Fair play to “Underneath”: It addresses quite a few of the criticisms I leveled against the show in my review of last week’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” That doesn’t necessarily invalidate those issues, as the Felicity-centric storytelling this season doesn’t retroactively stop being wonky even if this episode deals with some of the problems. But Arrow finally stops holding off on something it needed to do ages ago: Have Felicity and Oliver open up to each other and finally lay out their motivations. That all this unfolds amid Adrian Chase’s most ingenious attack yet, one that really ought to have left both of them dead, makes this all the more impressive. Considering we barely stray from the bunker, either in the present or in the sexy, sexy flashbacks, this probably counts as a bottle episode, but let’s not sweat the categories. “Underneath” strikes just the right balance between taut, self-contained thriller and character piece, with Oliver and Felicity’s ever worsening situation forcing them to confront uncomfortable truths without ever feeling too contrived.
First though, let’s talk about the expanded Team Arrow. Rene and Curtis have long had the makings of a great double act, but it’s the blessed T-spheres that have unlocked the true potential not just of Mr. Terrific but of his friendship with Wild Dog. In the early half of the season, Curtis was too underwhelming as a vigilante for him to seem like someone who could really be taken seriously, especially when combined with his generally hyperactive, early-era Felicity-inspired shtick. Curtis could sometimes prove wise enough off-duty to earn some measure of respect from Rene, but he was too much the comic relief for their friendship to really take centerstage. In episodes like tonight, though, Curtis is able to carry himself with a confidence in his own abilities and value that automatically makes Rene’s mockery more endearing.
This matters because “Underneath” is, in part, another exploration of just how far the concept of an expanded team has come. After all, the episode’s flashbacks are set during the period before Oliver had accepted the idea of bringing in new recruits, so one strand of tonight’s story is the team proving once and for all that they are worthy of working with Oliver. What’s smart about this is that the episode never really puts this in doubt: Curtis, Rene, and Dinah figure out what’s going on almost immediately, enlist Diggle and Lyla, and get to work saving the day. The episode is carefully crafted so that every member of the team feels important to the resolution of the story: Sure, Oliver and Felicity are the featured characters and so ought to be given an active role in saving themselves, but they wouldn’t have made it out at all if everyone else hadn’t teamed up to blow up that wall.
But then, that wall doesn’t get blown up without Lyla’s contribution, something Diggle still loudly doesn’t approve of. Tonight’s episode runs into the same basic problem that all the previous episodes exploring the conflict between John and Lyla have: How, exactly are John’s objections not a bunch of hypocritical bullshit, given all the extralegal—or, you know, illegal—things he and Oliver have done? I mentioned John keeping Andy as a prisoner as a parallel to the A.R.G.U.S. black site, but Lyla might not have even had to get that personal: After all, an off-the-books A.R.G.U.S. prison was just fine by Team Arrow when they needed to lock up Slade Wilson. Here’s the big difference between tonight and previous episodes, though: This episode steers into the nonsensical nature of Diggle’s objections. Lyla wins the argument decisively, pointing out she’s not asking Diggle to trust her on anything worse than he is already freely doing for Oliver. The episode could have dug deeper into precisely why Diggle so struggles to trust his wife like he does his best friend, but just having him admit he’s been full of crap is a positive step.
The episode makes clearer headway with Felicity and Oliver. The latter’s characterization here is fascinating, as he hangs onto the generally more positive, centered version of himself we have seen this season. That means for much of the episode it’s Felicity who has to drive the character-based storytelling. She argues Oliver doesn’t trust her, Oliver proves this point by walking straight into the elevator boobytrap, she points out again he doesn’t trust her, and then Oliver accepts the point and moves on. At least until he gets into the steam tunnel, this isn’t an Oliver given to introspection. That’s not a bad thing, considering how over the years introspective Oliver has generally just meant a lot of repetitive self-flagellation, but it means Felicity goes on the more visible arc over most of the episode. Until Oliver starts bleeding out, he’s mostly content to convey where he’s at based on actions alone, as he switches from doing his own thing to following Felicity’s lead. The whys are left until later.
When “Underneath” does give us the reason Oliver can’t trust, it’s the one we’ve heard before about how Prometheus showed him that he enjoys killing, and so how could he ever trust anyone if he can’t trust himself? Felicity never accepts this explanation, calling it out as nonsense, and it’s hard to even parse the logic in Oliver’s head on this one, considering he only “recognized” this fact long after he and Felicity parted ways. But that’s the point: Chase is deep inside his head still, and he’s unlikely to emerge until he can exact some measure of justice against Prometheus. In the meantime, Oliver is on a more incremental process of development than Felicity. She recognizes tonight that the murder of her boyfriend sent her over the edge, and she made reckless, potentially self-destructive decisions in an effort to bring down the man responsible.
As is often the case, the focus ultimately remains on Oliver here, as Felicity says the experience has given her the smallest glimpse of what is his day-to-day reality, and she forgives him for his past decisions to withhold information. That’s probably fair, but we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Oliver to reach his own understanding of why he has kept people at a distance for so long. That isn’t a question “Underneath” tries to answer, instead clearing the decks for one of the season’s final three episodes to let Oliver find some sense of self after Chase tortured that out of him. “Underneath” is a brilliant way to burn away the lingering tensions between Oliver and Felicity, as their efforts to survive the bunker leave them no choice but to rely on and trust each other, with no excuses left to them. That they are saved not just by their belief in each other but by the genius of the team they have assembled is what keeps the larger story of this season ticking along. Adrian Chase doubtless has some nasty surprises left for Oliver, starting with whatever he intends to do with William. But every episode like this disproves Prometheus’ central point: People make Oliver better, and Oliver really might just make people better.
- Dinah admittedly still feels underdeveloped compared with everyone else, but Arrow isn’t even pretending she’s something more than an ancillary character. If she sticks around for season six, the show needs to do more with her, but for now this more limited role suits her interactions with the others well, even if she remains a bit of a blank.
- Curtis is right when asked to stop screaming in pain: Diggle is just a jerk throughout this episode. Still looked pretty heroic helping to save the day at the end there, though.
- I still can’t quite figure out why Oliver and Felicity didn’t at least consider the possibility that the EMP was in fact the work of Helix, considering that’s where Felicity got the program and Chase isn’t actually there. I mean, we do learn for a fact that it was Chase, but it’s odd that a double-cross isn’t even considered in passing.
- Good to see the salmon ladder make a triumphant return, but this really just raises the question of why the whole episode wasn’t about the salmon ladder.