Just about any type of art requires the audience to suspend their disbelief to at least some degree. TV generally asks just a little bit more of its viewers, we know that a series can’t really change, it won’t simply end Emily’s quest for revenge at the end of the first season and happily pair her off with Jack, but on some level we need to buy into that as a possibility for an episode like “Reckoning” to work. We have to believe in Emily’s joy at the possibility of being with Jack for us to be truly heartbroken at the sight of a returning Amanda whose pregnancy has crushed any hope of the pair uniting. What this finale made me realize was that I really just don’t care about almost any of the characters on this show, Nolan being the main exception. When the revelations and cliffhangers start piling up at the end of this episode I should have been left breathless and wrapped up in the emotional wringer the characters were being put through, instead everything felt like rote obstacles that needed to emerge so the series could keep moving forward. I could only see the artifice of the storytelling and was unable to get swept up in the rush towards the episode and season’s ending.
As excited as I was about Revenge rocketing forward and catching up with the season opening engagement party well before its season finale, I’ve become convinced that it probably wasn’t the best idea. I’ve come to really appreciate this series over the course of its first season, but this final stretch of episodes has displayed the limitations of the show and its writers. Revenge is a lot of fun, but it’s not the most original or inventive series around. The surprising appearance of the engagement party in episode fifteen was one of the boldest moves the writers made, but they’ve floundered to a degree in its wake. On a better show that bit of misdirection could have served as a surprising transition into the new endgame for the season, but Revenge’s writers have struggled to pin down just what the series is building to this year when they removed that built in season ending hook.
There’s just something special about the way a TV series can flash back to its origins. Part of it is seeing the way events were set in motion and the appeal of seeing those early moments fully laid bare, there’s also the added fun of the way a series evokes the past through kind of awful wigs and actors playing decades younger versions of themselves. Tonight’s episode of Revenge dives fully into the history of the show and its characters, and while there isn’t a huge amount of new information to be gleaned from the proceedings its still an immensely enjoyable hour of television. It’s campy in all the right ways while still hitting on just enough legitimate emotions to carry the whole thing off. It’s exactly what I want out of Revenge and while it’s definitely not an episode I’d point a new viewer towards as a gateway to the series it’s the perfect payoff to the nineteen episodes that have come before it.
Revenge has been off the air for about a month and a half, and while I wasn’t thrilled with the last few episodes that we got they were still more than enough fun to have me anticipating tonight’s new episode. “Doubt” left me a little cold though, but not for the reasons I might have expected. Where many series might have elected to return from an extended hiatus with a slower paced episode that worked to catch viewers back up with the series’ characters and ongoing plots Revenge’s writers instead decided to go full bore with the plotting. That’s a decision I’d normally applaud, but I couldn’t help feeling that the reckless abandon with which the episode threw itself into the machinations of its characters and the developments of the plot left the hour feeling both unnecessarily confusing and fragmented. The story has a basic hook, the Graysons attempt to mount a defense for Daniel while Victoria does her best to get him out on bail, but all the business around that central storyline felt a little too much like the writers attempting to remind us just how crazy Revenge can be rather than telling a cohesive story.
“Scandal” is a bridge episode of Revenge, it’s mostly concerned with making minor adjustments to the playing board and repositioning characters ever so slightly for the final run of episodes this season once the series returns in April. Sadly, much of the business it tasks itself with is dull stuff that essentially restates what the viewer either already knew or suspected. One of Revenge’s chief strengths has been how its taken expected courses in unexpected ways, the accelerated team up of Amanda and Tyler for instance. “Scandal” doesn’t manage this feat though, as the episode dutifully doles out expository scene after expository scene in ways that become more than slightly redundant by the end of the episode.
The realization that “Chaos,” the fifteenth episode of Revenge’s first season, would be the episode to catch us up with the season opening flash-forward was a welcome one. Revenge’s writers have been excelling at mixing things up, taking the story in directions the viewer has anticipated but doing so in unexpected ways. At first it seemed like a pretty safe assumption that we wouldn’t get to see just what was going on at that engagement party until the season finale, and while “Chaos” feels very much like a season finale at times, the fact that there’s almost a third of the season left makes it all the more exciting. It’s a damn fine episode, quickly cycling through and paying off a variety of plots that have been building over the course of the season, never dwelling too long on any one aspect of the series and finding compelling ways to get the most out of every situation it finds itself in.
As Revenge has picked up steam its storytelling has gotten more assured. The show started out with simple stories that featured Emily running circles around her prey and readily dispatching them just as the viewer knew she would. It was a decent little bit of fantasy about getting payback on the unsympathetic rich, but it wasn’t spectacular either. As the show has added more and more variables into the equation things have gotten much more intriguing, Emily’s become a much more fully fleshed out lead and one who is not entirely sympathetic. Her actions are having more and more unintended consequences and in “Perception” those consequences take even Emily by surprise. It’s a fine line Revenge’s writers are walking, if Emily loses too much control over events she ceases to be an impressive figure at the center of the show’s universe, but if she retains too much control the viewer is robbed of the gleeful uncertainty that erupts during the show’s finest moments.
“Commitment” never reaches the fevered intensity that some episodes of Revenge manage, but in that lunacy’s place there is a slow, steady burn of betrayals, reversals, and important character moments that make it extremely compelling TV. It’s a textbook example of the kind of storytelling that could keep Revenge viable for the long term as it doesn’t go too far in demolishing the status quo while still managing to add some exciting new wrinkles to the story. It’s also an episode that wrings some effective thematic heft out of the series and does an effective job of placing Emily in an even more dubious light, all things that the show seriously benefits from.
Last week I was upset that Revenge decided to casually resolve, or at least put a pin in, most of its more ongoing plots. It was a move that felt like it undercut most of the work that the first half of the season did and a potential return to the early days of the series where it was a fine show but wasn’t quite as assured of itself as it became over the course of its first ten episodes. While I was right that the show would fall back into a more procedural mode following “Duress” I was wholly wrong about the possible negative impact that would have. “Infamy” is a fantastically well-handled hour and is a strong argument for the moves made last week even if I don’t think they made for a particularly compelling episode of television.
I feel like my opinions on Revenge bounce back and forth between admiring the show’s guts and being underwhelmed by its fairly standard time killing installments. I was a fan of the mid-season finale, and hoped that it signaled the show putting its foot down on the accelerator and throwing caution to the wind. It was a finale that promised the stakes had been upped and that the relationships the show had been cultivating had been thrown into a new light. I was quite upset to find that upon the show’s return tonight it took the easy way out at almost every opportunity, defusing tension, quickly repairing damaged relationships, and refusing to reveal any information to the characters that might prompt them to more immediate action.