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Arrow: "Blast Radius"

Illustration for article titled iArrow/i: Blast Radius
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Oliver Queen is just an awful judge of character. It’s rare that Oliver allies himself with someone in both his civilian and his superhero identities, yet that’s precisely what he does with Starling City’s future mayor, the nefarious Sebastian Blood. The reasoning behind such trust isn’t completely wrongheaded, to be fair, as I’d argue that Oliver trusts Blood for much the same reason that he once refused to suspect his mother of being involved in the Undertaking: because, to preserve his own sanity, he needs a few trustworthy people out there. For all the darkness in his life, Oliver is still something of an idealist—he wouldn’t be able to stick by that no-kill rule if he didn’t believe if he was honoring a set of nobler principles—and he desperately wants to believe that there are other people who care about saving Starling City and doing what’s right just as much as he does. A more cynical Oliver Queen might well have realized something was amiss from the moment that Blood announced his insanely reckless publicity stunt, but Oliver is still at the point where he needs to believe in something in order to keep doing what he does. That means placing his faith in his loved ones, and it means seeking out allies and partners to help him in his quest. Sometimes, he’s going to make mistakes.

Sebastian Blood isn’t the only would-be partner that Oliver painfully misjudges in “Blast Radius.” Arrow shows some of its CW roots in its handling of Oliver and Felicity’s story, as it’s repeatedly suggested that Oliver is mad at Felicity because of all the time she’s spending in Central City, watching over the now comatose Barry Allen. The inclusion of such a love triangle made more sense in the previous couple of episodes, where at least Grant Gustin was actually on hand to be the target of Oliver’s jealous mockery. With Barry likely gone for a good long while, it’s hard for the show to make Oliver and Felicity’s bickering all that much fun, much less appropriate for the far more serious situations unfolding around them. Indeed, the biggest false note of the episode comes when Oliver is stuck in Shrapnel’s deadly trap, and still Felicity can’t help but throw some of Oliver’s previous harsh words right back at him. In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with that exchange, but in context it makes Felicity look painfully petty. Arrow is usually more adept at mixing the life-and-death superhero stories with the smaller-scale human stories, but that moment gets away from the show. The briefness of Oliver’s de facto imprisonment doesn’t help; it might well have been more interesting to leave Oliver trapped there far longer with Felicity once again proving her worth as she hits upon some ingenious solution to free him. As a bonus, Diggle would then need to take down Shrapnel by himself, and it’s high time that Diggle gets to kick some ass in Starling City.


Anyway, that whole sequence really only represents a minor misstep, and it isn’t symptomatic of the rest of Oliver’s story in “Blast Radius.” In fact, Oliver displays far more emotional honesty here than we’re used to seeing from him. He doesn’t hide from the fact that the Mirakuru resurgence has him spooked, even pointing out to Diggle that his obvious anxiety should be taken as a sign of just how bad things are about to get. At the end, Oliver clarifies that his frustrations with Felicity aren’t really romantic in nature—at least, not primarily. Instead, Oliver admits just how lonely the vigilante’s existence is, and even he can’t quite seem to believe that his original intention was to take on all the evils of Starling City by himself. He has found two incredible partners in his quest, and he now relies on them so implicitly that he can’t even imagine them ever screwing up (not that Felicity actually screwed up when Shrapnel scrambled her signal, but we’ve got to allow for a certain degree of irrationality in the character dynamics).

The inclusion of Diggle and Felicity in his crime-fighting has allowed Oliver to expand greatly the scope of his vigilante endeavors; he could never hope to find, let alone foil a master bomb-builder like Shrapnel back when he was working alone. But there’s a vanishingly fine line between depending on someone else and simply being dependent, and Oliver is still far too quick to shift his opinion of his partners from boon to burden when they all fail to bring in a suspect. Oliver owns up to his own failings in his final scene with Felicity, which doubles as a good illustration of just how much Stephen Amell has grown into his starring role. Oliver’s transformation on (and off) the Island into a trained warrior means that his body language rarely gives much away—there’s a reason fans so often mention Oliver’s perfectly stationary arms—but Amell communicates so much in that scene just in how his expression subtly changes. It helps that Felicity is talking, as her tendency to babble makes Oliver’s silence seem more profound by comparison, but the warmth that Amell projects in that scene makes it clear just how much Oliver cares about Felicity and how much he wants her to be happy, even if that conflicts with his own wishes. Whether those wishes are professional, platonic, or romantic in nature doesn’t really matter, because Oliver has rarely been as unapologetically sweet as when he suggests that Barry is dreaming about Felicity.

After Arrow’s climactic run to finish out 2013, “Blast Radius” feels like an opportunity for the show to catch its breath. I can’t begrudge Arrow the occasional table-setting episode, but it must be said that Shrapnel is an underwritten, somewhat boring character; his anarchic beliefs could present an intriguing villainous contrast with Sebastian Blood’s plans to seize power through government, but these philosophies prove to be little more than random crap for Sean Maher to spout as he blows up buildings. The casting of the erstwhile Firefly costar recalls Ben Browder’s role as Ted Gaynor in “Trust But Verify,” in which a talented, decently recognizable genre actor is called upon to add some dimension to what would otherwise be a fairly bland villain. Maher does quite well with what he’s given, and I’d certainly be interested in what more could be done with the character in a subsequent appearance, but the entire Shrapnel plot feels perfunctory, a serviceable enough story that can play out in the background while Arrow sets up its main characters’ arcs for the rest of the season.

Of these, Roy’s discovery of his Mirakuru-enhanced abilities holds the most promise, in part because of the show’s recent track record; I never would have imagined I’d be writing this at the end of last season, but I have complete confidence in Colton Haynes, Willa Holland, and the creative team to pull off a Roy- and Thea-centric story. Sara Lance’s claim in the flashback that everyone injected with Mirakuru comes out deformed—either physically or mentally—does not bode well for young Roy, but it’s smart that Arrow lets Thea in on his secret as soon as possible, and it’s made clear that Roy is relying on Thea to hang onto whatever mental stability he’s got left. Elsewhere, the Lances’ parallel investigations into Brother Blood’s criminal operation should prove a good way to keep them involved in the main story of the season, particularly if it means Laurel can define herself as something other than some guy’s girlfriend. Laurel is still easily Arrow’s most problematic element, but at least she’s now in a situation where she knows something that nobody else does. Oliver and Detective Lance might be convinced that Sebastian Blood is a swell guy, but Laurel knows the truth: Sebastian Blood is indeed a self-made man, but only in the sense that his own depraved crimes turned him into an orphan. That should make for quite the dinnertime chat at his and Laurel’s next date.


Stray observations:

  • Flashback Oliver realizes he needs to tell Slade the truth about Shado’s death. There’s little doubt that the truth is going to come out, considering what we know about present-day Slade, but it’s interesting that the Island version of Slade still seems just sane enough that he could theoretically accept the horrible truth without hating Oliver forever. Again, we know that’s not what’s going to happen, but I think it’s good that Arrow isn’t treating Slade’s descent into villainy and madness as a complete given.
  • So, what do we think of the mask in action? I’m a fan of it, particularly since Oliver is calling it “a gift from a friend,” which is a nice tip of the hat to Barry.

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