After a fairly disappointing first episode, I was genuinely curious what course of action Revolution was going to establish for its week-to-week structure. The pilot threw a lot of balls in the air, introducing the daily challenges of living in this unplugged world, the immediate goal of getting Charlie’s brother back, the overarching threat of the Monroe Republic trying to control everything in sight, and the mythological question of why the lights went out and if they can be turned back on. The order the show caught them in, therefore, was obviously going to color my future understanding of the show, and answer my primary concern of whether or not Eric Kripke and J.J. Abrams understood exactly what made this premise so interesting in the first place.
And for a large part of the episode, it seemed as if they did. “Chained Heat” gives a reasonable picture of what a typical Revolution episode could look like: a weekly objective for Miles, Charlie, and company to meet on the road to recovering Danny, side appearances from Neville and Monroe that give the action an additional layer of menace, and a gradual release of details to establish the post-power world’s status quo. There was enough action to give credence to Jon Favreau’s claim that the show is designed to contain weekly ass-kicking, as well as well-handled little moments that demonstrate the loss felt by those who lived through the blackout. Unfortunately, the last five minutes of the episode demonstrated that the show’s not only still invested in its big questions, but is prepared to pull out increasingly more outlandish details in trying to answer them.
Continuing the “Revolution as televised RPG” analogy, much of “Chained Heat” revolves around Miles’ realization that his party has an archer and healer but still needs additional firepower if it’s going to get Danny back and take on the Monroe Republic directly. He takes a detour to the community of Pontiac to look up an old friend, demolitions expert Nora Clayton (played by Danielle Alonso, a.k.a. Carlotta the magical Latina nurse from Friday Night Lights). He learns that she’s been taken captive by a militia chain gang that’s hauling a derelict attack helicopter to General Monroe, and embarks on a solo rescue attempt—though that quickly goes out the window when Charlie follows him. It gets even more complicated when Nora reveals she’s less of a prisoner and more of an opportunist, out to snag the sniper rifle held by the militia captain.
This is the sort of storytelling that Revolution is going to need in its early going: secondary objectives that build to the primary one, adding little details of character and setting as it goes. And this one is a good start, displaying both the draconian measures of the Republic (the prisoners pulling the chopper might as well be slaves hauling blocks for the pyramids) and Monroe’s fixation on to recapture the tools of the past. There are a lot of good moments from Billy Burke, including two swordfights, another human weapon sequence when he takes out a half-dozen bounty hunters while in handcuffs, and of course a slew of frustrated one-liners as he has to work with others. (Personal favorite: “Charlie, next time I want to kill someone, let me kill them.”) Nora also makes for a useful addition as she gives Miles a love interest, gives the group someone who can jury-rig a derringer from spare parts, and gives the show a new layer in the reveal that there’s an organized resistance against the Republic.
Unfortunately, having these two be so interesting exposes the fact that at least in the early goings, Charlie isn’t. Given that she’s not the fighter her uncle is, she’s forced into the role of wet blanket for most of the episode, first insisting that he not kill the bounty hunter and then insisting she be allowed to join Nora’s escape attempt. This isn’t so much Tracy Spiridakos’ fault, as the character’s not asked to do much beyond look sullen, have a conflicted relationship with militia scout Nate or stare off into space and trigger a flashback to when her mother told her to never let go of her brother’s hand. She’s not annoying, but she’s simply there, protecting her brother less out of demonstrated affection and more because it’s what she’s done her entire life.
On the other side of the narrative, Neville’s convoy takes a detour on its way back to camp when it follows the sound of a gunshot. Unsurprisingly, Giancarlo Esposito was the most magnetic part of the pilot episode, and this continues his track record with several different yet enjoyable flavors of Neville on display. He’s openly gregarious when discussing his wife’s steaks with the illegal weapon’s owner, uncompromising in carrying out the death sentence, tender in administering an overdose to a wounded soldier, and fanatically focused when he defends the Republic’s tactics. It also helps that Graham Rogers keeps his mouth shut most of the time, and when he does speak, it serves as an excuse to let Esposito invest lines like “I appreciate the honesty” with the implied promise of breaking someone’s neck.
Interestingly enough, what Neville seems to be angriest at is the sight of the gun owner’s American flag—the same symbol Nora has tattooed on her back, and the symbol of the anti-Monroe rebellion. And I see that as a promising sign for the show. Sooner or later, the multiple threads of these early episodes are going to have to come together, and the recovery of Danny isn’t going to be enough to keep things interesting long-term. If there’s a reasonable conflict established within the world’s constraints that the core characters gradually get drawn into, that turns into an engine for more narrative beyond the big question of what turned the lights off. This could also be the key to turning Charlie into more of an active figure, as she’s the only one to point out that there’s still 30 people being held prisoner while Miles and Nora are feuding over how to get one rifle, and be indignant over the fact they don’t seem to care.
Unfortunately, the last five minutes of the episode indicate the show’s more problematic elements are still hanging out, as two major reveals are forced into the denouement to derail most of the earlier momentum. The first is a faceless figure identified as “Randall,” who’s sporting one of the silver acorn medallions around his neck and somehow gaining the ability to operate a cattle prod, which he turns on fellow medallion-owner Grace. And the second is the reveal that Charlie and Danny’s mother Rachel is not in fact dead, but being kept under guard by Monroe and his soldiers as an “honored guest” until she gives away more details on the blackout. (Though the latter is a reveal seen coming miles away, given that you don’t make Elizabeth Mitchell a regular on your show and have her appear only in flashbacks, regardless of whether or not she gets to shoot people in them.)
And with these reveals, all I can do is sigh. Certainly Revolution is allowed to have a mythology, but if the show wants to fixate on pre-blackout thoughts, what works so much better are the smaller, humanizing moments, such as Maggie admitting she holds onto her iPhone because it’s the only place she kept photos of her children. There’s a lot of story potential to the Revolution universe, and the more it ties the actions of the post-blackout world to the pre-blackout one, the more it seems like that potential’s going to be obscured.
- “Chained Heat” and all future episodes will be shot on location in North Carolina, as opposed to the pilot, which was shot in Atlanta. So far, both settings don’t feel much like overgrown Illinois, but there is a cohesion between the two with good use of woods, swamps, and overgrown terrain.
- The show also introduces another NBC drama opening sequence, which is less awful than what Grimm added this season but still fairly meaningless. And also the source of Revolution’s corniest line yet, which I pray won’t become the show’s logline: “We still don't know why the power went out, but we’re hopeful someone will come along and light the way.”
- In welcome guest star news: Monroe’s chief torturer Sgt. Strausser is played by David Meunier, better known as Johnny Crowder from Justified.
- Neville spells out the terms of the Baltimore Act, in that it is illegal for anyone to buy, sell, own, or transport a firearm on penalty of death. Given its name, presumably there’s a clause that makes those penalties even worse if it’s violated on Sunday mornings.
- My interest in what caused the blackout is far lower than Aaron’s, but I do like his frustration at not being able to explain it: “Totally cornholed the laws of physics.”