Friday, September 30, 2011

Subtext in "Revenge" with Emily VanCamp and Madeline Stowe

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw that Wednesday night I mentioned this scene from ABC's new series Revenge.  This is a perfect example of subtext in dialogue.  Every writer should strive to have subtext, which is the undertone and meaning beneath the dialogue.  It's what the characters aren't saying - but what they mean.  Often a scene with subtext will seem to be about one subject on the surface, but really be conveying a completely different idea or emotion.

Watch the scene and then read below for my explanation of what's going on here.

Okay, the premise of the series is that Emily - played by Emily VanCamp - has returned to the Hamptons fifteen years after her father was betrayed by some of the most powerful people there.  Her father was framed for essentially funding a terrorist act, and everyone who worked at his company testified against him.  Why did they do that you ask?  Because Victoria - played by Madeline Stowe - supposedly masterminded it.

Victoria's the target of Emily's revenge scheme - but before Emily attacks her directly, she aims to destroy everyone around her who was a part of the scheme.  Since "Emily" is actually an identity that Amanda Clarke assumed, Victoria doesn't realize she's having tea with the daughter of the man she destroyed.  However, since "Emily" has taken an interest in her son, she's determined to find out her secrets.

Prior to this scene, Emily had been renting her former childhood home.  In the intervening years, it had passed into the ownership of one of Victoria's close friends.  That woman was Emily's first takedown the week before, which resulted in the house being put on the market.  Emily mentioned to Victoria earlier that she put in an offer - and then later got a call that she was outbid by the tech billionaire/associate who's the only other person who knows who Emily really is.  When Emily confronted him, he revealed that Victoria swooped in and outbid Emily with a cash offer.  Thus, he outbid Victoria with his own offer and then put it in Emily's name.

Victoria doesn't know this at the start of the scene.  She's secure in the belief that she won.  Furthermore, prior to this scene, we saw Emily find out she had the house.  So when she "checks her email" and is excitedly announces her win it's all for Victoria's benefit.  Hence the line, "Thank you so much for tea, Mrs. Grayson.  I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed this."

Yeah, I bet you have.  Now with that Cliff Notes set-up of context, do you see the double meaning in many other lines in this scene?

Victoria's subtext is essentially, "You're on my turf, little girl.  Don't think I'm not aware you're hiding something."  Emily's on the other hand is, "Better luck next time, bitch!  I'm gonna enjoy taking you down before you've even realized what's happening."

I should point out that as strong as the writing is, subtext really needs to be in the hands of capable performers who can really sell it.  Here, VanCamp and Stowe play the scene to perfection.  There's just enough awareness of the subtext in their performances without either of them crossing the line and overplaying it.  That's a tricky tightrope to walk.  Lesser actors might have gone slightly broader just to make sure the audience "gets it."  In doing so, it would have compromised the reality that Victoria doesn't realize exactly what Emily's pulling here. 

VanCamp has to sell that she's tossing darts at Victoria without making the attack obvious, and Stowe has to sell that she thinks she's being subtle and that she doesn't notice the additional layer behind Emily's words.  The result is probably my favorite scene of the week, and watching these two actresses spar is like watching two tennis pros in their prime.  If Revenge keeps serving up scenes like this, consider me hooked.

So far Revenge is one of the best new shows this season.  Check it out if you haven't already.


  1. It's one of my fave new shows and huge fan of Van Camp and Stowe. #tvtotalkabout

  2. This is not the kind of show I would normally watch, but you may have just persuaded me to give it a try.

  3. Except one scene of subtext doesn't make up for the other 59 (or so) minutes of trite dialogue and plot predictability. The only scene in the second episode that surprised me in the slightest was the one with the heart attack (spoilers?), and that's only because it came so far out of left field (and so soon into the show's run) that it felt unearned.

    That's not to say I won't continue watching for the time being. I just don't get what all the fuss is about. The show is very mediocre in my opinion.

    And don't even get me started on those blatantly expository flashbacks.