What precisely is the story in tonight’s episode? If we break things down strictly in terms of the plot beat, two of the most pivotal storylines in “Lost Souls” amount to narrative busywork, with Arrow lending an hour of its time to do some setup for the upcoming Legends Of Tomorrow. Watching this episode, it’s not hard to escape the sense that neither Sara Lance nor Ray Palmer really fits on this show anymore—not that Ray ever really fit on this show, but that wasn’t Brandon Routh’s fault. Ray is the object of a whole lot of storytelling and character beats tonight, but he’s never the subject, with the episode taking pains to keep Ray’s post-rescue presence in Star City as minimal as possible. Meanwhile, Sara’s Lazarus Pit-induced bloodlust is a logical outgrowth of her return from the dead—still kind of odd nobody bothered to ask John Constantine if he could recommend anything to help Thea or Sara with that, but what the hey—and it could easily sustain one hell of an ongoing plotline if Sara was attempting to work through her murderous intentions with the sister who risked everything to bring her back and the one person who can empathize with her and whom Sara could rid herself of her bloodlust by killing. But Sara no longer really belongs to Arrow, so here comes another sudden decision to skip town (albeit one not nearly as clunky or unearned as Henry Allen’s exit from The Flash, but still!).

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I sketch all this out not to pillory Arrow in general or this episode in particular, which is actually one of a strong season’s finest efforts. But it’s worth understanding what special pressures this show now operates under as the foundational piece of an ever-expanding TV universe. In theory, the stories we see on this show should be built from the basic premise of making Arrow as compelling, as entertaining, as good—even great!—as possible. Yet everything with Ray and Sara represents so much table-setting, and the vast majority of the payoff is likely to come on some other show. The question then for “Losts Souls” is how well it can hide the fact that it’s doing a spin-off’s narrative dirty work. The easiest way to do that is to make Ray as irrelevant to the story as the show can manage, to use his sudden return as a catalyst for a story that can be resolved without his active presence. In other words, “Lost Souls” lets his survival be the jumping-off point for the episode’s big emotional story between Oliver and Felicity, as the latter suddenly has a crisis of confidence in their increasingly serious relationship.

Honestly, I’m not totally sure how well this plotline works. To some extent, Felicity’s issues here are an extension of what we learned in the season premiere, as once again she reveals herself to be the one who wants something more than just to be happy with Oliver. The actual chain of cause and effect is a little difficult to hold in one’s head, but it all sort of works: Felicity realizes she wasn’t there for Ray in the aftermath of his accident because she had already moved on to Oliver, and the only reason she was able to make peace with Ray’s apparent death in the first place was because she had allowed herself to get lost in Oliver. To the show’s credit, this is a rather more nuanced emotional argument than a lot of previous internal conflicts the show has trotted out, yet the episode struggles a little to figure out just how Oliver himself ought to fit into this. This is where the continued improvement of the cast and the general goodwill built up by this season comes in handy. The scene in which Oliver and Diggle discuss where things stand with Felicity is beautifully acted by Stephen Amell and David Ramsey, affirming the characters have regained their camaraderie while showing another nice example of how this new, more balanced Oliver can get introspective without a bunch of tedious self-recriminations. It’s all compelling stuff, even if the scene never quite nails down why Oliver should be jealous of Ray, or whatever it is he precisely is.

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Again, this kind of narrative fuzziness only matters to the extent that it compromises the audience’s enjoyment of the episode, and “Lost Souls” works well even with some occasionally clouded emotional stakes. And, make no mistake: Oliver does some not great things here, and inviting Felicity’s mom—the future Mrs. Detective Lance, if that last scene is any indication—round for a visit is right at the top of the list. Where Arrow is struggling a little is in figuring out to what extent it wants to draw the obvious conclusion from what Oliver does, which is that he is always way too certain he knows what’s best for everyone. Making the unilateral decision to invite your partner’s slightly estranged parent for a surprise visit is pretty damn nuts, honestly, and it’s symptomatic of what all the characters are constantly accusing Oliver of. What’s more, this is the rare occasions when Oliver acts like he knows what’s best and there’s no real plausible way to argue that’s the case; at least when it comes to matters mystical and tactical, he tends to be right more often than not. What keeps this all palatable is the fact that Oliver genuinely means well in a way that he struggled to in seasons past, but there remain plenty of unresolved issues here, even if Oliver and Felicity do end the episode in a good place.

As some of the commenters have noted, this season has sometimes been a little slack on the directorial front; I was certainly underwhelmed by the handling of the mystical elements in last week’s “Haunted,” for a start. But credit where it’s due: “Lost Souls” looks great, featuring some of the most fluid, engaging fight scenes the show has staged in a while. It helps that the episode has three distinct sequences to cut between during the rescue mission, as the episode shifts from the rotating shots of the Canaries and Thea kicking ass, Felicity and company racing to find Ray, and Oliver distracting Damien Darhk, who remains a villainous joy to watch. While there’s still no doubt that Darhk is at least a couple orders of magnitude more powerful than Team Arrow—and that final scene suggests the show is maybe doing that annoying thing in which every apparent setback for the villain is really just another part of some byzantine masterplan—tonight suggests that there is strength in numbers, and Oliver and his allies are willing to take some serious gambles to gain even a temporary upper hand. That’s what makes “Lost Souls” worthwhile, in the end: As much as a lot of this episode is there to set up another show, the core of this episode speaks to the new, improved blueprint for a solidly successful Arrow episode.

Stray observations

  • The countdown to Curtis Holt becoming Mr. Terrific is barely worth setting at this point. Did he mention he’s an excellent base jumper? He’s terrific, you might even say.
  • It’s a shame Sara’s time on Arrow is presumably limited, as she partners really well with Laurel and Thea for the fight scenes. I imagine this is probably more direction than anything else, but I’d swear Caity Lotz makes everyone around her look more believable in the fighting scenes.
  • Seriously, Neal McDonough is so much fun as Damien Darhk it almost feels like cheating at this point. Nothing against Matt Nable, who did a perfectly servicable job in the role he was asked to play, but the trade-up in entertainment factor from Ra’s al Ghul to Damien is kind of ridiculous. Even if absolutely nothing else about this season were working, I’m pretty sure McDonough would make it watchable all by himself.

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