Although Oliver and Roy’s late-night visit to the Diggle family dinner gives “Draw Back Your Bow” a vague Thanksgiving episode feel, what tonight’s Arrow entry really feels like is the world’s most demented Valentine’s Day episode. Love is in the air here, but this is some deeply unhealthy romance on display here. Our hero must contend with an obsessive stalker, an unbalanced admirer who goes around stealing all the Arrow’s best moves while refusing to take “no” for an answer. And that’s just the story of Felicity Smoak and Ray Palmer, who remains so creepy on paper that it’s only Brandon Routh’s considerable charisma that keeps the character even vaguely palatable. As for Oliver and his rendezvous with the mentally fragile Cupid, the episode takes us back to a weird truth first revealed in the first season’s Huntress two-parter: For whatever reason, Oliver’s love life never snaps into sharper focus than when he is contending with an unhinged would-be girlfriend. Perhaps it’s because, as Carrie’s therapist suggests, Oliver could do with a few sessions himself.
What’s so interesting, and ultimately so successful, about “Draw Back Your Bow” is how low stakes it is. Last week’s episode did introduce Cupid by having her murder Ted Grant’s old partner, and she does get the drop on a well-guarded mob informant, but she’s only ever a match for Oliver when she can rely on the element of surprise. Given time to wire the mobster to explode, she can hold her own against the Arrow, and her SWAT training means she can plausibly take on a distracted Arsenal, but the final confrontation between Carrie and Oliver makes it clear just how out of her league she really is. After a series of villains who would bring Starling City to its knees if not for Oliver, this week gives us a villain whom Oliver has to save from herself. This kind of intentionally minor threat is a far more effective choice for a character-centric episode like “Draw Back Your Bow,” as the show uses Carrie’s deranged advances as a chance for Oliver to explore his own conflicted emotions.
To its credit, Arrow is aware how insane this is. Oliver opens up to Carrie about his feelings in a desperate attempt to earn her trust. Even through a voice modulator, Oliver sounds earnest, even tortured as he tells Carrie—and, by extension, Felicity—that he remains firm in his belief that he cannot risk bringing anyone else into his life. Maybe Diggle is right, and Oliver’s logic is faulty, or more accurately Oliver’s logic is sound but is trumped by the sheer weight of his feelings. No matter. In that moment, Oliver acknowledges the necessity of his own loneliness and makes a genuine plea for understanding to Carrie; if there is any way to rebuff her without dismissing her, this is surely it. But “Draw Back Your Bow” is smart enough to realize that, no, there’s no good way to let down someone this far gone, and Oliver’s honesty goes for naught, even if his compassion does not. There may be some temptation to attach larger meaning to Carrie’s belief that Oliver is lying, but she’s the epitome of an unreliable witness here; if anything, her refusal to acknowledge what the Arrow tells her is probably a good endorsement of its underlying veracity.
It’s useful to contrast the portrayal of Carrie Cutler here with that of the Huntress in the first season. Now, even the dark, brooding Hood of the first season would never have seriously considered Cupid’s advances, but Helena Bertinelli is only marginally less unbalanced than Carrie is; the distinctions here are mostly ones of tone and theatricality, not of substance. Oliver had to distance himself from his new girlfriend and crime-avenging partner by the end of their initial two-parter, but the fact that he got close at all spoke volumes about his own confusion, his own hopelessly muddled morality. Two years later, Oliver knows exactly who he wants to be and how he must go about becoming that person. He is a mature hero, a principled observer of the no-kill rule who is comfortable with the notion of saving wrongdoers from their own self-destruction. When he goes to talk to Carrie—and, again, also Felicity—he is struggling not with how to define his identity but rather with how to live within its considerable limitations. There’s fertile storytelling ground to be found there; that’s more or less the defining character arc of the Batman of the DC Animated Universe, for instance, and Kevin Conroy’s Caped Crusader remained compelling without ever really finding a way to move beyond the grim existence he had chosen for himself.
But this is a more muted character choice for a show like Arrow, which makes no secret of its CW-influenced, soap opera roots. I mean, for goodness’ sake, this is still a show perfectly willing to throw away five minutes on a throwaway subplot featuring Thea and a bad-boy DJ, which may or may not be headed toward some romance. That’s a thing that happened! “Draw Back Your Bow” sometimes leads itself down some weird paths as it attempts to develop a romance—that between Felicity and Oliver—that its leading man studiously refuses to participate in. The episode does have Felicity immediately point out just how unfair it is for Diggle to ask her to stay away from Ray because it’s maybe distracting Oliver, but it remains awkward that the show goes down that path at all. At this point, I’m reconciled to the fact that the show is never going to make particularly great use of Diggle, but this is an especially tricky use of the character as a kind of unrequested, unverified surrogate for Oliver’s own feelings.
The episode gets much better when it lets Diggle butt out of his friends’ love lives; Oliver may be terrible at articulating his personal feelings, but his experiences with Cupid do force him toward at least a few brief moments’ honesty. The scene in which he goes to see Felicity and finds her mid-kiss with Ray Palmer plays as a reversal of the season one scene in which Tommy saw Oliver and Laurel together through the latter’s bedroom window. I feel for Oliver there, especially because Stephen Amell looks so heartbroken, but it’s damn hard to argue that he didn’t waste the dozen or so opportunities that might have led to a very different outcome. It’s that sad realization that helps bring Oliver to the small but powerful moment of understanding that closes the episode.
Yes, things are shitty now, and much of it is of his own making, albeit for largely understandable reasons. This isn’t something he can solve by hiding his feelings—his explosive assaults on that poor table confirm that isn’t a possibility—but he can at least take the small lifelines that are offered to him. Oliver doesn’t have the answers here, and neither does Roy, but at least Oliver is wise enough to know when it’s time to go eat dinner with whatever family he’s got left. That’s enough to get him through the bad days, and make no mistake: “Draw Back Your Bow” may just be another day at the office for the Arrow, but this one is hell for Oliver.
- Honestly, I’m still not clear at all where Arrow is going with Ray Palmer on really any level. Still, I say again that Brandon Routh is just astoundingly well-cast in the role and a whole lot of fun to watch, so I’ll admit I don’t care as much about the problematic elements of his character as I probably ought to. Now let’s just see him start jumping some levels on that salmon ladder and we’ll be all set.
- Hey, Laurel wasn’t in this episode! Um, did anyone notice?
- Carrie Cutler gets sent off to the Suicide Squad, which is exciting, as there does still feel like there’s some untapped potential for the character. Also, it’s nice to see how Oliver’s compassion has evolved over the yea
- Arrow is off next week, but the week after is the big crossover with The Flash. I’m really quite excited about this.