You light the fuse and hope for the best — sometimes the bomb goes off, and sometimes it just sort of fizzles out. I don’t know if that’s true: I have very little experience with explosives. But the bomb metaphor, however accurate, feels apt to describe a lot of build-up and very little payoff. While “Penance” isn’t entirely a dud, it’s an episode in which the fuse is far more impressive than the explosion in the final act. As Revenge’s disparate story lines come to a head, is it too much to hope for a louder boom?
It’s not even just the one lit fuse: “Penance” is playing with a full set of matches. First, there’s Emily’s takedown of Mason Treadwell, which is going exactly according to plan even when he seems to have the upper hand. These two adversaries squaring off against one another is actually the episode’s greatest asset: Emily and Mason are well matched, and her revenge is season-one-level brilliant. The only real disappointment here is that the conflict is quashed before it can escalate.
Early on in “Penance,” Mason confronts Emily with his story — like so many of us, he’s convinced Em and Amanda are more than just friends. The way he sees it, the two became lovers in juvie and partnered up to take down the Graysons. It’s a compelling version of events (and would make for some excellent fanfic) but it’s a bit too close to the truth to sit right with Emily. Amanda is equally distressed, although her plan is to bludgeon Mason to death, because that’s Amanda’s idea of conflict resolution.
Emily is forced to intervene, rescuing Mason from a gnarly head injury at the last minute. She then reveals the truth about her and Amanda — no, Mason, get your head out of the gutter. I’m talking about the identity switch. (It’s a little strange that he didn’t arrive at this conclusion on his own, especially since he was already certain Amanda Clarke was not who she said she was.) Given Mason’s hefty role in framing her father, Emily is able to convince him to do her bidding. And yes, it’s kind of nice to see someone other than Amanda fitted with an earpiece.
But Em’s ultimate plan is far more sinister — she frames Mason for Gordon’s murder and a conspiracy to destroy the Grayson family. Mason will confess everything and rot in jail (poetic justice for what he did to David) until Emily finishes revenging and sets the record straight. It’s a smart tactical move for Emily but a somewhat weak one for Revenge — how frustrating to let Mason in on the secret, only to shove him into a prison cell for the foreseeable future. He could have made a fascinating ally, and I’m not just saying that because of my weird crush on Roger Bart.
The other ticking time bomb in “Penance” is Kara Clarke, who is off her meds and delightfully zany. (Delightful in the sense that she’s poised to wreak havoc on the Graysons. She’s not Zooey Deschanel in New Girl.) Kara is all set to leave town, much to Emily’s relief, when she decides to cancel her flight and rent a car on Victoria’s dime. Honestly, you’re crazy if you have access to a Grayson credit card and don’t make some extravagant purchases. At Emily’s behest, Mason contacts Kara and urges her to get out of town – but not before trying to do right by telling her the truth about her husband and the Graysons’ attempt to cover up the truth.
Mason doesn’t realize he’s lighting a fuse when he comes clean to Kara, but she returns to the Grayson Manor ready to do some damage. Kara holds Victoria and Conrad at gunpoint as she demands a confession – finally we get to see her go full nutter. But here again, the episode fumbles. Just as things are really starting to get interesting, Aiden pops in with some chloroform and whisks Kara away. Soon she’s sitting in a car with Emily, being handed her don’t-shoot-people pills and told to go somewhere safe. It’s all a little too clean, and it’s sad to see Kara shipped off just as Jennifer Jason Leigh was hitting her stride. She even opened her mouth a little!
I know it can’t all be explosions and car crashes and Amanda flipping backwards over the stairwell and landing on her hand. There’s just something a bit too restrained about “Penance”: It promises dramatic conclusions and then defers the big finish. Revenge drawing out its story lines is nothing new, but there’s a difference between delaying the climax and giving your audience blue balls. Gross analogy? Fine, I’ll stick to bombs.
The rest of the episode is devoted to Daniel’s attempts to gain control of Grayson Global, which is all part of Emily and Aiden’s larger plot to draw out the Initiative. Of course, Daniel’s power play means proving that Grayson Global has a controlling interest in Nolcorp. Nolan completely rolls over on this one, even though he risks losing everything. (I miss season-one Nolan. I miss his backbone. I miss his sex tape with Tyler.) Now that Mason and Kara are out of the way, Emily and Aiden will be able to focus all of their efforts on bringing the Initiative down. Which would be a lot more exciting if we had any idea what the Initiative was.
It’s unfair to characterize “Penance” as a failure, because there are some good moments and compelling twists. On the whole, it just feels like squandered potential — a series of steps in the right direction followed by an abrupt change of course. Come on, Revenge. Let a newly enlightened Mason and Kara muck things up a little while longer. Surely there are some more Grayson family members Kara could hold hostage, and Mason could stand to play Emily’s pawn for a while.
Then again, it could have been worse for both of them — Mason and Kara could have been relegated to the head-scratching “The Gift of Revenge,” a series of Target + Neiman Marcus promos I couldn’t fast-forward quickly enough.