Even by the heady standards of Arrow’s second season, “State v. Queen” does not mess around. The episode announces its intentions immediately with a flashback to the night of the Undertaking, as the incarcerated Count Vertigo takes advantage of the earthquake to escape from Iron Heights. Seth Gabel merrily skips past the jail cells of his former inmates, offering spurious reasons as to why he won’t let them go, before giving his purloined key to Barton Mathis, alias the Dollmaker. The brief return of the “Broken Dolls” villain is an impressive display of just how well Arrow can juggle its labyrinthine continuity, but the really audacious moment comes just before the title card, as Count Vertigo beholds a burning Starling City and makes his dash for freedom. It’s an impressive shot, with the presumably CGI rendering of the devastated Glades well-integrated into the distance, but the real sign of Arrow’s confidence is the fact that the crack in the wall looks distinctly like a giant “V” for Vertigo. It’s an unabashedly pulpy moment, and it portends what sort of episode lies ahead.
There was a time, back in his first season appearances in “Vertigo” and “Unfinished Business,” that Seth Gabel’s performance as Count Vertigo was so outrageous that it didn’t sit right with the rest of the show; he was a Joker-like supervillain in need of a similarly larger-than-life adversary, and the grim, soldier-like Hood wasn’t that. In the intervening episodes, the craziness of Arrow has caught up to that of the Count, or at least managed to close the gap. Impressively, the erstwhile Fringe star still outstrips everything else in sheer lunacy, but now his performance is simply pushing at the boundaries of what Arrow can be instead of beaming in from some other show entirely. Gabel devours all scenery in sight as he spouts his steady stream of psychotic one-liners—“Quiet please, I’m threatening!” might well be my new favorite Arrow line—but the emotion of the character isn’t entirely lost. The Count is furious with Oliver for the hell that the Hood put him through, and he has a right to be outraged, at least until he starts getting random flu shot recipients hooked on his all-new Vertigo.
His unhinged insanity and his willingness to harm Felicity are what push Oliver to break his no-kill rule. The show doesn’t gloss over the significance of Oliver’s split-second decision—Stephen Amell does some of his best subtle acting when he looks down on the Count’s thoroughly dead body—but it wisely doesn’t treat his decision as a cardinal sin. As Oliver tells Felicity, the Count clearly intended to hurt her, which meant there was no choice at all. That’s not the typical superhero articulation, but it’s not as though more rigid adherents to the no-kill rule like Batman or Superman have never indirectly allowed a foe to die in order to save someone they care about. The difference for Oliver is that his chosen weapon limits his options; he’s clever enough to use arrows non-fatally when he has a moment to strategize, as evidenced by his blowing up the propane tank during his first confrontation with the Count. But the arrows mean that there will be times when a kill shot is the only option, and Arrow demonstrates the nuance in Oliver’s thinking. He doesn’t regret not killing Count Vertigo when he had the chance last year, but he also doesn’t dwell on his actions during a clear kill-or-be-killed situation, even if it was technically Felicity and not him who would have been killed. The Arrow is still evolving as a superhero, but he’s not lost like he was last year.
Oliver’s perspective is shaped by his time on the Island, to which he and the crew of the Amazo return in search of the mysterious Japanese genetics breakthrough. After being relegated to the sidelines for the last couple episodes, it’s good to see Shado and a disfigured but unvanquished Slade Wilson take such an active and lethal role in the proceedings. While Arrow is a superhero story in the present day, it’s still an all-out war in the flashbacks, and Shado’s strategic use of the leftover explosive is an appropriately merciless moment; there is no room for compassion on the island, which is why Oliver’s decision to take Sara with them could prove so disastrous. To the younger Oliver’s credit, this doesn’t seem like an entirely emotional decision, as it’s theoretically a sensible strategy to take a hostage with detailed knowledge of Ivo’s plans. Caity Lotz doesn’t get all that much to do here, but the show subtly progresses her past storyline when she reveals her apparently genuine belief that what Ivo seeks will save the world. That belief might be the result of Stockholm syndrome, but it could also hint at something far more insidious. And it must be said that, in Anthony Ivo, the show has found a far more fearsome Island adversary than last season’s Edward Fyers. That guy was just a ruthless mercenary, but the good professor is a psychotic zealot, prepared to do absolutely anything in pursuit of his still murky goals. Dylan Neal is simply terrifying in the role.
As for the episode’s titular trial, the entire event is a letdown, albeit in the service of setting up the latest big twist. After multiple episodes of Moira declaring her horrible secret would destroy the family, the revelation that she had a brief affair with Malcolm Merlyn feels distinctly underwhelming, to the point that I was actively willing the show to reveal Thea was Malcolm and Moira’s lovechild, just so that the trial could offer something that would live up to the preceding hype. Regarding that big twist, I’m not making any claim to godlike powers; if anything, I should have realized Arrow would need to save such an earth-shattering revelation for the final few minutes, complete with the obligatory John Barrowman cameo. His cryptic explanation for his resurrection—“There are parts of the world where death is an illusion; I’ve been to one”—ties back into the ongoing League of Assassins plotline, even if it doesn’t necessarily confirm the existence of anything so supernatural as the Lazarus Pits.
It’s anyone’s guess where Arrow plans to go with this reveal, and it’s possible that Malcolm Merlyn will slink back into the shadows after this brief return. He does say he only came back to help Moira out of this jam, although the revelation of Thea’s paternity gives him ample reason to keep making trouble for the Queens. Besides, Oliver knows something is wrong with that verdict, and it will be an intriguing test of Arrow’s storytelling discipline to see how it develops that idea. Is Oliver going to start digging, or is this just the latest oversight that he’s going to let come back to bite him down the road? In all likelihood, he will soon have more pressing matters to deal with, as Count Vertigo’s benefactor, the alderman-turned-supervillain Brother Blood, is starting to get results with his experiments. There’s a loose network forming here between Blood’s injections, Ivo’s search, and whatever might be going on with Malcolm Merlyn and his former masters in the League of Assassins. The fantastical is seeping into this world, and Arrow is upping the pulpiness to meet these new elements head-on. Now if only the news would shut up about that damn particle accelerator…
- I’m knocking a couple points off this episode’s grade, mostly because “State v. Queen” relies on a little too much convenient plotting to get where it needs to go. As fun as the reveal of Count Vertigo in the ambulance is, it still seems odd that the Assistant District Attorney prosecuting the biggest case of his career could completely disappear for a couple hours without anybody noticing. Also, Team Arrow needs to have a serious talk with Felicity about her strategic thinking, because she was offering a graduate seminar on foolish blundering tonight.
- “You should know I find post-hoc negotiations distasteful.” Ah, Count Vertigo. You will be missed, assuming Arrow doesn’t come up with some deeply unconvincing way to resurrect you.
- Oliver doesn’t bother wearing his hood when he goes into battle with Count Vertigo, which changes the entire complexion of their showdown. I also enjoyed Malcolm Merlyn striding onto the scene in a crisp suit, arrow in hand, looking little more than mildly pissed off that he had to kill that driver.