Revenge returns for its fourth season this Sunday with less audience goodwill and far fewer viewers than its onetime apparent imitator Scandal. While it hasn't been officially declared to be the final season, it's not hard to imagine. There are plenty of reasons why the show has reached its current cultural standing – but none of that changes the fact that Revenge is back to being great.
Yet if things had gone a slightly different way, the show may have never had to make a comeback at all. There was a moment in Revenge's second season premiere when it seemed like everything was going to be great for years and years to come. [So many spoiler alerts. Every spoiler alert. If you haven't watched Revenge and plan to, turn back now.]
Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) – formerly Amanda Clarke – learns a secret from youngest Grayson child Charlotte that blew her mind. She runs out of the memorial party for Charlotte's mother, Victoria (Madeleine Stowe). Victoria, of course, had died in a plane crash at the end of season one before she could testify against her husband, Conrad, as to who set up Emily's late father, David Clarke, for a terrorist crime he didn't commit. But after sprinting through the woods and coming upon a cabin, Emily knocks on the door to find – surprise! – Victoria Grayson.
"What in the hell are you doing here?" Victoria asks a panting Emily. Cut to commercial.
It was the exact kind of frothy, high-octane camp that made most of Revenge's first season delectable, largely because it was between these two characters. Even Victoria's face – a slowly yet subtly morphing expression of surprise as she opens the door – was sensational. To see the show striking the same tone in its second season was a reason to feel relieved. No sophomore slump here. Everything's going to be fine.
Of course, everything wasn't. Shortly after, Revenge got too lost in its deep mythology, sacrificing its pedal-to-the-metal plot drive for answering questions with questions. Put simply, it pulled a Lost or, more accurately, an Alias. It became an action-driven series that saw Emily facing off against (and being assisted by) scores of far less interesting (mostly) men and (a few) women. There was talk about "the Initiative," a shadowy group with little identity or clear purpose. It was deeply tied into the show's mythology, but it failed to grab the audience's interest.
Rapidly, the show turned into a striking antithesis of its first season, Revenge season two was boring, and a soap opera really can't afford to be boring.
Fast forward a year. Creator and showrunner Mike Kelley steps down – or is forced out; it's never been made quite clear – and another producer, Sunil Nayar, is tapped to take the reins. Within the first episode, Nayar showed that he had a keen sense for what made the show great. In a spectacular twist, Victoria and Emily team up to oust Ashley Davenport, the aimless and uninteresting thorn in the show's side since day one. But instead of just sending her away offscreen during the midseason, the series leads dispatch her in spectacularly over-the-top fashion.
"Get on that plane, and go back to Croydon," Emily spits at her, channelling pure Krystle Carrington. When Ashley responds that the two women are evil, Victoria doesn't deny it. "What we are, like it or not, is family." It's like Dallas moved to the Hamptons.
Other moments in the episode indicated the new showrunner knew what he was doing. The flash-forward mystery – who shot Emily at her wedding? – was enticing. Dumb plot threads were cut at their base, while potentially quite campy and enjoyable ones (hello, Victoria's hunky and sexually flexible son Patrick) were fostered. And in a nod to viewers' complaints about the show's complex and shadowy organization, Emily told her partner Nolan Ross, "Let's never say the words 'The Initiative' ... ever again."
Unfortunately, because so much damage had been done to the show in season two, it took some time to recover. New, less interesting plot threads about a French magazine owner's family were introduced. The show kept Aiden, Emily's least interesting lover, around for the entire season. Even if the show knew what to do, it couldn't speed it along for fear of narrative whiplash.
That's why the last four episodes of the third season were so sensational. After a year of just wanting to get there, get back to what made the show great, it finally got to make its move. Conrad went down. Aiden was killed. Victoria, finally learning the truth about Emily's identity, was committed to a mental institution after falling prey to an impressive gambit. Emily's revenge was complete.
So. Now what?
From what we've seen so far of Revenge's fourth season, the answer to that question is "a return to form." The season is being set up as a reversal of itself – a duel between Emily and Victoria, two women who have done a lot of bad to each other over the past three years and both have reasons to want vengeance. Emily may have done it all in the name of her father's innocence, but Victoria's still looking at a family broken by the girl who moved in with a fake name three years ago. Her husband is dead, the love of her life killed at his hand, and her children are going to need years and years of therapy. Even the key art for the show foreshadows the new dynamic – for the first time in Revenge's run, it features Victoria in addition to Emily, in her own dress of thorns. Emily may still be foregrounded (she's still the star), but Victoria is coming for her.
At the end of the day, this show has always been strongest when exploring the thorny (pun totally intended) relationship between these two. What started as two women distrusting each other at yacht parties has evolved into a deep web of deceit. Their hatred of each other is a passionate investment at this point – for them and for us.
If Nayar and his team successfully keep the show's conflicts grounded between these two – using the other stories to serve their main plot – he will have created a season of television about two devious, manipulative, complex women playing mental chess for 22 episodes. This is an ambitious goal in a television climate that rewards difficult men far more often than it does women – where women are rarely allowed to interact on an adversarial plain in the way you might see men interact on shows like Breaking Bad and True Detective. If Revenge can indeed pull that off, we're in for something truly special.