Damien Darhk is pretty much the perfect Arrow villain. A lot of that is down to how brilliant Neal McDonough is in the role. There’s an art to having such palpable fun in a role without turning in a performance that veers into caricature, and McDonough manages this because he makes it clear how much Darhk himself relishes the theatricality of his villainy. The obvious fun Darhk has only adds to his aura of invincibility, and McDonough is careful to modulate his performance on the rare occasion that Darhk actually faces a threat worth facing. Darhk is a callous bastard—he doesn’t pretend to pay anything more than the barest lip service to caring when he sends that H.I.V.E. member to the gas chamber—yet he’s not necessarily evil incarnate. And that’s not to say he might not be completely, irredeemably evil, as all his actions so far suggest he is willing to do things that even a first-season Malcolm Merlyn or a Mirakuru-addled Slade Wilson might blanche at. What matters is that McDonough conveys the sense that all of Darhk’s actions are motivated by some larger plan, even if we as yet have only seen glimmers of it.

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The other secret to Darhk’s success is that his existence is not predicated solely on whatever Oliver Queen is up to. Arrow has had mixed success with villains who only really care about the Green Arrow—Slade Wilson mostly worked great, Ra’s al Ghul mostly didn’t—but the time was right for the show to go in a different direction with an adversary who has larger objectives than hurting Oliver. There are two big reasons for this. The first is to break Arrow out of the insular storytelling that was one of a few things that hamstrung last season. The second is that having Damien Darhk’s attention diverted elsewhere means he can be the most powerful villain Team Arrow has ever faced without making him invincible. His ability to be distracted is a crucial vulnerability, and it gives Oliver more options when it comes time to planning his own attacks. Even better, it allows the show to change up how much of a threat Darhk is in any given weeks. Sometimes, he can be left in the background, or not mentioned at all, and that’s plausible enough, given he might well be pursuing some more wayward goal that week. But sometimes, as we see tonight, Darhk can turn his full attentions to Team Arrow, and the results are potentially devastating.

I say “Team Arrow,” but then that’s not how Darhk sees the people he targets in “Dark Waters.” As far as he’s concerned, the people he kidnaps and almost murders are the loved ones of Oliver Queen, mayoral candidate. That Darhk hasn’t worked out the truth yet is a little surprising, mostly because The CW’s superhero shows have taken such a cavalier attitude toward secret identities that it’s now weird when anyone doesn’t know. (Which isn’t a criticism, as supporting characters pretty much always get more interesting on Arrow and The Flash when their defining trait isn’t “in the dark about Oliver’s/Barry’s incredible secret.”) Tonight’s episode does address that by having Malcolm temporarily don the mask and hood—I’ll admit I was hoping they had fired up the Parkour Signal and sent for Roy to sub in, but alas—but either way, the fun thing here is that the show is making good on Oliver’s earlier promise that this fight to save Star City would happen in the light, not in the dark. And while the overall storytelling formula hasn’t changed that much—it’s still impossible to hold any civic event in this damn city without armed gunmen showing up—the plot and character beats feel different enough for the show to feel fresh.

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“Dark Waters” is a bit of an odd episode, in that it’s a relatively low-key hour of television, at least compared with last week’s big crossover spectacular. I know it’s kind of silly to say that when Felicity, Thea, and Diggle are nearly killed in a gas chamber, but this episode if anything embraces how familiar a lot of this is, with multiple people pointing out that Oliver is reverting to many of his old habits. There’s a fantastic brutality to the quick segment in which an enraged Green Arrow goes on the hunt for any ghosts that might reveal where his loved ones are being held, and it’s fascinating to see a Team Arrow that’s pared down to just Oliver, Laurel, Lance, and Malcolm. Oliver and Laurel’s scenes together are more proof that Laurel works just great as a supporting character, offering advice and support to a friend who is very close to losing it. As for Lance and Malcolm, they both challenge Oliver in ways different from how his closer friends would. They are less immediately concerned with high ideals or Oliver’s own safety than the others—which means we sidestep most of the usual discussion when Oliver decides to turn himself over to Darhk—and their fear of Darhk only underlines how grave a threat this is.

What defines this episode is that it’s punctuated by what could be a series-redefining tragedy. As the trailer for January’s midseason premiere indicates, Felicity isn’t dead yet, which makes it feel unlikely there isn’t some sort of swerve coming with that grave we keep seeing. The inclusion of that flash-forward scene in the “Previously on” segment immediately clues the viewer in to be on the lookout for any of those little signs that a character is about to die, and “Dark Waters” has some definite fun with which character might be about to check out. Laurel and her father talk about not wanting to lose each other. Diggle gets just enough focus in the subplot with his brother for it to be conceivable that this could be his final outing. The mere fact that Malcolm is in mortal peril for any length of time is enough to make one consider that he might be the one about to die, if only because the Arrow writers lost their nerve and didn’t want to kill a core character. (Although it’s hard to see him being buried in Star City, harder to imagine Oliver grieving him alone, and still harder to imagine Barry showing up to offer his condolences, though I suppose they did meet last week—but yeah, that one wasn’t happening.)

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We’ll have to see next year what that assassination attempt means for Oliver, Felicity, and everyone else. But if “Dark Waters” really is the last time we see Oliver and Felicity together, then at least it finds space to celebrate the best—and, since this is Felicity we’re talking about, also the most awkward—aspects of their relationship. Having Felicity’s possibly now live-in mom discover the engagement ring sets off a quickie Arrow comedy subplot before morphing into something more dramatic. This season of Arrow has done a fine job committing to the idea that Oliver is legitimately trying to change his ways, and part of that is changing the inflection of his character beats from being about him making mistakes to him figuring things out. Maybe he didn’t screw up by deciding to put off asking Felicity to marry him, but he needed time to learn that he can’t take tomorrow for granted, and that he should never be afraid to have his partner by his side. Of course, it’s very possible he learned that lesson much, much too late. But that will have to wait until 2016.

In the meantime—look, this show isn’t perfect. I don’t imagine it ever will be. But after all the wonkiness and weirdness of last year, the one thing this show ferociously, indisputably is … is Arrow. Arrow is truly Arrow again, and it’s a joy to behold. At least when the show isn’t breaking hearts, as it’s so often wont to do.

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Stray observations

  • If nothing else, I will be seriously bummed if Felicity’s potential death ends the romance between her mom and Lance. They’re so adorably awkward together, and their and Felicity’s mutual realization of all that’s going on is the comedic highlight of the episode. Also, I’m going to guess this is one secret Laurel is okay with her dad keeping from her.
  • “I’m Ra’s al Ghul!” Malcolm could stand to declare that more often. It does tend to explain a lot.
  • Oh, and I really don’t mind the flashbacks this year. Being back on the island and letting Oliver ditch the wig helps, I think. Anyway, they’re fine. Not amazing or essential, but fine.
  • So, Genesis, huh? The last time someone tried that we had Khan unleashing his wrath, a bunch of Klingons killing Kirk’s son, and Spock dying and undying. Let’s just see where Damien is going with this, I guess?

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