Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Revenge's Emily Thorne: A Shadow Nancy Drew?

     Imagine Nancy Drew's father, Carson, going up against the corrupt, nouveau-riche Tophams from Nancy's very first case, The Secret of the Old Clock--and losing. Imagine Carson framed for the Topham's fraud, ending up in prison, and dying behind bars as a result of a murder the Tophams have orchestrated to silence him forever. Imagine Nancy Drew in foster care and then juvenile prison. In this alternative scenario, instead of launching her on a successful run of solving mysteries that right injustices and help the downtrodden, Nancy's very first case leads to disaster.

In this new universe, by the time young adult Nancy learns of her father's innocence and inherits the fortune he has safeguarded for her, she's changed. A desire for justice has warped into a desire for revenge.

Say hello to Emily Thorne, the shadow Nancy Drew.

Emily Thorne

In Revenge, Emily's father has been framed as a terrorist who blew up a plane. The adult Emily, with a fortune and computer hacker friend behind her, plans to destroy the people who destroyed her father.

I didn't recognize the parallels with Nancy Drew right away. I knew Emily reminded me of someone, but the association lurked, fittingly, as a shadow that kept flitting out of view. It wasn't until I watched a Revenge episode with a masquerade ball and another  in which Emily saves a friend from a sinking boat that the similarity clicked into place. These are exactly the kind of situations in which Nancy finds herself.  Emily is Nancy, updated for a grimmer time.

Like Nancy Drew, Emily is a WASP. She has long golden blond hair, unlimited supplies of money, is slim, athletic, independent, and wears any number of pretty frocks that she doesn't really care about. She's multi-talented, highly intelligent and never loses her poise. As an added bonus, she has learned the arts of fighting and revenge from a mysterious Asian master. Although it's never spoken, she's old money against the declasse Graysons, the enemies who destroyed her father. They live in a monstrosity: an oversized fortress of a stone beach home decorated like a generic hotel chain; in contrast, Emily's beach house, which once was her family home, is a tasteful frame cottage--large, but never crass, windswept, cozy, understated, with sea foam colored walls and cosy wooden outdoor rockers on a big wraparound porch.

Emily succeeds at all she tries with near effortless aplomb and stays one step ahead of her enemies. Despite her passion to take people down, we know she's kind-hearted, caring and generous at core. She attracts loyal friends, who will do anything to help her. Men fall in love with her. Bad women see her as a dangerous rival; good women, like her friend from juvenile detention, want to be with her.

As we move back towards a 1930s world of great disparities between rich and poor, it's no wonder we recreate Nancy Drew. And at time when most people know the very wealthy have often amassed their fortunes at the expense of the hopes and dreams of the little people, as the Tophams attempt to do at the expense of impoverished widows and orphans, we look for the avenger--the Nancy Drew--capable of taking them on.

Yet today, our patrician angel is dark. This is nostalgia gone bad. If Nancy Drew met deviousness and deception with straightforward ingenuity and courage rather than moral compromise, our new heroine fights fire with fire, adopting the tactics of the enemy. On the outside she looks and acts like Nancy Drew. On the inside, she's follows the game plan of the morally bankrupt and ruthless Graysons.

I think this doubleness says something about the world we live in. No longer does it seem as if we can win following the straight ethical path. In The Sopranos, Carmela, wife of the Mafia boss, finally decides that what the Mafia does, while deplorable, is no different, morally, from the ways and means of the "legitimate" rich--it's all a rip off of the weaker. In Breaking Bad, high school teacher Walter White leaves the straight and narrow after a cancer diagnosis--and an inability to afford "good" treatments--convince him that only an illegal meth business, predicated on murder and exploitation, will get him ahead. Emily views the world through a hard Machiavellian lens of treachery that justifies lies, deception and cheating.

All three shows problematize their characters' actions. Emily's friends have increasingly challenged her quest for revenge and what it is doing to her, as well as the damage--and even death--it has caused innocent people. But none of these series offer an alternative to behavior that we might label evil--behavior that causes death and the destruction of lives. None of them challenges the basic premises under which our society operates. I also think it's not by accident that the more recent series, clearly aimed at white audiences, have chosen WASPs as their problematized protagonists: Walter White, blond haired Nancy Drew clone Emily Thorne.

Everyman gone bad: Walter White

If our arts--literature, movies, drama, painting--show us the part of ourselves as a society that we don't want to see, we might say that these series show us in dire straits: we've lost our moorings. Is it a measure of how powerless we feel that we can only imagine amassing power through cruelty, subterfuge and violence?

One could argue that in all these series, hardness, with its focus on the quick fix and ego aggrandizement, has become the substitute for strength. But more on that next time.

I am interested in what others might think.

1 comment:

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