Arrow "The Undertaking" Review: Playing Catch-up

By Noel Kirkpatrick

May 02, 2013

Arrow S01E21: "The Undertaking"

I've discussed this topic a bit before—possibly in a review, definitely in the comments—but one of the reasons that Arrow's Lian Yu plot has generally been more "exciting" than a lot of the rest of the show's storylines is that its narrative is largely unknown to us as an audience. We don't know what'll happen next there, we don't know who will betray whom, and neither do the characters on the island. Everyone's on edge, including us, to find out what's going on. 

In contrast, we as viewers are able to see more or less all the pieces of the present-day arc, while the characters have no idea what's happening. Some of those pieces may be a little fuzzier than others, but we have a pretty good idea of how things are working, and where things will likely end up, story-wise. The issue with "The Undertaking"—if you want to call it an issue—is that it made an effort to get all of our characters on roughly the same page. But we've already been on that page for months, so mostly we've just been waiting for them to catch up to us, and that's not always the most exciting thing, especially in situations where the individual case-of-the-week isn't particularly interesting.

I don't really think it's an "issue" so much as one of the pitfalls of serialized storytelling and giving the audience a bit more information than the characters have. It's a good way to shore up viewer frustration against the notion that the writers have no idea what they're doing with the story, since they can give us scenes that hint at the direction they're heading in, but it can also kind of suck of the suspense out of things. Typing all of this, I realize that we as an audience—and I mean the general "we," not me and those of you who will read this—are pretty damn difficult to satisfy. 

I mean, really, "The Undertaking" could've been worse. It could've been "Across the Sea" from the final season of Lost. (Now there's horrible "Let's give you a lot of answers!" episode.)

The most notable, and welcomed, element of "The Undertaking" was the shift in emphasis with regard to the flashback scenes. Instead of returning to Lian Yu, we went all the way back to the days leading up to Robert and Oliver heading out to sea on the Queen's Gambit. It was a nice break from Lian Yu, and it allowed us a few glimpses into how some of these characters were before the crash. Moira was happy and not secretive. Oliver was Pre-Island Oliver in spades ("Jerk pizza guy can't break a hundred."). Malcolm was already pretty dark. Laurel was... well, let's talk about Laurel for just a second.

We all know how different Present-Day Oliver is from Island Oliver, and this week we got to see Laurel before all the hardship. She was girlish but still kind of serious, trying to force Oliver into speeding up their relationship by nudging him out of his clearly arrested development. It was probably the most comfortable I've seen Katie Cassidy on this show, and through her performance and the writing, it was easy to see why Oliver would've come to this epiphany about Laurel being someone who always saw the best in him, and why he'd want to continue to have her in his life. It helped to explain the love triangle just a bit more. I'm still not wholly interested in it, but at least it fleshed things out a little.

Anyway, back to the bigger, more interesting stuff from the flashback. We learned that Malcolm had been spearheading the Starling City clean-up mission for a very long time, and that how they were going about it—extorting corrupt folks on the list to do right by the city—wasn't all that different from Oliver's way. Instead of giving the money back to the people, however, Malcolm and the group were funneling it into more police funding and whatnot.

It just wasn't enough for Malcolm, though, and I want to stress how much I really felt keyed into John Barrowman during his scenes. There were hints of this in "Dead to Rights" during Malcolm's acceptance speech, but Barrowman knocked it out of the park as Malcolm explained his complete and utter desire to level 23 square blocks because he didn't pick up his phone as is his wife was dying in the Glades. It further locked in that Malcolm very much sees himself as the hero in all this, and that he believes that those around him, like Robert, just don't have the necessary vision and resolve to carry through with the mission. It harkens back to conversations that Oliver and Diggle have had about priorities, and where to draw a line and at what cost. 

In the past, I've discussed (and in turn, many of you have also discussed) Arrow's struggle to properly frame its vengeance-versus-justice conversation. While it continues to be a very murky thing—and perhaps it's for the best if Arrow never fully attempts to address the topic directly ever again—the series has at least offered different gradients involving Oliver, Helena, Diggle, and Malcolm (along with a few of the villains of the week, like Firefly and the Savior). Shading the discussion through character actions and plans as opposed to characters just talking about it at least makes a little more dynamic than Oliver lecturing someone on his perceived notion of the differences. And this week we saw how those who may not have the stomach for it get harmed or corrupted as we learned that Frank was the one who placed the bomb on the Queen's Gambit.

The rest of the episode was spent getting Walter back (hurrah!) and making sure that Oliver (finally) realized that Moira was in on the plot to destroy the Glades. Felicity in the underground casino worked really well for me, and it opened up a fresh set of dynamics for her and Oliver in this partnership. She's clearly, and a bit surprisingly, good at the fieldwork aspect of this job, and hopefully this means that come next season (or this season if there's still time), she'll get to do more of it.

Oliver learning about Moira's involvement with Malcolm, and identifying Malcolm as the ringleader, felt a bit...random? There was no set-up for it, and instead we just panned away from Malcolm's office to see a listening-device arrow and Oliver across the way. I guess he followed her after giving Thea that quick and comforting hug? Certainly's Moira intense reaction to the news of Walter's death—Susanna Thompson was great there—would raise suspicions, but we were missing a small scene to connect those other two scenes. 

It did serve two other purposes, though: 1) It gave that moment between Oliver and Malcolm in the hospital all sorts of delightful intensity that I'm eager to see play out over the next two episodes; 2) It knocked the wind out of Oliver enough for him to go and apologize to Diggle. This happened a little fast for me, but I'm hoping that the show provides some actual ramifications for Oliver betraying Diggle's trust in how the two interact and work together (I'm assuming that Diggle's not going to sit by and let Malcolm destroy a significant portion of the city). Otherwise, what was the point of Diggle quitting at all then?


– "I know we haven't talked about Walter in a while..." From Thea's lips to everyone else's ears, show.

– Oliver parachuting onto that tenement building? Yeah. Pretty ridiculous.

– I really liked Diggle's apartment. I also hope he painted all of that art.

– "You've always had something of a god complex, Malcolm. It’s part of your charm."

– "It feels really good having you inside me... and by 'you' I mean 'your voice' and by 'me,' I mean 'my ear.'"

– "Oliver! You're in school!" "Not really... I tried to tell you that."

– DC Comic Fun Facts (haven't done these in a while!): First up was a nice mention of Ted Kord, the first second Blue Beetle. Kord had no superpowers, he was just a super-smart guy who wanted to better the world through his inventions and his super hero-ing. Second was the Markov Device, the earthquake-causing machine from Unidac Industries. It was named for Brion Markov, the superhero named Geo-Force. As you might've guessed, he had the ability to control the Earth, including causing earthquakes.

What'd you think of "The Undertaking"?

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  • Finn75 May 05, 2013

    Great episode and a good review! Also on the DC fasts list: Blüdhaven mentioned! Although I think they've mentioned Starling Citys neighbour before, but it's always nice to get a DC reference, especially since it's the home of one Nightwing AKA Dick Grayson :)

  • Draconax May 05, 2013

    Some things I really enjoyed about this episode:

    a) Backstory into the "Undertaking". While I always enjoy my Manu Bennett, it was nice to get more into the reasons behind this whole thing, and why Oliver's parents, and Malcolm, were actually doing what they were doing.
    b) Felicity. Seriously, I could watch her all day (and not just for the eye candy!). Her line about having him inside her had me spewing my water. The entire show could be about her, and I would tune in every week...
    c) Walter is back. Yay!

    On the note of Walter, I wanted to point out that I think they deliberately had no tie-in scene to Oliver leaving, specifically for the surprise. If they had included a small scene in between, with him gearing up and taking off after his mother, we would know immediately that he was going to find out. This way, when we saw the arrow in the wall, it suddenly became "oh shit! He knows!" I think it worked out well this way.

    Some things I didn't like:

    a) No Manu Bennett. *sadface*
    b) See a).

  • asmakm3 May 05, 2013

    Great review, I love this show and enjoyed this episode in general although some parts worked better for me than others - Felicity/Oliver scenes were among the highs.

    There were a few issues I had with Ollie's beard continuity (it was distracting and a littler weird) and that god awful hair in the flashbacks but those I'm ok to overlook. A little more sceptical about the parachuting in though.. I generally enjoy the action sequences & the way he regularly manages to dodge a hailstorm of bullets has made me think they're almost trying to see how far they can push it - I imagine eventually one day he's gonna pull a super blurry Neo 'Matrix' style move to dodge one & then just walk away like 'yeah no problem' and by then we'll be so used to it no-one will bat an eyelid. But stlll, I felt that parachuting in shot was random even for Arrow.

    Malcolm's reasons for taking out the Glades on paper seem a stretch but John Barrowman's performance sold it so well, you can see that he honestly thinks of himself as the hero and as someone who has the strength to 'do what needs to be done' in his eyes - much like Oliver in a twisted way. But yeah, Barrowman was so on it in those scenes.

    I also loved the scene in the hospital between Oliver and Malcolm, the look on Ollie's face right before he turns and then the forced measured responses - Stephen Amell got those expressions perfect & the undercurrents were suitably tense.

    On a random note, I loved the shot of him sitting in the corner in the dark after finding out his mother was in on everything all along. His body language sort of reminded me of the earlier island Oliver, almost like he just let it all in for a bit till Felicity came in and he pulled himself out of it.

    Hmm two more episodes to go - I'm trying not to expect too much but I can't help feeling the excitement at seeing what they throw at us.

  • kevbuffylost108 May 04, 2013

    LOST can never catch a break, people moaned about the finale not answering enough questions and now the reviewer for arrow is saying that 'across the sea' answered too many questions.
    i think your so wrong on so many levels
    im loving arrow, i thought it had a very rocky start (with a very over-rated pilot) but later in the season i started to fall in love with it. i thought 'the undertaking' was a very good episode, it wasnt the best of the season but up there in contention.
    but 'the undertaking' is in no way close to LOST's 'across the sea'
    'across the sea' is a very polarized episode, some people hated it, some people loved it, and i am one of those people who loved it. i thought the answers they gave were enough to make it interesting, the acting was amazing, the story was amazing, the birth of the smoke monster was beautiful, it was a beautifully told episode that some people hated because they didnt like the answers they got or they thought there were lack of answers

    but the LOST writers always said they hated answers been spoon fed to them, they even use the matrix' architect as an example of how answers are spoon fed to the audience by just sitting there and telling them whats happening, and in my opinion that is a very bad way of telling a story
    LOST is my fave show (joint with buffy) and i know some people hated it, or hated the finale or across the sea, but to put arrow in the same league is atrocious, arrow will never be as good as LOST nor will it gain the attention or cultural impact that LOST did. compare it to similar shows like smallville, shows that are in its league.

  • slayme3 May 16, 2013

    I totally agree. LOST is in a league of its own and while season 6 was certainly not as strong as their epic season 5 - it is still ten times better than anything Arrow has produced. Compare the worst ep of LOST (well not that ep with Nicki and Paulo but any other one) to any ep of Arrow and the bad LOST ep wins hands down IMO.

  • Draconax May 05, 2013

    I think part of his issue was not so much the answers given, but the way in which they were given. I can't say for certain, never having gotten through the series (which was terribly overhyped), but it seemed from the way Noel wrote it that that was his meaning.

  • MarieLaureDep May 03, 2013

    The episode was good but it clearly lost rythmn in the middle. Loved seeing Felicity in action, once again. She's the best character on the show, in my opinion. Robert's reason to "cure" the Glades was very shaky. He "accidently" murdered a guy, so he should kill a thousand people? And about Oliver's parachute : does he own a plane or something? If so, who is the pilot? I want answers to those questions, show.

  • totomomo182 May 03, 2013

    Finally a good episode I was beginning to lose faith on this show

  • docspector May 03, 2013

    You forgot to note that GeoForce had a sister, Tara Markov, who ALSO had earth-shaping powers, and infiltrated the New Teen Titans to assist Deathstroke to destroy them.

    I'm kind of confused about something... are "The Glades" really only 24 square blocks (4x6)? or do they mean 24 blocks square (576 square blocks)?

  • TomWayne May 04, 2013

    I wondered the same and rewound with captions to be sure I heard it right--maybe it's narrow (a la the Narrows in Gotham in the Dark Knight films), although even at 3x8, that's still under a mile long.

    Which brings up the potential suspension-of-disbelief issue of creating an earthquake intense enough to level that small of an area without taking out most of the rest of the city??? Even if it was an island (like the Narrows), it'd be hard to create a remotely believable "natural-looking" earthquake that would level that section but wouldn't substantially take out a much larger area. Or maybe "god-complex" Malcolm doesn't care about that, and his conspirators are really that geologically stupid to think he's only taking out the Glades. (At least Ra's-al-Ghul.and Bane admitted that they had to take out all of Gotham in order to "bring justice," to continue the Dark Knight trilogy parallel).

  • C3rn0baL May 03, 2013

    love the show. this has been one of the funniest and coolest episodes. felicity is by far my favorite character. one thing i don't get though... WHY IS THE HOTTEST GIRL ON THE SHOW PLAYING A GEEK? Seriously! I'm half expecting Felicity to do the superman move and reveal a big S on her chest. There is no way a girl that hot and beautiful is that spazzy in real life.

  • GreyMinerva May 03, 2013

    So spazzy girls can't be pretty or considered hot? And all naturally beautiful women are - what? Gracious and genteel? Bitchy and cool? Or just about anything, as long as it's not spazzy?
    I call bullshit. ;)
    Although she DOES wear better makeup and dress better than most geeks I know, I'll give you that. ;)

  • bendylegsnick May 03, 2013

    Anyone else seeing that Laurel is Lana? Man, Lana sucked...

  • Demonstrable May 02, 2013

    I would put this one in the top-tier of Arrow episodes.

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