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ABC’s Revenge: Class War Onscreen

ABC’s Revenge is bringing some delicious class commentary to the table in what would otherwise be a fairly conventional (though still enjoyable!) television drama. Rich girl goes to The Hamptons to get revenge on the people who orchestrated her father’s downfall isn’t exactly the stuff of which radical television is made, no, not even when she’s swapping identities with someone she met in juvenile detention. Where things start to get interesting in the world of Emily Thorne and the people she’s targeted for revenge is that members of the servant class are not relegated to the background, but instead play fully realised roles in the narrative. Important roles, at that.

Based on The Count of Monte Cristo, the show has all of the plot twists and turns, byzantine layers of narrative structure, and general shenanigans one might expect. There are, of course, a few differences from the base text, starting with the fact that the eponymous count is a woman, and with a radical change of setting. The decision to place Revenge in The Hamptons created an ideal opportunity to retain the class issues embedded in the book and update them for a new audience.

Most dramas set in The Hamptons showcase the lifestyles of the rich and famous, creating an aspirational hour (with commercial breaks) for viewers who want to escape from the humdrum of their daily lives. Much of the serving work that goes on behind the scenes to make this life possible is also behind the scenes in these works, where servants may tiptoe across the background but they aren’t shown in full; many are not even given names, because they are considered objects rather than people. If they do appear, they are subjects of charity from the magnanimous wealthy people around them.

Revenge has shifted the dynamic by including four recurring characters who appear to come from the lower classes, and by highlighting the tensions they experience as they navigate the world of The Hamptons. Suddenly those still waters stretching from private beaches start to seem troubled, as the wealthy lifestyle is no longer presented without comment. Instead, Revenge shows viewers how the lust for money and power can lead people to do terrible things, like framing a man for a crime, while the same drive can be used by a canny, and vengeful, heroine.

Emily Thorne’s friend Ashley has been hired as a party planner by Victoria Grayson, ‘Queen of The Hamptons.’ As the narrative progresses, we start to see that Ashley longs for a participatory role in this culture, not as the person arranging the parties but as the one throwing and attending them. She longs for something she doesn’t have and can’t quite touch, and begins to understand that she will never touch it. Faced with a dual race and class barrier, Ashley is relegated to the shadows and the sidelines, and she begins to resent her friend Emily for her lifestyle, wondering how much money it might take to buy happiness.

Ashley’s increasing frustration with her lot in life is neatly exploited by Tyler, one of the more intriguing characters on the show. A hustler and con man with a million explanations for his origins and what he’s doing, Tyler is ruthless, stopping at nothing to get what he wants. In a way, he is Emily’s mirror; he wants money and she wants revenge but they both are constantly plotting to achieve their goals, and don’t care who they use and discard in the process.

Tyler’s class resentment is palpable in scenes where he’s surrounded by members of the Grayson family, who clearly have no idea. For them, the idea that anyone might be envious of their lifestyle is natural, but the thought that people might think their wealth and privilege are undeserved is inconceivable. They walk with the natural assurance of people born to wealth, underscoring, in so many ways, that Tyler doesn’t belong in their world as anything more than a trifle for amusement over the summer, something to be thrown away upon the return to the city in the fall.

Revenge goes even further into the exploration of class dynamics and roles with the Porters, Declan and Jack. Running a family bar, they represent the year-round inhabitants of The Hamptons, the people who stay when the wealth leaves, who eke out a living as best they can while working summer residents for whatever they can get. Jack in particular is very much aware of his class role, while Declan recognises it, but constantly breaks out of it, demanding to be accepted as an equal.

Jack lusts after Emily, little realising that she’s his childhood love returned under a false name, but ultimately views her as unattainable because of her class status, settling instead for the mysterious stranger who turns up partway through the series with the looks and carriage of a woman more in what he thinks of as his league. Declan, meanwhile, pursues Charlotte Grayson, who engages in a summer fling that is likely to end in bad consequences for both of them. Eventually, she’ll be pulled back into the world she’s born into, and so will Declan.

Those worlds are not meant to meet, as viewers are constantly reminded.

The timing of Revenge is somewhat eerie, as many people start to confront class issues in the streets and halls of power in the United States. Hereditary wealth and power are increasingly viewed negatively by members of the general public, making Emily an easy character to root for, since she’s going to the heart of the power to cut it off and turn the world upside down. There’s also a grim reminder behind the class politics on the show, however: Emily gets where she does and accomplishes what she does because of her own inheritance and ability to navigate among the wealthy, and she is only one class warrior in a world that needs millions.


Front page photo: Villa Maria in The Hamptons, New York, by Americasroofs.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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