Speaking as someone who has known the pain of a lonely Christmas night at home with nothing to watch but the country music video countdown on CMT, I salute Leverage for coming out with a new episode tonight. I suppose an argument can be made that there was some seasonal cunning in their decision to run an episode that started out promising and then nosedived; just as certain dance records that were successful in the mid-to-late 1970s were consciously shaped to work well for people hitting the floor while in the throes of a coke buzz, this episode might have seemed all right to anyone who watched it while crashing from heavy intake of tryptophan. There was nothing else remotely Christmassy about it, especially compared to last year's "The Ho Ho Ho Job", in which Eliot was obliged to kick several people's asses while wearing a Santa Claus costume, to help remind Dave Foley what the holiday is all about. (I wasn't crazy about that episode either, mainly because redemption narratives aren't really what I want from Dave Foley.)
There was a classic Leverage-type opening: late night in the bar, which is empty except for Nate, who appears to be doing the accounts, and Eliot, who is just hanging out, reading a book. Then some sinister-looking guys stroll through the door, somebody says, "Nate Ford?", and then it turns out that, of course, Eliot wasn't so much reading the book as keeping it handy in case he needed an object with sharp edges to use as a projectile. After the dust settles, Nate is listening to David Ogden Stiers, playing a corporate gazillionaire named—get this—"Walt Whitman Wellesley IV"—plead with him to take his case. "I have people who have nowhere else to go," Nate sneers, "and I help them against people like you." Stiers bursts into tears, Eliot uncomfortably sidles out of the room, leaving Nate alone with him, and we're off to the races.
It turns out that Stiers is upset because he found true love with a much younger woman named Lacey, who he met at one of those "date auction" events that are so demeaning to unmarried gazillionaires, and she's gone missing. It also turns out that Stiers—who is, Hardison explains, from old money, "like, his ancestors invested in IBM coming over here on the Mayflower"—has, under the influence of his bride, become a nice corporate gazillionaire, throwing money at good causes like a drunken philanthropist sailor. He had been unable to get the police interested in his plight because they naturally assumed that he had been taken for a ride by a young woman who'd seduced and married him for his money and then disappeared when, for some reason, she thought that her ride on the gravy train was about to turn shaky. Nate and every member of his team are content to make the same assumption, except for Sophie, who maintains a stubborn belief in unpredictable, unquantifiable, true love. But once you've had Charles Walt Emerson Whitman Winchester Wellesley the third-going-on-fourth sobbing in your bar after hours, it's a natural impulse to want to help him achieve closure.
So the team hits the next big tycoon-date-auction in the area, with Eliot posing as a dashing Texas oil magnate—he didn't get to say a word after his cover identity was introduced, which means that either the producers have no interest in finding out whether Christian Kane can do a Texas accent, or else they have heard him attempt one and have decided that the viewing audience need not follow him there—and Hardison as a moneyed smirk. While the two of them were quickly scooped up high-bidding women in the audience, Nate, who had donned the hat that Mario Bello won't be needing anymore for Prime Suspect, had become targeted by a mysterious photographer. (The costume crew for Leverage continues to have the strangest notions about how rich people dress for public occasions. One hard-to-ignore guy in the background was sporting a straw boater, as if he were about to pull out a cane and use it usher people into the freak show tent.)
The photographer was played by Emma Caulfield, to my mind the single most underrated performer to have ever been honored with a recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This was the point at which my high expectations peaked. Caulfield looked as if she came to play; she was sexy and commanding and a little scary, all good qualities if you're playing the leader of a team of grifters who meet, snag, marry, and bleed dry as many rich saps as possible, and who is herself not above murdering the discarded cartridges when she's done with them. She stared into Nate's eyes for a while, while Eliot and Hardison were also having their eyes stared into by their new friends, and then Sophie, sounding a lot like Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was declaring, "The staring—this technique, it's called "soul-gazing.' Just two minutes of it can create real feelings of love." Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything about this at Wikipedia, so I'll have to try something else the next time I need a bank loan or want to get out of jury duty.
Like an egg falling to the floor, the episode duly blew apart after that. It was all just so lazy as to be insulting. Caulfield sussed Nate out as a fellow practitioner of the griftonic arts. he suggested that the two of them team up, and she suggested that he show her what kind of stuff he was packing by seducing this new rich mark she'd just met, i.e., Sophie. This led to some pretend wooing between Sophie and Nate that shaded into them talking sincerely about their feelings for each other, and the next thing you knew, Nate was walking into a death trap that was, of course, actually a set-up for him the ensnare the villains. It was like a not-very-special episode of First Draft Playhouse, and because the writers didn't feel like coming up with any but the most obvious and elementary reveals and power plays, they had no choice but to pull the rug out from under Emma Caulfield by making her ruthless-mastermind character grow dumber and dumber with each passing scene. Two things can be said in the defense of the second half. First, it turned out that the woman whose runaway-bride act had gotten the whole thing started had fled the scene because she really had fallen in love with her rich husband, and they were reunited at the end of the show. Like everything else that happened shortly before the halfway mark, this was completely predictable, and you could see it coming from a mile away, but I'd rather be denied a surprise than have to watch David Ogden Stiers cry twice in the same hour. Also, when it was time for Nate to turn smooth operator and pretend-but-also-kinda-for-real-seduce Sophie, he did lose the stupid-looking hat. Sadly, when he was at home, he also donned a pair of socks that must have been a gift from the Great Pumpkin.
- I love it when Christian Kane gets to deliver nifties that turn on Eliot's tendency to grab the wrong part of a conversation to take offense at; it's turning into my favorite standby regular-character-trait recurring joke on the show, maybe because they don't overuse. Tonight, Sophie accuses him of not even bothering to learn the names of the women he flirts with—"They're just 'waitress', 'nurse', 'stewardess'"—and Eliot, deeply offended, replies, "First of all, it's 'flight attendant'."
- On the other hand, when Beth Riesgraf gets to wrap her face around Parker's emotions in a scene like the date auction, whether she's bidding for Hardison or pouting because she's been told not to pick everybody's pockets dry, any decent dialogue that she gets to deliver is strictly gravy. So is the moment when, ordered to "Pick a fight with Hardison's date!" in order to create a quick distraction, she simply walks over to the woman and, without a word, punches her in the face.
- Leon Rippy is finally back as the mystery man who's been making money off Nate's cons by betting against his prospective victims in the market, and who is clearly up to something shady and nefarious, is finally back, for his usual, fraught-with-ominousness five minutes at the end. After an unproductive cell phone conversation with Nate, he dials somebody else, describes how things stand, and then says, "If you do that, it's war!" I guess I'm supposed to be on the edge of my seat about this, but if the show really wants to get me excited, they ought to tease me with the possibility that we haven't seen the last of Emma Caulfield.