We’ve reached the point in Arrow’s run where my instinct is to call tonight a low-key episode, despite the fact that it, you know, resurrects the brother of one of the show’s main characters. (Let’s be honest: We reached that point a long, long time ago.) But having an episode that’s just here to take care of business is its own kind of relief, and “Brotherhood” is just so damn great at everything it sets out to do that it fast emerges as the best episode of this bounceback season. It’s an episode that puts the entire ensemble in positions to excel, and, after a couple weeks of crossover and spin-off stuff, it’s refreshing to have the show be able to focus on the ongoing stories of its core cast, give or take a bit of Ray Palmer angst. Throw in some innovative direction in the fight scenes, highlighted by a long take brawl between Thea and Andrew Diggle that includes an elevator ride, and you’ve got the makings of a seriously special episode of Arrow, and I suspect that’s because, not in spite of the fact that all “Brotherhood” is trying to be is the best possible episode of Arrow.
I’ve said it before, and I think it’s still fair to say that, on balance, Arrow has never really known what to do with John Diggle. Or, to put it more accurately, the show has never quite figured out how to maximize the considerable talent David Ramsey brings, largely relegating him to the thankless adviser role. Some of that is down to who Diggle is: He’s frequently been the only proper grown-up on Team Arrow, and he’s long resisted the call of costumed superheroics, which means it’s easy to push him to the margins in favor of those who better fit the show’s twin brands of DC superheroes and CW soap opera. That’s a shame, though, given what we see on display in “Brotherhood.” Diggle can have a fundamentally different perspective from the rest of the team, and Ramsey conveys the kind of accrued, lived-in experience that makes it difficult for anyone else to question his refusal to consider extenuating circumstances for his brother’s apparent villainy. A lot of disagreements on Arrow can read like petty squabbles, a lot of needless emotional upheaval before everyone agrees that, yeah, Oliver is right, even if he was being a jerk. But here? There’s a legitimate journey that Diggle needs to go on before he can, as he puts it, square that circle.
In this case, it has a whole lot to do with Oliver, but not in quite the same way we typically see on this show. Diggle assumes we’re just going through the latest iteration of Oliver being unable to see beyond his own blind spots, but that’s not the case, as it turns out. As Oliver eventually explains, he needs Andrew to be redeemable because he needs to believe that hope exists, that no matter how far he goes into the darkness there can be light on the other side. This is a fairly rarefied point, as these things go, and it’s a testament to Stephen Amell’s ever-evolving skill in the role that he so completely sells the scene. As played, that exchange between Diggle and Oliver is more than the thematic scaffolding it might have been a season or two ago. Instead, this is about two people trying to navigate impossible situations and being honest about the things they need to keep hold of their identities. While there’s plenty of Oliver in “Brotherhood,” his story is more or less equal to those of his costars’, as his decision on how best to fight Damien Darhk is informed by Diggle’s decisions without subordinating Diggle’s own journey. The characters make one another better, both in and out of universe.
That’s true even on the margins. Consider Laurel, who after a few episodes of starring subplots as she worked to get Sara back moves back into a supporting role for tonight’s episode. I know some fans are more convinced by Laurel’s recent work than I am, but it’s hard to argue that what we see tonight just naturally fits better the strengths of both character and performer. Katie Cassidy is at her most fun when she can offer some empathy and do a little wisecracking, and that’s precisely what she offers Diggle at the gala dinner. She’s absolutely right to point out that if anyone knows what Diggle is going through as he learns that his brother is alive and a part of H.I.V.E., it’s Laurel. Divorced from the specific histrionics of Laurel’s attempt to bring Sara back, she’s a fun presence here as a source of support, reminding us that there can be more to Arrow than what goes on in Oliver’s immediate orbit. This is part of why “Brotherhood” is generally so great: It asks the most of the characters that can give the most, and it knows precisely how to limit the use of the characters that require more precision.
Thea’s ongoing struggle with the bloodlust would probably be an abject disaster if this story were written for any other character, but Willa Holland keeps finding just the right ways to portray this character arc without it feeling completely ridiculous or, worse, unsympathetic. Even she can’t quite make her final request to Alex for patience in the face of her homicidal tendencies entirely convincing, but she plays that scene and others in the episode with a honest world-weariness that feels well beyond her character’s years; Thea has seen some shit, man, and she’s done at least twice as much. The revelation that her bloodlust somehow cancels itself out in the presence of Damien Darhk’s powers is the kind of thing that could quickly become totally incomprehensible, if last year’s League of Assassins mysticism is anything to go by, but for now it’s a much-appreciated bit of forward momentum for a character journey otherwise in danger of stalling. Plus, it’s an excuse to keep Malcolm Merlyn around, which is particularly good news since Darhk himself name-checks the new Ra’s al Ghul.
And, yes, in all this, there’s Damien Darhk. Neal McDonough remains just ridiculously good in the role, chewing all the scenery and taking every opportunity for an off-kilter line reading. Last year aside, this show has never exactly wanted for supervillains, given John Barrowman and Manu Bennett have previously fulfilled those roles, but McDonough takes things to a new level by playing a character who just so completely relishes his job, and we see a little bit more of the underlying H.I.V.E. philosophy reveal itself as Darhk inducts (and drugs) a bunch of new recruits. Arrow is also proving clever in how it positions Darhk, consistently positioning him as the most powerful foe the show has ever faced while still offering hints of how he might eventually be defeated. As the final scene makes clear, part of it is just that Oliver and company are determined to be the ones who choose their battlefield, as Oliver vows to take on Darhk in the light of day even as the Green Arrow hunts him in the shadows. The show is making its case for hope not just as an abstraction but as a real, animating force for the show. If the results of that are anything like “Brotherhood,” what comes next should be spectacular.