On a pure entertainment basis, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of watching Oliver Queen kick the collective asses of Team Arrow 2.0. Now, that is a personal thing and probably something I should work out with my therapist, but I also think that image–Green Arrow quickly dispatching with Rene, Curtis, Evelyn on an empty stretch of road–serves as the perfect visual metaphor for Arrow season 5. Because for all the external threats our heroes face (Prometheus, Tobias Church, whatever secret Adrian Chase’s smirky-ass face is hiding), the real story of this season has been Oliver Queen vs. His Team and, by extension of that idea, Oliver Queen vs. himself. Last night’s episode, titled “Penance”, built on that tension, highlighting the core differences between Oliver and the team by, for the most part, keeping them apart.
Well, it kept them apart until Oliver found the perfect entrance line.
But really, let’s compare the two major action pieces that held “Penance” together. Look at Oliver: With just the help of Lyla Michaels, he pulled off a near-seamless, sleek prison break with the help of Bruce Wayne’s bungee-plan and some neat, surface-destroying spray (still not sure how you keep that stuff in a bottle, though). Even the guards at this high-tech, military grade prison barely put up a fight; the fight scenes, usually Arrow’s biggest draw, during Diggle’s rescue were slim to none and that was the point. Oliver, good old tunnel-visioned Oliver, had a mission and he carried that thing out.
But at the same time, his moral compass, the reason this mission existed in the first place, was awfully askew. No amount of brotherhood chats or episode-ending goodwill can erase the fact that John Diggle did not ask to be rescue; he asked for the opposite, actually, but Oliver decided what Diggle wanted was wrong. Stephen Amell has become so comfortable as Oliver by now he’s more than capable of conveying two meanings at once; listen to Oliver’s conversations with Felicity pre-jail break. He’s trying to convince himself this is the right choice just as hard as he’s trying to convince Felicity.
And then you have Team Arrow, who suit up without Oliver for the first time to stop an assault by Tobias Church on the Anti-Crime Unit, Quentin Lance and D.A. Chase included. They have heart, sure, heart and a ancient set of magical rags. But they’re sloppy, too. Curtis takes a knife in the back, Rene gets captured by Church and the only reason Evelyn avoids making a major blunder is because Arrow‘s writers tend to forget she is a character for large stretches of time. But what they all lack in finesse, they make up for in pure selflessness. Felicity tells Oliver not to safe Diggle because he’s being selfish. She tells the team not to go to the ACU because they’re being too heroic, too soon. “I didn’t join this team to stay safe,” Rory says.
“Okay, go!” Felicity answer, relenting in a way she most definitely did not for Oliver. “Don’t die.”
Now, because this is Arrow we’re talking about, all this cleverly constructed, parallel storytelling couldn’t go without something infuriating that goes against hard-earned character work. I mentioned Rene was captured by Tobias Church by episode’s end, but did not touch on the fact that it happened because Rene, who we have seen gunning people down on every mission so far, chose instead to engage Church in a fist-fight because…well, actually, I don’t know why. There’s very little build-up to it; Church drops his weapons and dons brass knuckles because that’s what he does. But the fact that Rene does the same thing, holsters his guns instead of shooting Church in his face, works backward from all we’ve learned about Wild Dog so far. That’s where we want the character to be, eventually, brash and hotheaded but overtly-honorable enough to be goaded into a “fair” fight. That’s the point we find Oliver after five seasons of development. But Arrow hasn’t done that leg work on Rene yet, so the obvious parallels the show is going for come off less revelatory and more, well, dumb.
The episode ends with Rene strung up and bleeding, the lone member of the team to be left behind. “I’m gonna break your soul,” Chruch says. “There’s gonna be very little left for the Green Arrow to work with.” Which is a promising development, both for the show and the character, but I just wish this episode gave Arrow as a whole a little more to work with when it came to Wild Dog.
There’s something I’d be remiss in not mentioning, since “Penance” gave it so much time: the ongoing tension between Ragman and Felicity, over that small snafoo where Felicity nuked an entire town and killed Rene’s entire family. The reason this entire storyline doesn’t land with me is because it’s Arrow trying to make small moments from a time it went way too big. There’s an element of hard-to-ignore ridiculousness over every poignant moment, every far off stare from Joe Dinicol and teary apology from Emily Bett Rickards, because the rest of the country seems to have moved on from the time a nuclear bomb fell from the sky. In a way it works with the team dynamic–there’s a great tension that comes from working alongside the woman who killed everyone you’ve ever loved–but this entire plot point just ultimately ends up glaring like a mushroom cloud in the distance.
Plus, and I hate to say this, giving the deepest pathos to Rene is a tough sell because, Grodd help me, those rags are just so silly looking. It’s nearly impossible to root in earnest for a character that looks like the losing screen of the Slender Man game.
- There’s a lot of discussion over whether or not Adrian Chase is secretly Promethues, fueled mostly by the fact the Adrian Chase of New Teen Titans was Vigilante by night. While Star City’s District Attorney is certainly more than he seems, I’m mostly distracted by the fact that Josh Seggara looks SO MUCH like Kevin Alejandro, and I spend most of the time wondering why no one notices Sebastian Blood is standing right there.
- The Russia flashbacks continue to be surprisingly relevant and, more importantly, highly entertaining. Oliver’s trip to a Russian jail, and quick, brutal dispatch of the man he’s there to interrogate, earns him his official entry to the Bratva. “You trust us, now we trust you,” Anatoly tells Oliver, a lesson Oliver will struggle mightily for his entire life.
- Arrow is using Tobias Church perfectly, bringing him into the picture only when he’s absolutely necessary, and the freewheeling swagger that Chad L. Coleman brings to the role is spectacular. Dude rocks a purple velvet jacket like I only do in my most confident dreams.