Not just a pretty face: Revenge is pure, unadulterated telly gold

There is nothing better than a show about a beautiful woman on a single-minded killing spree to warm up a cold Monday night.

Most Mondays at about 8:57pm, I rest a cup of dark Yorkshire tea on top of whatever book is sitting on the rickety wooden stand by the sole armchair in my flat. I get my phone and I tweet the following: “When I was a child, my father was framed for a crime he didn't commit...” *knocks back thimble of Chambord Black Raspberry Liqueur* #Revenge”. The quote is not a dark and terrible window into my troubled past or vengeance-tinged future (this tale belongs to Emily Thorne aka Amanda Clarke). It is fictional. The beverage I mention in the "action asterisks" is not a random choice either, it is a sponsor – incidentally, I’d never heard of the brand even a year ago, but it’s apparently been around since the 17th century, so well done on getting into the general public’s line of vision. It is now irrevocably linked with a campy, soapy drama that I simply cannot afford to miss. Bravo, Chambord dudes!

All this to say: I really love Revenge.

Do you know what I’m talking about here? Revenge is the story of a beautiful young Emily Thorne, who comes back to the community she was forced out of after her father was framed for a terrible crime. Her targets are the wealthy inhabitants of a Hamptons town, all gathered around the nucleus of evil that is the Graysons, which is more or less run by evil-matriarch-in-a-bangade-dress Victoria. Emily returns with a waterfall of honey blonde hair, a fabulous fortune (natch), and the steely gaze (more on this later) of a woman with a plan. Her plan, meticulously plotted over the years is to take each player out one by one, crossing them off her list in the style of The Bride in Kill Bill. So far, so unoriginal. Yes, it’s basically a "re-imagining" (ah, Hollywoodese!) of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Throw in some adultery and secret cameras, shadowy allies and false identities, tailored clothing as worn by absurdly photogenic people in pretty locations, and you have televisual gold. It is camp, it looks gorgeous and as well as providing work for Amber Valletta and Madeleine Stowe, it has thrown up the striking image of James Purefoy without a shirt on. In other words, this is perfect viewing for cold Monday nights.

We are exhorted by (one of) The Good Books to basically “allow it, yeah?” when it comes to retribution. I mean, I paraphrase slightly; Romans 12:19 has it as “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”, which is reassuringly straightforward in its simplicity. Even so, there is something everlastingly interesting and attractive to human beings about vengeance. Why leave it to the lord? He has a full plate. “This is not a story about forgiveness,” Emily’s voiceover intones darkly, directly ignoring her father’s wish that she build a good, revenge-free life away from the Hamptons (we have a handy stash of his diaries from which Emily gives us insights from time to time). It’s a struggle we all face from the time we are children: “do I push that little boy over for spilling my juice? Or shall I just walk away?” From the number of one-on-one parent-teacher conferences held in schools each year, it is safe to assume a good chunk of us go for the satisfaction of swift and terrible retribution. We love a bit of revenge. And while evidence suggests that only precious few other species exact revenge, we know for sure that no one looks as fabulous in a sheath dress while doing so. Not even chimps.

When I was a child, the way to signify that someone had something coming was to snap your fingers in their direction. If at all possible, this was to be followed by the long hiss of kissing teeth or a short, sharp nod. And here we come back to the steely gazes I mentioned up top. The biggest joy of Revenge is in the long, promise-laden looks the characters give another at every opportunity. Again, this is not new – every fan of the classic Dallas and Dynasty via The Bold and the Beautiful is aware of this trope. Revenge employs a number of the soap classics, from something that only ever happens onscreen, the "frenemy hug" i.e. the one where you start the embrace smiling, before slowly turning it into a narrow-eyed look of malice once out of view of your fellow hugger, to the hard, unblinking stare of dark scheming. It’s something E4 picked up on and used in a genuinely fun trail mid-season two: “Okay, you win. With the steely eyes,” drawls Nolan as Emily pins him with a look.

Revenge is far from perfect, and it has enough recycled ideas to fell a rhino – see its overpopulated (and spoiler-laden) page on TV Tropes for elucidation. In some ways, it is terribly traditional, both in terms of what it expects of its audience, and the way in which its main characters act: in these times of outsourcing, there is simply no need for Emily to get her hands this dirty. But it also has broad strokes of modernity: Emily is not just a pretty face. She shows up for every fight and kicks and punches her way out, all the while emitting guttural grunts of exertion. She’s a tough, savvy woman with moxie, old-fashioned gumption, even. And while there are shadowy men in the background of her power, she seems to be pulling as many strings of her own as she can, all the while yanking the chains of the Graysons.

I am in love with this show. It taxes precisely zero of my brain cells and gives me a more than proportional return of pleasure. Not many things can claim this dubious honour. Long live Revenge.

 

VanCamp's revenge-fuelled portrayal of Emily Thorne is fantastic.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit