Some Thoughts on ABC’s Revenge
Well, it’s been a while.
I may have been rather a delinquent in terms of writing posts on this blog, but fear not, I’ve been consuming copious amounts of media, and do have a rather lengthy list of blog posts that are just waiting a finishing touch before they’ll see the light of day.
My latest show – one of those passing obsessions that’ll flit away as soon as I’ve finished all three seasons, no doubt – is Revenge, about which I want to write a few words today.
Revenge is, quite simply, a genderbent modernization of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Count of Monte Cristo, in case my kind readers require a quick refresher, is pretty much the story of revenge in the Western canon. It’s the tale of Edmond Dantes, who is falsely imprisoned for treason because his “friends” covet his beloved, Mercedes, and/or want to make a name for themselves by betraying him and thus rising through the ranks. Eventually, Dantes escapes, undergoes a transformation into the wealthy and erudite Count of Monte Cristo under the tutelage of a man named Abbe Faria, and returns to wreak revenge on those who wronged him – in dastardly, manipulative ways.
In this modernization, the role of the Count of Monte Cristo is taken on by Emily Thorne, a woman whose family was framed for murder when she was young, and who’s come back to orchestrate her revenge. Though the adaptation is quite loose, there’s some parallels and allusions that are hard to miss. Aside from the very obvious and prominently placed copy of The Count of Monte Cristo on a bookshelf in a scene, there’s Emily Thorne herself – originally Amanda Clarke, she’s changed her name and identity and acquired the wealth and knowledge necessary to orchestrate her enemies’ downfall. She has a mentor named Takeda – her modern day Abbe Faria, and even a beloved she left behind named Jack Porter.
The show itself, as might be evident from its title, Revenge, skips over the beginning and ending of The Count of Monte Cristo (the conspiracy against Emily’s family is told in flashbacks, and the “meaning of life” stuff that makes Dumas’ novel so excellent is passed over as well). Instead, it draws on the meaty middle portion of the novel: the manipulations, skullduggery, backstabbing, and intricate plotting that form the revenge plot itself.
In short, Revenge is, like a large portion of The Count of Monte Cristo, a soap opera, full of plot twists, complicated relationships, and cliffhangers. In fact, what’s interesting is the way that this show modernizes The Count of Monte Cristo’s story of revenge; after all, bringing down a rich CEO or destroying a politician’s career are much more relatable to the modern viewer than revealing a character’s treasonous ties to Napoleon Bonaparte or his role in the French sacking of a Middle Eastern city. I’m a big believer in timeless stories – but I do also believe that sometimes a modernized adaptation can speak loads about the original and put it into perspective – and this is one case where modernizing the story just makes it more interesting.
What I find even more interesting about this show, though, is the “genderbent” part of it. Genderbent is a fandom term that refers to switching the gender of a character on a television show – usually by making certain characters from a largely male cast female. In this case, it is The Count of Monte Cristo himself, the protagonist who’s returned for revenge, who’s transformed into a woman – Emily Thorne.
I actually think this is huge, for the one reason that Emily Thorne isn’t really a hero. She’s an antihero. She’s a character who’s constantly struggling between her dark side (her desire for revenge, her hate and her ruthlessness) and her good side (her conscience, her love for her childhood sweetheart, her friendship with partner Nolan Ross, and the temptation to let go of her revenge and just live happily ever after with someone she loves).
In short, she’s a pretty morally grey character – framing someone for murder one episode and wholeheartedly comforting someone she cares about over the death of their dog the next.
This is huge because women in the media tend to get relegated into one of two camps: the prize/sexy lamp/plot device for the male character, or the villain. They get to be either the innocent victim, or, if they show manipulation, independence, ambition, and (god forbid) sexuality, the irredeemable villain. Male villains get moral grey area and compassion (for an excellent example, see Loki from the Marvel Universe. He’s literally a mass murderer and all the fandom can talk about is how his feelings got hurt. Or look at Crowley from Supernatural. He’s another mass murderer, so why are our protagonists still hanging out with him?) Female villains? Well, those tend to get unceremoniously killed because they can’t have redeeming features. It’s a double standard shared by Hollywood and fandom itself.
And here we have Emily Thorne. She’s hell-bent on revenge. She’s ruthless. She’s manipulative. She’s deadly. She has ruined people’s lives and orchestrated their downfalls. She’s struggling between her quest for revenge and her humanity.
And she’s the main character. We’re supposed to cheer for her.
You know who usually gets to be the antihero who struggles with their good and evil sides, the morally grey character we’re supposed to have compassion for?
Damon Salvatore. Severus Snape. Lucifer. Han Solo. From a certain point of view, Sam and Dean Winchester.They get to be dark, brooding, sexy, and male.
You know who doesn’t get to be the antihero, struggling between their good intentions and their evil actions, who gets to be pinned down into an irredeemably evil role?
Female characters. Like pretty much every single woman on Supernatural.
And here you have a female antihero. A brilliant, manipulative, ruthless woman who is also the protagonist.
In fact, this show seems to turn the Count of Monte Cristo – and its whole gender paradigm – on its head. It’s the revenge-bent protagonist who’s female, while the beloved that this protagonist leaves behind, the beloved that represents love and humanity and conscience? His name is Jack Porter, and he’s a guy, and he really, really doesn’t get to do much except be a foil for Emily.
And it is so, so refreshing to see a female character who has so much evil to her, who has so many crises of conscience and struggles over her humanity – and who’s the female character that we cheer for. It’s so refreshing to get a female character that gets to escape the usual gender paradigm of the media, where women are either victims or irredeemable villains.
So far, I’ve only seen one season of Revenge – but I get the sense that much isn’t going to change. After all, so far Emily Thorne has demonstrated an ability to beat up people twice her size, orchestrate the arrest of an innocent man, trick a businessman into going bankrupt, broken into a countless number of houses and buildings, blackmailed a number of characters, and not gotten caught one single time. Sometimes it’s so refreshing to have a female character who’s actually, like, competent.