I don’t talk about the direction on Arrow too much because most of the time, well, it’s fine. It’s not great or anything, but it’s fine in the way that most unremarkable TV direction tends to be. The fight scenes probably aren’t shot quite as crisply as they were a couple seasons back, and the lifelessness of season three and four’s flashbacks weren’t entirely down to the writing. But still, the direction of an Arrow episode typically ranges between workmanlike and solid, which makes tonight’s episode such a revelation. “Human Target” is so well shot that I figured some hotshot guest director had stopped by for the evening, but credit actually goes to Laura Belsey, whose background includes NCIS: New Orleans, Law & Order: SVU, Unforgettable, and both Criminal Minds and the Criminal Minds spinoff. Yet Belsey far surpasses her pedigree, directing the hell out of this episode with a succession of shots that get us inside the heads of the characters.
“Human Target” is all about the close-ups and the turnaround shots. There’s the meditation session with Diggle and Rene. There’s the flashback to the final initiation of Oliver into the Bratva, as he stares down his three judges. There’s the rooftop rendezvous between Oliver and Felicity, much of which finds the two characters on opposing sides of the frame, as though they’re still talking past each other. And my goodness, there’s that final shot of Tobias Church, as he and the doomed cop are forced to listen as Prometheus kills his entire prison escort. What all these scenes accomplish—and we can throw in the jumpy, discombobulated opening shots that mirror Rene’s state of mind—is make Arrow feel more human, more intimate than it ever really has. At its best in the early seasons, Arrow worked because it went big and became almost operatic in its telling of the wars between Oliver and either Malcolm or Slade.
Tonight, on the other hand, the direction makes Arrow feel more akin to a largely forgotten part of its initial creative DNA, namely Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Specifically, “Human Target” seizes on the Nolan films’ attempt to present sprawling crime dramas that just happen to have a dude in a bat suit running around in them. Arrow isn’t necessarily going for quite the same tone here, but the common ground lies in how the show creates the sense of several interweaving storylines. Sure, Oliver Queen is still very much the focus here—hell, the weakest part of tonight’s episode sees Christopher Chance use most of his guest spot to tell Oliver how great he is, which isn’t necessarily wrong in its arguments but really ought to be unnecessary on a show where Oliver is already the protagonist—but this episode upends some of the strict narrative hierarchy that informs a lot of Arrow episodes. Diggle and Rene want to make things right for themselves, not because of what it means for Oliver. Tobias Church is allowed to feel the terror of his impending demise entirely separate from the Green Arrow.
There’s also a nice feeling of separation between the story of the Green Arrow and that of Mayor Oliver Queen. It’s frankly amazing how successful the mayoral plotline has been. Arrow is wise enough to know its limitations and keep the political stuff short and to the point, but the storytelling is sufficiently sharp and concise for some business about rezoning—rezoning!—to be, if not necessarily compelling, then at least a satisfactory part of the overall episode. Thea does joke about Oliver putting an arrow through his political opponent, but the actual solution, with Oliver (well, Chance as Oliver, but he would say there’s no real difference) connecting his opponent with the very graft he was supposed to be railing against. As Chance-as-Oliver puts it, and I’m guessing Oliver would agree, all opponents have their weaknesses, and it’s just a question of identifying what it is. Oliver and Thea’s political machinations call on a different set of problem-solving than we see with Team Arrow, but it’s all guided by wanting to do right by Star City.
And really, even if this Oliver is never going to turn into the goateed ultra-lefty hero of the comics, this run as mayor still goes a long way toward scratching that itch. Team Arrow still appears to have suspended, if not outright repealed its no-kill rule, so Oliver’s work as mayor is now the show’s major outlet for its more idealistic side. Rezoning might seem a little dull on paper, but it’s eminently plausible as a vehicle for Oliver to talk about helping people, deal with opposition, reckon once more with his parents’ dark legacy, and ultimately triumph (or have some dude wearing his face triumph, but you get the idea). It’s economical, and it’s just what the show needs to sustain the larger optimism that is taking root this season.
On that point, the show makes the welcome decision to have Oliver wreck Tobias Church in about 15 seconds. I talked last week about how the show has struggled to find the right power levels for Oliver’s foes, but tonight affirms that Church only got as far as he did because Oliver was distracted for so much of the time—and, in fairness, Church was one crafty, well-connected foe, but the show doesn’t pretend he would stand much chance against Oliver in a one-on-one match. Even then, Wild Dog gets another shot at his tormentor. The show isn’t about Wild Dog, so it makes sense that he would still not emerge victorious against the (very) short-term big bad, but he also gains a lot of credibility from how he acquits himself here before Oliver takes care of business. Rene’s backstory is also well-positioned, with what we learn was an entirely justified dishonorable discharge. He may have all the instincts of a vigilante, but when that takes the form of treating a prisoner much as Church treated him, what good is there in that, really? Wild Dog isn’t a bad guy, nor is he beyond saving, but Arrow has firmly established a redemption arc for him, one that Diggle is likely to join him on.
I’m ready to bust out all the superlatives for “Human Target,” even as the titular element is at best a bit of a mixed bag. Wil Traval was excellent on Jessica Jones, and I could see him doing good work with a slightly more fleshed-out turn for Christopher Chance, but here the character is basically just an endless assortment of magical disguises. I realize it might sound bizarre to question the plausibility of Chance’s whole deal, given everything else that goes on here, but I think tonight’s episode errs slightly by assuming a level of familiarity with the character and his remarkable ability to assimilate a target’s entire life and personality and then really, really appear to die. As it is, I can’t bring myself to mark this episode down. “Human Target” is damn near perfect even allowing for a less than perfect supporting turn from Chance, and that’s in part because all the other characters feel so important tonight. On Arrow right now, everything matters. And that’s an incredible feeling.
- Chance’s unexpected appearance in the Russian flashback could have been the silliest thing ever, and maybe it is, but it does instantly connect to the present day as the Queens’ reporter nemesis learns Oliver might not have spent five whole years on the island after all. Just one more reason to like the flashbacks this season.
- The more I think about it, the more I love how Arrow has arranged its characters this season. Felicity is back in the role where she can function best and gain the most fan support (or the least fan ire, depending). Diggle moves seamlessly into a mentor role for Wild Dog and maybe the rest of the team. And Thea and Lance are called to bring their considerable chops to what might otherwise be the show’s driest plotline. This is all just really clever character allocation.
- Tobias Church didn’t have a long run, but it sure was a great one. Chad Coleman was one hell of an adversary for Team Arrow, and he was just the reset button the show needed after increasingly preposterous villains.
- Sorry this is going up late, but I‘ve got to be straight with you: There was just no way any of this was getting written until Game 7 was done.