NBC’s ‘Revolution’ Makes History, But What Kind?
Monday marks the season finale of NBC’s freshman series Revolution, which has been officially renewed for a second season. The show occurs fifteen years after an American Defense Department project stole the world’s electricity. The former United States is now divided into six discreet regions, each adapting in its own way to life after “the Blackout.” The wide-ranging inaugural season has gone from the northeastern Monroe Republic to the southern Georgia Federation and west to the Plains Nation. It follows teenage heroine Charlotte “Charlie” Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos), who is the daughter of Ben and Rachel Matheson (Tim Guinee, Elizabeth Mitchell), both scientists with some culpability for the Blackout. Now, though, she is under the care of her gritty warrior uncle Miles Matheson (Billy Burke), a former right-hand man to the Monroe Republic’s dictator, Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons). Monroe, who has gained access to some degree of electricity, is one of several players attempting to reach an old DOD facility called the Tower, where the technology exists to restore electrical power.
While reviews (including our own) of Revolution’s first year have been mixed, what I find intriguing is the way the show positions itself to address fundamental questions about the nature of history. By setting the majority of its action well after the Blackout, the series carves out a space of time that the writers fill in with flashbacks or allusions; it creates, in effect, its own history. Yet contrary to what your middle school Social Studies teacher may have believed, history is far from being comprised only of dates and events: indeed, far more important is how we interpret the way in which historical processes operate as a whole. As a fictional television series that generates its own history, Revolution may serve, in a sense, as a kind of narrative historiography, commenting on or exemplifying a particular approach to history. But which approach is it suggesting?
In his book Patterns in History, evangelical scholar David Bebbington maintains that there are, in effect, five major interpretations of history: cyclical, Christian, progressive, historicist, and Marxist. As Revolution’s first season draws to its conclusion, I would contend that the series remains open to two very different interpretations from Bebbington’s list: cyclical and progressive. The tensions between these competing historiographies are what help generate some of the show’s suspense to me, because whenever it ends, its final outcome will differ drastically depending on what philosophy is being adopted.
The cyclical perspective is best articulated in the common aphorism, “History keeps repeating itself,” and, as Bebbington contends, was the reading of history accepted by most ancient cultures. The very name Revolution could be understood in a cyclical sense: history is like a wheel that revolves around and around with no destination, returning to the point where it began. And the fifteen years of history that the series has established thus far indicate a reenactment of history.
The quest to restore power is frequently discussed in the show’s vernacular as “turning the lights back on.” Thus, we are given a science fictional future that begins with a decadent America mirroring the late Roman Empire, collapses into Dark Ages (“the Blackout”), experiences an apparent Middle Ages and Renaissance, and is moving again toward an Enlightenment (“turning the lights back on”). Such a reading of history evokes another great science fiction work, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s post-apocalyptic A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), with three sections that show post-atom-bomb America experiencing medieval, renaissance, and modern eras all over again (with much the same result). And in Revolution, virtually all of the major characters’ names — Sebastian Monroe, Charlotte Matheson, Nora Clayton, Thomas Neville — would fit perfectly well for people in the eighteenth-century American Revolution, an event born out of the Enlightenment era.
Yet in alluding to the Enlightenment, Revolution also positions itself as a reinscription of what Bebbington terms “the idea of progress” in history. Particularly during the eighteenth century, when the Enlightenment was at its ascendancy, writers and philosophers began to construe the historical process not as a cycle of ups and downs but as an (admittedly gradual) rising from barbarity toward greater rationality and civilization. Unlike the pessimism of the cyclical view, which envisioned people making the same mistakes over and over in an unending loop, the progressive approach to history was more fundamentally optimistic.
In this context, “revolution” could imply dramatic change for the better. Enlightenment thinkers largely supported the American Revolution, and many were even more favorable toward the French Revolution until the Reign of Terror set in. In Revolution, then, turning the lights back (i.e., restoring electrical power) could mean the restoration of all the valuable advances that had been lost during the Blackout — this time, perhaps, for the better.
In the first season’s penultimate episode, “Children of Men,” these competing historiographies come to a head. Rachel Matheson and Charlie Matheson finally arrive at the Tower, along with their friend Aaron Pittman (Zak Orth), a former billionaire computer programmer who feels helpless in a world where all his skills have been nullified. However, they find the Tower guarded by some of its original workers from fifteen years prior, who confiscate a notebook filled with technical specifications. As their leader, Dan, is burning the book, this exchange ensues:
Rachel: No, we have to turn the lights on.
Dan: So giving weapons to everyone and then letting them all kill each other. That’s your plan?
Rachel: At least people can defend themselves; at least it will be a fair fight.
Dan: Don’t you already have enough blood on your hands?
Aaron: It’s more than that. It’s medicine and clean water and reason. It means I don’t have to be afraid of someone coming for me or my wife. We can help people. We can make things better.
Dan and his group represent the cyclical view, maintaining that if electricity is restored, then men like Monroe will be joined by everyone else in returning to wholesale slaughter — indeed, while our heroes refer to the electricity as “light,” the villains more frequently refer to it as “power.” Yet here, Rachel, and especially Aaron, speak on behalf of the progressive view (e.g., turning the lights back on, restoring reason, making things better).
The Christian view of history as Bebbington presents it is marked by three characteristics: “that God intervenes in it; that he guides it in a straight line; and that he will bring it to the conclusion he has planned.” Of course, history can appear cyclical at times, as it might when one is reading from Judges to 2nd Chronicles. Nonetheless, as Bebbington observes, these apparent cycles are all subsumed in a greater directed providence. The progressive view of history was in some ways born out of Christianity, and shared its more linear approach and, to a degree, its teleological interest in a better future. Yet the outcome of the progressive future is far less certain than that of Christian eschatology and can appear unrealistic, given how much savagery and bloodshed humanity still demonstrates despite our advances.
We can never be entirely free of the particular historical moment we inhabit. Yet at least one facet of wisdom involves being able to take steps to keep ourselves from becoming so caught up in current events that we cannot rightly estimate our place in the larger outline of history. To do so, we must first understand what we mean by history, and shows like Revolution, even if they may not finally embrace a truly Christian vision, can help us toward seeing ourselves for what we are: characters in one scene of a much grander story.