The twist that comes towards the end of “Soul Train,” the fifth episode of NBC’s Revolution, isn’t really all that much of a twist, given how thoroughly it was forecast throughout tonight’s episode. And yet, it’s a story beat that serves to flesh out one of the show’s dullest characters in “Nate” (J.D. Pardo) while also providing layers for the series’ most compelling figure, Captain Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito). “Soul Train” is not only a great episode of adventure television, but it’s also remarkably well-observed in detailing the gradual transformation of a meek family man into a cold-blooded villain with a mean streak a mile wide, and a chip on his shoulder to match. The intrigue of a character like Captain Neville depends almost entirely on the actor playing him, as this role could have descended into caricature pretty quickly without the nuance Giancarlo Esposito brings to the part. Esposito is capable of turning on a dime, transforming from the reserved man Tom once was as an insurance adjuster, to the menacing warrior he’s become in an increasingly unruly, chaotic world. “Soul Train” is very much vested in the interests of Charlie’s (Tracy Spiridakos) continued search for Danny (Graham Rogers), but it’s the story of the Nevilles that anchors the episode.
Nate’s identity as Jason Neville, Tom’s young son, is given away more by the astute casting choices than by any clues we’d been given. Young Jason, in the flashbacks to the night of the Blackout and its immediate aftermath, looks undeniably like J.D. Pardo. I imagine the wordless standoff between father and son in the episode’s climax would have been more resonant if Pardo were a better actor, but the material still works because there’s a strong arc being charted. We start out with Neville engaging in a bit of bare-knuckle boxing with Danny, who can barely defend himself against a man hardened by fifteen years of field experience. When Neville engages in another of his cliched speeches, Danny finally just tells him to shut up, accusing him of having to beat up an eighteen year-old kid to feel tough. This triggers a flashback that kicks off the episode-long arc which follows Neville in his gradual development from world’s doormat to world’s bane. There’s also the kernel of an idea beneath it all that illustrates how Nate has lost respect for his father. It plays out almost entirely through glances between Nate/Jason and his father: from confusion at the sight of his father taking his aggression out on the heavy bag in their basement as a child, to the sight of his father taking his aggression out on a would-be burglar post-Blackout (a man who’d once been their neighbor), to the climax on the train, where Nate/Jason seems disgusted at the idea of how much his father seems to enjoy hurting people. It’s all subtext, and time will tell if it becomes text, but there’s a distance between father and son that’s at least as wide as the gulf between Charlie and Miles (Billy Burke). And that’s saying something.
As for Charlie and company, they’ve buried the late Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips) and are moving on to Noblesville to rescue Danny. Unfortunately, once they get there, the group discovers that Danny is being transported to Independence Hall in Philadelphia (presumably the capitol of the Monroe Republic, if not simply its headquarters) by train. The aesthetic of Noblesville, coupled with the steam-powered train and the mottled blues of the militia uniforms, situate us within the show’s antebellum iconography, to where a casual onlooker would think the show took place during the Civil War. This visual flair is to the show’s benefit, as I can’t think of many shows on TV right now with as distinctive an aesthetic signature as Revolution. The plot itself is pretty good too, with demolitions expert Nora (Daniella Alonso) meeting with a contact within the resistance named Hutch (Jeff Fahey) to plot the destruction of the train, which is carrying countless high-ranking officers and soldiers in the Monroe Militia. This creates a ticking time-bomb scenario, whereby Miles and Charlie have to get Danny off the train before the explosive concoction (hidden in a log that will send the train up in flames once it catches fire in the train’s furnace) detonates and kills everyone on board.
The plan ultimately backfires, however, when Nora spots Danny on the train and gets second thoughts about going through with it, leading to Hutch knifing her in the gut to stop her from retrieving the bomb, claiming that he’s doing this for the memory of his late wife. Now it’s up to Charlie and Miles to storm the train, stop the bomb, and save Danny, which makes for some fittingly exciting television, even if sending Charlie to confront Captain Neville was the dumbest idea this side of putting Jay Leno on at ten o’clock every weeknight. As the flashbacks continue, we get a better sense of Neville as a truly deadly opponent, owing to a sense of weakness and helplessness from years of being tread on by the people in his life, from a boss who fires him for doing the right thing, to a jackass neighbor who plays loud music at all hours of the night, and then has the temerity to try and steal from his family.
Even though it was jarring for Nate/Jason to see his father act so overtly vicious in the past, he understood then that it was out of necessity, that there were good reasons for it. Moreover, I think that at some level, Nate/Jason could see that his father didn’t really enjoy having to beat a guy to within an inch of his life. But when he asks Nate/Jason, in the show’s present, to bring the captured Charlie forth so he can “shoot the bitch,” Nate/Jason knows that he’s dealing with a different animal altogether. He has no reason to kill Charlie other than for her boldness in standing up to him in the first place. Taking Charlie prisoner would likely have earned Neville countless commendations from Monroe, earning him even greater leverage in his attempts to break Rachel’s will. But he decided to be selfish, to take things personally. Whether it’s the conflict between father and son or the determination of a sister to save her little brother, there really is nothing more personal on Revolution than family.
Even Charlie is back to banging on the Family Unity drum, confronting Miles over a memory she has of a time when she was riding in the car with him at age four. She remembers him singing, as loudly and as happily as his voice would carry, and Charlie simply wants to know what happened to that man. While Miles initially insists that the man he once was is dead, he later changes his tune and states that it’s simply the kind of man he can’t afford to be right now. He has responsibilities. Like any family man would. Although they failed to rescue Danny, their success in stopping the train from exploding means they can live to fight another day.
The “lengths you’ll go to for family” theme is further conveyed in Monroe’s attempts to get Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) to tell him what she knows about why the power went out. Upon seeing Danny for the first time in fifteen years through the window of her room, she finally relents, and makes a drawing of the pendant, one of which is currently in possession of Aaron (Zak Orth), who nearly loses the trinket to a suspicious Nate, before making up a story about how the necklace belonged to his late wife. Rachel explains that she had been working together with her husband on the project, and though we don’t know the nature of the project they were working on, we do learn that there are twelve pendants. If General Monroe (David Lyons) wants to know how he can turn the power back on, then he’s going to have to find them. If that’s the case, then he’d damn well better hurry, since he’s taking fire from the resistance on one side, and the insurgent Georgia Federation (the United States south of the Monroe Republic) on the other, and neither side seems too keen on relenting
“Soul Train” is the best episode of Revolution so far, by a country mile. It’s an episode that’s as high on dramatic tension as it is quieter character moments. Some of the dialogue is patchy, and Tracy Spiridakos can be occasionally grating, but she’s a lot closer to the actress I felt could be a genuine breakout star when this series started, than she is to the situationally petulant girl she’s been the past two weeks. The hunt for Danny continues, but with that detour, we’re opened up to a whole wealth of new story possibilities. Will Danny and Rachel be reunited? Does Danny even remember his mother? And who has the other eleven pendants? (We know Grace had one, and she was abducted by a man who had another) This is becoming a really fun show, to say nothing of how deftly it handles subtext and theme. It’s genre fiction, but it knows what it is, and is confident in its storytelling because of that sense of identity.