In the eleventh episode of the fifth season of Leverage, Eliot convinces the team to take on a big box storeâ€™s opening in a small town. Intrigued? Then itâ€™s time for Mark to watch Leverage.
Trigger Warning: For talk of worker/labor exploitation
There were times that this episode hit really close to home for me. I never worked at a big box store before; most of my retail experience was in clothing/apparel stores, namely Hot Topic. (OH JOY.) I just recently wrote about some of my experience doing this kind of work in a review for Moving Pictures over on Mark Reads if youâ€™re interested in some additional background about self-worth and employment. But I didnâ€™t get a chance to expand upon what Iâ€™d gone through at a retail establishment who operated in similar ways to ValueMore.
Itâ€™s unfortunate that what Iâ€™m going to tell you is frighteningly common within a lot of industries because this kind of exploitation is one of the easiest to get away with. I can tell you why that was the case in my experience: because I was terrified to speak up. In low-end retail jobs, employees are made to feel disposable. We are taught early on that at any moment, our employment can be terminated and that we will be replaced. I remember when I became a manager at my store that my district manager told me always keep a stack of decent applications near the counter so that I could wave them at any of my employees who werenâ€™t meeting my expectations. (I never did that once.)
With that in mind, I found myself unable to reject the requests made of me. I consider myself a fairly confrontational person. Iâ€™ve never had that much problem standing up for myself once I got out of my hometown, and anyone who has ever met me can attest that I am a goddamn loudmouth. But I was working at this place while in college, and I absolutely relied on this money for rent, transportation back and forth to Long Beach and Bellflower and Cerritos and any of the places I lived or studied at. Despite that I had a full ride at Cal State Long Beach, there were endless things I had to still pay for, and I had no safety net in those days. Textbooks, food, bus fare, Metro passes, school supplies, clothing, tons of billsâ€¦ all of it kept me at work full time while going to school full time, too.
So when my district manager asked me to continue working on a front-end display after my shift ended at 10pm, I told her that I had to get home so I could get to sleep; I had an 8am class to get to. She shot back with a passive-aggressive smile and a reminder that at any point, a manager could lose their benefits if they didnâ€™t meet certain district goals. â€œArenâ€™t you dangerously close to your overtime limits for this week?â€ she asked me, putting her hand on my arm and running it up and down. â€œYou donâ€™t want to exceed that and cost this company more money, do you?â€
It started with small things like that, maybe once a week. Soon, I got requests just an hour before the store closed to reorganize the entire t-shirt wall. The reminders of my possibly-lost benefits stopped because it was already understood what was at stake. When I recommended one of my associates email the district manager to complain about having to stay late off the clock, she was fired for insubordination days later, which sent a sign to the rest of us: if you complain, youâ€™ll follow the same path.
To say this was a terrible experience is an understatement. It was dehumanizing. Some days, Iâ€™d work 16 hours, and 8 of those hours were unpaid. Imagine going to school full time and working 60 hours a week on top of that. (To my own credit, I still managed to do well in my classes, though I suppose that was at the expense ofâ€¦ well, literally everything else.) I didnâ€™t even start making over $10/hour until the final six months at that job, and that was barely enough to pay rent and all the other bills I had.
This is how this cycle unfolds for millions of people in this country. And while I did eventually try to fight back against this, I ended up losing that job. I was framed for stealing in order for my district manager to have a justification for firing me, and it triggered a terrible chain of events in my life. Without a job, I couldnâ€™t afford to get to school, so I dropped out of college. I lasted another month in my apartment before I had to move out because I had no money. I told my friends that I was moving to Los Angeles from Downey, that Iâ€™d gotten a place to stay and a new job, but I lied. I had a storage place for what little shit I owned, but I was homeless for the second time in my life.
This is not about that, though. I donâ€™t think that â€œThe Low Low Price Jobâ€ is the strongest episode of Leverage, but Iâ€™ve got an extreme bias towards this story. I know what itâ€™s like to be trapped inside a low-wage job. I know what it feels like to be humiliated by the work you do or the way youâ€™re treated by people who make more money than you and have no problem letting you know that. And Iâ€™ve worked for people like Caroline Cowan, yâ€™all! So thereâ€™s a realism to this episode thatâ€™s related to my own personal experience. I know thatâ€™s a strange thing to say about one of the more absurd cons run on this show, but â€œThe Low Low Price Jobâ€ rang true for me.
Structurally, itâ€™s a fascinating episode, too. The team cycles through a number of cons, all of which fail miserably, until they decide that the best thing to do is to shower ValueMart in a billion cons at once, which was SO MUCH FUN TO WATCH. But even that fails, which I thought was a nice touch. Why? Because right from the beginning, we were told that this con would not be like anything else the team had tackled. They werenâ€™t taking down a corrupt business because they couldnâ€™t. No, they had resolved to focus on just one store, well aware of the logistical challenges theyâ€™d face in the process.
The Eliot subplot, though, was a nice touch, a way to make a largely humorous episode have a memorable emotional nuance to it. â€œThe Low Low Price Jobâ€ has such a huge effect on him because of the fond memories that Eliot has of his father. We havenâ€™t heard much about Eliotâ€™s childhood, and I think it was smart of the show to keep that part of Eliot shrouded in mystery. It was significant enough that we got to see him go home for the first time since he enlisted in the military, but it was much more powerful to never see Eliotâ€™s father. It suggested a wistful end for Eliot, but wouldnâ€™t it make more sense for his father to not open the door if he was home? Or what if his father wasnâ€™t there at all? Itâ€™s a haunting choice, but it fits with Eliotâ€™s characterization. ALSO: NOW Iâ€™M SAD.
The video for â€œThe Low Low Price Jobâ€ can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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