the poster for the Netflix series Ripley with Andrew Scott standing inside a trainSee how the pilot of Ripley, the Netflix sensation by Steven Zaillian starring Andrew Scott, hits the Save the Cat! story beats!

Created, Written, and Directed by: Steven Zaillian, based on the series of “Mr. Ripley” books by Patricia Highsmith

S1 E1: “A Hard Man to Find”

The World: Seamy New York City and sumptuous Atrani on the Amalfi Coast in the 1960s

Franchise Type: Man with a Plan (of the most macabre variety)

Pilot Episode Genre: Dude with a Problem

Platform: Netflix

TV Genre: Thriller

Story DNA:
Hero: Tom Ripley, an audaciously unapologetic and amoral grifter
Goal: To steal Dickie Greenleaf’s identity and escape his own
Obstacle: Murder is wrong. And tricky to pull off.
Stakes: Ripley’s questionable soul and the lives of everyone Dickie Greenleaf knows

Opening Image: Amidst a disorienting series of black and white shots of ticking clocks, statues of angels, and Escher-esque staircases, a location title informs us that this is 1961 Rome and a shadowy man drags a presumably dead body down a set of steps with only a bored tabby cat as witness.

Theme Stated: Detective Alvin McCarron (Bokeem Woodbine) approaches Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott) in a bar and says, “You’re a very hard man to find,” which is everything we need to know about Ripley—an average-looking loner, he blends into the background to the point of disappearing. He has no attachments, no relationships; he could vanish for months and no one would notice. Ripley is a very hard man to find because he’s a shadow figure, barely visible, only human because of his voracious desires and uncanny ability to mimic other humans.

Set-Up: We jump back six months to a grimy New York City apartment where petty conman Tom Ripley prepares for his latest grift: a bit of mail fraud that will ultimately garner him the whopping sum of $42.50. That this is Ripley’s modus operandi and thesis world is made clear by his tricks of the trade—an ancient typewriter and a carousel of rubber stamps from fake companies—and the casual, practiced way he perpetrates his scams.

Tom Ripley stands in a rich looking living room
Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley

Ripley is an orphan, raised by his aggressively cruel Aunt Dottie who sends him the occasional check made out for a few dollars as if throwing him crumbs from her table; thus, he is left to prowl his own life like a hungry animal, surviving by devouring smaller, weaker prey.

Catalyst: McCarron tells Ripley that a man named Herbert Greenleaf is looking for him and there “might be some money involved” in Ripley doing some sort of job.

Debate: It’s all very mysterious and vague, which makes Ripley extremely uneasy; it’s fine when he’s doing the suss stuff, but not when it’s being done to him. He starts to feel like he’s being followed and even his scams begin to suffer. He chickens out of trying to cash bad checks at a bank and, after finding out that an IRS agent is looking for him, he goes to see Herbert Greenleaf (Kenneth Lonergan).

With an air of casual interest that masks his watchful skittishness, he listens to Herbert’s story about his wayward and wildly wealthy son, Dickie, who is abroad and refuses to come home. We’re not sure what the connection is between Ripley and Dickie, but Herbert seems to think that they are friends and he proposes that Ripley go to Italy and persuade Dickie to abandon his, ahem, “painting career” and return to the fold. On Herbert’s dime, of course.

Break into Two: As with many of the beats in Zaillian’s storytelling, the Break into Two is strikingly visual and darkly amusing. We cut from Ripley in his broken-down boarding house taking a shower with black sludge coming up through the drain, to Ripley eating oysters on the half-shell as he schmoozes Herbert and his wife Emily (Ann Cusack) in their mansion.

Fun and Games: Ripley starts to fall in love with Dickie (or at least his lifestyle) as soon as Emily shows him family photographs, and the almost feral way he approaches his antithesis world flush with money is both entertaining and unsettling; Ripley nearly salivates over his new dressing gown and expensive suits. After surviving on the leftovers of the jungle, Ripley has finally landed a lion and his delight in consuming it is palpable.

Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf, standing in a church back to the altar
Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf

B Story: Throughout the series, Ripley’s relationships with the people in Dickie’s life (his girlfriend, his friends) will serve to change Ripley, but not for the better. Their trusting innocence and then, mounting suspicion, only fuel him to more desperate and vicious acts.

Midpoint: In a rather hilarious false defeat, Ripley’s entry into Italy is fraught; he barely speaks the language, has no idea where he’s going, and ends up sleeping all night on a bench waiting for the bus to Atrani. After he nearly dies from exhaustion climbing the hundreds of steps to Dickie’s palazzo, Ripley looks genuinely lost, out of his depth, and we wonder if he’s really going to be able to pull this off. Perhaps he’s bitten off more (of the big cat) than he can chew?

Bad Guys Close In: As Ripley is both the Hero and the Bad Guy of this story, he manages to pull himself together and continue on his questionable quest (even while wearing a humiliatingly tiny swimsuit). He finds his prey, Dickie (Johnny Flynn) and Marge (Dakota Fanning), snoozing on the beach and puts his scammer abilities to the test. Dickie and Marge buy in just enough to invite him back for lunch and while the trio makes small talk, we see Ripley noticing and mentally categorizing every expensive object in Dickie’s opulent home.

Dakota Fanning reading a newspaper on an Italian street
Dakota Fanning as Marge Sherwood

All Is Lost: Ripley returns to his lovely hotel to officially check in and as he signs the register, we see that he’s pocketed Dickie’s fancy fountain pen.

Dark Night of the Soul: With a sense of dread, we watch Ripley watching Dickie and Marge as they board a sailboat in the bay, laughing and enjoying their carefree lives. We see Ripley’s face as he covets and calculates, descending into a particular kind of hell where only raw desire matters.

We can’t stop his downward slide, and to be honest, we really don’t want to, because it gives us a sort of icky satisfaction to see the “little guy” win. Ripley is a twisted Robin Hood figure, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, and if the poor happens to be Tom Ripley himself, who are we to judge?

Break into Three/Break into Series: In a roaring Break into Series, Ripley stands before a mirror and rehearses his new identity, “Yeah, that’s right, Dickie. Dickie Greenleaf. Nice to meet you, too.” What will it take for this terrifying transformation to come into being? Only Tom Ripley’s broken compass knows for sure.