How this season has used Felicity is either the best arc she has ever had or, if perhaps not the worst, then at least one of the most frustrating stories she has featured in. “Dangerous Liaisons” feels like the culmination of an important section of her arc, as underlined by the explosion that ends the episode. So now is as good a time as any to take a more season-long view, to assess just what story Arrow has tried to tell with Felicity over the course of the year. It’s one that dovetails with John and Lyla’s growing disagreements over the latter’s handling of the darker side of ARGUS, and the whole thing is explicitly presented as an inversion of the traditional setup over the previous four seasons, with Oliver asking Felicity to back him as he crosses some highly questionable lines in pursuit of justice.
Here’s the fundamental problem: I still don’t really get why Felicity has allied with Helix to bring down Chase at any cost. As I suspect many of you are now ready to helpfully point out, Felicity’s boyfriend did die a horrible death at the hands of Prometheus (well, Oliver’s hands manipulated by Prometheus, but Felicity is rightly putting the blame squarely on the square-jawed psychopath she wasn’t previously engaged to). And yes, that’s more than enough reason for Felicity’s actions, in theory, but the trouble is Arrow hasn’t really shown us that as her primary motivator. Hell, it hasn’t even really told us that, though I’ll get back to that point. After all, Billy’s death needn’t be the sole justification for her decisions, as there’s also the Helix factor to consider. That group managed to tap into her old crusading hacker impulses, giving her a sense of agency and purpose that she hadn’t necessarily been feeling in Team Arrow. By that reckoning, she chooses to cross the line and rescue Helix’s leader because she wants to be her own hero, rather than just Oliver’s glorified tech support. It’s unfortunate that being a hero on Arrow necessarily involves selling one’s soul, but there it is.
So sure, there are some compelling possible motivations here. But tonight’s episode doesn’t give us much insight into them. For sake of comparison, consider Lyla, who makes it explicitly clear why she is prepared to hold Cross in an illegal black site. One can certainly debate how original her reasons are, as saying difficult choices have to be made for the sake of national security is a pretty bog standard rationale. But hey, there’s generally a good reason things are cliches, and an ethically compromised spymaster doesn’t really need much more detail than that. The point is the detail is there, whereas Felicity talks a lot about how she has to do this and how she needs Oliver to get out of her way, but “Dangerous Liaisons” generally elides the question of why.
Oliver is the problem here. Or, more specifically, Felicity’s lack of distance from Oliver is the issue. Oliver is the show’s unquestioned protagonist, and he exerts a hell of a gravitational pull. If he is in a scene, then that scene is about him. If you look at the show’s richest characters, they are generally the ones who have been given arcs that took them away from Oliver for extended periods. Thea and Roy became unexpected delights of the back half of the first season because, not despite the fact they were islanded from the rest of the show. Quentin Lance is basically the show’s finishing school for compelling supporting characters, as Rene gets better with every episode he’s allowed to be the star of his own subplots under Lance’s watch. Honestly, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but let’s even consider Laurel during her drunken period. That arc wasn’t all that well-written, and it overtaxed Katie Cassidy’s abilities in the role, but for all its clunkiness it did manage to define Laurel independent of her relationship to Oliver. When she began training with Wildcat to become the Black Canary, she had a depth of character, flawed as it was, that wouldn’t have been possible if she had been a part of Team Arrow from the start.
Felicity is a better character than Laurel, but here we come to the difference between a primary and a supporting character. Laurel worked best as a supporting character, specifically during her Team Arrow run in season four, but it was possible to understand her motivations, even when they were risible or poorly executed, when the show thrust her into the spotlight. Felicity, by contrast, hasn’t had that time away from Oliver. Here again I’m sure some of you are ready to helpfully point out that she did spend a lot of time by herself at Helix this year. But her Helix tenure was not materially different from her work as Overwatch, except now she was faintly opposed to Oliver instead of working with him. The Helix stuff has been primarily plot-driven, with Felicity making a series of more questionable deals with the group to track down Chase. And that’s potentially really good storytelling! The descent of Felicity Smoak is unquestionably an intriguing path for the show to explore. But her subplots have been so busy showing us the things she is willing to do that there has been no time for her to pause and tell someone why she is doing them. It doesn’t help that she lacks an obvious person to talk to. If only she could have shared a side story with Lance.
This fuzziness around Felicity and her motivations necessarily puts the focus back on Oliver, and that has some less than ideal knock-on effects. I’ve touched on this in previous reviews, but it’s still not amazing subtext to have Oliver and Diggle spend the whole episode sitting in judgment of their former and present significant others for shit they have absolutely done themselves. (Or is imprisoning Andy cool because John never got government authorization for his black site?) As Felicity points out at the end, she has always been willing to back Oliver’s play, yet he couldn’t bring himself to do the same for her. I go back and forth on how rigorously this episode is really trying to explore the gendered aspects of its setup, which are basically unavoidable when you consider we’re seeing an explicit role reversal in how couples (again, one former, one current) typically interact. This is complicated by the fact that Arrow remains so committed to maintaining Oliver’s newfound emotional clarity, even as Felicity struggles. I think “Dangerous Liaisons” wants us to judge Oliver in the wrong, at least in his failure to support Felicity like she would him, but that’s hard to buy into emotionally when we see him so often at his best, and he remains so obviously the show’s hero.
All that said, “Dangerous Liaisons” is fine. It’s exciting and twisty and even emotional when Lance and Rene are given space to do their thing. Arrow remains just so much easier to watch than it was in recent seasons. I have issues with the long-form storytelling here, yet I enjoyed much of the episode for what it is. But that’s just it, I suppose: for what it is. Arrow can sometimes attain greatness, when everything clicks together just right. But that takes a storytelling discipline that this season, as good as it is, hasn’t always had, and that’s clearest with Felicity. Her story cries out for depth and specificity of motivation, and this episode, along with those before it, haven’t quite been able to provide them. That isn’t a fatal flaw, as these things go. It’s just a reminder that there’s daylight between “good” and “great.” This episode is more than entertaining enough to attain the former, but it falls decidedly short of the latter.
Next week, though, well… I smell a formula-breaking episode. Could be real great, that one. Arrow has once again earned this viewer’s optimism.
- I never, ever, ever want Quentin Lance to die. Ever. But if he does, I demand his eulogy begin with, “Quentin Lance, or Hoss as he liked to be called…”
- Let’s not let all the business with Helix and ARGUS distract us from the fact that Oliver really is a terrible mayor. He couldn’t notice a psychopath in his own midst for months, and he still hasn’t done anything about Star City’s swimming pools.
- Curtis is still far too hyper for my tastes, but I will never not love when Mr. Terrific busts out the T-spheres. Perfection.