One of the great delights of Arrow is its ability to tell any kind of story. I don’t have the official numbers on me, but I’d guess “Corto Maltese” features by far the least amount of the Arrow in the show’s run. After that initial interrogation of an unhelpful witness to Sara’s death, Oliver ditches the hood for the rest of the episode, giving the show a useful opportunity to redefine his roles, at least temporarily. Going back to the end of last season, most recent plots featuring Oliver out of uniform tended to focus on his attempts—his wonky attempts, if Ray Palmer is to be believed—to run Queen Consolidated, but here the twin focuses are on Oliver the brother and Oliver the spy. The latter is mostly an opportunity for the show to cut loose and let Oliver show off his ass-kicking acumen in a different climate; also, I defy anyone to not love Oliver assembling a makeshift bow-and-arrow set from the random crap in his hotel room.
Still, the episode’s genre shift into tropical spy territory could serve a larger purpose. It’s early days yet, but it remains unclear just where the show is going with its Hong Kong flashbacks. That isn’t necessarily a problem: Last season ended up doing great things with the story of Oliver and the Mirakuru-addled Slade Wilson, and only the tiniest hints of what was to come were present in the first few episodes of the season. But what is somewhat remarkable is just how little we’ve seen of the A.R.G.U.S. plotline to date. The flashbacks in the first two episodes were both fairly short, and they are left out of this episode completely in favor of scenes with Thea and Malcolm. As such, this episode sees Oliver wade back into a world that we still haven’t really seen him enter, and what we get here could be a kind of retroactive foreshadowing. As the traitorous Shaw insists to an uncaring Diggle, “You don’t know the things Waller made me do!” Oliver’s two years on the island made him a soldier, even a warrior, but it may well have been his time in Hong Kong that turned him into a killer. Oliver hints at some fairly unforgivable transgressions in his vague confession to Thea, and it stands to reason that Amanda Waller’s corruption now isn’t any worse than what she was getting up to when Oliver was under her control.
Well, maybe. Certainly, “Corto Maltese” isn’t subtle about the way that it sets up long-term plot threads; this is an episode that does its fair share of table-setting. The trouble is that Arrow in its third season has given the audience a bunch of things that could be compelling, but aren’t actually all that compelling in the here and now. There’s a lot of promise in this episode, as “Corto Maltese” sets up Thea’s turn toward the dark side, Diggle’s growing concern with A.R.G.U.S. (which again may or may not tie in thematically with Oliver’s activities in the flashbacks), Laurel’s vow to carry on her sister’s fight, and Felicity’s continued employment with Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer, who may or may not be shaping up as a live-action, clean-shaven Hank Scorpio. There’s enough meat in the episode-specific story for this to work as an hour of television, but none of the serialized plot threads have moved far enough that they feel like vital parts of the show’s overarching narrative. Sara’s murder probably remains the likeliest candidate on that score, but Arrow appears to be biding its time before unveiling the true significance of her death; there’s a reason that damn trail keeps going cold, though the arrival of a pissed-off, arrow-wielding Nyssa at the end of “Corto Maltese” could signal that storyline is about to really click into place.
In the meantime, what makes tonight’s episode work on its own terms—beyond the tropical spy yarn and the attending fight sequences, all of which represent some first-class Arrow action—is the emphasis on character. Last season made a strong case as to why Thea should indeed get the hell away from Starling City; her storyline became a fascinating, largely well-executed deconstruction of what it means to be the designated innocent, a person whose sole purpose in a superhero narrative is to be on the outside of everyone else’s terrible secrets. In theory, such a perpetually unaware character helps ground the hero and gives him or her a virtuous ideal to protect, but that doesn’t make it any less shitty to be lied to by … well, by everyone. Thea’s decision to throw in with her biological father is a poor one, but he was the only person in the Mirakuru crisis who made her his top priority. Yes, that’s most because Oliver and Roy were busy saving the city, but then it was their choice not to tell her what they were actually doing.
That’s the lesson “Corto Maltese” imparts to Oliver, who recognizes that he must start telling the truth if he ever wants Thea to come back. Arrow hits a tricky balance here, as Thea reveals herself uninterested in his major lies and overwhelmingly concerned with one—Oliver’s knowledge of Thea’s parentage—whose magnitude was arguably exaggerated by Slade Wilson. Oliver offers Thea both the truth and a powerful defense of Robert Queen, but he doesn’t quite manage to do both at once. After all, Oliver omits a massive, story-altering detail when he doesn’t mention that Robert killed the other survivor of the sinking before turning the gun on himself.
The episode lets Oliver’s massaged version of events go unchallenged; there’s no ominous music sting or quick cut back to the pilot to remind the audience that Oliver has left out a vital piece of information. That either indicates tremendous trust in the audience on the show’s part or suggests the show isn’t going to make a big deal of this latest lie. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how this particular half-truth could come back to bite Oliver, as there’s no reason to think anyone else is privy to that particular information. The larger issue then is that Oliver has still not broken the habit of lying or concealing whenever he judges it necessary or convenient. Whereas Roy makes a convincing case that he genuinely has changed and respects Thea’s wishes in a way that he didn’t even before the Mirakuru scrambled his mind, Oliver is still struggling to treat his kid sister as something more than an emotional crutch. Malcolm might well be right when he says Thea will be back before long.
As for the story back in Starling City, the show continues to try its best to sell Laurel’s inevitable transformation into the second Black Canary. I’d say that this is all happening too fast to be believable, but last season showed us how much of a car crash a decompressed Laurel storyline can be; all things considered, it’s probably better that the show just whips through this transitional material as fast as possible and get to the good stuff as soon as possible. Anyone familiar with DC Comics lore probably won’t miss the significance of a roguish but goodhearted boxer named Ted Grant—particularly one that operates the Wildcats Gym—and Arrow does at least acknowledge that Laurel’s reasons for fighting crime are about 90 percent passion and 10 percent aptitude. (That might still be too generous an estimate, honestly.) Like “Corto Maltese” as a whole and the first three episodes in general, the great virtue of the Laurel plot is that at least it’s moving fast. I’d just love a little more clarity as to where it’s moving in such a blazing hurry.
- One nice scene I didn’t mention: Oliver flatly refusing to train Laurel. Again, there’s a plot-mandated element to this scene, as Laurel needs to be pushed toward Ted Grant while leaving Oliver free to continue his superhero work. But Stephen Amell has gotten really good at the character work, and he helps bring out the best in Katie Cassidy’s performance as well. Oliver makes a damn good observation that Sara would never forgive him for bringing Laurel into this life, which should hopefully add some emotional drama to her emergence as a vigilante down the line.
- Felicity’s executive assistant is Gerry Conway, which is a nice shout-out.
- “The only way to forge steel is to temper it with fire.” “Get away from me, you sick son of a bitch.” “Now we can begin.” Malcolm Merlyn: Father of the Year.
- “Are we favor friends now? Are we friends?”