David Nykl, Stephen Amell
Photo: Daniel Power (The CW)

Early in “Shifting Allegiances,” there’s a sequence that works. It feels self-assured, carefully planned, and like the culmination of a story to which Arrow has been building all season. That makes it a rarity ‘round these parts, and unfortunately, it highlights how little of that feeling can be found in the rest of the episode, and in this season as a whole. How’s this for unfair, Ricardo Diaz? When Arrow is good, it underlines the bad.

In hindsight, it seems inevitable that we’d get some sort of Oliver/Anatoly tête-à-tête. David Nykl first appeared on Arrow in 2013; if IMDb is to be believed, this marks his 30th episode. While not all his storylines have worked (and while we could probably have done with losing a Bratva flashback here and there), the show has successfully centered Anatoly as one of the more layered relationships in Oliver’s life. His presence in this season has often felt, to me at least, like it’s more about finding an excuse to keep David Nykl involved than about seeing a place for Anatoly in the story. That’s an understandable impulse: Nykl’s an entertaining presence, and at this point, the majority of the characters with whom Oliver has a long-standing, complicated relationship have moved on. Once, there was baggage everywhere; now, there’s Felicity, Diggle, Quentin. Tack on the person who is Not Laurel or William, if you see fit.

That’s part of what makes Nykl and Stephen Amell’s first lengthy scene together a pleasure to watch: it’s based in history. It’s a history that’s mostly been ignored, save for some shouting here and there, but it’s history, nonetheless. Their relationship has been brotherly, acrimonious, mentor-mentee, father-son, business, personal. It’s worth telling a story about, is what it is.

I’ll be curious to know how many of you guessed that Oliver was allowing himself to be captured. (I did.) But whether or not you saw that particular “twist” coming, the idea that Oliver is able to make his first dent in Diaz’s organization through what he knows about people — about Diaz and Anatoly both — is an interesting one. It’s the first instance in which the “back to basics” idea appeals. What if Oliver’s return to “basics” isn’t about finding a guy, killing that guy, and letting countless repetitions of “You have failed this city” fly? What if it’s less about relying on trick arrows and super-hacking and team assaults, and more about dealing with one person at a time?

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It’s unlikely, but possible. That would certainly connect with what’s going on with Laurel and Quentin, a storyline that has, for my money, well past its expiration date. It seems that we’re fast approaching the endlessly teased point at which Not Laurel must become either Good Not Laurel or Bad Not Laurel; perhaps if the road here had been more complicated and less repetitive, these scenes would hit harder. As it stands, there’s little complexity and less suspense, and the ineffectuality is emphasized by the uncomfortable framing of Diaz vs. Quentin. It’s as though one of those relationships is meant to show us who she is, rather than this woman wrestling with her own conflicting impulses and emotions. It’s not as though the original (on Arrow) Laurel Lance was always allowed to be complicated, but at least she was never forced to be either wholly one thing or wholly another.

That said, Katie Cassidy continues to be more engaging as this barbed Laurel than as her Earth-1 predecessor. It’s lucky, because the participants in our other significant storyline don’t have much going on. It’s always nice to see Curtis actually engaged in one of Arrow’s big, last-act battles, but otherwise, this is all cake and weird, one-sided apologies. If the point of this storyline is to make sure that Diggle is aligned, at least somewhat, with Team Not-Arrow, then mission accomplished. Otherwise, there’s frustratingly little to actually engage with, and the B-squad continues to struggle to find a place in the story that’s both palatable and sensible.

Whenever we’re away from Oliver and Anatoly, this episode sinks. Some of that may be my own personal fatigue with the drums this show has been beating for weeks without actually investigating them, but outside of specific references to recent episodes, you could remove a number of scenes from this hour, replace them with scenes from elsewhere in the season, and there’d be no real loss. That’s not the case with the Anatoly storyline, and that’s what makes it such a relief. To call it a breath of fresh air is overstating, but it certainly makes the other subplots look meager and silly by comparison. It’s simple and not particularly surprising, but at least it’s rooted in relationships.

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Stray observations

  • This is an inopportune time to make a Damien Darhk/Ricardo Diaz comparison, Quentin — Neal McDonough just spent a season quietly killing it over on Legends of Tomorrow. I wasn’t a huge Darhk fan when he was the Arrow big bad, but throw in this Legends run and the Legion of Doom arc, and there’s just no comparing the two.
  • Speaking of Darhk, the director of tonight’s episode, Alexandra La Roche, also directed “Return of the Mack,” an okay Legends with one excellent, deeply weird sequece.
  • Diaz and Oliver’s fight is somewhat unique for Arrow. Almost no scoring, relatively straightforward, and of course, arrow-free. It’s not my cup of tea, but I appreciate the change of pace.
  • That’s got to be one of the most lackluster “failed this city” inclusions in the show’s history.
  • Next week: Tommy Merlyn! I’m interested, but can a girl get a salmon ladder?

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