“Chapter One — The Beginning” makes for a stylish and ominous opening to Netflix’s new revisionist historical drama.
This recap of La Revolution season 1, episode 1, “Chapter One — The Beginning”, contains spoilers.
“It is said that history is written by the winners. It is forgotten that it is rewritten over time.” These are the words that open La Revolution season 1, episode 1, and they work as a scene-setting mission statement for Netflix’s new revisionist historical drama as a young girl atop a bloodsoaked horse beheads a nobleman with a machete and blue blood erupts geyser-like from his neck stump. The scene sees the stark white snow sullied by the violence. It’s a striking, beautiful-looking opening, but subtle, it is not.
“Chapter One — The Beginning” cuts immediately to two years prior, the end of the year 1787, and introduces us to Rebecca, a 16-year-old, idealistic lower-class girl whose murder apparently marked the beginning of everything. From a deep hole in the ground, she staggers into the darkness of a crypt. Light peeps in through a cross-shaped hole in a locked door. Rebecca manages to get a desperate arm through before she’s dragged back inside, her martyrdom, so the narrator tells us, having changed the world forever.
These two opening scenes are stylish and eerie. As far as first impressions go, they very much give off the vibe La Revolution is intending to; handsome, lofty, and more than a little stylized, both visually and narratively. Things start bedding in at a swanky aristocratic shindig in the very next scene, as we meet young Madeleine de Montargis, violently seizing while dreaming of Rebecca. She signs what she saw with loving help from her noblewoman sister, which leads the attending physician to declare she’s maladjusted. Her uncle could demand her institutionalization. She is, we get the sense, an outcast among the family in more ways than one, not welcome among the upper-crust.
Madeleine’s sister, Elise, visits the corpse of Rebecca, which is being held in a candlelit morgue off a grimy street. Her corpse was discovered on the de Montargis land and her death, supposedly caused in a cannibalistic attack — we’re treated to a shot of Rebecca’s chewed-up flesh to confirm this — is all over the papers. She also possesses a tattoo symbolizing her membership of a rebel fraternity, members of which Elise’s uncle has decreed unfit for proper burial. She can’t receive any sacred rites without Elise’s say so, and the attending Father has no choice but to appeal to her compassion. These people, the famished, are her people; burying Rebecca will prevent further discontent from bubbling up among the underclass, even if it might cause division in Elise’s own household since the rebels have declared war against the nobility. Elise instructs the Father to see she’s buried with dignity.
We promptly meet Joseph-Ignace Guillotin patching up some peasants, so it’s established already that both of our protagonists are on the side of the downtrodden, even if they’re caught, in many ways, between both worlds. Joseph is working in a prison, where he’s apparently working on a smallpox vaccine, using himself as the noble test subject. He also has a new assistant in the pretty, inquisitive, and obviously world-wise Katell. At the prison arrive a contingent of new inmates including Rebecca’s supposed murderer, who arrives muzzled like Hannibal Lecter and whose body is scarred with the telltale brands of a disobedient slave. Joseph examines and questions him, much more gently than the rest of the prison staff. The man reveals his name is Oka and he’s familiar with Joseph’s own name, Guillotin. He knew his brother, Albert. He also claims not to have killed Rebecca, triggering a vision and a seizure in Joseph very similar to what Madeleine experienced.
Later, Joseph visits the priest who sheltered Oka, and who also raised Joseph and Albert. But he can only provide counsel, not a genuine lead, though we do learn that Albert was apparently killed by the Montargis, putting him, presumably, in opposition to Elise, despite her sympathies for the peasantry. Speaking of which, when Elise discusses the Fraternity with her fellow nobles, the Viscount literally laughs in her face when she proposes more egalitarian policies, declaring that politics is a man’s pursuit. So is, presumably, clay pigeon shooting, but Elise quickly proves herself to be a dab hand at that. Hopefully, she shoots the Viscount next.
Joseph examines Rebecca’s corpse himself, convinced of Oka’s innocence, but his appeal to have this put forward to a court is met with only a threat in return: If he continues to be obstinate, then he’ll no longer be an orphaned medical prodigy who rose up from the gutter — he’ll be an orphaned medical prodigy in the gutter. Nevertheless, his protestations don’t fall on deaf ears and are reported, prompting Oka to be visited by a man who reminds him that his death is part of a plan to ensure no questions are asked. A conspiracy is afoot! This man, who explains how he viscerally enjoys such matters and rejoices in sharing the demented bloodline of a father who joyously butchered 17 servants and always lamented not being able to kill more before his eventual arrest, stabs Oka with a shard of glass. Katell summons Joseph, believing he has attempted suicide. Together, they ensure his survival. Joseph explains to Katell that Oka is innocent and that he clearly didn’t attempt suicide. He was in the prison’s isolation area, so he must have been attacked by someone of enough means to bribe access. Whoever is really guilty of Rebecca’s murder is trying to cover up their involvement, he deduces, obviously correctly.
At his brother’s grave, Joseph runs into Elise. They know each other, and Elise had a relationship with Albert — she loved him, despite their differences in station. Joseph blames her for his brother’s death; he believes a Countess should have known what a relationship with an orphan would mean, and the kinder choice would have been to reject him. That pain wouldn’t have killed him, at least. In flashbacks, we see Elise and Albert together, see them caught by Elise’s father, and see Albert be dragged outside and executed. The character dynamics are starting to come together now, and the underpinnings of the plot are clear. An innocent woman has been murdered by persons unknown in the midst of class conflict between the Fraternity and the nobility. Both our heroes are opposed to aristocratic tyranny but come from starkly different backgrounds. And as “Chapter One — The Beginning” ends with another servant girl being tossed into the hole that we saw Rebecca in at the top of the episode, it’s obvious that the cycle is going to continue until Joseph and Elise work together to do something about it. Then again, a final shot and bit of narration suggest that, with Hell becoming full, the dead are about to return to Earth. That, I think, is plenty to be going on with.
Thanks for reading our recap of La Revolution season 1, episode 1, “Chapter One — The Beginning”.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.