Kirk Acevedo
Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)

The 20th episode of Arrow’s fifth season, “Underneath,” did something a little unusual. Adrian Chase detonated an EMP, trapping Felicity and Oliver in the bunker; the EMP also deactivated the implant in Felicity’s spine, taking away her ability to walk. There was a storyline going on outside the bunker, too, as we watched the rest of Team Arrow try to get into the bunker to rescue their friends. All that was good, but it wasn’t the reason “Underneath” worked. As Alasdair Wilkins wrote at the time:

“Underneath” strikes just the right balance between taut, self-contained thriller and character piece, with Oliver and Felicity’s ever worsening situation forcing them to confront uncomfortable truths without ever feeling too contrived.

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To be perfectly clear, “The Dragon” isn’t working at the same level as “Underneath.” We know these characters a lot less well than we know Oliver and Felicity—and that includes Not-Laurel, since Arrow seems terribly disinterested in actually giving her a personality beyond that of someone who looks like but is definitely not Laurel. But the unusual thing that “Underneath” did is something that “The Dragon,” the 19th episode of Arrow’s sixth season, also does: It slows the hell down with a story that’s languidly paced by its very nature, and uses the opportunity to focus on the people who populate its world.

In the case of “Underneath,” the results were pretty great. Here, it’s a mixed bag, but nevertheless, a story that’s inconsistent but cares about the emotional lives of its characters is preferable to one that’s simply checking boxes, as so much of this season has been. It also makes perfectly clear that, whatever the struggles with the development of Ricardo Diaz as a villain, none of them should be laid at Kirk Acevedo’s feet. Given the time and space to use that air of quiet menace to his advantage, he’s incredibly watchable, and for the first time since that his odd, off-putting reveal as the Arrow Big Bad to end all Big Bads, I believed that Diaz was worth all the fuss. By episode’s end, that power would be undermined, but still. Let’s chalk this one up as a win.

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Another win: a sub-plot that’s clear, straightforward, only a little bit frustrating, and which also calls back to “Underneath.” Whether it was due to shooting schedules, budget concerns, or just because it was written this way, the B-story of “The Dragon” is incredibly precise: What happens when Felicity, now off Team Arrow, tries to get back to work with Curtis? They’re awkward, then get down to business. It’s not the business of science that matters so much here, as the business of being people who care about and confide in eachother, as Felicity eventually does. This gradual move past complicated social bullshit mirrors that of Oliver and Felicity’s in “Underneath,” but more importantly, it echoes the issues at play in that earlier story. Felicity doesn’t trust Oliver to take care of himself, not entirely, just as Oliver didn’t trust Felicity enough to take her lead.

(Of course, Felicity is right to worry, though Oliver was wrong; setting aside that there is only one Oliver up against a whole city’s worth of villains, Arrow has also argued from the very beginning that Oliver Queen needs people around him. But that’s a conversation for another time.)

But the main event is the Not-Laurel/Diaz pas de deux, in a storyline so content to merely focus on its two main participants that it’s easy to forget other people are involved. Frankly, the casting of the younger Cartier (Ashton Holmes) is so perfectly on-the-nose that it’s possible to forgive the fact that he’s essentially a sneering cardboard cutout, just there to be monologued at and to say the word ‘thug’ a lot. The casting team, performer, costume designer, and writers come together to tell you everything you need to know about Diaz’s supposed foe in the first few seconds you see him. All it takes is a condescending once-over, a light suit (not built for dirt of bloodstains), that face, and a “my father,” and you know exactly what kind of privileged weasel of a son Diaz has on his hands.

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Kirk Acevedo, Ashton Holmes
Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)

Both Diaz and Laurel look like masterpieces of complexity by comparison (or do, until the last few minutes.) As I said above, the writers still seem content to let Laurel be defined by the fact that she’s not Laurel, rather than who she is, and are treating her character—personality, motivation, desire, morality, etc.—like some kind of bizarre will-they-won’t-they, where instead of tension between two people, you’ve got tension between an imagined Laurel who is Good and an imagined Laurel who is Bad. That said, as much as I enjoy the sneering, campy Katie Cassidy, it’s nice to see her in a story that’s more subdued and simple, reacting to her adventure with Diaz and what she learns about him. Her final moments also feel like the beginning of an end-game for the season, as we now know that this Laurel finds the idea of burning one’s childhood tormentor alive to be in poor taste. There’s no reason for that reaction to be feigned, leaving at least one confirmed moment of honesty in a season full of stuff we’re designed to doubt.

And then there’s Kirk Acevedo’s Diaz. Until those burning-alive moments, Acevedo and the writers successfully paint a picture of a man who has had to be methodical, decisive, and unsentimental, who has learned to control his ego and his temper in service of pursuing his dastardly goals, and who will neither be lulled into complacency by weasel-faced rich whiny sons, nor driven past the point of reason by their condescension and underhandedness. It’s finally possible to see that character as someone who’d allow himself to be used by an egocentric, revenge-driven genius until the time is right to seize his power, and that’s something I would not have thought possible until Diaz pulled those bullets off his vest.

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Of course, the final moments weaken the foundation as a whole. It’s totally possible that that’s the intention here, that we’re meant to see Diaz as a person who can be careful, logical, calculating, and brutal for years before wasting his time and energy murdering his childhood bully for no reason other than revenge and being “not a loser.” If somehow that act leads to his undoing, I’ll gladly take back every complaint I have about this otherwise well-handled piece of character study. But if what ultimately brings Diaz down is the Green Arrow—or more likely, a newly reunited team forced to band together to save the city—then the burning of grown-up Jesse will have just been an excuse to show us a squeamish Laurel and a monstrous Diaz. The latter would be an unnecessary and foolish move, because the only way Diaz works as the toppler of Cayden James is if he’s not motivated by anything but power, and if his superpower is coolheadedness and mercenary thought.

That it’s even reasonable to consider such things is a mark in this episode’s favor. Before tonight, the only thing Ricardo Diaz had going for him as a character was an actor who is supremely watchable, if sorely misused. Now, he’s a work in progress. That may not make Diaz a great villain, but it is a huge improvement; it may not make “The Dragon” a great episode, but it makes it a hell of a step in the right direction.

Stray observations

  • The continued argument that Oliver is a monster for putting Rene in the hospital continues to baffle me. One, he was going to get hurt no matter what, as he was recovering from serious injuries that would have killed him if Oliver had not saved him in the first place. Two, he was holding a damn gun. Three, it’s a fight they initiated.
  • TAMVP: Kirk Acevedo, for sure. Restrained but brutal is a hard target to hit, and he hit it.
  • I sort of wish they’d just gone for the full Oliver-free hour.
  • They really didn’t want to pay extras this week, huh? The implausibly silent members of The Quadrant were hilarious.
  • We made it through a whole episode without Laurel saying “Daddy” or Rene saying “Hoss.” Let’s count those as wins, too.

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