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.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism