In a season of television, one of the most satisfying moments is early in the season—usually in the first four to six episodes—when a show reaches the part in its narrative that it clearly wanted to get to from the get-go. Let’s call it a first act climax, where we see that what’s happened so far has merely been setting the board and it’s time for pieces to start crashing into each other. Deadwood did it in its first season after the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok allowed the rest of the town to react to the tragedy and alter established patterns. Breaking Bad did it in season three when Walt finally agreed to cook again, setting new dynamics with Jesse and Gus. The Good Wife appears to be on the verge of a similar climax this year, with the shifting sands at Lockhart Gardner lighting a fuse for explosive encounters.
And now, Revolution has come to a similar point, punctuated by a shotgun blast where one of the show’s formerly worst characters takes out someone who could have turned into one of its best recurring players. The fact that they do this and it still feels like a positive step forward it is the surest sign that the show has shed its flawed first season once and for all like an ill-fitting snakeskin, growing into a darker and sleeker animal. When “One Riot, One Ranger” ends, it does so with a lot of the pieces of the first season thrown back together in familiar combinations, but combinations that are operating better than they ever have before.
“One Riot, One Ranger” certainly starts off right with the introduction of John Franklin Fry, who’s played by the eternally awesome Jim Beaver. I’ve talked several times about Revolution’s excellent track record of guest stars, and Eric Kripke and Ben Edlund (the latter of whom co-wrote this episode) showed terrific foresight in bringing their fellow Supernatural alum in to add “grizzled Texas Ranger” to his resume. Beaver’s thick beard and laconic attitude are entirely in keeping with the persona of post-apocalyptic lawman, and he makes his presence felt instantly when he shows up at Willoughby and threatening the Patriots within 30 seconds of arrival. Art imitates life as Texas considers the Patriots an invading force on their soil, with Fry there to negotiate some sort of truce between the two.
A truce is the last thing on Miles’ mind though. He’s well aware of the fact that Texas has the firepower to put a definite crimp in the Patriots’ expansion plan, and that given Fry’s high standing in the Texas government he could force the issue. That is, if he’s willing to forgive Miles trying to execute him back in the Monroe Republic days. Some of Miles’ best moments last year were the instances where it reminds us of how dark this character’s past was, and this development helps shine a light on that, much the same way his interactions with Jim Hudson and President Foster did last season. Plus, it has the advantage of letting Beaver and Billy Burke sit around a sheriff’s office like weary old comrades, sipping whiskey and discussing what the Patriots mean in the grand scheme of things, the sort of scene you could watch for half the episode.
No time for that though as it’s only the first of three reunions for Miles today, as Charlie makes her presence known to her uncle once he leaves the sheriff’s office and takes him out of town for a reunion with his former best friend. So far this season Revolution has been practicing a divide-and-conquer strategy of pursuing narratives in three separate regions, using each narrative to both flesh out the Patriot menace and provide some necessary rebuilding of the main characters. It was an open question about how well these stories would work once they started to come together, and an even larger question in the case of Charlie and Monroe. The two characters played off better than expected, particularly in last week’s “Patriot Games,” yet the specter of the truly dreadful scenes from last year always kept alive the concern that if not kept in their own corner the show might fall back on bad habits.
Thankfully, in the early goings these turned out to be unfounded concerns, as Burke and David Lyons recapture some of the good charisma they shared early last season. There’s some flickers of danger—Lyons’ voice cracking as he talks about Philadelphia’s destruction treads close to his hysterically awful breakdowns last season—but for the most part they react with each other as you’d expect from former friends on unfamiliar territory, falling into old patterns and remembering better times. The fact that those old times involved various massacres and assassination attempts is clear to both men however, and the thinly veiled tension in their words yields hope of a stronger foundation this time around. Plus, it leaves Charlie alternating amusingly between peacekeeper and outsider, their obvious closeness leaving her feeling out of sorts.
It also helps that the show throws the three back into action almost immediately, as their pursuit of proof to give Fry leads them into a shootout with a Patriot squad where they’re seriously outgunned. Once again we teeter dangerously on Revolution’s bad habits—the move away from close-quarters combat to generic cover-based shooting was a frequent criticism last year—but it avoids that by using it to prove that as deadly as Miles is, when he’s teamed with Monroe he’s twice as efficient. Calling up an old strategy using a shorthand that infuriates Charlie (“You remember South Bend?” “That’ll work.” “You guys are just naming cities!”), the two move behind enemy lines and gradually pick off the Patriot soldiers one by one. It’s effective close-quarters action that reinforces the deadliness of each man and their almost unconscious awareness of each other, knives in the dark and short rifle bursts into enemy backs.
If Miles and Monroe are rediscovering their abilities, Aaron’s barely holding onto his. Unable to come to terms with the fact that he’s now able to set people on fire with the power of his mind (still so much fun to say), Aaron decides that this power is too much to handle and runs away. Rachel tries to talk him back, but he reveals that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened and—courtesy of another set of flashbacks—we learn that his relationship with Cynthia began when her abusive husband fell victim to an unexpected fire after slapping Aaron around. Apparently there’s an anger-based component to this ability, which means Aaron can now be described as some combination of the Incredible Hulk and the Human Torch. In terms of character growth, you couldn’t ask for more than than that—and it also complicates the story further by asking even more questions about the nature of his powers, given the prior implication was it resulted from his resurrection.
It seems like Aaron and Rachel could be heading for their own separate narrative to replace Charlie and Monroe’s sojourn, as Aaron tries to keep his powers under control. However, the show clearly decides it’s spent enough time with everyone on their own quests and throws everyone together with Aaron’s vision of Rachel’s daughter, love interest and archenemy together at once. It’s almost startling to see all five of these people back in a room together after circumstances have kept them apart for so long, especially given the fairly brutal things they’ve been put through over the last few episodes—but at the same time it’s kind of fun to see these characters playing off each other again in oddly familiar patterns. Miles being frustrated is always a great dynamic to watch, and we know for a fact that few people can get under his skin like his niece—his biting delivery of “Thank you Charlie, that was very helpful” when the latter wanders into the confrontation brought back fond memories of similar “God damn it” scenes in the first season. And if Miles and Monroe are back to their obvious tension, Charlie and Rachel’s relationship has now festered seem beyond the aid of any family counseling: Rachel calls her daughter an idiot, and Charlie says her mother wasn’t worth coming back for.
Sadly there’s some truth to Rachel’s words, as Charlie hasn’t yet shed her reliable penchant for stupid decisions and managed to leave the Patriot captive unattended long enough for him to crack his cyanide tooth and throw Miles’ proof out the window. Fry tries to offer some half-hearted promises of discussing matters with the Texas command, but the matter is taken out of both their hands when Monroe takes a shotgun to the Ranger’s back. In Revolution’s history of killing off promising guest stars before their time, this is the most egregious and upsetting of them given that Jim Beaver should by law be on at least three episodes of every drama be it broadcast and cable. However, it’s the unexpectedness of it that makes the moment stick, and also a moment that gives Monroe some necessary shading beyond being the one everyone hates: he’s the “dark pit” of the group, but he’s also the one who’ll do the things no one else will to meet his goals.
I know I’ve probably spent too much time in the last few weeks talking about how remarkable it is that Revolution’s been able to dig itself out of the hole it made last season. With “One Riot, One Ranger,” I’m retiring that conceit, because it’s entirely obvious that it’s no longer a comparison worth making. Five episodes in, Revolution has vaulted far past the show it used to be—and given the dynamic it’s holding onto, there’s remarkable hope it could leap even further.
- Back in Georgia, Neville’s planning hits another snag with an escort mission for Allenford turning into an ambush. Turns out the Patriot hierarchy don’t appreciate her objections to their “reprogramming” center where they’re using drugs and conditioning to mold young minds to their cause—one of those young minds being Jason, whose well-being is the only reason Neville doesn’t let her bleed out in a ditch. Neville’s felt like he’s been on his own show this whole season, but it’s been a good show that has helped to illuminate the bigger picture of what the Patriots are up to as opposed to what the Willoughby group is learning gradually. Plus, the “keep your enemies closer” relationship between Neville and Allenford has been satisfying to watch, and it should be even more interesting given Allenford is now an ex-Patriot.
- While Aaron’s vision of Charlie, Monroe and Miles works to unite the central cast again, they’ll have to be careful with this clairvoyance as there’s a considerable risk of turning it into a contrivance for pushing things forward. The immolation power though? They can do that whenever they like.
- Serious Western vibe this episode, between Fry and his fellow rangers riding into town on horseback, the sheriff’s office chat between Fry and Miles and the run-down mill location where the meeting takes place. (Bonus points to the latter for letting Beaver say “bucolic” in his inimitable way.)
- Charlie’s evolution into stoic fighter is getting better, with her tank-top and shotgun combo evoking some Sarah Connor comparisons in my head. (Speaking of, it’s a deep sign of the show’s increased quality I completely forgot to mention the Matheson beatdown of last week when Charlie got knocked around by the gang before Monroe’s triumphant rescue.
- Sigh. Cynthia’s husband. See kids, this is what happens when a plot device tries to look like a real person.
- “You smell like liquor. That’s a non-starter.” Thankfully Willoughby’s school district and The A.V. Club have different standards when it comes to employment.
- “So, Monroe. That’s quite a twist.” “Get upstairs!” Annoyed Miles and Aaron stating the obvious always makes for good times.