I think this may be the most balanced episode of Arrow we've seen in a long while, and I say this despite the fact that at the halfway point of "Trust but Verify," I typed in my notes that it was very stuffed. There was the case of the week and its accompanying threads; there was the Thea, Moira, Malcolm plot; there was the Tommy, Laurel, and Malcolm plot; and there was an island flashback. But it all ended up coming together in very productive ways.
Let’s dig in, shall we? The case of the week involved Diggle’s old commanding officer, Ted Gaynor (played with just the right degree of mock innocence and dangerous aggression by Ben Browder), not only being on the list but also potentially robbing armored trucks. Of course the whole thing put Oliver and Diggle at odds with one another, as Diggle wasn't convinced of Gaynor’s badness, despite Oliver’s faith in the list, and the similarity between the tactics employed against the trucks and those Gaynor used overseas.
Compared to last week’s rather miserable case, this one had time to breathe. Diggle did some investigating, and the episode put Gaynor’s involvement in the whole plot under at least enough doubt that, even though it was inevitable that he was involved (he was the guest-star of the week!), between the casting choice of Browder (he plays good guys!), his meal with Diggle, and the red herrings, I wouldn't have been totally surprised if he wasn’t the mastermind. And it was all possible because things happened around the case that didn’t involve just shooting things.
The case didn’t set Oliver and Diggle at odds as much as I would have liked, but the tension between the two, rooted in the nature of Oliver’s mission and methods, has been a recurring one, so questioned validity of the list gave it an added dimension that can be explored further down the line. But it also served to reaffirm their overall trust in one another, and that was the ultimate goal for this particular case.
Speaking of issues of trust, Thea had some with Moira after she blew off a birthday shopping spree to go meet with Malcolm but said it was Queen Consolidated business. Thea assumed that history was repeating itself because just before the yacht sank, Moira spent an awful lot of time with Malcolm while also fighting with Robert. The situation also drew Oliver into the mix, and nicely so, as he confronted Moira about Thea’s suspicions and she told him it was indeed a business issue (Malcolm’s got lots of great advice!) and also that Robert was a philanderer (not completely sure I buy that, but who knows?), and that explained the fighting.
Thea’s suspicions were generally justified (the heavy-handed shots of Malcolm’s hands on Moira's body made sure we arrived at the same connections), but her behavior didn’t completely click (she was yelling at Moira to be more focused, and then she was too erratic). Once again, the lack of a really firm baseline for Thea’s behavior prevented her story from working as well as it should have. The issues she’s dealing with, including her emotional baggage, can explain the inconsistencies and help to justify her backslide into drug use with the green Vertigo narcotic (important plot point for next week, folks!), but her arc is still hobbling the show a bit; Thea needs to feel like a character instead of a bag of shifting neuroses.
So while Malcolm was trying to maneuver Moira into dealing with a rogue member of their little club who was attempting to gentrify the Glades, he was also trying to... teach Tommy another lesson, I think? I’ve been patient with the whole Tommy and Laurel subplot, and was hoping that Malcolm’s presence in it would shake things up a bit, but it didn’t. I haven’t minded it being separate from the rest of the show, but Malcolm’s direct intervention in it, with no form of integration happening as a result, was just frustrating as hell. And I’m really not convinced that Laurel needed to try to see the good in Malcolm again. Yes, the episode showed a softer side of Malcolm with him staring at an old family photo in his lair/dojo, so Laurel wasn’t completely off-base, but her complete and utter belief in people is just becoming a bit too much to swallow.
That belief in people is what provided the final twist of the episode: Oliver’s savior on the island, the Chinese archer, turned out to be in league with Fyers. It taught Oliver his first big lesson of trust on the island, and it mirrored his own trust issues in this episode (I really loved how he didn’t let Moira off the hook very easily). If I didn’t care for the flashback last week due its failure to complement the main plot and feel gear-turny, I’m willing to forgive it as this week paid off the gear-turning and managed to provide a parallel to the rest of the episode.
And that’s why the episode worked so well. Gabrielle Stanton’s script balanced Arrow’s different genre impulses very well, and everything was ultimately thematically coherent, with each plot offering some variation on the episode title of "Trust but Verify," and the perils of doing the former without also doing the latter.
– Nick Copus, who directed this episode, didn’t break the mold with any of his choices, but little touches, like the slow-mo leap during the Oliver’s interruption of the robbery, called back to—though didn’t match—David Nutter’s work in the pilot episode. But it gave the sequence a nice way to kick things off, and felt a bit like a splash page from a comic book.
– Ted Gaynor is a character from the comics, but it’s a character who's outside my knowledge base. I do know that he was a member of a group of World War II pilots known as the Blackhawk Squadron (referenced with the Blackhawk Security company name, obviously), but that his time with the squadron was fairly short-lived, and that he wasn’t particularly happy about that.
– While I’ve been annoyed with Arrow killing off its villains-of-the-week, this is really the first time I’ve been legitimately frustrated. I’m not entirely sure where Gaynor could’ve gone from here, but I would’ve liked to have seen that potential future, and for Browder to return to the show.
– Was that a Merlyn Global Groups decal under the Blackhawk decal on the SUVs?
– Was this the first mention of a video that Robert made about the list? Or am I just totally blanking on this? Because maybe a bit more time should’ve been spent on that? Or hopefully we’ll see it soon? So help me if there’s a DHARMA station on the island...
– “You might want to think about a side entrance for your... Arrow Cave.” Yeah. That’s right. Arrow Cave. (I wish I could take credit for this but, again, Green Arrow had an Arrow Cave in the comics. And an Arrow Car. And an Arrow Plane.)
– I’m obviously all for the show acknowledging social issues and city-planning challenges like gentrified neighborhoods, but I’d really like to actually see it on screen at some point.
– The death of Mrs. Merlyn: What set Malcolm off on this little endeavor to do something to Starling City...?
– “I’m not going to let you William Tell an innocent man.”
– “So, no wine then?” Man. Felicity really deserves some wine. In fact, Felicity deserves a Big Lou!
– “You’re forgetting one thing, guys: I’m the one with the grenade launcher.”
– “Your father’s even beginning to call me now.” “Don’t waste your minutes.”
– The promo for next week has me both very excited (big villain!) but also nervous (trippy drug episode). Promos can be misleading, and it’s not easy to stick the landing on trippy drug episodes. I’m still excited.