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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow: “Trust But Verify”

Illustration for article titled Arrow: “Trust But Verify”
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Episode titles rarely manage to be quite so obviously appropriate as tonight’s “Trust But Verify.” At least five different characters are confronted with the possibility that someone they thought they knew has violated their trust, often in unspeakable ways. John Diggle is forced to consider whether Ted Gaynor, his old commanding officer in Afghanistan and now a bodyguard at Blackhawk Squad Protection Group, might be behind a string of lethal armored car robberies. Thea stumbles across the latest nefarious rendezvous between her mother and Malcolm Merlyn, and she assumes the two are having an affair before Walter’s still missing body has even gone cold. Tommy might be long past trusting Malcolm, but a seemingly successful reconciliation dinner with his old man ends with a fresh betrayal. Back in the flashbacks, the episode concludes with Oliver getting the nastiest possible surprise about the man who saved his life. And that still leaves Moira’s tête-à-tête with Malcolm, as she drops the title phrase in explaining why she won’t simply take Malcolm at his word when it comes to Walter’s safety.

The episode’s central conflict finds Oliver and Diggle clashing over Ted Gaynor’s culpability in the recent heists. Ted is in Oliver’s book, making him the first person without millions in his saving account to show up on the list. Diggle trusts his old friend, going so far as to interfere with the Hood’s attempted interrogation of Gaynor. Diggle takes up Ted on an old offer to join Blackhawk, using it as an opportunity to clear his friend’s name before Oliver moves again. Oliver’s investigation is a good example of the show’s growing flair for procedural storytelling. Diggle pointing a gun at him forces Oliver into a stalemate, so instead of dealing with either Gaynor or Diggle, he turns his bow and fires an arrow through a computer screen, creating enough confusion to allow him to grab a Blackhawk flash drive. The stick has military-grade encryption, which means a return visit to his personal computer geek Felicity Smoak. A little light quasi-flirting between Oliver and Felicity, and then we’re off to the Hood busting up the latest armored car robbery. None of this is revelatory, but Arrow has gotten into a good groove with Oliver’s investigations, making them entertaining, reasonably plausible, and a good showcase for Oliver’s skills and his smarts. Arrow is still feeling its way with the bigger stuff, but it deserves credit for mastering all the little things so quickly.

For the part of Ted Gaynor, the casting of Farscape star Ben Browder is nothing short of a masterstroke. Browder excels at projecting basic human decency—a big reason why his guest spot in last year’s Doctor Who episode “A Town Called Mercy” was so effective, despite limited screen time—and it’s put to good use playing someone that Diggle and, by extension, the audience want to see the best in. Diggle asks Gaynor some reasonably difficult questions about just what he’s up to at Blackhawk, and Gaynor’s responses aren’t the typical deflections one might expect from the typical thinly disguised villain of the week. Instead, Gaynor acknowledges that he has had to bring in shady characters like Knox, explaining that it’s better that such men have a job with Blackhawk that puts their military skills to some use rather than spend their times robbing liquor stores.

This is clearly an excuse and a flimsy one at that—Arrow might one day actually flip the script and reveal Oliver is chasing down the wrong people, but that’s unlikely only 11 episodes in. In particular, Knox is the kind of side character we’re meant to instantly recognize as an untrustworthy, hotheaded asshole, and Gaynor must surely be guilty too if he’s so willing to vouch for him. For better or worse, this is just basic storytelling, but Browder’s performance suggests enough honesty that we’re inclined to side with Diggle, to want to believe Gaynor could be innocent in spite of everything. It’s a performance that really does inspire trust, underscoring the episode’s central point about not taking people at their word just because they seem like righteous dudes. What makes the character hang together is that, when the other shoe inevitably drops, Gaynor’s true self doesn’t seem entirely disconnected from what we saw before. The fundamentally decent veteran of past scenes is suddenly recast as a particularly slick politician, with Browder’s performance threading the needle so that both interpretations work. His matter-of-fact approach to threatening Diggle is a nice touch from the writers: Gaynor knows he’s right, but he’s smart enough to know that Diggle will never go along with him, so it’s just common sense to kidnap his dead brother’s widow to force the issue. Arrow has sometimes failed to do much with its villains—both Deadshot and Firefly were largely kept away from the main action of their respective episodes, even if the latter decently complemented the larger story on a thematic level—but the episode’s portrayal of Ted Gaynor elevates what otherwise might have been a fairly predictable plot.

Speaking of genre stars showing up as guest villains, Torchwood’s John Barrowman is back once again as Malcolm Merlyn. His job as an actor is different from Browder’s, as there’s little need for ambiguity in his performance. Every superhero needs his supervillain, and Barrowman has crafted a charming, utterly ruthless master manipulator that often reads as Starling City’s answer to Satan—specifically Ray Wise’s Devil from Reaper. Malcolm seems to genuinely not understand why Moira might be reluctant to do his bidding after he kidnapped her husband and offered no evidence that he’s still alive all these months later. It’s not even that Malcolm assumes the implicit threat will keep her in line; rather, he just doesn’t seem to get why this detail would alter their solid working relationship. His dealings with his son are even more diabolical, as he pretends to apologize for his earlier disowning of Tommy with a lovely dinner, only to reveal he wants Tommy to sign off on the closure of his mother’s beloved free clinic. This all clearly links back to Malcolm’s still nebulous masterplan, although “Trust But Verify” heavily hints that Malcolm wants vengeance for his wife’s brutal murder, and it’s entirely possible his revenge is against every poor person in Starling City. The brief cracks in his smooth façade hint at the human motivations behind his villainy, but they only serve to reinforce just how monstrous he truly is.

In the midst of all these real transgressions, Thea spends the episode convinced that her mother has betrayed Walter’s trust—which, technically speaking, she absolutely has, but not for the reasons that Thea thinks. Considering how often Thea’s role consists of her complaining about either her mother or her brother’s actions, this is a good development for her, if only because it gives her something concrete to do. Her drug-assisted car crash and subsequent arrest forces her out of the protective bubble in which she’s been firmly encased for most of Arrow so far. Plus, while Moira seems to sidestep Oliver’s suspicions this time around, the episode makes clear that she won’t be able to hide her misdeeds from her children forever. But then, Thea might be right—if there’s one pair of characters for whom unconditional trust still exists, it might just be Oliver’s belief in his mother. And, unless he heeds the words of the episode’s title, that unverified trust might well get him killed.


Stray observations:

  • Some big developments in the show’s mythology tonight. The biggest might just be Oliver’s cryptic, implicit admission that he didn’t spend all five years on the island. His captaincy in the Russian Mafia might just end up making sense after all! (Nah.)
  • The second biggest reveal, of course, is that Yao Fei, his one apparent ally on the island, is actually working for the villainous Edward Fyers. I’ll save discussion of that for next week’s episode, but in short: Holy shit, Arrow. That’s one legitimately excellent twist.
  • Ben Browder’s casting is particularly effective for the more nerdy members of the viewing audience (myself very much included), as they might be especially unwilling to believe that John Crichton (or, fine, Cameron Mitchell) would betray them like this. Moderately nerdy comics fans like myself might also assume a heroic organization like the Blackhawks—complete with comics-appropriate logo—couldn’t possibly be full of traitors. Then again, the truly accomplished comic book nerds will know Ted Gaynor is an enemy of the Blackhawks, not a member.