One of the best parts of Revolution’s upswing in quality this season means that we can finally stop talking about all the things the show’s been doing wrong and switch gears to have a much more interesting discussion of the things the show’s doing right. For most of the running time of “Patriot Games” it seemed like the trend would continue and open up a fun discussion of how the central Patriot threat is allowing plots to coalesce well in the early going. There was the enjoyment of seeing someone finally be willing to call Rachel on her bullheaded approach to problems, a couple of unexpectedly clever bits of cinematography, and the relief that the show’s now four-for-four in terms of making sure we get well-executed fight scenes each week.
Then Aaron set two Patriots on fire using only the power of his mind, and it relegated anything else that happened in the episode to a secondary discussion point.
As someone who watches television professionally, it’s always a treat to be given a scene that not only eclipses previous developments in a show, but also lets me say “What the fuck?” with a joyful tone in my voice. And this certainly qualifies. Miles is taken prisoner by two Patriot soldiers for investigating their operations outside Willoughby, and it looks like we’re setting up for a dramatic escape for Miles or his second imprisonment in four episodes. Then suddenly we cut to Aaron and his eyes flickering faster than any REM cycle, we cut back to the mysterious fireflies coalescing in groups, and then FWOOSH! The guards light up like they’re standing under a napalm shower. To say it was unexpected is putting it mildly—even with the knowledge that Revolution’s borrowed heavily from Stephen King books in the past, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed Firestarter to be the next one the show reached for.
To that choice, I have this to say: Bravo! Last season in my frustration, I argued that the writers should go ahead and set this entire world on fire, and now, they’ve given the ability to make that happen to a character who desperately needed something to do. Unlike Rachel, Monroe, or Neville, Aaron has no personal stakes in the Patriot occupation, and no compelling reason to join the fight other than loyalty to his friends. Now, he’s the walking personification of the uncertain post-post-blackout world, an outlier that upsets all of the established rules. Given that Aaron’s best moments in the show come when he’s conflicted and trying to find an answer, solving the problem of what he’s become gives that character an arc that matters even more than his mysterious resurrection. And it also transforms his character into the season’s unstable element: everyone’s scheming and plotting to get the upper hand, and what higher hand is there than pyrokinesis? (Answer: none. As anyone who has played Dungeons And Dragons will tell you, good roleplaying is secondary to fireballing your enemies.)
But just because Aaron being able to light people on fire with his mind (I’m going to keep saying that because it makes me grin wider each time) is set up here, that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing “Patriot Games” has going for it. As the title implies, “Patriot Games” is an episode that proves how much better of an antagonist the Patriots are proving to be than the Monroe Republic last year. While the Republic was an established presence, the faceless evil empire that needed to be beaten, the Patriots are a mystery wrapped in the American flag. As the show progresses, we get to learn more about them week to week, at the same pace the characters are figuring things out. This time, it’s revealed Randall was a highly placed asset but was only one of many, as they’ve got agents scattered across the country in various settlements. We also see that they’re expert manipulators, using captive war clan members as cattle to execute nightly and drag back into town as signs of a continuous threat to Willoughby. They’re also not above using Willoughby’s own residents in that regard, executing someone who gets outside the town’s lockdown and then using that death as a reason for continuing the lockdown. (Ironic.)
And they remain an interesting antagonist because they provoke differing reactions from each of our central characters. Rachel, seeing her theories about Randall’s conspiracy proved right by the rise of the Patriots, is the bull in the china shop, breaking into the office of the commanding officer Edward Truman (Steven Culp) to get more information. Gene tries to rein her in, and it’s a welcome instance where a character finally calls Rachel on her erratic behavior. I still find Rachel one of the harder characters to like on the show because she’s either secretive or single-minded, neither of which play to Elizabeth Mitchell’s strengths, and here, the show acknowledges how hard she is to get along with.
To her credit, she does try for a more measured approach by consulting with her old friend Ken, who listens to her plan and offers to help. That is, once they get some more wine from the cellar behind a heavy locked door. Despite its many improvements, the show continues to have characters making stupid decisions, and Rachel following Ken may as well have Admiral Ackbar in the room shouting at the top of his lungs. Thankfully, she catches on right before he snaps the trap, and despite being chained up initially, she still has the resourcefulness to set him in the grave he dug for her and make off with some coded intel—proving once again that Rachel’s at her best when she’s stabbing someone.
Miles, for his part, opts for his lone commando option, being more successful at eluding the Patriot lockdown and returning to the mill for intel. This leads him to cross paths once again with Titus, now half-mad with grief and rage, and the two share a close-quarters battle that ends with Miles’ hand broken (again) and a knife deep in the war clan patriarch’s gut. He manages to uncover the depth of Titus’ connection to the Patriots and the macabre publicity machine they’ve got going, a move that he regards with disbelief and horror. This is a more straightforward plot than Rachel’s, but one that still works for the closure it gives the Titus arc and the aforementioned spontaneous immolations.
When Rachel and Miles reunite, there’s not much in the way of productive information, but the knowledge of what the Patriots are has had a sobering impact on both. And it’s just enough knowledge to keep the story momentum going, as they recognize the common enemy that it’s time to start fighting. For as much as Miles seems to like keeping his head down, he never can fully get away from his desire to organize, and now it seems he’s laying the groundwork for an uprising.
Back in Georgia, Neville is also working to learn Patriot secrets, and his efforts are proving far more successful than Miles or Rachel. Given that his arc is half a continent away from the rest of the action, it takes extra effort on the part of the writers and Giancarlo Esposito to keep it interesting, which they’ve done so far with the almost reptilian level of patience he’s exhibited. He suffers the low-level tasks and daily threats by his superior officer Cooke, waiting until an opportunity presents itself in the form of track marks up the other man’s arm. Those tracks lead Neville to a local opium den—a nicely decrepit setting, showing how even in a powerless world some areas can still manage to be rundown—where he ties the other man down to extort a promotion and the whereabouts of his son.
And when that doesn’t work, Neville takes one of those satisfying turns that have distinguished his early schemes. So far an assassination attempt turned into saving a life, an elaborate lie turned into the truth with one adjustment, and now an extorted promotion turns into a circumstantial one as he shoots Cooke with a fatal overdose and shows up for work the next day more than happy to fill in for his “missing” superior. The suspicious look on Allford’s face and Neville’s earnest (for him) expression are an excellent capper to the plan, and the developing relationship between the two. Yes, it’s glaringly obvious that he knows more than he’s telling, but someone that competent is worth keeping close.
If there’s a weak link in this story, it’s in the adventures of Charlie and Monroe, who have finally formed an uneasy coalition after Monroe saves Charlie from a pack of thugs who drug her for nefarious purposes. Interestingly, the weakness of this story comes from how little time it’s given to breathe in comparison to the other arcs of the episode—they go from fighting over possession of a knife to riding a caravan to Willoughby together without anything in between—and not because it’s a story pairing up Revolution’s historically weakest performers. Against all evidence from the first season this partnership continues not to collapse, and in fact is working because it lets both play to their strengths. They’re allowed to be stoically silent for the majority of the time, trade a couple of insults or blows, and not trying to force anything more than that. We’ll have to see if that continues when they rejoin the other portion of the cast, or if the secret to their success is keeping them at arms’ length from the rest.
Who knows? If I’m wrong about them, then maybe Aaron can just set them on fire with the power of his mind. Because that is now a thing that can happen in this universe. And it makes this universe all the better for its introduction.
- I didn’t even mention that the fireflies also grant Aaron a rudimentary form of remote monitoring, able to see Miles on his scouting run. Eric Kripke said that they were throwing the laws of physics out the window prior to the season premiere, and evidently, he wasn’t just blowing smoke—there’s fire to go along with it. (Fire from the power of Aaron’s mind. Okay, last one.)
- Those notable bits of cinematography I mentioned at the start: I enjoyed the daughter-mother transition from Charlie passing out to Rachel waking up, and the cross-cutting between Rachel and Neville both cleaning up all traces of their involvement in murdering a Patriot agent.
- This week in good Revolution casting: It’d be hard to find an actor more suited to playing a position of authority in a new America than Steven Culp. In addition to playing Speaker of the House Jeff Haffley on The West Wing, he’s also the only actor I know of to play Robert F. Kennedy in two separate projects.
- While my comparison of Revolution to full-on adventure serial continues to be valid, I appreciate the way it continues to subvert that genre’s damsel-in-distress trope. Charlie’s resistance training lets her fight off a handful of thugs before the mickey takes hold, and Rachel’s willing to break her own wrist—props to the makeup department for the ugly effects there—in order to stab a childhood friend to death and bury him in his own cellar.
- Monroe looked surprisingly heroic, kicking open that door and cutting down the gang with his dual-wielding technique. If he’s going to make a habit of this he should get some kind of flowing outfit. A cloak? A poncho? An Inverness coat? There must be some option.
- RIP Titus. I wish you’d stuck around a while longer, but your grab bag of motivations was pushing you in the same direction as many other disposable Revolution psychopaths.
- “For the love of God, shut down that opium den on Route 3.” Ah Neville, you brazen bastard.