Carmen Gimenez Smith
An ABC drama about a woman avenging her father’s death in the Hamptons.
People most often try to conceal their resistance by turning it into acts of revenge.
Emily Thorne seeks revenge against Conrad Grayson, the billionaire who framed her father as a terrorist. Her father, David Clarke, is alleged to have brought down a plane of Americans through some malfeasance that I tune out because it’s not necessary to my experience of the show. Emily is an alias, transparent as Clark Kent eyeglasses. Her real name is Amanda Clarke, and she buys her identity from an Emily Thorne she meets in a juvenile prison facility. They trade identities so that Fake Emily Thorne/Real Amanda Clarke can focus on avenging her father without getting recognized. A lot of money is exchanged. Layers of complicity and self.
I cheer for Emily/Real Amanda because I too rage against the obscenely wealthy who use money to oppress and destroy. Everyone’s got a past self to avenge, although we don’t all get to give our new selves a new name.
The opening credits remind of a daytime drama set in Los Angeles—tacky and one-dimensional— which reminds me I should watch with my Harlequin novel glasses.
I worry that she isn’t getting enough rest. I’ve never seen her sleep or complain about being tired, which becomes a source of insecurity because I feel tired all the time, and I don’t have the sheer volume of stress associated with a Sissyphian revenge revolution.
Revenge is OccupyTheOnePercentOnTV. Emily/Real Amanda is democracy and she wants to avenge the damage inflicted by the 1%. Or she’s the American Dream, and the Graysons are late capitalism. I can’t watch this story without resorting to allegory.
The show introduces occasional flashbacks back to the 90s and the plot-web behind Emily/Real Amanda’s revenge. The cameras oversaturate and haze the Graysons’ face to suggest youth.1 The flashbacks introduce David Clarke and Young Real Amanda Clarke who bears little to no resemblance to adult Emily/Real Amanda, which is the give and take between television and watcher.
When Stanley Kubrick was casting The Shining, he tried to find a boy that might look like Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson’s offspring. He tried to match the child’s accent to all of the regions where the fictional boy lived. Those authenticities are irrelevant in television, which instead aims for brute and monolithic emotion. We relent so much reality and truth for the salve of television. Such delicious and ham-fisted improbability.
Victoria and David. Victoria and Conrad. Victoria and the painter. The show reifies the oligarchy’s surety, and there I go again, turning television into a political microcosm, so that I can feel I’ve done something heady.
The flashbacks provide us a revenge context and add depth to her single-minded sharkiness. It also adds more plot tangles to sustain the show’s need to survive for profitable future seasons. Plot lines are tossed out and sometimes dropped or condensed, as the plot is endlessly self-perpetuating, an earthworm cut in half, then half again. Anticipatory construction is the heart.
Madeleine Stowe plays Victoria, the matriarch of the Grayson family. In David Lynch’s hands, she’d be sleeping with her son, Daniel who is a dumb rich bro. He’s engaged to Emily/Real Amanda in the first season2, but she’s still in love with the townie she knew when she was Young Real Amanda Clarke. I rooted for Daniel because he seemed like a nice foil to Emily/Real Amanda Clarke’s one- note darkness, a yang to her yin, but she dumped him after kissing the townie who’s a minor character because he’s poor.3
The show has a daughter/sister/complication too. Her name is Charlotte and she’s sadly fragile, and she gets addicted to painkillers really quickly. Sometimes I wish that she would just suddenly assume control of the show, a POV handoff like in Slacker.
The townie’s name is Jack and he ends up with Real Emily/Fake Amanda because they’re both working class. In a telenovela, they’d call that keeping the bed warm for Fake Emily/Real Amanda.4 In the second season Daniel ends up with social-climbing Ashley who throws parties, plans PR for the Graysons, and spies on him for Conrad. She has no past or present in the show.
Jack and Daniel are both still in love with Emily/Real Amanda despite the fact that she’s not very warm. They love different versions of her, neither of which is real.
Revenge employs various telegenic sociopathic archetypes. Emily is the sympathetic sociopath vis-à-vis the damage she incurred by being deprived of her father. Real Emily Thorne/Fake Amanda Clarke is the damaged stripper sociopath just trying to survive. The billionaire, Conrad Grayson, is a Machiavellian sociopath, the most vaunted hero of any capitalist dictatorship. Ashley is the All About Eve sociopath clawing her way to the top. They’re kids gone wild with their funny money.
The excess of Emily/Real Amanda Clarke’s cruelty feels liberating. To avenge with such a careless disregard for expense is my vicarious dream. My revenges are often hobbled by self-loathing and doubt, but not only is she sadistic, she’s thorough.
A canon of revenge in film: I Spit on Your Grave, Heathers, Carrie, Straw Dogs, Death and The Maiden, The Virgin Spring, Hard Candy. We watch because we want to have the last word, to stab our detractors in the neck, to ruin their proms, to slowly lower them into bathtubs filled with acid.
She doesn’t avenge alone. She has a staff. Nolan Ross provides her with billions of dollars she inherited from her father’s investment in Nolcorp, a corporation that produces software we know nothing about. She gets trained in an unidentifiable Eastern locale by Satoshi Takeda, whose provenance and background are that he’s rich and brilliant, like the Shogun businessmen my dad read about when I was a kid in the 80s. She is also assisted by Real Emily Thorne/Fake Amanda Clarke who reminds me of that part of me that gets really cloying around beautiful and dynamic women.
I want a devoted bisexual billionaire hacker like Nolan Ross at my disposal, that platonic codependency. She’s not nice to him, but he likes the game. I wish he had more friends. I recognize that he’s fictional, like the light in the refrigerator when the door is closed, but television makes me hyper-empathic. Maybe not life, but definitely the marginalization of Nolan Ross, playboy genius.
Revenge infrastructure. Systems of revenge. All the levels of collusion working in gorgeous unison. I had not planned on spending this much of myself to what happened on the television, but it soothes me.
Each episode is named for some fraught state of being like Duplicity and Penance and Resurrection. She ticks off the sins and the sinners and experiences catharsis. After each episode, my hunger for her revenge is left wanting, which is why I watch again and again. I participate in her revenge plots and imagine how she could heighten them and make them more obscene.
One could never, in the ordinary sense of the words, found a politics or law on forgiveness. Forgiveness died when her daddy died. She was like the rest of us before then.
There might be a place for kindness and fairness, says Emily/Real Amanda Clarke, but this is definitely not one of them.
I don’t want her revenge. I want her agency and her indifference. Emily/Real Amanda Clarke does not exist in the world, but the hunger she represents does. When I watch, my own small indignities disappear in the vacuum of her unquenchable quest for destruction. The show is a specific respite for that part of me that wants vindication and the resources to achieve it. Revengers are often embittered over unrewarded merit. How paltry our lives and our days are outside of the sweet of television’s succor.
My great worry is that she will not know who she is after her revenge is complete, that she will lose herself in the elaborate machinations. And what will she do with all of her revenge skills such as breaking and entering, hiding bodies, surveillance, Houdini-like escape skills, acrobatics, and that Mata Hariesque sexuality? How will she be tender in the world if she’s brittle and broken by revenge? There is no terminus for Emily/Real Amanda Clarke, because the revenge will have to be transformed into something else.
My favorite shows are called Revenge, Scandal, Disappeared, and Parenthood. The titles describe my condition: Small, Lustful, and Angry Loneliness-Mom.
Sometimes I can’t watch Revenge in its entirety because it hurts me to see people hurt. Even cognizant of the fiction, I flinch at the elaborate and destructive plots, and postpone watching until the dark place in me awakens and requires its balm.
Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
1 Victoria Grayson is played by Madeleine Stowe, who was in movies like 12 Monkeys and China Moon. The show asks us to remember her earlier faces, the Madeleine Stowe of the past playing a past version of Victoria Grayson.
2 Emily VanCamp dates the guy who plays Daniel (Joshua Bowman) in real life. In real life, they love each other, which I try to see in the scenes when they’re together. I’ve heard of people seeing real chemistry between two actors, but I don’t usually catch it. The exceptions are Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern in Wild at Heart and Brangelina on Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
3 First love.
4 There are a lot of other characters, but they’re not part of the show as much as respite from it. They assume the stage so that the main players can change their costumes.
Revengers are...merit-Linda Woodbridge
One could never...forgiveness-Jacques Derrida
People most...revenge-Tomas Bohm
There might be...one of them-Revenge Season 1/Episode 21
Before you...dig two graves-attributed to Confucius
Carmen Gimenez Smith is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, four poetry collections— Gender Fables, Goodbye, Flicker, The City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. She is the recipient of a 2011 American Book Award, the 2011 Juniper Prize for Poetry, and a 2011-2012 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Howard Foundation. Formerly a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she now teaches in the creative writing programs at New Mexico State University, while serving as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol and the publisher of Noemi Press.