There’s a lot of ways to describe Arrow’s resurgence this season, and here’s one I haven’t trotted out previously: More so than at any point since season two, the show is comfortable in its own skin. On the one hand, this is a show where Laurel can show up, back from the dead, and spin some ridiculous story about her sister teleporting her onto the Waverider and fixing the embolism that really, really appeared to kill her—and Team Arrow doesn’t remember any of that because it hadn’t happened yet when they experienced it. This is a masterful bit of bullshit on the show’s part. I’m reminded of the writers of Futurama talking about a false twist in the episode “The Sting,” where they explained it was meant to be intentionally unsatisfying, albeit a plausible explanation on a just slightly crummier show. Arrow exists in a universe far stranger and wackier than the one it started out in, yet it still knows where to draw the line of ridiculousness. Even better, it trusts the audience to recognize when it’s playing around with that line, and the writing and acting are now both strong enough to convey the flimsiness of Laurel’s story.
At the same time, though, Arrow isn’t content to just be a show set in a zany superhero universe. The notion of parallel universes with evil doppelgangers of beloved characters has become such a standard comic book trope—Star Trek also played a hand in establishing it—that it’s easy to forget how weird this idea is. Sure, maybe that’s just how the universes work, but it’s much more logical to adopt Oliver’s perspective, as he argues the Laurel that became the Black Siren isn’t some inherently evil inversion of their Laurel but rather a product of differing circumstances. Arrow seizes on a nice bit of continuity from The Flash’s universe-hopping adventures by recalling that the other universe’s Oliver died when the Queen’s Gambit sank, already creating a darker existence for the other Laurel to endure. Maybe Black Siren was just working Oliver there, or maybe her story was true and her final claim that the good Laurel never existed was just so much bluster.
The episode leaves it uncertain whether Oliver is right to put faith in this Laurel, but “Who Are You?” is less concerned with the correctness of its characters as it is with the rationales behind their perspectives. Specifically, the focus is on Oliver and Felicity, though not necessarily on Oliver and Felicity. After a half-season spent resetting the show and developing the expanded ensemble, the mid-season premiere places renewed emphasis on the core Team Arrow members who, you know, aren’t currently in military prison. Oliver remains steadfast in his optimism, more as a kind of guiding ethic than a specific response to the latest set of bad breaks. He holds out hope not because it’s a rational response, but rather because he needs to, because otherwise all that’s left is despair and cynicism, and that’s no sort of way for a costumed vigilante to behave—particularly one who is willing to kill when the situation calls for it.
Felicity, by contrast, is still grieving her boyfriend’s death, and she is well past the point where she can see the unexpected as anything other than a dire portent of imminent disaster. Laurel’s miraculous return certainly qualifies, and her every move after the Black Siren reveals herself is premised on the belief that justice—or maybe vengeance, who can say?—on this Laurel and Prometheus is the only meaningful objective. Her skepticism, which would probably be classed as paranoia if she weren’t proven right at every turn, leads her to overrule Oliver on multiple occasions tonight. Significantly—and refreshingly—“Who Are You?” isn’t especially concerned with litigating Team Arrow’s chain of command. Oliver accepts Felicity’s argument in favor of intentionally letting Laurel go, albeit begrudgingly, and they a moment of mutual understanding at the end of the episode.
Tonight’s episode is significant because it’s the first time that Oliver and Felicity feel like equally important characters without romance defining the latter’s importance. And, for the record, there’s no issue with romance being important for either character. But if Arrow can build on its handling of Felicity tonight, there’s an opportunity to define her in a way that doesn’t ultimately reduce to Oliver’s sidekick, love interest, or former love interest. Yes, it required moving Diggle out of the picture to accomplish that, but it’s understandable that two characters designed as supporting players would struggle to match Oliver in narrative importance. But when it’s either just Felicity or just John, it’s easier for Oliver to share the spotlight. The climactic fight scene accomplishes that nicely, with Curtis, Oliver, and Felicity all working together in sequence to take down the Black Siren.
Speaking of Curtis, after a half-season of getting the crap beaten out of him and generally looking nothing like a viable vigilante, he gets some much-needed character development. It’s not really that Arrow is course-correcting by having the character at last acknowledge how lousy he has been, but it’s perhaps surprising that it took quite this long for Curtis to recognize how much his approach wasn’t working. Rene’s advice that he focus on the things he’s good at instead of bemoaning the things he’s not is long overdue, and Curtis’ renewed focus on his gadgetry genius indicates we’re finally, finally on the road to Mr. Terrific rolling into battle with some damn T-spheres. The first half of this Arrow season was strong enough to get away with blatantly keeping Curtis in a holding pattern, but all along there was this far more compelling story waiting to be told about Mr. Terrific becoming his own kind of hero.
Meanwhile, Adrian Chase took some time out from surely, obviously being Vigilante—no, seriously, I still don’t quite get why that’s being left a mystery—to do some actual lawyering, as Oliver drafts him to help Diggle with his legal defense. This could be such a nothing plot, considering it seemingly has nothing to do with the main Team Arrow action, but David Ramsey can make any Diggle story compelling through sheer force of gravitas, and Josh Segarra is such an intensely odd presence as the probably unhinged Chase that the subplot works better than it ought to. (Maybe I’m just saying this because I’m the world’s biggest Thea fan, but I feel like Arrow consistently has some of the best throwaway tertiary subplots on TV, at least far better than a show of its stature really ought to.) Chase’s final gambit to keep Diggle from being taken away by the crooked general is especially clever.
This is just a solid, solid episode of Arrow, a well-constructed hour of television that moves its characters forward, kicks around some intriguing questions about what makes a person who they are, and keeps the manufactured melodrama at a minimum. We even get yet another compelling flashback sequence, and they didn’t even need Anatoli or Dolph Lundgren there to make the thing work. For an episode that’s just content to reintroduce itself after the hiatus, it’s hard to ask for more.
- I realize this didn’t matter because Quentin is off in rehab, but the fact that the Black Siren was maybe going to pass herself off as Laurel to her non-father? Damn.
- David Meunier is doing really nice work as the Bratva leader. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for any Justified alum the show casts, but he wasn’t even that memorable as Cousin Johnny Crowder. I think there’s something about Justified’s brand of pulpiness that sets up its former actors to do superlative work on the even pulpier Arrow.
- For a second there, I thought Oliver was talking about Felicity when he said somewhere out there was a woman who could live up to Laurel’s legacy. All things considered, I think I’m glad the show immediately introduced a character with a supersonic scream. And that’s not a knock on Felicity—she’s already got her own good thing without being incorporated into another character’s story.
- And there’s Lexa Doig as Talia! If she’s half as good as the show’s other al-Ghul daughter, this ought to be fun.