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A confident Arrow knows exactly what it’s doing, even if Oliver doesn’t

Stephen Amell, David Ramsey
Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)
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It’s only the second episode of season eight. That’s important to note. It’s too early to honestly call anything a pattern or a formula for the season because two episodes do not a pattern make. But reader, I must say that the first two episodes of Arrow’s eighth season move with a level of confidence and momentum that haven’t often been seen in the show’s later seasons. There have been glimpses—a few moments here and there in season seven, fewer in season six—but Arrow hasn’t had this kind of palpable energy, at least not consistently, since its excellent fifth season.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that season ended with Arrow blowing everything up.

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In brief, here’s what happens—not in terms of the plot, which we’ll get to momentarily, but with the structure. Oliver gets a stern chat from The Monitor and is given an item off the Crisis-stopping to-do list. That item does not come with an explanation. He then proceeds to try to check off that piece of the to-do list while grappling with his feelings of guilt (for involving others) and grief (for, well, everything). As he does, he encounters important figures from his past. He checks the box, and something crazy happens. There’s also a flash-forward story and a subplot. Next episode.

That’s the first episode summed up as well. And if that’s how these final episodes work, that’s fine by me—assuming they all work as well as these two. There’s still Oliver’s customary brooding, self-recrimination, and debates with others about whether or not he can do it alone, but there’s an undercurrent running through all of it (save the flashforwards, that is). It says, none of this matters, just stop all of existence from disappearing. Oliver’s weekly to-do items function just the way that Team Arrow’s problems-of-the-week did, but there’s that undercurrent. The fights certainly look the same, but the urgency is different. And even when the show veers left in its final moments, that energy remains the same. Sure, Oliver’s temporarily pressing pause to try to figure out who The Monitor really is, to make sure he’s not being played and that this “cosmic being” speaks the truth, but that’s just a to-do list item of another sort. There’s no time for anything but getting the job done.

Katie Cassidy
Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)

Except, of course, when there is time. If the to-do list is all about getting to the Crisis, then what surrounds it (save the flash-forwards) is all about the past. Both this episode and the premiere make a point of demonstrating how Oliver has changed. He listens to what the grieving Not Laurel (Katie Cassidy) has to say without lashing out in return; he attempts to follow her as she leaves but doesn’t shake Diggle off when his friend points out that she just needs to grieve. He’s honest with Tatsu (Rila Fukushima) and doesn’t push her away when she repeatedly asserts that she wants to help, nor does he blow her off when she attempts to point out that there are some big questions he’s not asking and bigger risks he’s taking. He listens and communicates; he’s even self-aware (“What about my behavior over the past seven years has given you the impression that I would?” he says, dryly, when Diggle tells him not to blame himself for the fate of Earth-2.) In short, he’s come a long way since he first crossed paths with Chien Na Wei (Kelly Hu) way back in the show’s second episode.

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It’s not a perfect hour. There are some definite “um, what?” moments: The Monitor says Earth-2 got Crisised because Oliver stopped Tommy from committing mass murder, and everyone just accepts that’s true? Oliver just agrees to essentially kidnap a scientist responsible for a highly lethal biological weapon, then decides to hand over that weapon to a really evil lady when his only contingency plan can be summed up as “get her”? Why an internet café? Did The Monitor take his phone? And if so, how did Digg call Lyla (Audrey Marie Anderson)? In the flash-forwards, how is it that not one person on that whole team stopped to wonder why a whole safe would have been cleaned out except for one little harmless old piece of technology? And didn’t Connor (Joseph David-Jones) and Mia (Katherine McNamara) make some similarly stupid mistakes at a different nefarious black market place in the last season?

Yet I find myself not much caring, because the episode as a whole moves so briskly and with such purpose. As engaging as this hour is, however, the key success of this episode arrives with that sharp last-second turn. Two turns, actually. Oliver’s intent to do a little digging around Ye Olde Monitor makes a ton of sense, and negates a couple of the nagging little questions above; it also stands to make The Monitor more interesting. So does the real twist: that Lyla herself has been engaged by The Monitor, and that it’s her job to make sure Oliver plays his part correctly.

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Audrey Marie Anderson
Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)

This twist is all the more unexpected because Arrow has so rarely allowed Lyla to do anything but be a swiss army knife for seemingly unsolvable problems or be a source of drama for Diggle. This is something she’s choosing to do, an agenda of her own, one that will certainly put her at odds with the team but which none of them can, in the end, really say dick about, because she’s also just doing what the cosmic entity says. It’s also far more interesting than the typical friend-turns-against-team twist, because they’re pursuing the same goal, and it’s not an evil or selfish act in the least. The first episode ending by throwing Not Laurel and a world-sized trauma into the mix. This one ends by embedding Lyla, a huge secret, and the knowledge that The Monitor is moving other pieces on the board (and not just issuing ominous warnings, as with The Flash). If that’s part of the formula, too—that Oliver’s mission will grow increasingly more crowded and complicated with each episode—then so much the better.

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A quick note on the flash-forwards: As with last week’s episode, they feel like almost a footnote, but I want to quickly note that Charlie Barnett is killing it. There have been quite a few family-member-is-actually-evil storylines over the course of Arrow’s seasons. Some have been misdirection, some have been about redemption, and some have just been straight-up evil. But Barnett is so good, so charismatic, so adept at projecting an aura of complete control and emotional detachment, that it sort of wiped those storylines out of my mind for a few minutes. Very excited about the JJ/Connor dynamic, the JJ/Mia dynamic, and about JJ as a villain in general. Arrow’s villains too often wind up playing a sort of teeth-gnashing chaotic evil thing, or a smarmy grandiose all-powerful thing. This was just a guy, in charge, with absolutely no concern for anyone or anything. Good stuff.

Stray observations

  • “I ignored the orders of a cosmic being, and as a result, I watched an entire world just disappear, so.”
  • You’ll notice I linked to the Arrowverse Wiki with the first mentions of both Tatsu and Chien Na Wei/China White. If Arrow is going to keep pulling from seasons past, especially early seasons, I’m going to keep doing that, rather than trying to refresh anyone’s memory in these reviews. Those pages aren’t always up to date, but they usually give at least a solid overview.
  • Was there any salmon ladder?: Too much to hope for, I fear. Fingers crossed for at least one more sighting before the end.
  • TAMVP: Charlie Barnett! Seriously, Arrow’s villain problem has been a, well, problem. He’s great. If the Canaries spinoff happens, I hope he’s involved (and also that it does not interfere with more Russian Doll, or vice versa).
  • Yesterday and today.
  • This week’s Arrow as a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song. For Not Laurel:

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About the author

Allison Shoemaker

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.