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Arrow: “Public Enemy”

Illustration for article titled Arrow: “Public Enemy”
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Well. My goodness.

If “Public Enemy” isn’t the best episode Arrow has ever done, it’s damn close. It has the outsize scale and storytelling of a season finale, yet its placement a few episodes before the end of the current run means that the show can’t delay dealing with the consequences of what unfolds here. (Well, it can delay a little: The next new episode airs two weeks from now. But still, you get the idea!) The episode is so strong that it can get away with wasting time on a silly Ray Palmer-centric subplot that randomly brings back Felicity’s mom and busts out another deeply unlikely bit of medical law: Seriously, Felicity could get arrested for breaking the hospital’s rule against experimental procedures. Sure, okay then. But who cares? As goofy as that side story undoubtedly is, it provides some occasional, much-needed relief from the apocalypse that is engulfing Team Arrow, not to mention possibly laying the groundwork for a nanite-infused, shrinking-capable Ray Palmer somewhere down the line. And honestly, I wouldn’t want the quintessential Arrow episode to be devoid of cheese.


It’s fitting then that the success of this episode rests so squarely on the shoulders of Detective Officer Captain Lance—“Detective” to his friends-turned-enemies—as Paul Blackthorne’s performance has long balanced itself between the sublime and the ridiculous. Lance is forever the guy who declares suspects “mobbed up to the eyeballs” and speaks with an accent straight out of old detective b-movies, give or take the occasional meal of rocks. Yet Lance is often given the show’s weightiest emotional material, and Blackthorne’s larger-than-life approach allows the show to bridge its silliest and its most serious elements. In the case of “Public Enemy,” Blackthorne has to sell the notion that one man’s grief and anger is enough to fuel a citywide manhunt, while also leaving space for this to become about something more than Lance’s pain or even Ra’s al Ghul’s convoluted designs. The audience need not agree with what he has to say to Oliver in the episode’s closing scenes—hell, I don’t think we’re even expected to seriously entertain his arguments—but they still should hurt, and they still should represent understandable sentiments. For all the good Oliver has done, there are no easy answers to the points Lance has to make, particularly when he starts listing all those who have died since Oliver returned.

Short of some serious, serious retconning, this really has to be the end of the secret identity era on Arrow; even if Roy’s closing gambit works—and we’ll get to that in due course—it’s hard to see how Oliver can ever be the Arrow again without all of Starling City knowing it’s him under the mask. The Arrow creative team has made no secret about its antipathy for secret identities, so that’s not exactly surprising, but it’s worth acknowledging that Lance is proof that keeping a character in the dark about a secret identity can work. The trouble for both Arrow and The Flash is that, in practice, Oliver and Barry’s secret-keeping has mostly just existed to keep their female loved ones—both romantic interests and sisters (which are the same person in Barry’s case)—in the dark, in theory to keep them safe but in practice to keep them isolated. Ignorance tends to make supporting characters look weak, unless that character is sufficiently powerful elsewhere to compensate for it. Detective Lance has power over Oliver in a tangible way that Laurel and Thea never did, and that fact becomes powerfully, exhilaratingly clear as the Starling City Police Department begins its manhunt.

Yeah, again, just, my goodness. At its most ambitious, Arrow has ideas that would take skill to pull off with a blockbuster movie’s budget, let alone with the relatively limited resources of a CW show. Sometimes this means the audience has to meet the show halfway with a generous heaping of suspension of disbelief, but other times, it means you get a police helicopter homing into view behind Ra’s al Ghul, kicking off a chase that feels positively choked in doom. What’s particularly impressive about the manhunt sequence is that there’s still room here for emotional beats, and not just Roy relying on his oldest friend parkour to evade police capture. The showdown between Lance and the Black Canary ought to be the most ludicrous damn thing in television history, particularly when Nyssa shows up to rescue her sparring partner. But what makes the scene work, once again, is Paul Blackthorne, as his delivery of the key line—“Laurel, what are you doing?”—gives the audience permission to step back and survey just how crazy this all is, yet it still forces us to reckon with the emotional anguish that Lance feels. He is a genuinely good man trying to make sense of a world in which the supposed good guys would spend months lying to him about his own daughter’s death, and he’s even more fundamentally baffled when his surviving daughter would throw in with the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul instead of turning herself in and facing the justice she too swore to uphold.

There was probably no way to do “Public Enemy” without our weekly dose of Oliver angst, but it’s about as contextually appropriate here as it’s ever going to be, and Oliver largely eschews his usual round of self-recriminations; once he’s decided he needs to turn himself in, he gets on and does it. This is where Ra’s al Ghul has ended up serving this season well. He isn’t Slade Wilson, providing an all-out adversary against whom Oliver can test his mettle. Instead, Ra’s al Ghul is a true immovable object, someone whose resources and reach are so absolute that Oliver never really has any choice but to submit; his only choice is whether he does so to Ra’s or to Lance, and it’s to his credit that he chooses the latter path. More than anything, that’s what defines tonight’s episode, as Oliver is forced to give up the last of the comfortable fictions that have sustained him these past three years, namely that there was ever a way for him to keep his two lives separate, that he could somehow keep the Arrow detached enough from the rest of his life to escape facing consequences for his actions and those done in his name.


And, speaking of which: well, well, well, Mr. Roy Harper. The sacrifice Roy makes in the episode’s closing minutes manages to be all the more powerful because the character has spent so much time on the sidelines, because he still feels more like the sketch of a character than a full-fledged individual. He’s the perfect sidekick, in other words, and at episode’s end he takes that to its logical conclusion. In its way, “Public Enemy” does cram in some acknowledgment of what Roy gives up—he does reconnect with Thea, after all—and why he might well be ready to trade his freedom for Oliver’s, as he continues to struggle with his inadvertent murder of a police officer. On some level, what Roy does is the ultimate bid for respect, both from Oliver and from the audience. The fact that he goes through with it is proof that he doesn’t need it. Maybe Roy isn’t really the hero of this story, or even particularly close to it. But he’s damn sure ready to play the part, and it’s a hell of a way to wrap up one of Arrow’s strongest hours.

Stray observations:

  • I mean, of course Roy turns himself in by jumping onto the roof of the van. He might be Oliver’s sidekick, but parkour is his sidekick, and he could never make such a sacrifice without his oldest friend by his side.
  • The reveal that the woman who looks like Shado is actually her identical twin feels like it could be kind of cheap, but the script and the performances from Stephen Amell and Celina Jade go a long way toward locating the emotional reality of their situation.
  • Hey, so Ray Palmer knows the plots of every story of all 34 seasons of Doctor Who. I really hope this means Ray Palmer has whiled away countless hours listening to the soundtracks of the missing William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton stories, then coming away with really deep opinions about, like, “The Macra Terror.”

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