In a Chicago pub, former insurance fraud investigator Nathan Ford is downing the latest in a string of drinks when he is approached by aerospace executive Victor Dubenich. Victor tells him that his plans were stolen by a rival company, and he wants Nathan to help steal them back.
The stolen plans are computer files being held in an extremely well guarded office building. To get in, Victor has put together a team of individuals with the skills he needs: Playful Hacker Alec Hardison, Lightning Bruiser Eliot Spencer, and Classy Cat-Burglar Parker. Nate wonders why he is being included in all this and Victor tells him he needs one honest man to manage them: not only are these people used to working alone, they're criminals, and Dubenich needs someone he can trust.
Nathan turns him down at first, until Dubenich tells him that the rival company is being insured by IYS, Nathan's former employers. He reminds Nate of how IYS refused to pay for his son Sam's treatment, leading to Sam's death, and points out that this job would do serious damage to the insurance company. Nathan agrees to help.
The team heads to the headquarters of Pierson Aviation, the target of their heist. After a few close calls, they manage to find the files and download them, bluffing their way past the security at the front to escape. Once they're away, they send off the files. Nate promises the team that their money will be transferred before morning, and so they go their separate ways.
In the morning he gets a call from an angry Victor who tells him the files never arrived. Nate knows they were sent, but Victor isn't having it and demands to meet him at an old warehouse owned by his company. When Nate arrives he finds the others already there, at each others' throats. Nate laughs at the ridiculousness of the whole situation, until he suddenly realizes they've been Lured into a Trap. Everyone runs out of the building, but don't quite Outrun the Fireball. When they wake up, they find themselves in the hospital, all under arrest.
Thanks to Nate's quick thinking, a couple of stolen cellphones, and a hijacked printer, they manage to con their way out of the hospital by convincing the police that Hardison is a deep cover agent infiltrating their gang.
They go to Hardison's apartment to examine the files they stole. Thanks to a Coincidental Broadcast, they hear that Pierson Aviation is saying that their designs were stolen. When Hardison goes through the plans, he finds evidence that they really were Pierson's designs, with no evidence that Bering Aircraft ever had anything to do with it.
Suffice to say, the team is pissed. Not only have they been lied to, manipulated, and nearly killed, they didn't get paid. Hardison starts to pass out fake IDs and plane tickets to get them all out of town, but Nate stops him. They could run, or they could get revenge. Why does Nate care so much? Dubenich used Nate's son.
The team, already having noticed how smoothly the last few cons went with Nathan at the wheel, agree. But first they need a new player, someone Victor doesn't know.
Nate takes them to a small theater, where a woman onstage is absolutely butchering her role as Lady Macbeth. The team, except Nate, are suitably horrified, and ask how on earth this woman is supposed to help.
- Nate: This isn't her stage.
Afterwards, they find her outside, where Nate introduces her as Con Artist and master Grifter Sophie Devereaux. After introducing her to the team and explaining their situation, he convinces her to help them out.
At Victor's company, Sophie introduces herself as a developer from South Africa, and expresses interest in Bering's new plane. She gives a wonderful performance, surprising Hardison; Nate tells him that Sophie is the greatest actress, but only when she's breaking the law. Meanwhile, Hardison crashes Victor's secretary's computer, which allows Eliot to get in disguised as an IT guy. He starts flirting with her, which allows Parker to get into Victor's office and plant a transmitter. Sophie manages to convince Victor to discuss terms and arranges to meet again.
The next day, Sophie meets him at an office building and leads him to a suite where several African men are seated around a table. As the meeting progresses, one of them writes something and hands it to Sophie, who gives it to Victor. He looks at it, and sees a quoted sum of $1,000,000. He accepts.
After he leaves, Nate regroups and says they have a very long day tomorrow. That night, Victor finds and removes the transmitter. Sophie's deal was too good to be true and he knew something was up. He realizes his "employees" survived their "payment". He knows none of the deal is real, not even the Nigerian "ambassadors". He contacts the FBI, planning on exposing Sophie and her team at the next meeting.
At a shareholder's meeting the next day, Sophie brings the Nigerians to Victor's office. When he gets there he calls the FBI in to take care of the con artists — only to have them arrest him instead, for soliticing bribes from government officials. He protests that they are fake, but the Nigerians produce their passports revealing them to be genuine ambassadors, while Sophie slips away.
In flashbacks, we discover that after the Nigerians arrived for the first meeting but before Dubenich got to the office, Eliot switched the signs from Bering's to Sophie's company. The entire time, the Nigerians were under the impression that Sophie was working for Victor. The Nigerians claim that Victor was given a requested bribe of $200,000, as Victor realizes that during the meeting Sophie switched envelope containing the check with the quote. In the end the FBI enters the building while Nate and his crew, disguised as FBI agents, manage to take some papers out of his office.
Nate then returns the plans to the Pierson, who drops all charges against Nate's team, intending to start a lawsuit against Victor instead. As Nate leaves, Pierson assumes he wants money, but Nate tells him that they have an... alternative revenue source.
As a despondent Dubenich watches FBI agents digging through his office, he recieves a call. It's Nate, who informs him that he should have just paid them, and that if he rats them out to the FBI, they won't be as nice. Dubenich hangs up as the FBI discover piles of 'bribe money' in his desk.
After regrouping with the team, everyone finds out they got checks that are way higher than they expected. Hardison informs them that he played the stock market to maximize their profit.
Checks in hand, the team splits up again... only to come right back, telling Nate they had a great time working as a team and want to do it again. Nathan says he has no intention of becoming a thief. Sophie suggests they look for more "bad guys" to take down instead.
Meeting with their first new client, Nate explains their purpose. "We provide... leverage."
Tropes stolen in this job:
- 419 Scam: Invoked by Nate when planning the con. Dubenich pegs the Nigerians' offer as an obvious scam in part because they're Nigerian, explaining to his assistant/accomplice that "it's like those email scams with Nigerian bank fraud letters!" Which was just what Nate intended him to think, in order to keep him from realizing that the men he met were genuine Nigerian officials.
- Abusive Parents: Parker's.
- All Women Love Shoes:
- According to Nate, Sophie kept a little of the Nigerians' bribe money to buy "a truly impressive number of shoes."
- Defied by Parker:Parker: What is it with women and shoes?
Sophie: There's something wrong with you.
- Bad "Bad Acting": Sophie's introduction sees her doing an agonizingly bad job on stage playing Lady Macbeth while Eliot, Hardison, and Parker look on in horror.
- The Caper: A la payback for Dubenich for screwing them over.
- "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: As Nate openly tells him at the end, had Dubenich simply paid the gang for the job, they'd have gone their separate ways and never given him a second thought. He has only himself to blame for trying to kill them and thus uniting them against him.
- Curse Cut Short: In response to the guards making their rounds an hour early (because of the playoffs), Parker attempts to drop a quick f-bomb.
- Defensive Feint Trap: Against Dubenich. Nate knows he is smart and so plants the obvious bug and uses Nigerians as part of the con, expecting Dubenich to figure some of it out and realize they are playing him, so that he is caught off-guard when the real trap springs.
- Domestic Abuse: We also hear Parker's dad hit her mom.
- Double Caper: Dubenich assembles the team to do a job for him, but makes the mistake of double-crossing them, putting himself in the cross-hairs as their next target.
- Evil Is Petty: Hardison's plan for vengeance is to send Dubenich a thousand porn magazines. He likes Nate's idea better.
- Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Ford, due to being very drunk, is at first amused that Dubenich has stiffed everyone present, and babbles on about it. As he points out that getting stiffed is the only reason they're all there... In the same place... at the same time... Cue everyone running for the exit.
- Fight Unscene: Whatever happened, Eliot was able to take out a room full of thugs pointing guns at him without disturbing his coffee.
- Framing the Guilty Party: Played with.
- With what the team initially did, Dubenich cannot be traced to the attack on Pierson. So, as part of their scam, they make it look like he took a bribe from some Nigerian nationals. The team cashes it and hides most of the money in his office.
- At the end, however, when Ford gives Pierson his data back, there is evidence on them that Dubenich had them on his systems. Dubenich can now be hit with a few more lawsuits.
- Gangsta Style: Hardison is holding a gun on Eliot this way.
- Good Feels Good: Which leads the establishment of Leverage firm.
- Heroic Comedic Sociopath: Parker's introduction (which shows her Abusive Parents), also shows her blowing up the house after getting her stuffed bunny back.
- Hit You So Hard, Your X Will Feel It!: After the double-cross, Eliot growls that he's going to beat Dubenich so badly "people who look like him are gonna bleed."
- Incredibly Obvious Bug: Played with. Parker plants a bug with a red blinking light in Dubenich's office, which Dubenich finds. It turns out that him finding it was part of the plan. Defied with the bug that Dubenich didn't find.
- It's Personal: Of the five lead characters, only Sophie has no personal vendetta against Dubenich. Eliot and Hardison want payback for the attempt to kill them, Parker is angry that she didn't get paid, and Dubenich manipulated Nate by bringing up his son.
- Jedi Mind Trick: Attempted by Hardison in his introductory flashback: "This is not the room you're looking for." It fails.
- Kansas City Shuffle: The core of the con pulled on Dubenich. He thinks the team's trying to con him out of the bribe money for the Nigerians, when they're actually luring him into getting framed for soliciting a bribe.
- Lured into a Trap: Dubenich lures Nate, Eliot, Hardison, and Parker to the same place after the initial heist by informing them that he's not going to pay them. Nate figures out just in time that he would only have done this in order to clean up loose ends.
- Meet Cute: The show plays it this way, though Nate and Sophie shot each other.
- Meganekko: Funnily, Eliot, despite his being the hitter.
- Nerds Speak Klingon: Elliot is posing as a geeky IT technician. When the secretary he is distracting comments on how strong he is, he says he works out because he likes to go to conventions as a Klingon. He then says something to her in Klingon, which she replies to.
- Not with the Safety on, You Won't: Both Eliot and Nate to Hardison. The safety may or may not have been on, but it gets Hardison to hesitate long enough for Nate to take the gun away.
- Oh, Crap!: Dubenich when he realizes just how much trouble he is in when the FBI agents arrest him, then remembers the stockholders are outside.
- Outrun the Fireball: At the warehouse. Reality Ensues when all four of them are knocked out by the shockwave..
- Playing Sick: Parker makes herself vomit to get the doctors into her hospital room, so that she and Hardison can pickpocket their phones for the escape plan.
- Recruiting the Criminal: Victor's plan to steal the designs.
- The Runaway: Parker after blowing up her house.
- Slipped the Ropes: Parker is out of handcuffs before Nate wakes up. She re-handcuffs herself to the hospital bed after faking sick in order to steal a phone...then frees herself seconds after the cop leaves the room.
- Stuff Blowing Up: Nate realizes Dubenich's trap just in time for himself, Eliot, Hardison, and Parker to escape before the warehouse they're in explodes.
- Tempting Fate: Parker's foster father tells her to be a good girl or be a better thief while confiscating her stuffed rabbit back from her. The next scene a young Parker walking out of the house before it blows up with bunny in hand.
- Title Drop: At the end as Nate explains the team's purpose.
- This Is Gonna Suck: Word-for-word from Parker.
- Token Good Teammate: Why Nate was hired in the first place.
- Toplessness from the Back: Shown by Parker during the initial job, when she starts changing in the elevator, uncaring Alec and Elliot and in there with her.
- Undisclosed Funds: The amount of money the team make on the scam. After looking at the cheques Hardison distributes, they start talking about retiring and buying private islands, but the actual amount is only visible if you pause very quickly when Parker opens her envelope. It's $32,761,349.05. Each.
- Villainous Breakdown: Victor is the first in the series to endure this and it's fantastic as his smug demeanor slowly gives way to dawning horror as he realizes how he's been set up, and trying in vain to stop the FBI from raiding his company during an investor's lunch.