In elementary school, I went through a phase where I chose my reading material based on how long it was. Enter Little Women, Gone With the Wind and, coming in at a mere 1,276 pages, my favorite, The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a classic tale of revenge, forgiveness, love, happiness and the limitations of human justice, with such perfect lines as, “Often we pass beside happiness without seeing it, without looking at it, or even if we have seen and looked at it, without recognizing it.”
The story of Edmond Dantès is inspired by the real life story of François Piçaud, an innocent man denounced as a spy and jailed for seven years. Similar to Edmond, a prison friendship led him to acquiring a great fortune, and upon his release, he sought revenge on those who’d accused him. In Alexandre Dumas’s fictionalized version, the innocent Edmond escapes from prison, finds a fortune his dying friend tells him about, feigns the identity of a wealthy count, and sets about the business of a thousand pages worth of revenge.
Now, nearly 170 years later, we have the deliciously melodramatic nighttime soap, Revenge, loosely based on The Count of Monte Cristo. The visceral truths about human brutality and the dark appeal of vengeance (especially to a voyeuristic audience) appear somewhat unchanged in the last century. In Revenge, Amanda Clarke’s father is falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit and dies in prison. Amanda ends up in a series of foster homes and finally juvenile hall, believing her father guilty until she is released and learns the truth: he was set up! What ensues is a very Alexandre Dumas-ian web of vengeance, complete with some familiar twists and turns: new-found wealth to facilitate elaborate revenge plots, a false identity in order to infiltrate the enemy, some time to train the body and mind toward invincibility, and of course an old love to complicate matters and test resolve.
While Edmond becomes the Count of Monte Cristo, Amanda Clarke becomes Emily Thorne. In this renaming, they’re reborn, which is also a death of sorts, as the priorities of this new person take over who they once were. We know that revenge doesn’t actually bring the satisfaction it promises for so many different reasons, and yet, of course, we want Emily and Edmond to get it. There’s something practically primal about this hope. Mostly, though, revenge illuminates the impossibility of the closure and fairness it seeks to find, a central theme of The Count of Monte Cristo and a truth that lends some actual emotion to what might otherwise be a pretty silly show. Emily’s main targets are the Graysons, rulers of a corporate oligarchy, whose castle-like home looms over Emily’s beach house, and who are most directly responsible for framing her father. But since this is TV, there are many other sub-villains who need to get their comeuppance too. Some juicy romantic distractions, like a fellow vigilante who broods and has an accent, also help delay the final confrontation.
Two of my favorite parallels between Revenge and The Count of Monte Cristo are the false identities and the time pre-revenge spent in secret warrior training, à la the Hero’s Journey. In flashbacks, we see Emily escaping from underwater knots, readying herself for the long, demanding journey ahead. She’s handy with a gun and has a samurai-like benefactor who warns her away from things such as feelings and emotions. It’s gleeful to watch Emily navigate posh fundraisers and cocktail galas with the indifferent poise of an heiress, knowing all the while that she’s planning nothing but the worst downfalls for those around her. One moment she’s all smiles and pretty dresses and the next she’s kicking someone’s ass or bankrupting them with a false stock tip.
Revenge is an operatic guilty pleasure for our times, creating a reality full of paranoia, surveillance and terrorism. Planes are downed, corporations act as individuals, hidden cameras are everywhere, no bank account is safe from hackers, no text or email is private, no one is safe. You almost start to feel bad for the Graysons up on the hill, as they sense their every move is being watched, their fortress only partly able to protect them.
The New York Times calls Revenge,“Gossip Girl for this economy.” And indeed it does seem that, while many of the rich bad guys of the real world have gone unpunished, the rich bad guys aren’t having such an easy time of it in the fictional Hamptons. One by one, Emily finds them and exacts their fitting punishment, crossing their faces out of photos with her red pen once she has. As does Edmond, minus the red pen, plus a sword fight or two. Both, through their individual vendettas, are responding to the dark forces and villains of their respective eras.
In the pursuit of their single minded goals, both Emily and Edmond inevitably wreak some havoc on the innocent too. This collateral damage begins to bring into question the obsessiveness that is the danger of these thrills, but only momentarily. They pass beside happiness without seeing it. They reject the opportunities that forgiveness and a more whole life might offer them. As the Confucian epigraph in Season 1, Episode 1 reads, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” It’s a dire warning for all involved, and one unheeded.
Emily’s partner in crime, Nolan, a tech wizard gazillionaire who is humorously and scarily of the moment, tries to remind Emily of other potential outcomes, of the possibilities of love and letting go. So far, Emily isn’t having it. As the story unfolds, new truths lead her in different directions, as new truths tend to do. If the show reaches the conclusion that the novel did, perhaps she will find some peace. As the Count of Monte Cristo writes, “Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, Wait and Hope.”