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Arrow makes an anarchic return

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At its best, Arrow is a crazy, supercharged storytelling machine, juggling multiple plotlines, ever-shifting alliances, and secrets upon secrets upon secrets. It’s a show that operates on its own particular, more than a little insane logic, sustaining itself as much by the sheer momentum of a weekly television schedule as anything else—once you pause too long to think, the whole thing risks collapsing in on itself. That’s the main issue tonight’s “Blood Debts” runs into, as it tries to pick up the pieces more than a month after the show went on the customary yuletide hiatus. Perhaps because this episode relies so much on paying off the cliffhanger of Felicity getting shot, this episode doesn’t have the luxury of easing the audience back into the Arrow universe, and that means there’s a hell of a lot of storylines for viewers to not just remember but reinvest in. I’ll admit it’s been long enough since “The Candidate” aired that I had forgotten some of the plot specifics of Lonnie Machin’s last appearance and why he would care so specifically about Damien Darhk (the would-be leader who rejected him) and Thea (the one who set him on fire in a fit of bloodlust-fueled aggression).

To some extent, that’s on me to remember those sorts of details, and it’s not as though the show doesn’t make it clear in context how Machin sees those two characters. What is Arrow’s responsibility, though, is to get me to care about what’s unfolding on the screen, and that’s trickier when the whole story is so overstuffed. Felicity’s fate is necessarily the pivotal story here, and there are two basic ways the show could have handled the aftermath of her shooting. The first would be to spend as much of the episode as possible in the hospital, with Oliver and company putting their crusade on hold to be with their fallen comrade. That would be a meditative, thoughtful episode at best and a talky bit of claptrap at worst, and I can see why the Arrow creative team would want something with just a little more action in it to bring the show back from hiatus. And, to be sure, such an approach absolutely fits with what we have come to expect from Oliver, which is to run as far from his feelings as possible and go punch someone really hard. Under those circumstances, a Damien Darhk manhunt makes good narrative sense.

Where “Blood Debts” runs into trouble is that, given the Ghosts’ well-established refusal to talk, the show has to come up with some other way for Oliver to track down Darhk. That means bringing back Machin, an intriguing, complex character whose most intriguing and complex relationships aren’t with Oliver, but with Thea and maybe Darhk. That also means having Thea drop some serious exposition about her bloodlust issues to Laurel, and it also means Laurel calling the cops to come arrest Machin because she has a principled objection to Oliver keeping Machin imprisoned. Although keeping Andy Diggle captive is fine, I guess? Honestly, it’s kind of disingenuous for me to claim I care that much about that inconsistency, as it’s not as though it occurred to me when I was watching the episode, but it speaks to the real issue there, which is Laurel once again being saddled with a nonsensical, adversarial for the sake of being adversarial viewpoint. (I mean, of course holding people captive is bad, and Laurel is right to call the cops. It’s just a weird move within the internal logic of Arrow, which like any good superhero show has a pretty open-ended relationship with the law.)

That faltering bit of business with Laurel aside—definitely not the first time I’ve had to write that about an Arrow episode—there are the signs of some good stories here. Thea struggling with her bloodlust and Diggle taking Lyla’s advice and reconnecting with Andy as brothers are both solid subplots. Oliver losing control definitely feels a bit rote at this point, but the episode distinguishes itself in how Diggle and Felicity react. Oliver’s scene with Diggle hints that even the former knows how familiar his going off the rails is, as he preemptively refuses to hear any more speeches, only for Diggle to make it clear that he’s not going to do that this time, that he’s just affirming that he’s got Oliver’s back. And as for Oliver’s bedside scene with Felicity, their dialogue speaks to why the two fundamentally work as a couple. Both are trying to make sense of the perhaps impossible balancing act of being the Green Arrow—Oliver’s actions have meaning because he abides by a more demanding moral code, one that makes it difficult for him to best protect those who give him the strength to live by that code in the first place.

As ever, Arrow has an escape clause here, one that Oliver and Felicity agree on in that closing flash-forward: Some people, Damien Darhk chief among them, are too dangerous to let live. That’s not the kind of moral absolutism we tend to see in superhero stories—famously, DC Comics’ other famous non-superpowered vigilante had to resort to some “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” rhetorical sleight of hand to justify letting his enemy die in one of his movies—but it makes sense based on the journey we’ve gone on with the main characters of Arrow. As Diggle points out tonight, Oliver has fought so hard to regain his humanity, and part of his ongoing challenge is that he faces opponents—Malcolm Merlyn, Slade Wilson, Ra’s al Ghul, and now Damien Darhk—who want nothing more than to strip him of his humanity. Maybe it isn’t straightforwardly heroic in the way we’re used to in comic book stories for Oliver to outright vow to kill Darhk, but there’s a logic to this moral calculation, to the idea that Oliver will retain the greatest part of his humanity in the long run if he ends this existential threat to him, his city, and quite possibly the entire world once for all.

In the midst of all this, we learn that Felicity is paralyzed and will never walk again, at least for the time being. (Given multiple characters have already come back from the dead, that disclaimer is always necessary with any life-changing events on a show like Arrow.) I have relatively little to say about this because this ultimately feels like, if not exactly a footnote to this episode, then something that we only really experience in terms of how it affects Oliver, which feeds back into what I’ve already discussed about this episode’s storytelling. Given he’s the protagonist, it’s not the worst thing to keep the focus on him, and I expect there will be plenty of time given over to future episodes exploring Felicity’s new reality and how she deals with it. But for tonight, the show has too many other things to deal with for Felicity’s fate to hit with quite as much impact as it perhaps should.


None of this is to say “Blood Debts” is a particularly bad episode. Indeed, given how much this episode throws us right back into the various stories the show was telling before the break, and how much the Felicity part of this episode is left to be explored later, I could see this episode working legitimately well in a binge-watching context, where it forms just one part of a much larger whole instead of any sort of standalone hour of television. As it is, this episode maybe isn’t the ideal way for the show to kick off 2016, but any weirdness here just means the show can get straight back to business as quickly as possible. If this episode is any indication, it looks like the rest of the season is going to unfold at breakneck speed, and that could be a very, very good thing.

Stray observations

  • So then, Felicity is officially eliminated as the occupant of that grave. Given the fierceness with which she tells Oliver he has to get justice for the death, I’d figure the victim is someone close to her. That probably makes Diggle or Laurel the most logical candidates, with Lance being at least semi-plausible, given how long she was the primary contact between Lance and Team Arrow. The other possibility, assuming the show doesn’t want to kill off any main characters, is for Felicity’s mom to be the victim. Why Barry would show up to pay his respects is a little trickier, though it’s easy enough to take that as him just generally being there to support Oliver and Felicity.
  • Speaking of which, since we never see Felicity move in the flash-forward, the most logical conclusion is that she is indeed paralyzed at that point, explaining why she’s not standing beside Oliver in the first place. But it’s also at least possible that she can walk again by that point, and she’s just giving Oliver some space to grieve privately, for whatever reason. Not saying that’s probable, but it’s always good to assume as little as possible with shows this intentionally twisty.
  • Well, Mrs. Darhk is just as crazy, megalomaniacal, and generally evil as her husband. Good to know!
  • Oh, so they’re just still going with those flashbacks, huh?