Arrow gets its bone-crushing action started early this week, as the opening sequence treats the audience to a montage of three separate training sequences: Oliver and Roy, Ted Grant and Laurel, and Malcolm Merlyn and Thea. At first glance, these scenes could serve as a thesis statement for the episode, particularly when Thea is the only one of the three students to impress her mentor. And yes, tonight’s story does further the season’s exploration of Laurel’s grief and rage, but whatever distinctions might be gleaned from the three vignettes go largely unexamined. Instead, the real point of contrast is with what happens immediately after, as Arrow pointedly shifts to Felicity Smoak completing her minimal morning exercise routine. The scene shifts quickly enough to the unexpected arrivals—first of Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer, then of Charlotte Ross’ Donna Smoak—that it’s easy enough to forget that comparison the episode sets up, but it bears further examination.

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After all, if the argument is that Felicity is the normal counterpoint to the other six characters, then that’s a really hard sell. Maybe Felicity hasn’t committed herself to the pugilistic regimens of the other six characters—although I’m still feeling pretty good about Felicity’s chances against Laurel in a fight situation—but she’s still anything but ordinary. The plot of tonight’s episode, in which we learn the black-haired, MIT version of Felicity created a super-virus that threatens to bring Starling City to its knees, is proof enough of that, and this story only reaffirms what we’ve long known: If any member of Team Arrow has an honest-to-goodness superpower, it’s Felicity and her magical hacking. So no, she absolutely isn’t ordinary. But what does set her apart from the other six characters is that her story isn’t larger than life. She doesn’t dress up like an archer to fight crime like Oliver and Roy. She isn’t a deranged supervillain like Malcolm Merlyn, and she isn’t the daughter of a deranged supervillain like Thea. Even Laurel gets to work through her anguish over Sara’s death by siccing a riot squad on some citizens. That last one might not be the good kind of larger than life—it seriously isn’t, Arrow, and after the show had done such good work with Laurel, too—but it fits with the show’s operatic tone.

Felicity, by contrast, has generally functioned as the show’s safety valve. She’s hardly a grounded character, but her penchant for rambling, overexcited one-liners cuts against the show’s more self-serious moments; she is allowed to be flustered in a way that the other characters seldom do, and her reactions serve as a vital reminder that this is a show intended to feature real people, not just emigrants from the comic books. Felicity spends plenty of time adjacent to the show’s more epic elements, but she’s there primarily as the peanut gallery, with her incredible computer skills ever on standby as a plot device. Tonight’s episode tries to shift Felicity into the larger-than-life territory occupied by her peers, which is about what you would expect from an episode titled “The Secret Origin Of Felicity Smoak.” It’s her turn to be the recipient of the flashback treatment, to be the target of an insanely convoluted conspiracy featuring the return of a long-dead lost love, and to be the focus of a thick slice of family melodrama. Throw in the fact that it’s she who gets to provide the finishing blow to her psychotic ex-boyfriend Cooper Seldon, and it’s enough to make you think Oliver took the week off, so fully does Felicity fill his usual role.

And, broadly speaking, this all works. Emily Bett Rickards has been a huge asset for Arrow from day one, and she is able to bring some sense of character logic to the tale of Felicity and Donna Smoak. Some of the contours of this pairing are a tad unusual—the notion that each is a disappointment to the other, with Donna failing intellectually and Felicity failing aesthetically—but this is more or less your standard tale of an estranged mother and daughter. Even the odd jokes in the early going about Donna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Starling City billionaires and her willingness to look after Diggle’s kid only add so much to this familiar story. The real issue is that “The Secret Origin Of Felicity Smoak” has to take only the faintest wisps of preexisting story—mostly a couple scattered references to Felicity’s hardscrabble background and her cocktail waitress mother—and spin it into a fully formed narrative. The story of the Smoaks succeeds because of Rickards’ and Ross’ performances and because of its universal power, but there’s such a fine line between universal and generic. I’m not honestly sure it would be possible for Arrow to make the Smoaks’ tale feel specific to them when we only meet Donna for the first time here, but the plotline leans into a couple too many clichéd plot beats to feel especially fresh.

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Still, fresh can be overrated, particularly when painting on as epic a canvas as Arrow can. After all, the great joy of the show is that it has become so adept in translating the outsize, operatic storytelling of the comics to the small screen. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of other stories in which a complicated mom like Donna Smoak rallies when her daughter needs her most, which is what happens when Cooper moves from threatening Donna to threatening Felicity. But it’s rare for such a flash of protective maternal instinct to be immediately followed by a lengthy, entirely awesome sequence in which Oliver proves once and for all that the Arrow is not most any target, as he expertly dodges the automated sniper trap Cooper has set up. What’s more, I’ll admit I got a little emotional as Donna revealed how much she truly loves Felicity, for all the vast gulf that separates their intellects and personalities. I’m not sure that would have happened on a more grounded show, where I would have been more keenly aware of the clichés in the storytelling, but Arrow is so bold and so ridiculous in its storytelling that it gives you permission to enjoy these more familiar moments. After all, clichés only end up that way because they worked so effectively in the first place.

“The Secret Origin Of Felicity Smoak” is another strong entry for the season, mostly because it remains so difficult to resist the charms of a Felicity-centric episode. Indeed, as the show subtly adjusts her character to better function as the protagonist of a larger-than-life Arrow story, so too does the show shift a little in response to its heightened emphasis on Felicity. Again, she really isn’t ordinary by any sane sense of the word, but she does remain the show’s most emotionally available character—to a fault, if her rambles are anything to go by—and that spreads to the other characters. Take Oliver, who spends far more of this episode in his civilian duds than in his Arrow outfit. Yes, his superhero side has a decent amount to do here, but this is far more an exploration of how Oliver navigates the more mundane pressures of family life, allowing for the fact that his sister is not so secretly in the thrall of a supervillain. Oliver’s struggles feel human and personal in a way that they do not always do; the show takes a break from its frequent musing on the righteousness of the Arrow’s crusade to let Oliver focus more on what it means to be part of a family. And then, in a richly appreciated role reversal, he gets to play the helpful, advice-giving sidekick to Felicity Smoak as she navigates her own family drama. Yeah, that’s long overdue.

Stray observations:

  • “All about what you want to be when you grow up, babe: A hacker, or a hero?” Ah, nothing like a ridiculously on-the-nose line in a flashback to set up the rest of the episode. Felicity, you’ve truly arrived!
  • “But we can’t bring her down there.” “Who she’s going to tell?” I don’t know, I don’t trust Diggle’s baby either.
  • “All I ever wanted was for you to be happy.” “Let’s say we hit pause on this Dr. Phil episode.”

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