After last season, Arrow desperately needed to deescalate. It’s inevitable that the need to up the narrative stakes with each passing season will lead to increasingly powerful foes, and Malcolm Merlyn was already written as absurdly more powerful and dangerous than Oliver back in season one. Sure, Oliver eventually became Malcolm’s equal, but the progression from Malcolm to Mirikuru-enhanced Slade Wilson to Ra’s al Ghul to Damien Dahrk left the show with villains that were nearly impossible for Team Arrow to stand any credible chance against—although, in fairness, tying Dahrk’s powers to a totem did at least provide a way to temporarily even the odds. I’ll always defend the merits of the fourth season on the strength of Neal McDonough’s performance alone, but it’s hard to argue he needed to be playing such a powerful character to be menacing. After all, his finest TV villain turn remains Justified’s Robert Quarles, and that guy became scarier and more fascinating as he actually lost power and became more desperate. Pitting your heroes against an almost all-powerful villain can be effective if written very carefully, but there’s a risk that the heroes just look weak for all the losses they suffer and the villain becomes so built up that his eventual defeat is weirdly unconvincing and not less than compelling.
So then, let’s look at Tobias Church. Just by dint of not being a member of the League of Assassins or some manner of metahuman, he’s not as formidable a foe as the show’s previous main villains (and not to say we know for certain he’s actually the season’s primary bad guy, especially with Prometheus around). But he’s a fearsome brawler and a ruthless tactician, with Chad L. Coleman playing the part like he’s on a crime drama, not a superhero show. Sure, he’s larger-than-life, much as McDonough was as Dahrk, but he doesn’t have to stretch in the same way his predecessors have done to make his character believable. Even better, he’s a strong foe, but he’s not that strong, as there’s a good argument that he wouldn’t have achieved all he did tonight if Oliver hadn’t been distracted with busting Diggle out of jail. That’s not to diminish Church, as there’s never any question that the trainee Team Arrow has got nothing on him—even allowing for Wild Dog getting in that one good strike—but there’s still plenty of room to grow Church as a bad guy or reveal he’s the de facto second fiddle to someone even scarier (which, again, figures to be Prometheus).
Oliver’s absence is another clever storytelling decision here, as Arrow gets an opportunity to define the rest of Star City’s heroes and villains while letting Oliver save his best friend. This is the sort of side quest Oliver should be going on, and while it’s fair to question his specific motivations—he was awful quick to suggest Diggle should get back to work as Spartan—the fact that he’s not allowing John to abandon his son out of misplaced guilt gives him a pretty good claim to the moral high ground. “Penance” strikes a fine balance in how much time they give to Felicity’s objections, with frankly hilarious reveal that she thought having the team confront Oliver would accomplish… anything. Arrow respects the idea that Oliver has become the most powerful fighter (without powers) in its universe, and it’s only right that he drops all three recruits without trouble. The highlight of the scene comes when Oliver realizes just what his team is saying, as Stephen Amell puts in an unmistakable hint of menace to his response. In that moment, we realize just how much Oliver holds back with his more humane approach to crime-fighting. He’s always going to be the killer those five years away made him, and it remains a conscious choice for him not to be that person. His team aren’t about to unleash the killer, but they realize fast just much they have pushed their luck.
Speaking of Oliver’s exile, the Russian flashbacks remain such a breath of fresh air. The show once again comes up with a parallel between the two Olivers, with both being sent into prison on missions, albeit with very different results. David Nykl’s Anatoly remains a delight, switching effortlessly between being Oliver’s goofy buddy and ruthless mentor. His presence keeps us guessing about what Oliver joining Bratva means in a way his previous entanglements with, say, the League of Assassins never did. We know too from Anatoly’s present-day appearance back in the second season that the two will part on good terms, and we can only guess as to what that will say for either man. In theory, we’re seeing the final forging of the Oliver that will soon become the Hood, so Anatoly’s tutelage makes sense: He is bringing out the killer and the soldier while still arguing there can be room for a larger guiding purpose. Handled right, these flashbacks could well represent three things: a fun ongoing parallel with the present-day storyline, a compelling season-long story in its own right, and the final piece of the puzzle connecting the show’s two five-year narrative strands.
Everything else about “Penance” just works. We get various moments of emotional uncertainty from Oliver, Felicity, Diggle, and Rory, yet they all feel well-motivated and all are resolved quickly enough that they don’t cross over into angst. Neither Oliver nor Felicity is necessarily wrong in how they feel about the plan to break Diggle out of prison, nor is Diggle entirely wrong for not wanting to leave… but yeah, they’re all kind of wrong, and Arrow now trusts us enough to present those complexities and just keep the story moving. Felicity and Rory’s storyline also doesn’t outstay its welcome, as Rory continues to rocket up the Team Arrow sidekick rankings with his quick realization that both he and Felicity need to find a way to move past their grief.
None of this is revelatory television, I suppose. But then, we’re only four episodes in, and already there’s a sense that Arrow is building. It’s not doing that by piling on twists and end-of-episode teasers—after a couple with Prometheus to start the season, the show has been content to just end with Team Arrow rather than foreshadow some future storyline by diverting our attention elsewhere. The show is keeping the whole mayoral storyline compelling by wisely taking its two best supporting characters—Thea and Lance—and trusting them to keep the thing afloat, which they’re doing very nicely so far. Oliver is still a hard ass, but he’s got more of a purpose now than he has in seasons, and his efforts to train up the team ground him in a way that leading seemingly unwinnable battles against the likes of Ra’s al Ghul and Damien Dahrk just can’t. I’m still waiting for Arrow to discover that extra little something that will allow it to crank out another legitimately classic episode. But right now, that really does feel like just a matter of time.
- Adrian Chase appears right on schedule to become the Vigilante, a version of the character I only know from the one story Alan Moore wrote for him. He’s on the more fascist side of the vigilante spectrum, which seems to fit with what they’re doing with the TV version of Chase, but at least the guy has got a cool costume waiting for him.
- I love Mister Terrific, but he got exposed tonight. Time to unleash the gadgets, Curtis!
- None of us say this enough: Lyla is the absolute best. There’s a very good argument she’s more competent than all the rest of these bozos put together. (And yeah, I’m sure she did a dumb thing or two back in her prime A.R.G.U.S. days, but that organization seems to make everyone a bit stupid.)