Well, how the hell else was Arrow going to bring back Roy Harper? By not having him do parkour?
“Unchained” is a grand cavalcade of returning guest stars, with one very addition to the show’s mythos. Roy is the star attraction here, considering he was once a series regular and all. The episode recaptures precisely what Roy represented for Arrow during his tenure, all of which boils down to three key elements. First, there’s the parkour, now and forever, and I deeply appreciate Arrow going to the trouble of giving us the most Roy Harper-ish reintroduction possible with his various chase sequences. Second, there’s his relationship with Thea, which was one of the show’s strongest elements when it was still finding itself back in the first season and gave both Willa Holland and Colton Haynes space to define their performances and create a compelling subplot that had little to do with Oliver’s activities. And that leads into the third thing about Roy: He was always kind of superfluous as a member of Team Arrow. He was only ever really there because canon demanded it, but the show could never effectively position him as Oliver’s trusted sidekick when John Diggle had already forged a similar, stronger relationship. Roy was never a bad character, but there just wasn’t much purpose to him once the Mirakuru wore off and he transitioned into the Arsenal role.
Tonight’s episode acknowledges Roy’s odd position and makes surprisingly strong use of it. Roy’s critique of Oliver is explicitly just a reiteration of what Diggle and Felicity have already said, underscoring that Arrow isn’t exactly missing anything vital from Roy’s absence. Yet Roy is now in a unique position to push back against Oliver. After all, the strongest narrative move Roy made after joining Team Arrow was his very last one, in which he pretended to be the Arrow and faked his death. The storytelling maneuver worked in part because there wasn’t really much need for Roy (and, as the creative team has explained, Haynes was ready to move on from the role), but what it means now is that Roy can claim absolute control over a life-altering decision. He can reject as ridiculous the idea that Oliver is somehow responsible for a choice he made freely. The fact that Roy is basically just a shorter, color-swapped copy of Oliver actually helps here; what once made him surplus to requirements now casts him as a mirror image of Oliver, which makes it easier for our hero to accept Roy’s ownership of his own choices.
It also makes good narrative sense for Roy’s return to coincide with Thea beginning to slip away. I can’t really believe Oliver’s lesson about letting others decide their own fate is really going to take, because “Unchained” underscores just how crucial that storytelling trope is to Arrow, but tonight’s episode does appear part of a larger project this season of getting Oliver to make the distinction he makes in that graveside flash-forward: He can take responsibility without taking blame, and part of that means giving others space to make their own choices. Roy’s presence reminds Oliver that not every sacrifice is his to make, and that fits well with Malcolm’s reliably intense monologue about the kind of lengths he has considered to keep Thea alive, and why he won’t go ahead with any of them. It’s worth pointing out that none of Oliver’s instincts are necessarily wrong here; after all, his heroism is defined by his refusal to ever, ever give up. But what he’s starting to learn here is that that doesn’t give him the right to keep fighting after others have made their own decision to accept their fates.
Joining Roy in the ranks of returning guest stars are Nyssa, Tatsu, and a hallucinatory version of Shado. How much impact those last two in particular carry likely hinges on how much a person has invested in the flashback plots, all of which is to say … yeah, it took me a moment to remember who they even were. Shado in particular is an odd fit, in that she’s primarily on hand to spur Oliver’s development beyond the hardened, closed-off killer he’s become. Except, since this is flashback Oliver we’re talking about, we know he’s very much going to end up more or less that exact same hardened, closed-off killer when he does return to Starling City to kick off the show’s present-day storyline. I’ve generally not had any great issue with this season’s flashback plot, as it’s at least been a marked improvement over the unfocused meandering of last year’s Hong Kong story, but the time for flashback Oliver to undergo any real character development is probably past at this point. Oliver’s adventures with Slade Wilson, Sara, and the actual Shado got him to more or less where he needed to be in terms of his character development, and everything that has happened since then really only matters to the extent that it entertains. A vision of Shado trying to help Oliver on a journey we know he’s already completed in his own personal future doesn’t do all that much.
The return of Nyssa, by contrast, is always welcome, even if her swift coup in Nanda Parbat does rather point out how much of an absentee Ra’s al Ghul Malcolm has been. Nyssa has long been a better-executed version of what I’m pretty sure Arrow wanted her father to be, which is to say a character for whom terms like “hero” and “villain” are woefully inadequate to describe her, as she stands for an older, crueler kind of morality. Nyssa is not the natural enemy of Tatsu or of Oliver, and she represents the last best chance to save Thea from the bloodlust, yet she doesn’t act out of simple compassion. It’s possible that’s an aspect of what she’s up to, but her primary goal is the death of Malcolm Merlyn, preferably by Oliver Queen’s hand. If this is what the show is going to do while it rests the Damien Darhk story for a couple weeks, this is a promising enough setup.
And, in the midst of all this, there’s the Calculator, otherwise known as Felicity’s dad. This is one big reveal the show has been sitting on for a long, long time, and the reveal is done about as well as one could hope for. I even knew the next episode is called “Sins Of The Father,” yet it never once occurred to me that this older computer genius might be Felicity’s erstwhile father, and the episode is clever in gradually revealing more about him. It’s a shock when he shows up at Felicity’s product launch, and it’s a shock again when Felicity greets him as her father. There are plenty of potentially compelling places the show could go from here, and what’s most promising is the fact that Arrow appears to have as solid a handle on Felicity as it has had in a while. Her injury has refocused her character, getting her to embrace her individual strength in a way that she didn’t always do quite as cleanly when she was just another member of Team Arrow. The show’s added attention to Felicity since her accident bodes well for how Arrow plans to proceed from here, because it’s a safe bet her life is never going to be the same now that her father has reentered the picture. And yes, I realize you could say that about every character on every given week. That’s just part of the Arrow charm, I guess.
- While I do appreciate Arrow putting Roy’s fine parkour skills on display, I’m a little miffed that nobody on the team lampshades that of course this mysterious parkour expert would turn out be Roy. The fact that any of them are surprised by this kind of floors me, honestly.
- We’re edging ever closer to Curtis Holt’s transformation into Mr. Terrific, as he does a decent job holding his own against Roy. I’m weirdly invested in this happening as soon as possible, though I’d bet he’s on track to be part of the ensemble in a theoretical second season for Legends Of Tomorrow.
- So, uh, should Team Arrow have maybe asked John Constantine to fix Thea’s soul as well when he had the chance? Feels like the show should at least address why that wasn’t possible. I’m willing to grant that Sara returning from the actual dead was a more drastic, albeit more fixable, situation than Thea’s, but still.