What does ABC’s “Revenge” teach us about workplace injustice?

I’ve never been a fan of soap operas, but a very soapy new primetime drama, ABC’s “Revenge,” has been a lock on my DVR this fall.

About “Revenge”

“Revenge” is the title, philosophy, and practice of this weekly guilty pleasure. The story features a young woman, Emily Thorne (played by Emily VanCamp), who mysteriously appears in the Hamptons, New York’s refuge for the ultra wealthy.

Emily is not who she says she is. She’s really Amanda Clarke, and years ago, when Amanda was still a girl, her rich, cutthroat neighbors framed her father for a horrific act of terrorism and essentially destroyed their lives. Emily/Amanda now has returned home to exact revenge on them, in brutally cool and calculated ways. (“Revenge” is said to be loosely patterned after Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, but believe me, you don’t have to be familiar with the book to get into the show!)

Each new episode features intrigue, manipulation, and carefully planned acts of payback. It also highlights an ongoing cat fight, nay, death battle of the tigresses, between Emily and leading Hamptons socialite Victoria Grayson (played by Madeleine Stowe), a key operative in her father’s disgrace and demise.

This could be a giant recipe for an early series cancellation but for the pitch perfect performances by the lead actresses. VanCamp is the ideal cold-blooded avenger masquerading as the sharp, pretty, sweetheart-next-door. Stowe pulls off her Ice Queen of the Hamptons role — one that easily could become a caricature in the hands of a less-gifted performer — with just the right touch. And when Emily and Victoria are in the same room, well, if looks could kill…

Revenge vs. schadenfreude

Are fans of “Revenge” frustrated avengers pining for a chance to inflict payback on those who have hurt them? If so, then there are millions of us waiting in the wings.

Fortunately, I don’t think this is the case. It boils down to the difference between exacting revenge — i.e., taking an active part in the retribution — and experiencing schadenfreude, the German loanword defined as deriving joy or satisfaction from another’s misfortune. The former involves planning and participation, while the latter represents an emotional response.

For some, a successful act of revenge can result in schadenfreude. For others, schadenfreude is more comfortably experienced as the result of a misfortune visited upon someone by another party or initiative.

I believe that most viewers enjoy “Revenge” because it allows us to revel in a fictional version of the latter variety. After all, cutting through the soap, “Revenge” reminds us that plotting real-life payback easily becomes an all-consuming and blackhearted passion. It often requires the same overheated emotion as the act that inspired it, not to mention a heckuva lot of care and attention to detail if one does not want to get caught.

Furthermore, the vast majority recognize that carrying an unyielding need for vengeance can be a dark, heavy, and unhealthy burden. Even if we struggle to forgive our trespassers, we nevertheless understand the personal costs of devoting ourselves to visiting retribution upon them.

And yet, “Revenge” may satisfy some inner craving for schadenfreude, which allows us to eat our cake but not have to answer for the calories. When one of Emily’s brilliantly designed acts of payback succeeds, it’s hard not to say, hah hah, gotcha!

Workplace revenge fantasies

No doubt that when some viewers are relishing Emily’s latest success, they’re thinking about specific bosses or co-workers who treated them poorly or unfairly.

Indeed, some of the “bad boss” books that I’ve paged through over the years are full of revenge fantasies, imagined and realized. People construct, and occasionally act out, these fantasies because they lack the power to use organizational resources to make things right. And when institutions do not embrace fairness and accountability, those on the receiving end of perceived injustices are left to their own devices and coping skills.

These are no trifling concerns, as I hope this blog has demonstrated. Perceptions of organizational justice impact productivity and individual well-being. Careers, livelihoods, and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.

“Revenge” doesn’t get into the institutional ripple effects; it’s all personal, either in-your-face or behind-your-back. Ultimately, it isn’t psychologically deep enough to teach us anything more profound than the costs of being obsessed with retribution. But that in itself is a valuable lesson, and it’s delivered in marvelously entertaining fashion to boot.


Go here to watch full episodes of “Revenge.”

10 responses

  1. Your guilty pleasure is Revenge. Mine is The Walking Dead. Seems like they are two different aspects of the same problem: workplace bullying. Yours is to do with retribution. Mine has to do with trying to stay alive while very ugly senseless people show up randomly to rip the flesh off your body.

    Your article is one of the most thought provoking of all. Amazingly I have never thought of revenge. Not because of moral superiority or even forgiveness, but more that I have not gotten to a point where I felt powerful enough to think about revenge. I must say, though, I am working again and getting along very well at the new place and have found I did learn a thing or two about a number of things from the last place. Maybe the best revenge IS a life well lived. Maybe. I am still not sure. They really made me suffer. For a year I could barely breathe.

    Even now, thinking about it, I find it hard to breath.

  2. If proving people wrong can be a form of revenge, then I think it can be healthy sometimes. I probably owe my best accomplishments in significant part to that motivation.

    I agree you should give Dexter a look.

  3. This is a great topic and deserves thoughtful discussion. I co-facilitate a group for those harmed at work. Often, those who have been harmed have a desire for “don’t get mad, get even”. The problem with this is that from their pain, they are not necessaarily in the best place to exact anything that is truly effective against the abusers. What I have seen happen instead is that they do things out of spite that are actually harmful to themselves. The employers see the bad behavior, and the person is in bigger trouble.

    We have a handout to suggest healthy emotional support. In it we advise it is not OK to harm ourselves or others or to use our anger abusively against others. It is OK to seek justice through appropriate lawful means and to seek consequences for the perpetrators of abuse.

    If viewers of the show Revenge use it as a fairy tale to have some fantasized emotional release I think that is good. If they use it as a model to try the behavior themselves and it backfires on them as I have seen happen then it is another form of abuse in our culture.


  4. These good comments raise a couple of other important distinctions. First, there’s a difference between seeking justice & proper compensation and seeking revenge, though the line may blur at the margins.

    Second, there’s a big difference between harnessing anger and a sense of injustice constructively vs. obsessively plotting the downfall of a nemesis. (As a 17 year resident of Boston, I’ve seen how the latter philosophy of life infects too much of the civic and political culture here.)

    Finally, I won’t deny that schadenfreude can be satisfying if enjoyed in very limited servings. I recently experienced this when I learned that a not-so-wonderful employment lawyer responsible for helping a client mistreat a lot of employees lost his job. There definitely was a sense of rough justice to that.

  5. I have two real life metaphors that I channel to control my vindictive urges…soapmaking and choke-cherry jelly.

    In the first, I put “fats on the fire” (acidic, bad for you in large doses and dumped on you by abusers), add carefully measured caustic (lye), and sit back while the natural exothermic saponification process heats up. Then WAIT until the whole mess cures and I’m left with lovely, cleansing, healthy, homemade SOAP! I actually do this, and the dangerous procedure requires suiting up with rubber gloves and safety goggles, releasing toxic fumes…very satisfying!

    In the second, I harvest all the bitter little “pills” that are so hard to swallow from my chokecherry tree, add sweetness (and light from my smile) and heat things up in a big “cauldron” (thinking “bubble bubble, toil and trouble”…cackling if I feel like it…) Skim off the ickiness on top, and pour into jars you can hide in the basement until you need a reminder of sunshine and better weather. Very satisfying.

    Both of these are great creative outlets for my “witchiness” that turn something nasty into something good. People who live in climates where lemons or other bitter fruits are abundant can probably come up with their own “recipes”.

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