Long ago, in the dark ages before anyone even conceived of such a thing as a multiscreen entertainment experience, there existed movie serials. With such flashy titles as The Iron Claw, Raiders Of Ghost City and G-Men Vs. The Black Dragon, movie serials were the first effort by studios to cultivate regular audiences by way of an ongoing narrative. They lured people in by bringing to life heroes like the Phantom, the Lone Ranger, and Flash Gordon; kept them in their seats by virtue of constant fight scenes and heinous villains; and ensured they’d return next time thanks to (often literal) cliffhangers that constantly left the survival of the central character in doubt. While formulaic and clichéd in many ways—how many times can someone survive an explosion anyway?—they remain an important part of media history, and certainly a building block for the television series of today.
I bring this up largely because after watching two episodes of Revolution, the writing staff seems to be consciously emulating that style. In the often-disastrous first season, the majority of the installments had a weekly objective focus, with Miles and company hijacking a train, recruiting an old comrade in arms, stopping a nuclear explosion or uncovering a traitor in their midst. The approach had its moments, but also served to increase the schizophrenic feel of the show, with missions largely unconnected to what had come before as if the writers were rolling the dice to generate random encounters.
With “There Will Be Blood” and last week’s “Born In The USA,” that approach doesn’t seem to apply anymore. Both of these two episodes have eschewed a sense of weekly resolution, opting to keep the action moving in much the same way as the old adventure serials. There’s an uptick in the close-quarters action and some distinctively villainous characters, while each episode has ended on scenes so deliberately suspenseful or bizarre that interest in next week is piqued immediately. For the first time, it feels like the show has a direction born out of circumstances and character, rather than depending on moving objectives just out of reach. Granted, there are only two episodes to base this hypothesis on, but on the strength of these two episodes, it would be to Revolution’s benefit to follow this path.
Fittingly, the character in the worst shape is Miles—as a swashbuckling ex-military man running from a dark past he’d be right at home at the head of his own serial, so it stands to reason he’s the one in the most trouble. Having been taken captive by the war clan at the end of the season premiere, he’s now languishing in a prison that resembles a veal pen, watching the clan drag other prisoners off behind a mysterious red door. Captivity’s a good vein for Miles, as it forces him to do all the things you want to see out of a hero. He gets to improvise his way out of his prison, get some brutal close-combat payback against his jailors, greet his fate with world-weary detachment (“Listen, I got a pretty full afternoon”) and get a few bones broken for his hubris.
Every hero needs a good villain though, and Revolution pulls out a particularly brutal one in the war clan’s chieftain, a deceptively mild-mannered type named Titus Andover. He’s one of those overt villains Revolution was so fond of in its first season, one who’s so unambiguously evil you root against him immediately. As he tells Miles how he avoided child pornography charges thanks to the blackout and used the collapse of society to turn his former students into a family, a stunned Miles realizes how much trouble he’s in. (He is not stunned into silence, however: “That whole Lord of the Flies thing seems to be working for you.”) This sort of behavior seemed cartoonish at times last season—David Meunier’s Sgt. Strauss was so full-on psychotic it was laughable—but Matt Ross neatly carries Titus as both zealot and pragmatist, and his theatrical bearing makes him an interesting presence in this world.
The end result of his arc is a deeply unsettling series of events. The red-tinted slaughterhouse feel of the prison, the look of genuine loss on Miles’ face as he cradles his seemingly broken knuckles, and the way Titus never once loses his cool in speaking to Miles further the sense of danger that Revolution has managed to reintroduce to its universe. Things felt far too controlled in the early going, and the idea Titus espouses that this is a world that operates with a lot fewer of the controls is an approach the show can definitely use to its benefit.
Over in the Plains Nation, Miles’ niece isn’t doing much better, as she tracks the men who took Monroe to an abandoned swimming pool and winds up chained right next to him for her efforts. This places Charlie in the position of damsel in distress—trussing her up to a pool ladder rather than a train track—but unlike your stock heroines she’s able to exercise some agency. She gets her chance to confront Monroe, albeit with both of them chained up, the latter regretting his role in what Randall did, and the former playing her uncle’s role in telling him he’s full of it. (An interaction that amusingly comes around when he shuts her down in similar fashion: “Miles has the right to talk to me that way. You don’t.”) It’s less painful than I predicted to put the two together, but it is still the least charismatic part of the episode.
Thankfully that’s not a pairing the writers choose to stick us with as Monroe also manages to pull off an escape from the bounty hunters’ clutches, snap one of their necks and beat the other one senseless before fleeing with their caravan. Keeping the two at a distance is smart in these early goings as finding a reason to team up Charlie and Monroe wouldn’t make any sense for either the characters or the story. As rogue agents tangentially tied to the main plots, I’d rather see them pursuing their own agendas than forced into uneasy alliances. (Though I’m disappointed that of the bounty hunters the one-eyed bearded Russian is the one who died, rather than the generically handsome one who’s all but sure to be Charlie’s love interest in three episodes or less.)
While these two plots are largely unconnected, there’s a thread running through both in the form of the mysterious Patriots. At least one of Titus’ group is sending coded messages to Secretary Allford (complete with Eye of Providence wax seal), and the bounty hunters claim the U.S. Government has put the price on Monroe’s head. The war clans and mercenaries make for short-term antagonists, but the writers are opting to play a longer game with the Patriots, limiting our knowledge to only what the main characters know for certain. That’s a smart move, given how the show failed to spend enough time fleshing out any of the political entities in the first season and felt distant as a result.
Learning more about the Patriots in that case requires a point of entry character, and that’s a role that falls to the vengeful Neville, using his talent for duplicity and survival to get closer to Patriot representative Secretary Justine Allford. Revolution’s not about to make Neville into a good guy—he enters Allford’s good graces by sacrificing his partner in a fake assassination attempt—but using him as the lesser of two evils means we still get to root for him in the same way we did when he was pitted against Monroe in later episodes of season one. Neville’s best mode is when he’s untrustworthy, and it’s hard to see a circumstance in this new world that makes him more untrustworthy than this.
If a main plot coming together isn’t enough, Revolution’s also embracing the idea that whatever happened in the Tower has sent the laws of nature haywire, starting with an Aaron resurrection that may or may not have come as a result of supercharged fireflies. Understandably, Aaron’s freaking out over coming back to life, and freaking out even more when he starts hallucinating and thinks he sees Ben Matheson bleeding out in the hallway. This is another a good direction to set the character on—Aaron’s most interesting moments last season came from his curiosity about what caused the blackout, both because of the life he’d lost and because it was a problem his rational mind wanted to solve. Everyone else is concerned about immediate threats and survival, but this is still a world that’s gone through a series of inexplicable changes, and asking questions about those changes is a purpose Aaron is well suited to.
And that’s not even counting the sea of dead rats that Rachel stops upon as she and Gene undertake a rescue mission to free Miles, or the episode’s final reveal of a mysterious catatonic woman in Titus’ company behind the red door that Miles and I greeted with the same dumbfounded look. Again, it’s still early enough in the season run that this could all be a misdirection, and by week five or six, the action could go back to badly conceived sidequest stories as Miles has to invade an abandoned ice cream factory or Rachel finds six more scientists she used to work with conveniently living three towns over. But at least in the early going, Revolution’s done something it almost never did last season: It’s making me want to see the next episode right away.
- One thing the show could still stand to change is its use of flashbacks, as this is now two weeks in a row we’ve gotten flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of the Surge. Given the time jump between seasons, some catching up is helpful, but hopefully they’ll be able to wrap this up before too long as they remain a distraction. (Though they do add one more unanswered question as we see none of our main characters have any idea how they escaped the Tower.)
- Speaking of the flashbacks, in addition to seeing Tim Guinee present in Aaron’s hallucination, we learn Grace is among those rescued from the Tower by unknown forces. While I don’t mind Maria Howell, I’m not sure why the writers didn’t take the opportunity to write her out, given the character doesn’t seem to serve a purpose in the post-post-power world. The jury remains out.
- I love the show’s new recommitment to painting contemporary pop culture as folk legends. Sheriff Mason speaks of the stories his father told of the great Texas Ranger known as Walker, and Aaron keeps the attention of Willoughby’s youths by telling them of a mythical place called New York and its Ghostbusters. Like the acoustic rock covers last week, it’s a smart way to make this world feel like it was built on the ashes of the old.
- Nice callback to season one: Aaron’s trusty flask remains dented from the bullet it caught back in “Sex And Drugs.”
- Triumphant return of the Matheson beatdown! Monroe gets a few good punches in on Charlie when she tries to interfere with his escape. Still just as satisfying as it was last season.
- “I liked you better when you weren’t talking.” I always enjoy Revolution lampshading how unlikeable Charlie is.
- “The microscopic robots resurrected me. That sounds totally logical.”