In The Art Of War, Sun Tzu posits that the key to victory over an opponent is to feign weakness and immobility before roaring back to life, thereby shocking your vulnerable, overconfident prey. It’s the kind of philosophy Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) often voices in the narration that bookends episodes of Revenge—but it also makes a tidy metaphor for the show’s miraculous third-season reconstitution. It’s not rare for a heavily serialized drama to scramble back to its feet after a season-long stumble, but Revenge did it so effectively that pretending to run off the rails during a disastrous sophomore year could’ve been part of the plan all along.
Revenge enjoyed a splashy, well-watched first season, because it delivered exactly what its title and marketing promised: an unabashed nighttime soap with well-heeled, debauched characters saying and doing awful things to each other—and looking great while doing it. Unfortunately, Revenge overplayed its hand in season two, complicating Emily’s plan to avenge her wrongfully accused father by introducing a broader conspiracy plot, a spate of problematic characters, and romantic interests who turned a soundly built love triangle into an exhausting parallelogram. The show strayed far enough off course to warrant the replacement of its original showrunner, creator Mike Kelley, leaving long-time producer (and Kelley’s successor) Sunil Nayar with the unenviable task of rebuilding Revenge.
A year later, Revenge has ascended even past its season one heights, thanks to Nayar’s decision to do in season three exactly the opposite of what Kelley tried to do in season two: take an inherently self-limiting premise and use it to the show’s advantage. “Fear,” the season-three premiere, starts with an intriguing teaser—Emily, resplendent in a wedding gown, gets shot and tumbles off a yacht—and even features a winking reference to season two’s woes. (“Let’s never say the words ‘Carrion’ or ‘Initiative’ again,” Emily says, referring to a computer virus Gabriel Mann’s Nolan designed in one of season two’s many wobbly storylines.) But this was a pale imitation of season one. Revenge is a dish best served cold, but Revenge had become a dish served cold after being prepared by someone who knows how its supposed to taste, but doesn’t know what ingredients went into it.
Fortunately, “Fear” wasn’t a roadmap for Revenge’s third season. Instead, it was a show of good faith, an explicit indication to the audience that the writers were aware they had quite a bit of ground to make up and were committed to the challenge. It was a full eight episodes until Nayar displayed a solid idea of what it would take to return the show to form. At the end of “Secrecy,” Amber Valletta’s Lydia reenters the picture, last seen boarding a doomed plane in the season-one finale. Lydia’s return was thrilling not only because she’d been away long enough for viewers to forget about her, but also because she’s one of very few people not allied with Emily who knows Emily’s true identity. The writers wisely brought Lydia back, because it complicated the protagonist’s quest, reintroducing a character who knows Emily is actually Amanda Clarke, daughter of the accused terrorist financier framed by the villainous Victoria and Conrad Grayson (Madeleine Stowe and Henry Czerny).
Valletta’s return was the earliest clue of how Nayar planned to return Revenge to its former glory: by increasing its momentum and sending the show in unexpected directions when it appears to be reaching a dead end. On several occasions, it looks as though Emily is within a few moves of checkmating Conrad and Victoria, but there’s always an unanticipated factor, a hurdle, or a miscalculation that leaves her just shy of that goal. That could easily be an irritating dynamic for a show struggling to prove it doesn’t intend to spin its wheels indefinitely, but Revenge made it work by incrementally reducing the space in which Emily has to operate.
Emily’s biggest setback is in the non-chronological opening shot of “Fear,” which finds her floating in the ocean, gut-shot on her wedding day by an unseen assailant who is eventually revealed to be her new husband Daniel. It’s a move the show has to commit to, because marriages generally don’t recover from attempted murder. Laying bare her plan to infiltrate the Grayson family and destroy it from the inside makes Emily’s path to revenge more circuitous—yet another choice that showed how well the new, go-for-broke direction was working for Revenge. The show is now doing what all great modern dramas have done, prestige fare like Breaking Bad and Homeland and pulp like Scandal alike: It’s creating the illusion that there’s no logical path forward, which makes it all the more satisfying when that path is illuminated. And for fans who watch the show primarily to watch Emily and Victoria snipe at each other, it ratcheted up the cattiness by pushing their interactions, once merely laden with hostile innuendo, to unvarnished, mutual hatred.
But more than that, narrowing Emily’s options amplifies the show’s central themes, one of which is that the best laid plans often go awry. Erecting incessant roadblocks in Emily’s path also deepens Revenge’s central question of how much of a person’s humanity must be sacrificed and how much collateral damage must be inflicted in the pursuit of wild justice. There is opportunity after opportunity for Emily to take a step back, to get some perspective, to realize that perhaps some prices are too steep to pay—even if it means destroying the people who ruined her life. But with each move, and each tragic result—the shooting, triggered by the revelation that Emily faked a pregnancy, ironically leaves her infertile—Emily only gathers more steam, more resolve, more terrifying discipline in her goal of razing the Graysons.
So too has Revenge reclaimed its focus, and with a finale that may out Emily as Amanda Clarke once and for all, it could go into its likely fourth season in the best possible place of all: with seemingly nowhere left to go.
Created by: Mike Kelley
Starring: Madeleine Stowe, Emily VanCamp, Gabriel Mann, Henry Czerny, Josh Bowman
Finale airs Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: One-hour drama series
Full series to date watched for review