As we hit the homestretch of Season 2, Arrow has once again found its groove. The show briefly lost track of itself upon returning from the December hiatus, and while I enjoyed a few episodes after that break, they were heavy on the arranging of things so that Arrow could increase its momentum starting with "Deathstroke" and not have to look back. Season 1 did this in a soft way with "The Undertaking," using flashbacks to flesh out Malcolm's motives and plans before sprinting hard through the penultimate episode and the finale, but Season 2 is looking decidedly more ambitious, with essentially a six-episode arc to wrap up the season.
And it's not only ambitious, it's smart. One reason why the season's first block of episodes—from the premiere to "Three Ghosts"—worked so well is that it used self-contained arcs to propel the narrative forward. So while we had a new criminal element to deal with each week, there were also narrative and emotional climaxes that provided just enough resolution to make it feel like things were moving. With that run, Arrow hit a sweet spot of episodic and serialized storytelling that was absent from the string of installments between "Blast Radius" and "Birds of Prey." Sure, there was the Laurel's-addiction-and-anger storyline that worked fine for some (depending on your personal level of Laurel appreciation/tolerance), but it got bogged down by middling criminals of the week and made that stretch of episodes feel fuzzy.
Now, however, Arrow has set up enough targets (and is still setting up a few more) that it can start hitting them without the need to round out episodes with random baddie who're looking to rob banks or blow up buildings. It has more than enough to do, and it's all stuff that Arrow has been building to all season, which is why it's so exciting.
We ended up with quite a range of action sequences this week, from the covert blowing-up of Queen Consolidated's Applied Sciences building to Slade wiping the floor with Oliver, Sara, and Diggle in their own headquarters to Oliver arriving at Slade's hideout to shut down the biotransfuser, only to find Roy hooked up the machine in a bit of (annoying) off-screen shortcutting. Not only did they provide plenty of thrills, they were motivated by more than just, "It's time for Oliver to fight some guys!"
Razing the Applied Sciences facility was the natural—if slightly over-the-top—way to stop Slade from further weaponizing his blood, something Team Arrow discovered that he intended to do after he recruited those convicts. But couldn't they've just destroyed on the centrifuge, instead of the entire building? I suppose there were other goodies they didn't want Slade having access to, but in any case, they was also operating covertly, something I think benefits them; it's more proactive than waiting on someone else to do something, and it underscored the type of situation they've found themselves in, where they're having to make careful, if flashy, moves to undermine Slade's plans.
This resulted in Slade needing to fix the situation, leading him to break into the Arrow Cave, steal the techno-skeleton key, ruin a bunch of stuff, and, really, prove that he can do anything he damn well pleases. It was a personalized form of escalation, which is something that Slade excels at. The obliteration of the Applied Sciences building hurt his plan, but it didn't hurt him. Breaking into the Arrow Cave and taking things sent a message to our heroes that they're not safe anywhere; it undermined their confidence, and it demonstrated just how in control Slade is.
So Slade stole another doodad from S.T.A.R. Labs, one that requires a lot of electricity to work, and that led to Oliver heading out to kill Slade when he would, presumably, be at his weakest. It was a logical chain of events organized around action-filled set pieces, plus there were narrative beats that instigated each one, which elevated the episode as a whole.
Those of you who've been reading my Arrow reviews since the beginning know that the only thing I love more than action set pieces brought on by narrative logic are episodes that have a hook upon which to hang their story—some sort of idea that unifies their actions. Part of the reason is that such episodes give me something to write about and pick apart a little, but a larger part of me just likes it when all the plots feed into the same purpose. It gives everything a little extra weight and, perhaps most importantly, it signals that everything in the episode matters.
In this case, it was Quentin's little spiel to Laurel that told us what we needed to know about everything going on in "The Man Under the Hood." Quentin didn't want Laurel to spill the beans about what she knew because he wants to think of the Arrow as just a force, an entity with no other concerns outside of saving Starling City. It's the symbol that matters, not the man.
Finding out about the man ruins everything. Roy found out about Oliver and ended up running away from the man he used to believe in—a man who Roy thought was doing good—and it got him hooked up to a machine that's sucking his blood and transfusing it into a bunch of convicts to give them superpowers. Thea's entire world came crashing down as she learned about the people under the lies, as it were: Moira, Oliver, and now Robert Queen. The people who were supposed to love her and protect her were lying to her, and the truth has just been too much. Those forces of good were dragged down by fallibility, by being human, exactly the thing Quentin wants to avoid.
What was so great about all of this, however, was how much of this very idea—which means more to you: the idea of a person, or the actual person?—applied to Isabel as well. Her affair with Robert Queen was based on Robert being her soul mate, a man who loved her and understood her better than anyone else. Instead, she found that he was more Queen than Robert, tied to a family that included an illegitimate daughter. That's what drove her to team up with Slade, to train with him, and to die for him... until she received a helpful injection of mirakuru blood, of course.
The one person who saw it from another angle was Laurel. Quentin didn't want to know because knowing would make Oliver human. Thea, Roy, and Isabel didn't want to know because knowing would mean their loved ones were liars. But Laurel, with her hug to Oliver and her canny epiphany about Sara's alter ego, realized that knowing the identities of the people beneath the hoods and the masks doesn't mean judging them—it means understanding that they're not two different people, but rather individuals with motives and experiences all their own, motives and experiences that drive them to do the things they do. They may not make the best decisions, but the decisions come from a place of love, and that's what's important.
– "A bomber. I'm a bomber. I wonder if I can list that on my resume under 'Special skills'."
– "I tried to kiss my half-brother before my real father killed him. That's how screwed-up I am!" Seriously, Thea has had like the worst few episodes.
– Starling City DA Kate Spencer: Super-impressed with being blackmailed once. Not really keen on it happening twice. Methinks she doesn't understand how blackmailing works: You always keep paying, no matter what.
– Everyone say "Hello!" to Danielle Panabaker and Carlos Valdes, who were playing Caitlin Snow and Cisco Ramon. Both of them have been cast in the pilot for The CW's The Flash spin-off, and their appearances here were sort of a "Yeah, remember when we were going to do the Flash pilot as Episode 20, but then the network decided to give us more money to make the pilot we so dropped that idea and put Barry in a coma? How about we give you two supporting characters to help Felicity make the mirakuru cure instead?" Both of them have sizable roles in the DC Comics universe, but you can look them up if you'd like to be more in-the-know.
– Earlier this week, executive producer Andrew Kreisberg held a Q&A session at a screening of this episode and next week's episode, and he said that the big reason Isabel disappeared was that the writers didn't know how they were going to play her: good gal or bad gal. It seems really bizarre to me that you wouldn't play Isabel as evil, but whatever. You can read the whole interview here, but I'd caution that it contains spoilers.
What did you think of "The Man Under the Hood"?
AIRED ON 5/25/2016
Season 4 : Episode 23
AIRS ON 10/5/2016
Season 5 : Episode 1