Arrow "The Undertaking" Review: Playing Catch-up

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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?



NOTES FROM THE QUIVER

– "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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