Beth Riesgraf and Gina Bellman in "Leverage: Redemption".

How “Leverage: Redemption” Dismantles the Original’s Leadership Mythology

“Leverage: Redemption” is a continuation of a 2008 series that followed a group of Robin Hood-esque criminals. Sick of causing harm, they band together in order to return what’s been stolen to the disempowered.

Both “Leverage: Redemption” and the original “Leverage” tell breezy heist stories that highlight real-world abuses and corruption. While they don’t go too in-depth into the mechanics of that corruption, they do often give a brief crash course on its impact. Usually this is done through a prior victim of that corruption seeking the Leverage team out.

If you’ve seen either iteration of “Leverage”, none of this is news. “Leverage: Redemption” picks up years after the original show with its cast mostly intact. Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, and Beth Riesgraf (having the time of her life) all return. So does Aldis Hodge as hacker Hardison, though he gives way to Aleyse Shannon playing his replacement Breanna. (Hodge’s film career has been taking off, most recently playing Jim Brown in “One Night in Miami”.) Noah Wyle joins as a new criminal-in-training, a lawyer who’s spent his lift protecting abusive corporations and people.

Not returning is Timothy Hutton, who played the former mastermind of the group – Hutton was accused in 2020 of raping a 14-year old in 1983. Hutton was 22 at the time. While the British Columbia Crown Counsel decided not to press charges last month, the initial report from BuzzFeed News included the statements of a woman who was with the victim that evening, and five people who confirmed the victim told them about the assault at that time. While there is no statute of limitations for this crime in Canada, the age of consent there at the time was 14. This means that statutory rape can’t legally apply. Instead, the case becomes about whether consent was given.

For one of the few series this deeply concerned with ethics and the abuses of power, Hutton had to be cast off. Frustratingly, Hutton’s last major project before this was reported was Julie Taymor’s biopic of journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, “The Glorias”. His first major project afterward is ABC’s “Women of the Movement” centered on the activism of Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till. If only cancel culture really possessed the repercussions conservatives like to complain about.

“Leverage: Redemption” simply starts by acknowledging Hutton’s character Nathan Ford is no more. Since we last saw him, he died. Oh darn. His widow is Gina Bellman’s grifter Sophie. To shake her out of her funk, she’s offered the run of the Leverage team. Run a few cons, bring a few people to justice. What’s beautiful about “Leverage: Redemption” is that this is a world where it really is that simple, that straightforward. What’s apparent is that even in the “Leverage” world where it is that simple, it’s still getting worse and worse. Justice falls further and further behind.

“Leverage: Redemption” can’t cast off only Hutton’s Ford. It also has to cast off what Ford represented. The character was a genius, manipulating not just the corrupt people who were the team’s marks, but the members of his own team as well. He was often abusive, but this was excused because of his genius. The team wanted to impress him because they wanted his approval. That was a core part of the original “Leverage”.

You can’t simply replace him and act like that’s enough. The original “Leverage” concluded in 2012. The allegation against Hutton surfaced in 2020. There’s no way the cast and crew could have known about it while the original show was being made. Yet accountability isn’t just about intent. It’s also about impact. If “Leverage: Redemption” wants to be a show that genuinely embodies the ethic of the justice it pursues, it has to refute the meaning of Hutton’s place in “Leverage” as well. You have to refute that style of leadership entirely. So they do.

“Leverage” has always been about each member of the group presenting and combining ideas, but before it was under the direction of Hutton’s Nate Ford. It was a positive environment at times, but he would still quickly shut down someone’s idea. He would lie to his own team. He would play them off each other. He would keep everyone in losing positions in relation to him – he was the only one who knew the whole picture, often because he made it that way.

Now, Sophie is in charge of the cons. Wait a minute, though – at the end of “Leverage”, wasn’t Parker the one left in charge of the group? Didn’t they make a big deal in the last season about who would take over as the new mastermind? Well, Parker’s also still in charge here.

How does this work if both Sophie and Parker are in charge? Parker runs the Leverage organization, which now has teams doing this work around the world. She has final say on who’s in or out of the group, and what kind of chance they’ll have to prove themselves. Sophie is in charge of the team itself, running each con. These boundaries can obviously overlap in places, but Parker and Sophie check in with each other constantly.

Parker was one of the earliest positive representations of an autistic person in TV or film. She’s still one of the only ones. Rather than anyone trying to fix her, she’s not treated as broken in the first place. She’s supported and respected. She becomes the unquestioned leader of the team. It would’ve been horrible to retcon that. Instead, not only is her team successful, she’s grown the idea across the world and trained other teams.

This approach also avoids the only-one-woman-at-a-time trope. We have long approached women leaders, celebrities, politicians, and artists through a media lens of only one qualifying. If two women are successful in the same sphere, the media and critical industry often pit them against each other. If one is successful, the others measured against her must not be. Success can only be achieved by someone new once she topples an already successful woman.

This trope has been used to sustain a dangerous cultural norm. If there’s only one seat at the table for women, and they’re made to compete and drag each other down for it, then the only challenges taking place are for that seat. There are no challenges – and there is no focus – that there should be more seats at the table to start. It is clear here, especially coming off the original “Leverage”, that Parker and Sophie each have a seat and they each legitimize this for the other.

There’s a pretty famous corollary to this in the real world. Just look at The Squad. Largely, the group of congresspeople is most recognized as Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayana Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Working together since 2019 has allowed them to each platform and legitimize the others’ voices. Pitting them against each other in media narratives hasn’t gained any traction because they constantly legitimize each others’ voices and positions. Even when they disagree, they argue for why each others’ positions are qualified and well-reasoned. (Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush joined The Squad this year as congresspeople who assumed office in 2021.)

Leadership in “Leverage: Redemption” follows intersectional feminist theories of leadership that prioritize collaboration, the sharing of decision-making, and the importance of understanding the perspectives of everyone involved. There’s no mastermind now; there are several qualified people who each bring strengths and weaknesses.

Far more than the original show, “Leverage: Redemption” asks team members to understand a place where they’re biased or making a risky decision. Other team members walk them through an aspect of what they aren’t seeing, and offer alternatives that rely less on the area where they’re biased or unqualified.

The original “Leverage” had those episodes where a team member was too close to a con, or identified too much with a victim – episodes where they lost perspective. Hell, significant arcs revolved around Ford’s own alcohol abuse and need for vengeance. Team members who weren’t Ford were expected to overcome their emotional involvement and get the job done. They were chastised for the occasional mistake, or frozen out as a punishment. In “Leverage: Redemption”, they’re expected to talk about it and listen to someone with different experiences. They’re expected to do the work of understanding how they came to their mistake in the first place.

When someone makes a mistake or fails, they’re not snapped at or made to feel disappointed in themselves. They’re told how others around them have failed in the past, asked to understand the nature of their mistake, and given an expectation not to repeat it. One is being scolded into fear of making a mistake, the other is a community giving you support by teaching you how to avoid it.

In the last episode of this first season of “Leverage: Redemption”, Ford’s leadership style is confronted. Don’t worry; Hutton is not brought back in any way. The way it’s done both respects the character’s place in series lore, while also making clear that his leadership could have a scarring effect. We already see a better, healthier alternative for it displayed by Parker and Sophie.

None of “Leverage” or “Leverage: Redemption” is particularly believable in terms of how a heist plays out. The show is built on cons that escalate into parallel action, wacky hijinks, and flashback reveals. “Leverage: Redemption” chooses to be fun above all else. A fun show can still make a point. A fun show still has responsibilities. There’s no magic of exceptionalism here, where one super genius can play his team like puppets when he wants. Instead, there are people who communicate, who share leadership, and who build a community.

The original “Leverage” was about a team against the world, just trying to do the right thing, but its form of leadership through exceptionalism mythology is such a large part of what feeds the world being so hijacked by corruption in the first place. Understanding this, both in our world and through Hutton’s involvement in the prior series, “Leverage: Redemption” does the work of understanding how it got here. It’s one of the only shows I’ve ever seen re-craft itself around accountability for something that – while out of its control – still had an impact.

“Leverage: Redemption” is about a team trying to change the world so that it does the right thing, which isn’t all that different…but its form of leadership offers a part of the solution that was never present in the original “Leverage”. It dismisses exceptionalism mythology and again and again offers examples of community – that lessons and expectations are built from storytelling, communicating and experience. It describes that leadership can’t truly be practiced from one perspective in the way “Leverage” was built around Ford. Leadership can only see from multiple perspectives when it’s shared and accountable. It recognizes that the very notion of a hero is itself an iconography that helps no one when anyone can make a difference, and that the primary way to empower a community is to reinforce and expand what enables it to be a community in the first place. Leaders are vessels for a community, not masterminds.

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