As Arrow’s penultimate episode of what has been a highly successful 2013, “The Scientist” finds itself overly concerned with the future. Its main purposes are to set up the immediate threat that will be resolved in next week’s midseason finale, establish the major arcs that will shape the rest of the season now that Moira is out of jail, and, most importantly, lay the groundwork for next year’s Flash spin-off. That’s a lot to juggle, particularly when Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen is given screen time worthy of a future series lead. The episode gives his adorably romantic scenes with Felicity some room to breathe, but that means that every other exchange or character moment has to be boiled down to its absolute essence so that the show can get where it needs to be heading into next week. The result isn’t a bad episode—though this is definitely a cut below the show’s other second season efforts—but “The Scientist” feels frustratingly incomplete. This is the epitome of a table-setting episode, and such hours of television can only really be judged by their payoff.
Case in point: the big party that Oliver throws for his mother. Again, with the possible exception of Felicity and Barry’s dance, there’s nothing that happens in that sequence that exists on its own merits. The brief exchanges are intended to check in on the show’s various character pairings and foreshadow how those dynamics might evolve over the course of the rest of the season. As it turns out, Arrow doesn’t need anyone to say more than a couple of lines to each other to get that job done. First Oliver and Isabel Rochev discuss how the former is letting his familial duties override his business sense. Then Oliver walks away so that Isabel and Moira can discuss whether Oliver is a poor judge of character. And then, mere seconds later, Oliver has walked back over to check in with his mother, although that just leads into a flashback sequence. Elsewhere, both Roy and Oliver are interrupted by important phone calls just as they get one sentence into conversations.
None of this is new for Arrow; the mere fact of Oliver’s double life means that the show is always shuttling him between his duties as a vigilante and those as a playboy businessman. There are so many regular and recurring characters—not to mention two entirely separate timelines—that have to be continually acknowledged, lest the audience forget that a side character like Isabel might factor into the eventual endgame. It’s just that tonight those necessary check-ins feel rushed and perfunctory. The sparse attendance of Moira’s party doesn’t help, although that’s one of the few legitimately inspired character touches in this particular story. With no extras around to create the illusion of a larger world that exists beyond the immediate attention of the main cast, it’s a little too easy to see the gears of Arrow’s narrative contraption whirring away.
Complicating matters is the fact that “The Scientist” is the episode that basically confirms the existence of superpowers in the world of Arrow. The show has been trending in that general direction for a while now—Professor Ivo has been rabbiting on about secret Japanese genetic experiments for a while now, and Malcolm Merlyn’s whole deal has verged on the superhuman—and it’s hard to argue this was ever a show set in anything resembling the “real world.” But still, the presence of an impossibly strong masked bandit and Barry’s memories of his mother’s murder at the hands of a human tornado mean the show has crossed the superpowers Rubicon. That shift in the show’s universe became inevitable when The CW decided to go ahead with a spin-off built around the Flash, so it’s not surprising that such developments coincide with the introduction of the future Scarlet Speedster. The good news is that everything that has happened so far still makes sense in the context of the larger show; Arrow has increased its craziness gradually enough that none of tonight’s more outlandish elements feel like a violation of the show’s fundamental rules. It still remains to be seen whether the show can stretch to incorporate a character like the Flash, but it appears we’re going to keep hearing about that damn particle accelerator until we’re all on board.
Speaking of which, I’ve been writing around Barry Allen so far, because it’s hard to know what to make of him at this juncture. “The Scientist” doesn’t bother pretending that he’s just another guest star, and that fact becomes clear at his introduction, as the show follows his rain-soaked journey from the train station long before it explains who he is. Barry is allowed to usurp Oliver’s usual place for much of the episode, as he becomes the new object of Felicity’s terminally awkward affections and shows off his own brilliance when he explains what really happened during the robbery. This is a calculated gamble, as the audience has had a season and a half to establish a bond with Oliver, so it can be off-putting to see some interloper step in and outsmart the show’s normal star. Fortunately, Oliver doesn’t waste much time in regaining the upper hand; after all, he quickly works out that Barry isn’t telling the whole truth about why he’s in Starling City, and Oliver does have some prior experience with this impossible scenario from his time on the island. Perhaps most importantly, Oliver gets to mock how ridiculously young Barry looks on multiple occasions. Yes, it makes the Arrow look like a bit of a dick, but it’s an amusing way of reinforcing that this is still Oliver’s show, and he’s still the only serious crime-fighter around, at least for now.
Indeed, the immediate question is how Oliver and Arrow in general are going to deal with the emergence of superpowered foes in both the past and the present. In Oliver’s two tussles with Brother Blood’s henchman, the show does a creditable job upping the brutality of the fights without breaking the suspension of disbelief; the moment when Oliver is thrown several feet into the air looks great even before the show’s limited budget is factored in. It’s also reassuring that Oliver is not completely outmatched by his foe, even if he does end the episode at the brink of death. The initial fight in cabin of the speeding truck indicates that Oliver is a cunning enough fighter that he can compensate for his lack of enhanced abilities. The acknowledgment that he took on such foes on the island and emerged victorious is a clever touch, as it allows Oliver to maintain a relatively powerful position within the show’s narrative logic, even if he can’t punch through solid steel walls. “The Scientist” might represent a brave new world for the show, but it’s something Oliver already has years of experience with. Now it’s just a question of whether he will make it through the night, and there’s no better way to initiate Barry into the inner circle of the Arrow universe than by saving Oliver’s life.
- For more proof that Oliver is still very much in charge of his own show, the guy shot an arrow through Roy’s leg to keep him from interfering. This might be a kinder, gentler vigilante this season, but he doesn’t mess around when it comes to interference from amateurs—particularly when said amateur is his sister’s boyfriend.
- The show dispenses with Malcolm Merlyn for the time being, as Moira apparently uses the mention of Nanda Parbat to figure out just who might be looking for Malcolm, and so she forces him to go on the run from Ra’s al Ghul. Her knowledge of the League of Assassins is either a weird bit of plotting or a hint that Moira knows far, far more about the criminal underworld than we already thought she did. In any event, I’m curious to see where Malcolm and Moira’s story is going, even if I’m pretty sure it’s going on a little break.
- Oh, hey, Slade Wilson died, I guess. Actually, I’m certain he didn’t die, and not just because he’s noted comic book character Slade Wilson—a character famous for his healing factor, no less—or the fact that the show would never kill off a major character so offhandedly in a table-setting episode. No, I’m certain because present-day Sara previously asked Oliver what became of Slade, which would seem to prove he comes back. So I somehow doubt we’ve seen the last of Manu Bennett, which is never a bad thing… even if it apparently means we’re in for a deeply weird love triangle (or quadrangle, possible) when he wakes up.