It’s almost inevitable that, if a show runs long enough, it will become a tangled mess. Plotlines pile atop one another, character histories are redefined and recontextualized in response to shifting narrative needs, and every new series-redefining twist pushes the show ever further from its original premise, for better or worse. That tends to be particularly true of CW shows, which burn through story at an astonishing rate, and Arrow is no exception. Part of the reason this third season has often felt so messy is that, after spending the back half of season pushing the Slade Wilson story to dizzying heights, the show had to reassess what were its most compelling storylines. Arrow blinked, basically, and in that moment it lost some of its focus. This is a mode of storytelling where a show is only as good as its next deliciously preposterous plot arc, and this season didn’t have the benefit of building its central story around a long-established character like Slade Wilson.

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Tonight’s episode sometimes creaks beneath the weight of Arrow’s jumbled plotlines. Its title, “Canaries,” refers to Laurel’s quest to define herself as more than just someone running around in her dead sister’s jacket. It’s a fine story to explore, and Katie Cassidy shows off some of her redoubled confidence in the role with her portrayal of the Vertigo-addled Laurel. But this is only one of about a half-dozen ongoing stories that the episode attempts to juggle, and it’s no surprise that it ends up a bit lost in the shuffle, subsumed into the episode’s Oliver plot. We’ll circle back to that, but credit must go to Caity Lotz and Paul Blackthorne for their work here as the hallucinatory Lances. Blackthorne in particular channels an almost animalistic rage as the illusory Captain Lance. It’s a terrifying moment to see even a fake Lance lunge at his daughter’s throat, and yet this still doesn’t represent the worst-case scenario for Laurel. No, something dangerously close to that comes later, when she finally tells her father the terrible truth. He appears to clutch his heart, as though realizing every worst fear, but this gives way to something more quietly devastating. Lance’s tears make it clear he need suffer no physical injury for his heart to break.

The episode’s titular subplot works because it’s straightforward: We more or less know what Laurel, Lance, and even the fake Sara are going to do in a given situation. They can still surprise us, but they do so by defying specific expectations we’ve built up for them over the run of the show. Oliver, on the other hand, is kind of a mess, which is only to be expected of the protagonist of a show as byzantine as Arrow. While it’s been plenty of fun to watch him grow from the brooding, borderline disturbed killer we met way back in the series premiere, it’s not always easy to tell how much we’re supposed to remember he used to be a brooding, borderline disturbed killer. Oliver has more than earned the right to call himself a hero, but has he earned the right to erase his past? This came up last week as Oliver tried to appeal to Malcolm’s better nature, and it can’t help but inform this episode’s biggest moments, starting with Oliver revealing his secret to Thea. Diggle reminds Oliver of some old advice, that Thea will never forgive him if he reveals he has been lying to her all this time. So, when Thea does forgive her, what are we to make of that? Is the unexpected reaction indicative of Oliver’s development, or of Thea’s? When Thea notes that, all the times Oliver lied to her, he was really saving people, should we remember that there were also plenty of times when he was killing a bunch of people who, for all their crimes, didn’t particularly deserve to die?

On balance, I don’t think this matters that much, because the revelation itself is such a seminal moment for the show that it largely overwhelms such concerns. Oliver and Thea’s relationship has long been a touchstone for the series, and this newfound honesy between them helps clarify where they both now stand. Oliver can be an elusive figure, but it tells you just about everything you need to know about him that he shows such palpable relief as he tells his sister that he just survived a C4 blast. There’s an ease to their interactions here that there really hasn’t been since … well, since forever, really, because it’s only now that Thea understands who Oliver actually is. She couldn’t when she was in the dark about his secret, but she almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to handle the truth before her time with Malcolm. As for him, it remains hard to keep track of exactly why Thea feels so completely betrayed, especially since she still has no idea she was manipulated into killing Sara. There’s probably still a bomb waiting to go off here, not just for Thea and her father but for Thea and her brother as well.

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And that’s what unavoidable, really: Whatever else happens, the narrative messiness is still going to be there, at least until Arrow is willing to really delve into the inner workings of its characters’ minds. To its great credit, “Canaries” does make some progress on that point, as the team takes Oliver to task for his autocratic leadership. I’ll admit, I always hesitate at the notion that vigilantes like Batman are actual fascists, but it’s damn hard to call Oliver’s conduct anything else. Laurel manages to push back a little when Oliver calls her an addict, but his status as the protagonist gives him a privileged position. Because she doesn’t name the specific reason that Oliver doesn’t have the right to play that card, it’s easy for the audience to remain sympathetic to Oliver’s basic viewpoint, even if he’s a total dick about it. That’s why Roy—Roy!—standing up to Oliver over his treatment of Thea is so crucial. He doesn’t carry any of the same baggage that Laurel does, mostly because he gets way less characterization than anyone else. That can be a problem in other episodes, but here it lends him a certain neutral authority, albeit one tinged with his well-established love of Thea. Past episodes have presented an Oliver who could be wrong without ever really resolving whether that’s the story’s intention or an unintended consequence of tangled storytelling. Here, Arrow leaves no doubt that Oliver is out of line, but at least we get one hell of a Diggle speech out of it.

“Canaries” is a big, messy episode, and it’s generally all the better for it. Peter Stormare somehow manages to out-crazy Seth Gabel in his return as his version of Count Vertigo; his character isn’t all that important to the proceedings, except as a vehicle for Sara’s hallucinatory return, but the episode gets precisely what it needs out of him. And that’s why “Canaries” bodes well for the rest of the season: This is all total chaos. The show has been running far too long and doing far too many things for that to not be the case. But Arrow is starting to feel self-assured in its chaos. That’s really all the show needs to reel off a great endgame for the season.

Stray observations:

  • I’m not totally thrilled with how Thea is handled here, as she is twice made a damsel in distress for Roy: first when he leaps to her defense in the lair, and second when he comes to her rescue against Chase the evil DJ. There are good narrative reasons for both decisions, but that’s kind of the exact trouble; Arrow has trouble telling stories where Thea is not positioned as the weakest person in the room.
  • One thing I did like about Roy standing up to Oliver: The red-hooded one is shot from slightly below, and mostly in close-up. It’s a heroic pose, and it more or less erases the fact that Roy is way, way shorter than Oliver.
  • Oh silly criminal at the beginning of the episode, why did you head to that staircase and scaffolding? All those leaping lanes: You’re playing right into Roy’s parkour-loving hands!

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