Nate is an average guy all the way around. He isn't especially good looking or athletic, nor is he really ugly or out of shape. He can't do a triple axle, but he won't win Clutz of the Year either. Unlike the other members of his crew, Nate is not a professional thief, or at least he wasn't until circumstances led him to a sudden change in careers.
Before that, he was an insurance investigator. He had a wife, a son, and although we never see it, the implication is that there was a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a swing set in the backyard. His one claim to fame was his ability to get inside the minds of the criminals he was supposed to catch. Even that came from years of experience rather than from some bizarre superpower or magical gift.
He had a reputation for two things: being very good at what he did, and being incorruptibly honest. Leverage Season 1 spends a lot of time giving the viewer subtle--or sometimes not so subtle--glimpses of a man who had earned the respect of his adversaries. The first two seasons also show us that Nate isn't entirely comfortable with his new role as the mastermind of a criminal crew. He takes pains to point out that he is not a thief--not like the others, even though he's now using his skills to steal things instead of trying to find them again.
Nate appeals to most viewers because he is like them. The majority of us are not thieves. We're not glamorous. If six guys jumped us in an alley, we'd probably be on the way to an intensive care unit within the next ten minutes. (It would take about 8 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.) We can't scale a building; crack a safe; or hack the White House e-mail system.
Like us, Nate held down a job, paid the bills, and generally obeyed the law. He was a good guy who worked hard and tried to do the right thing. Then his son got sick, and suddenly he saw that being a good guy didn't mean as much as he thought it did. The insurance company he worked for refused to pay for so-called experimental treatments. Nate lost his son, started drinking, and within a few years, everything else in his life fell apart.
It's not an especially original backstory, but it's compelling because most of us can empathize. We may not have lost a child, but we have all felt powerless over something in our lives. Many of us know what it's like to have our insurance companies dictate which treatments we can have or which medications we can take. A lot of us are down on our luck and out work right now; maybe we've also had to take a job we didn't want to take because it was the only one we could find. On a more philosophical level, almost everyone has had his or her view of the world shaken up by some unexpected trial at one point or another.
So, we feel for Nate because we understand him. When he takes a case, we know he's doing it because he identifies with the client as much as we do. We cheer when his plans work because he lets us vicariously stick it to the insurance company and the boss.
Of course, all is not happiness and sunshine in Sherwood Forrest. Nate's struggle with the bottle takes its toll on the team, and because we care about them, it takes its toll on us. When he's fighting the Sheriff, we expect Nate to win, but things are not that cut and dry when he's wrestling with himself.
I don't know where Season 3 will take him, and as much as I can empathize with him, as of this writing, I would still like to strangle him. It would be easier if Eliot could forcibly throw him back on the wagon and tie him there, but it doesn't work that way. Maybe that's why I keep watching, even when I have to peek through my fingers because I really don't want to look. If I knew for sure that everything was going to work out, he wouldn't really be an underdog, now would he?
Previous posts in this series: Week 1: Intro
Next Week: Hardison!