The climax of “Infamy” had me ruminating on Daniel Walters’s recent piece about the inherent tension in Revenge’s M.O.: How nasty can Emily Thorne get in her vendettas while still retaining the viewer’s sympathy? This week’s revenging-bag—sleazy muckraker-cum-muckproliferator Mason Treadwell—certainly earns plenty of enmity. Not only did he spin the Graysons’ version of the Daniel Clarke scandal into a pseudo-scientific bestseller, he warped Young Amanda Clarke’s brain into believing her father was guilty after all.
And yet, I couldn’t suppress a twinge of pity as that slimy little twerp watched his house burning to the ground. Destroying the only extant copy of his memoir manuscript was Emily’s objective, a form of retribution both poetic and proportionate. Destroying a man’s home, on the other hand, somehow rises to a level above sangfroid, above even malice, to something approaching sadism.
You can make the argument that Emily’s victims were all, to varying degrees, responsible for the ruin of a man’s life and the near-ruin of 17 years of hers—and that, according to Hammurabi-style justice, they deserve similar annihilation.* In some cases, I’d agree, particularly for anyone who remains a remorseless asshole like ol’ Conrad.
But in other cases, these villains’ greatest sin is weakness—a failure to resist the tempting or terrifying coercion of the Graysons nearly two decades ago, and, as in “Infamy,” a fear that recanting now would accomplish nothing but their own doom. Treadwell is threatened by Emily-via-Amanda** to come clean, but that’s nothing compared to the fear of God Victoria instills in the man. He’s got plenty of reason to believe that if he crosses her she’ll not only bury him, she’ll also find a way to discredit his confession and negate any chance of righting the wrong. It would be all too easy for even a decent person burdened by a horrible mistake to rationalize away noble impulses under such circumstances—and so much the easier for a spineless dweeb like Treadwell.
**There’s an ontological paper to be written on the notion of Old-Amanda-Now-Emily using Old-Emily-Now-Amanda as a cipher that way, but I’m not the guy to write it.
So his attempts to avoid ruination instead bring it about, in proper Sophoclean tradition. Still, the way the scene lingers so long on Treadwell’s collapsed misery (while Nolan smirks approvingly in the background) leads me to wonder: Does Revenge simply want to give us the soapy pleasure of a bad guy’s downfall, or is it asking us to revel in the cruelty a bit too deeply, and thereby to question just why we want to see it? Is this the story of Emily Thorne's systematic triumph, or of her systematic corrosion of her own soul?
In its first couple of seasons, when it was a much better show, Dexter also evoked these quandaries. Making the audience identify with—and even root for—the heinous actions of its protagonist forces us to realize how easily our darkest impulses can bubble up to the surface, and how those impulses become more dangerous when they're wrapped in a nobler guise like justice.
Of course, Dexter couldn’t sustain that thematic depth, assuming it ever really existed in the first place. So what do you think—am I reading more into a tawdry prime-time soap than I ought to, or is Revenge doing more than we give it credit for?