No spoilers for the new season, though I have, of course, been watching.
They’re in it for the long-con.
Harry Houdini was an escapologist, but he was also a showman. If you meet a con-artist that tells you he doesn’t idolise Houdini he’s a liar. Which is okay, because you probably expected lies anyway. Magicians are the bastard cousins of escapologists. They’re the sell-outs, the down-and-out TV-actors doing infomercials at 2am, the washed-up baseball stars selling cleaning products with a fake smile. But all of them-- escapologists, con-artists, magicians, thieves and liars-- all of them begin with misdirection. It’s in their blood, their bones; the gene that traces them all back together to their common ancestor. Maybe the first man who tricked his cave-mate into hunting his dinner for him. The first con-artists were politicians, organisers, leaders. Nate would probably say, “let’s go steal a country”, but you could also call it “an election”.
But here’s the reason why magicians and escapologists are the bastard cousins, and so are politicians for that matter: a real con-artist is a misfit, an outsider. An outlaw. They’re cowboys, not show-girls; they never get to take off their costumes and go home.
To really escape, you have to burn your past clean away; Parker knows this, there’s no going back, it’s escape or die. A final act shorn clean of any other meaning by desperation. Parker moves on because it’s a necessity; she makes sure it is.
When she leaves Nate and their feel-good operation behind, it will be in smoke and ruins. She always told herself this. (But one thing she maybe didn’t account for was the idea that you can rebuild things from the ashes. She watched the windows blow out of their HQ and the smoke thicken the air & never expected that they could put the pieces back together again. Parker’d never really believed you could fix what was broken. You live with it or leave it, but Nate shows her a world where all the cracks show, but they’re so beautiful she can’t stop grazing her fingers along the lines.)
Parker knows she's a ruin, a broken thing, but she never ever felt sorry for herself until she met Nate. She slides through windows and doorways, she appears like a phantasm and carries her escape strategy under her clothes. Parker’s always planning to be somewhere else at the time, but lit by the reflected glow of Hardison’s projector she feels suddenly solid. Weighted down and heavy, skin full of flesh, and when Hardison brushes her arm she feels for the first time truly confined by her body.
So she pretends. She lies. She shifts her body out of the reach of his fingers and angles away from his gaze; it’s not hard, she’s had a lifetime’s practice.
The only thing you can really rely on in a hostile situation is your body; they can take your guns, your knives, your tac-vests, your plan, but Eliot knows he’ll always have his fists. He’ll always have that hard and solid feeling in the pit of his stomach to centre him. His body is a weapon, a tool; unless he’s dead he can still fight. He fights to survive, not to win (Sophie’s right about that). He fights because they can’t take that away from him.
Hardware is just so much shit he has to carry through a battlezone. It weighs him down. He’s spent most of his life paring down his needs; when he goes to sleep at night it’s secure in the knowledge that he could roll out of bed and leave wherever he is with just the clothes on this back without actually losing anything. (He dreams of men strapping him down to a table and slicing through the tendons and bones of his wrists-- but he wakes up whole, and that’s the important part. Nobody sees him do his AM once-over, a quick press of his fingers to limbs and joints to check that yes, yes, they’re all there; the dream doesn’t bleed out into real life, real life bleeds into the dream.)
He doesn’t understand Nate, what Nate does. Alcohol, caffeine, escaping into altered states. Elliot’s escape is to burrow deeper, to resketch and thicken the confines of his own skin, not to attempt to blur them with with a drug-of-choice. There’s safety in knowing where he ends and the world begins. Whether you like it or not it’s bellum omnia contra omnes (hey, he reads) and Elliot’s got a step up because in this war he’s got a precisely defined side. He’s on it. That’s about the size of it.
He’s never really liked it when other people edge over onto his side but Parker slips one toe then a shin and then a torso over the line and before he knows it his hands are all over her. He clenches them but her wrists get in the way and the fist turns into an embrace; Elliot finds that he can be gentle. He says to her, “God, Parker, you’re not all there, you know,” offhand at a briefing but she gives him a quick secret smile because that’s what he likes about her. She’s slips over to his side and then slips away again just like a ghost; he can almost believe that he doesn’t have to change a thing.
Hardison is all ears and eyes everywhere. People might say he’s got a God-complex, but even God couldn’t hack the security feed at the National Mint just for Saturday morning kicks. You can lock all the doors and bar all the windows you like, you can keep out bodies and dust and even air but, not to quote Joss Whedon or anything, you can’t stop the signal. He works the invisible and makes it real, he finds the dark places and projects them onto his screens. Let there be light, and lo, there is, in HD-quality on stolen bandwidth.
To Hardison, the best con is one you don’t have to run away after; you don’t take what you want, you make it come to you.
Sophie might think he’s bad with people. By Sophie’s standards, he probably is. But they’re both working in the same arena: invisible signals, hidden messages, crossed-wires. (Except, in his case, the crossed wires part is a bit more literal.)
Hardison sees more than he lets on; he sees what people leave behind and discard. Their credit card bills, their hotel stays, their bank-statements and google-searches and porn-habits and most frequent items they buy at the grocery store. There’s a kind of purity to the image that all this data sketches out for him. It deals in what people really are, not what they say or believe or want or desire. Just what they do, and the indentations it leaves on the digital universe that solidifies with a few quick presses of his fingers on a keyboard.
So, slightly drunk on his fifth beer of the evening he leans into Elliot’s personal space and says, “So you and Parker,” with a significant look and Elliot takes a deep drink of his beer. “Me and Parker what?” He asks, unhelpfully. Hardison doesn’t roll his eyes (he’ll doctor the security camera footage to prove it, too). “So are you. Or aren’t you?” Elliot claps a hand on his shoulder and Hardison gulps involuntarily. “The real question is, Hardison,” he says, far too smugly. “Are you?”
The next time Parker and Elliot disappear Hardison actually gets up and follows them. He stops just outside the Parker’s room, but hey, he’s Alec Hardison, there isn’t a locked door that can keep him out. Just because he doesn’t have to break it down doesn’t mean he can’t.
A room is four walls built around a series of escapes; your body is a weapon; the only truths are the ones people don’t know they’re telling. Magic tricks, like cons, have a beginning, a middle and an end: the pledge, the turn, the prestige. A play in three acts. Except the con-artist bows out before the applause at the end, the curtain rises to an empty stage. The con-artist’s signature move is an exit-strategy and their reward is silence.
The reason con-artists like Houdini is this: he understood, even if it was only at the end, you either escape or you die.
They peel off each other’s clothes in the semi-dark and string chains of spit and love between them like so much metal, they leave marks, they blur lines. In the morning, they tell themselves, they’ll wake up and they will walk away clean.