only has to get through a couple more games to make it to retirement, and the team doctors say he’s fit as a fiddle. But Junior has noticed that he seems to have forgotten that Mom’s been dead for two years, which makes him wonder. Junior wants Dad to quit playing, or at least take it easy, but Dad won’t hear of it. “I want you to save my dad,” he says, “from himself.”
It’s different, but it’s also a tad too existential for the format of this show, so the team has to confirm that there’s another person involved they can save Dad from and grind into the dust beneath Timothy Hutton’s shoes. They find him in Treat Williams, the owner of the Otters and a hockey journeyman grown cynical and callous from years of frustration and failure. Williams isn’t just indifferent to the health of his players, whose medical records he is indeed falsifying. He’s a monster who’s cheapened the game itself by encouraging violent brawls and, in a line that will remind you of every joke about hockey that everyone had heard, creating “a culture where hockey is just something in between fights.” Since Nate has just developed a passionate but abstract commitment to the aesthetic purity and inherent nobility of the sport played as it ought to be played, this makes his blood boil. It’s going to be a pleasure to take this mug down.
Nate goes right to work reeling Treat Williams in. He suckers him into believing that he has a chance to become a piece of something called “the World Hockey League,” represented by Sophie (speaking in a Russian accent and communing meaningfully with a turtle in a glass globe) and a colleague of hers named Vlad, played by the German-born actor Thure Riefenstein. Riefenstein, whose character is meant to have some spicy history with Sophie but who’s too laid-back to either resent or endanger her relationship with Nate, is tremendously likeable; in fact, he’s so charming, and his Eurotrash charisma suggests so many possibilities in the context of this show, that I’d really love to see him brought back, maybe for an episode in which he had something more to do than criticize Nate’s Russian accent and get Parker a donut.
It’s too bad he couldn’t have gotten some of the screen time that is instead devoted to establishing what a rotten son of a bitch Treat Williams is. Looking at the real X-rays of MRI scans of Dad that Williams has suppressed, Sophie gasps, “The next blow to the head that Craig Marko takes…” The fact that she finishes her dramatic pause and goes to the trouble of adding, “Could be his last,” shows a dogged commitment to carrying through with the inevitable. Worse, Williams has been paying Marko bonuses to start fights to pump up audience interest, and worse even than that, has put out a bounty on him with other players, in the hopes that he’ll get his clock cleaned and never get to collect those bonuses. All this pretty thoroughly makes the case that the team owner needs to go down, though in truth, they had me at “Treat Williams.”
The pace tonight is just about perfect for this show. It feels as if there’s always something happening, with a deadline looming on the horizon, but there are still two separate moments of a couple of people (who, in both cases, happen to be lovers) idly hanging out, with one of them seemingly having dozed off: This is not high-tension suspense. (There are several wonderful throwaway bits involving Parker and Hardison, but the prizes for best absurdist question and best comeback go to Sophie and Nate, in an exchange about having a staring contest with that turtle.) There’s also a nifty plot complication that derives from the team’s having done their job too well, and one of Eliot’s best roles ever, as a hockey enforcer—Jacques LeBert (“It’s actually pronounced ‘Jack.’”) from the Northern Caribou League—who Nate manages to insert into the team to protect Dad, albeit over Dad’s nearly dead body. The show finally has trouble contriving an effective action climax around the idea of making sure that somebody doesn’t get hit; at least, I didn’t really get the lump in the throat I think I was supposed to get from seeing a man surrounded on the ice by other men just standing around in hockey gear, trying not to meet his eyes as he yells “Fight me!” It’s a little awkward and it drags this episode’s grade down a partial notch. Happily, there’s no such thing as a bad excuse to punch Treat Williams.
- Hardison, staring at Sophie after they’ve both spent a few seconds waiting for the other to do something about a locked door they need to enter: “Well, I ain’t the thief or the grifter.”