Oliver says it best at the end of tonight’s often stellar episode: Way too many people know his secret identity. There are the members of Team Arrow, even if Felicity is the only one who calls it that. As far as Oliver’s allies go, there’s the comatose Barry Allen and the newly returned Sara Lance, who answers Oliver’s plea to help her spiraling sister. The Arrow’s two greatest enemies, Malcolm Merlyn and Slade Wilson, both know the truth, but Oliver doesn’t yet know that either of them is still alive. There’s Helena Bertinelli, also known as the Huntress, also also known as the ultimate wild card. And let’s not forget that A.R.G.U.S. leader Amanda Waller casually revealed to Diggle earlier this season that her agency knows exactly how he and his billionaire boss spend their nights. Of all Arrow’s departures from standard superhero storytelling, its cavalier attitude toward Oliver’s secret identity has been the most effective break. Time and again, Oliver has found himself in situations where he must choose either to reveal his identity so that he can save people from harm or to risk the deaths of innocents just so that his secret can be preserved.
The heavy emphasis on the secret identity in comic books can make that seem like an agonizing dilemma, but it doesn’t need to be. Faced with four life-or-death decisions, Oliver has revealed his secret to four people—Diggle, Felicity, Tommy, and now Roy—and none of them so far has let him down. Indeed, “Tremors” offers compelling arguments for the fundamental folly of the secret identity. As the Arrow, Oliver must keep the volatile Roy at an emotional remove that just serves to antagonize the Mirakuru-addled youngster. Oliver is desperate to avoid the mistakes that led to his failure to save Slade Wilson, but the only specific error he identifies over the course of this episode is the same one he makes while training Roy. Slade Wilson became lost forever because Oliver could not bring himself to tell the whole truth about Shado’s death, and now the Arrow refuses to give Roy even the most basic of details about his past encounters with the Mirakuru. Roy is asked to place his total trust in a complete cipher, someone who will not reveal his past adventures or his current actions. It doesn’t help that Oliver can only impart the same stock platitudes as he explains Roy’s latest, seemingly inane training exercises.
This episode offers a particularly obvious grand thematic statement when Sara observes in the flashbacks that love is the most powerful emotion. That’s the kind of corny notion that could so easily feel like a concession to Arrow’s CW milieu, but the episode shows just what it means by this theme. Oliver has to reveal his identity to Roy because the kid won’t let the Arrow talk about Thea, and Roy’s love for Thea is the only thing concrete enough to get him to stop pummeling villains and start getting his rage under control. After the prototype earthquake machine is destroyed, Roy can suddenly talk to the unmasked Arrow like he’s a real person, extending sincere thanks for saving his life all those months ago. Oliver and Roy don’t love each other, but they do forge a bond in that moment that would never have been possible while Oliver was hiding behind the mask and voice modulator.
But Oliver isn’t the one who takes the greatest risk in the name of love. That honor goes to Sara Lance, who risks the wrath of the League of Assassins by showing up in Laurel’s apartment. The results of that reunion will be seen in the next episode, but that’s one hell of a powerful gift that Laurel has just received. Both Oliver and Sara recognize that their secrets carry significant human costs, and both decide it’s not worth paying that price if those they love are going to get hurt. Roy may not understand all the nuances of being a superhero when he argues the only way to keep loved ones safe is to actually keep them safe—it isn’t practical for Thea and her family to leave town every single time Roy runs afoul of some heavies, for a start—but the underlying principle is the correct one. Oliver has never been the kind of vigilante hero who would sacrifice people just to preserve his secret. That might be why, for all his faults, Oliver is way less angst-ridden than your typical tortured hero. As mad as his life is, his priorities are in the right order, and so the episode closes with him introducing Roy to the team and Sara appearing at his behest to help Laurel.
Coincidentally or not, “Tremors” happens to feature in one way or another just about every character who knows Oliver’s identity; only Barry Allen and the Huntress are neither seen nor mentioned in this episode. On some level, this reinforces the claustrophobic nature of Oliver’s position. He has carved out a space for himself in Starling City where he and his friends can do good, but the threats posed by Malcolm Merlyn, Slade Wilson, and even Amanda Waller continue to hang over his head, especially because he doesn’t appear to know that any of them are out there. Malcolm is still a force to be reckoned with, even in pseudo-death, and it’s a clever hook for this episode to show lesser villains scavenging his leftover tools of terror. As Bronze Tiger, Michael Jai White has rather more to do here than he did in “Identity,” and his well-documented fighting prowess makes him a terrific match for Stephen Amell in the action sequences. Besides, he displays just the right brand of badass amorality that should make him a perfect fit for Waller’s as yet unnamed squad.
Still, the fact that almost everyone who knows Oliver’s secret has some presence in this episode does indicate a potential flaw of Arrow’s chosen medium. The show’s disconnect from its comic book source material has indeed enabled a more plausible, open-ended exploration of secret identities, but its status as a television show has forced it to economize and streamline its storytelling, not always in sensible ways. Case in point: Moira needs something to do now that she’s out of prison, there’s a mayoral race storyline going on that doesn’t directly feature any of the main characters, so let’s just have her run for mayor. Moira herself is keenly aware of how bonkers a plan this is—seriously, there aren’t any famous people in Starling City who aren’t somehow connected to mass murder? Actually, based on what we’ve seen so far of Oliver’s city, I can kind of believe that.
The show deserves some credit for sheer audacity, and “Tremors” wisely justifies this development by leaning on the relationship between Moira and Thea. Willa Holland has become the show’s not-so-secret weapon as the youngest Queen, and her earnest support for the idea is almost enough to make the notion seem convincing. Almost. Really, this is just blatant table-setting by Arrow, as not only does it place Moira on a collision course with Sebastian Blood and Slade Wilson but also it means Thea’s true parentage will soon be revealed. Much as I might have been content with Moira and Thea continuing to enjoy little moments of domestic contentment like the one they share before Moira’s dinner meeting with Walter, I can understand why Arrow feels it necessary to integrate them more directly into the ongoing story. On balance, I would say the show has earned at least this one ludicrous plot development, assuming there’s a worthwhile payoff waiting at the end of this season.
- Now that I think about it, it’s possible that Slade Wilson is pulling the strings behind Walter Steele and his associate, and that this is all part of the psychotically elaborate revenge plot against Oliver.
- After doing something a bit different with Laurel last week, the show pretty much has her relive the same handful of plot beats she’s been cycling through all season, although this time it’s made clear she is truly circling the drain. Hopefully the reappearance of Sara means that we will soon be moving on to something new for the elder Lance sister. Also, Paul Blackthorne continues to be great as the world’s most grizzled yet caring father.
- Whatever mistakes flashback Oliver makes later on in his treatment of Slade, it’s hard to argue with the speech that he gives Slade in tonight’s episode. That big speech seems like a much more effective approach than telling the whole truth about Shado’s death. Indeed, that speech gives me some small hope that the present-day Oliver and Slade can eventually reconcile, that it’s still possible to reach the good man inside the Mirakuru-enhanced psychopath.
- Another indication this was a table-setting episode: This story had a Lord Of The Rings-like number offalse endings, complete with soaring music cues and big foreshadowing statements. There ended up being quite a lot to set up for future stories in the final few minutes.
- So, based on the way she talked about her doctor, is Moira going to go right back to getting rid of people who are inconvenient to her ambitions? Come on, Moira: You’re better than that, even if there really isn’t any evidence to support that assertion.