After the mid-season finale, I think pretty much anything was going to feel like a bit of a letdown, but I wasn't expecting "Blast Radius" to be that much of a letdown. In a lot of ways, it felt like the leftover core of a Season 1 script—meaning the Shrapnel plot—but with some new elements tacked on to make it feel like part of Season 2. And while those more relevant Season 2 elements weren't bad, they also weren't enough to keep the episode afloat.
The main burden on the episode was Shrapnel (Firefly alum Sean Maher, doing the best he could with very little). I suggested a connection to Season 1 because the storyline, as a whole, had an issue with villains of the week who lacked personality, who lacked a sense of character, not to mention a lack of time to develop those things. In short, the characters were just there to cause problems for Oliver, and the show didn't provide them with a perspective that pushed them beyond that. If they're just obstacles, then why should we care? What are the stakes other than "They're doing bad things?" What do their plans say about the narrative world? Are they complementing or providing a foil to one of our regular characters in some way? If they don't even have that, does a sense of spectacle "make up for" the other missing traits?
What do we know about Shrapnel? He runs a novelty shop, frequents an anti-government militia website, and seems to have advance training in bomb-making and electronics. He's blowing up buildings and targeting Blood because he's angry with corruption in the political system. That's pretty much it. I admit that Shrapnel is at a bit of a disadvantage, since making any mad bomber anti-government character interesting in this day in age is pretty difficult, but then Batman Beyond managed to at least do a dangerous send-up of that type with Mad Stan, so it's possible.
What would've kept Shrapnel from being such a waste? In "Blast Radius," there was no through-line between Shrapnel's outrage and, say, localized class disparity and corruption in Starling City, elements of the narrative that would have connected to Blood's campaign in interesting ways. So consider how the episode's narrative would've changed if Shrapnel saw himself as an extension of Blood's rhetoric, just in a more (overtly) violent way? If you put Blood's campaign platform into a conversation with an extreme version of itself, suddenly what Shrapnel was doing offers commentary on Arrow's larger issues, as opposed to being amorphously connected to them.
Thinking about other villains-of-the-week from this season, even the weakest of them—the Mayor—at least had a connection and motivation to the larger events in the show as he was assuming control of the gangs in the Glades and remaking himself following the community's devastation. It wasn't all that interesting, but at least it was a part of the world. The Dollmaker wasn't any different from most other TV serial killers, but he had a creepy way of killing victims, and that episode played up a lot of horror tropes in its mise-en-scène to differentiate itself from a typical hour of Arrow.
Of course, the episode with the Mayor was buoyed by some good character stuff as Oliver and Sara were reconnecting and dealing with their pasts, so even though the Mayor wasn't exciting, there was still something engaging going on around him. "Blast Radius" didn't have that as strongly, but when I found myself thinking, "I sort of would like to spend more time with the Laurel investigation..." I knew things weren't going well.
Laurel's been a major weight on the show. Audiences, on the whole, don't seem to be responding to the character (or to Katie Cassidy), and the writers have struggled to make the character feel integrated into the show this season. We've had her hunt for the vigilante, followed up by taking on the guilt for Tommy's death, that in turn led to a burgeoning problem with alcohol and pills (the prescription bottle she had at the start of this episode belonged to Quentin), and that resulted in Laurel disappearing from the show for a little while.
I like to think that the disappearance was a deliberate move on the writers' parts in an effort to figure out what the hell to do with the character. The result, it appears, was Laurel deciding to dig into Blood's past. Between Laurel not being on the show too much and the winter break, I honestly can't remember if Laurel's ever come off as suspicious of Blood, or this is a brand new perspective for her, based largely on a building catching on fire and Cyrus Gold's connection to Blood, but I'm going to run with it regardless.
I'm doing that because, finally, Laurel is involved in the bigger plot of the show. One of the big problems with the character is that she's always been separated from the seasonal arcs by a few degrees, but those degrees have been enough that she's essentially been reduced to damsel in distress or the point of a love triangle. By taking on some agency, and by looking into Blood, suddenly Laurel has information that other people don't, which is a reversal of her normal status on this show. It's a nice move forward for the character, so hopefully the show doesn't bungle it.
I'll wrap this up with some brief thoughts on Oliver and Felicity, especially since if there was anything that was really interesting in the episode—provided you didn't appreciate the Laurel stuff as much as I did—it was the fallout of Barry and Felicity's geeky romantic sparks, Felicity rushing to Barry's side in Central City, and Oliver being super-grumpy about all of it. The whole situation is cute, yes, because the actors are digging in in exactly the right way for their characters. Rickards is playing up the unrequited love angle with geeky awkwardness, and Amell is hitting the right notes as the tortured soul who doesn't think he deserves love (but still wants it) yet is trying to be a good guy. In simpler terms: It's not you, it's him, Felicity.
And, really, that's about where it should be. While Oliver is open to romance on some level—remember McKenna?—Felicity's a different game since she's a member of the team and a partner in the mission. As a romantic partner, she'd be a distraction from things that Oliver can't truly afford. Pile on the fact that I don't see the show changing this relationship too much until maybe the end of the season, and I'm not too concerned about this particular aspect of the show. Then again, running-in-place romantic tensions are among my least favorite TV stories, so there you go.
– That the island story is shifting parallels from Oliver-then to Oliver-now to Slade-then to Roy-now is a nifty little trick. While I don't think Roy is going to go violently crazy like Slade is attempting to cope with—I think Blood's version of the serum has managed to suppress that aspect, when the serum doesn't kill people outright—I do think that both Roy and Slade having to figure out how to cope with the effects of the serum should make for some decent story opportunities.
– I like that when Arrow takes a long-ish hiatus, it acknowledges that hiatus in the show itself. It did that last season, too, after the mid-season break.
– "You've taken Oliver's... hobby, and turned it into a successful business!"
– "What's with the mask?" "A gift from a friend." "You've got friends?!"
– Blood's mother (or aunt. if you don't think the lady in the asylum is telling the truth), is named Maya Resik. Resik is a nod to Anna Resik from the comics, a woman who's linked to Blood there as well. The Movement, the militia group that Shrapnel borrowed his bomb models from, is probably a reference to the comic book of the same name that deals with young superheroes fighting corruption.
What did you think of "Blast Radius"?