To be a superhero—or, in the case of John Diggle, the partner of a superhero—is to assume a moral standing that sits outside of the law. It’s one thing for Oliver and Diggle to take on the criminals of Starling City because the Arrow team possesses more extensive resources or can strike with far greater expediency than the police, whose badges constrict them with bureaucracy and red tape. The fact that they can take on criminals that the Starling City police are no match for just proves that they are effective vigilantes, but that doesn’t indicate any particular heroism. No, what makes Diggle and Oliver heroes is their shared belief in an ideal, namely that what they do should make the world a better place. That can be defined awfully broadly, which is part of the reason why these characters took such a blasé attitude toward killing assorted henchmen and villains in the first season. But the goal was always to save Starling City, to bring the guilty to justice and to protect the innocent from harm.
I’ve written about this arc before with respect to Oliver, but “Suicide Squad” invites us to examine Diggle’s perspective, particularly in terms of his interactions with A.R.G.U.S. leader Amanda Waller. We still have to guess at a lot of the specific motivations of this particular iteration of Waller, but she doesn’t appear so different from her comics or animation counterparts. Waller is somebody whose sole responsibility is to look at the big picture, and her clandestine activities are all designed to ensure that big picture is as favorable as possible to her government. In her way, she, too, wants to save the world, but only because it would be difficult to protect American interests if the world were destroyed. I choose a word as extreme as “destroyed” because, unlike Oliver and Diggle, Waller isn’t much concerned with the state of the planet once she’s done with it.
The only principle that she has to guide her is some vague sense of ensuring long-term security, and that’s no sort of ethical framework to build her work around. That’s the kind of worldview that makes her see everybody as expendable, whether we’re talking about a motley assortment of returning Arrow villains or a bunch of partygoers in Markovia whose only apparent crime was believing that Gholem Qadir had reformed. Indeed, one could quite convincingly argue that the real reason that Waller’s drone strike fails is her insistence on sacrificing Floyd Lawton. I realize it’s a bit dicey for me to presume what technology is and isn’t implausible in the world of Arrow, but surely A.R.G.U.S. could have recorded Lawton’s coordinates and directed the missiles to that location; the idea that they had to home in on Lawton’s GPS device is possible, I suppose, but such a setup reflects Waller’s belief that “Suicide Squad” is a nickname to be taken literally. It’s not simply that she’s willing to sacrifice Lawton, but rather that she actually appears quite eager to do so. As Diggle’s ex-wife and new girlfriend Lyla argues, she and everyone at A.R.G.U.S. work in the world’s moral and legal gray areas. That’s true of Team Arrow as well, even if its members don’t want to admit it.
And honestly, maybe that’s correct. Maybe the very decision to become a vigilante demands that Oliver and Diggle surrender the moral high ground. Indeed, Lyla is just the latest of several people to push back when either Oliver or Diggle attempts to stand in judgment, and tonight is hardly the first time that a Team Arrow member has responded to a pointed question with a flailing, unconvincing claim that what they do is somehow different, morally speaking. The issue is that there’s so much space within that gray area to get lost, and the only way for people like Oliver and Diggle to maintain their bearings is to believe that some things really are black and white, that there can be absolute rights and absolute wrongs in this world. It almost doesn’t matter if those beliefs are bullshit. Oliver started his quest in the belief that terrorizing those on his father’s list would save his city; when that belief failed him, he instead laid down his no-kill rule, believing it the best way to honor his fallen friend Tommy. Oliver has already violated that rule a few times this year, but it’s enough to keep him grounded. He will no longer kill indiscriminately nor risk sacrificing the innocent in order to further his goals, because he knows that would defeat the very purpose for which he fights. As “Suicide Squad” emphatically proves, Amanda Waller lacks that kind of clarity.
As for John Diggle, the man remains a soldier at heart, so he is willing to kill if the situation demands it. Even then, as tonight’s Diggle-centric flashbacks reveal, he takes no pleasure in that act, particularly when those he is forced to kill are barely out of childhood. Lyla makes a big point of John’s rigidity, and that’s a good way to describe his soldier’s mindset. John doesn’t do well with complex situations without easy solutions, a fact that makes him singularly unqualified to work with the Suicide Squad. The way Diggle deals with the episode’s various moral dilemmas is to only focus on the most relevant aspect at any given time, pushing the contradictory information to one side. At first, he protests that Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, and Shrapnel are murderers and so should not be allowed to wander freely performing A.R.G.U.S.’ dirty work. But once Shrapnel provides a lethal lesson in why the Squad members aren’t able to wander freely, John switches gears, focusing instead on the inhumanity of subjecting anyone to such control. Later, Diggle never even considers the geopolitical implications of evacuating Qadir’s mansion before the missile hits; he just sees a bunch of innocent people about to be killed, so he saves them. And yes, Deadshot counts as an innocent—hell, even an honorable—person in this scenario.
The key here is that Diggle acts as all true heroes must, even if that means pointedly refusing to look at the bigger picture. John can be strident and moralizing in how he makes his points, but he always responds justly to whatever moral outrage happens to be unfolding right in front of him. Superheroes aren’t generally natural long-term strategists, because playing the long game almost always means ignoring the casualties along the way. Diggle couldn’t do that in Afghanistan, and he can’t do that in Markovia. Arrow’s second season has frequently struggled in finding things for Diggle to do, but at least the season’s two Diggle-centric episodes—this and the gulag-set “Keep Your Enemies Closer”—have been excellent. “Suicide Squad” is an important reminder of why Team Arrow needs Diggle, and it doesn’t just make that point by showing how capable he is in the field. There’s also the moment right at the beginning of the episode, as a pajama-clad Felicity tells John to stop standing guard outside her house. As she rightly points out, if Slade Wilson wants to kill her, he will succeed, and Diggle wouldn’t be able to stop him. John doesn’t deny that fact, but if that were the only reason that Felicity offered, he would have stayed right where he was. He only left because Felicity told him to. Diggle is always prepared to die for the right cause, but he’s also capable of listening.
If only the same could be said of Oliver, who finds himself in the rare position of being relegated to the episode’s subplot. And my goodness, what a moody, atmospheric subplot it is. Oliver’s futile efforts to track down Slade take on a dreamlike—or perhaps nightmarish—quality, as the Arrow repeatedly encounters grim calling cards from his enemy. The most memorable scene comes when Oliver, believing he has tracked down Slade at last, finds his Bratva contact with an arrow driven through his eye, with old home videos of Shado displayed on the wall. Slade is just playing with Oliver, making it damn clear that Oliver cannot hope to defeat somebody who is so many steps ahead of him. That’s the conclusion that Oliver ultimately reaches, and Stephen Amell has another terrific moment as Oliver finally allows Sara to see his dread and desperation.
Some of that goes back to a very simple, understandable fear of what Slade can do to him, but it runs deeper than that. Slade Wilson is such a formidable foe because Oliver, as much as he knows he must kill him, is not absolutely convinced that he has the right to. As insane as it might be for Oliver to feel guilty over Professor Ivo’s sadistic decision to kill Shado, the fact remains that Oliver does feel that guilt. That uncertainty leaves Oliver lost in that moral gray area, and that leaves him vulnerable against a man of such psychotic certainty as Slade Wilson. Oliver is useless in this episode because he doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore; indeed, Felicity has to remind him that a bank robbery is just the sort of thing he might want to foil. Oliver lacks the absolute belief in himself and the righteousness of his cause that would allow him to take on Slade Wilson by himself, and that means he has to rely on his friends. More than anything else, “Suicide Squad” proves just how much Oliver can depend on all those he has entrusted with his secret, and that’s never truer than in the case of the man with whom he first entrusted his secret.
- As for the actual Suicide Squad action… it was fine, but neither Shrapnel nor Bronze Tiger got much at all to do. It would have been nice to see Shrapnel actually contribute something before blowing him up—although, since we didn’t see a body, I’m pretty sure we can’t rule out another return appearance from Sean Maher. As for Michael Jai White, he’s perfectly decent doing the one or two things that the script asks of him, but it sure feels like they could have found more for him to do. That said, his timely killing of Qadir was well-played. All things considered, the superior Suicide Squad episode has to remain Justice League Unlimited’s “Task Force X,” but I’m hoping an eventual sequel episode will do rather more with the Suicide Squad part of the story.
- Oh hey, Ben Browder is back as Ted Gaynor. Admittedly, it’s only in the flashbacks, but I’m never going to say no to more Ben Browder. But man, why does the once and future John Crichton have to be such a jerk to everyone? It’s almost like he’s destined to become a villain or something.
- “It’s because, when we talk, we tend to get divorced.”
- Broadly speaking, I liked how this episode used Laurel. It’s nice to see that she’s on the road to recovery, and her point about how Oliver keeping Sara at length is really more to protect him than her was a solid one. This does mean that Laurel has gone right back to her old role of standing apart from the main action and inadvertently commenting on it, but that’s still progress.
- “Who do you want to kill more than me?” “Slade Wilson is still alive.” Yes, “Suicide Squad” manages one last twist, revealing that Oliver and Amanda Waller have a past. I’m going to guess that that fact could end up driving the third season’s flashback story; indeed, it’s possible that Amanda Waller was the mysterious woman we saw on the other end of that phone call with Fyers back at the end of season one. Plus, Slade Wilson has found a new sobriquet: Deathstroke.
- Ladies and gentlemen, we have a Harley Quinn sighting! Well, not a “sighting,” as such, but a hearing, I guess. Because whenever you need a trained therapist, look no further than the Joker’s girlfriend.