As we officially pass the midway point of Arrow’s 22-episode first season, it’s worth taking stock of what the show has accomplished and what it still has left to prove. The first two episodes of 2013, “Burned” and last week’s “Trust But Verify”, were entertaining, competent hours of television, but they didn’t necessarily suggest the show had vast reserves of untapped potential—if anything, they were indicative of a show nearing its creative ceiling, if only because both episodes seemed to play it safe. Oliver got to go about his superhero business while largely leaving the rest of his family to deal with the fallout of his mother’s deceptions. To grow beyond what it is now—which is pretty much a solidly above average superhero procedural with soap opera elements—Arrow needs to make strong choices, to force Oliver into just the sort of tricky situations he uses his Hood alter ego to avoid. “Vertigo” doesn’t quite make that giant leap for the show, but it comes a whole lot closer than its two predecessors. Tonight’s episode renews the show’s promise in a way we haven’t seen since the Huntress two-parter.
“Vertigo” gets a lot of mileage out of taking what Oliver cares about most—his sister Thea—and putting her squarely in harm’s way, as her attempt to weasel out of some serious drug charges gets stymied by a hardass judge. As with “Burned,” Oliver utilizes multiple identities to save her. First, the Hood makes his usual rounds, chasing down low-level pushers of the drug Vertigo in order to find out who’s behind it all. Second, “normal” Oliver goes to Laurel and asks her to convince her father to pull some strings and get Thea out of trouble. And third—and I can’t tell you how pleased I am about this—Oliver the captain in the Russian mafia makes his glorious reappearance and uses his underworld contacts to set up a meeting with the creator of Vertigo, the mysterious, clearly psychotic Count.
Of all the additions Arrow could have possibly made to Green Arrow’s 72-year-old mythology, the idea that Oliver is secretly a captain in the Russia mafia is by far the most deliciously outrageous, and I can’t imagine the show will top it anytime soon. Honestly, I’m almost disappointed the episode begins to explain just how Oliver could have possibly accomplished this feat, with the revelation that Oliver saved an important Bratva leader sometime during his five-year sojourn; part of me wishes Oliver’s captaincy could remain a total non sequitur, this brazenly ludicrous thing that comes up every so often and the show completely refuses to force into some neat logical box. Still, saving the life of a Russian mafia boss does seem like just about the only vaguely plausible explanation for Oliver’s status, so at least that’s something.
Leaving aside my continuing and hopefully understandable fascination with the fact that Oliver is a frigging captain in the frigging Russian mafia, “Vertigo” considers just how long Oliver can really expect to maintain a secret presence in a fearsome criminal organization while operating without a disguise. When the cops bust up his meeting with Vertigo, his old friend McKenna Hall, now working as a vice cop, recognizes him, leading to another round of Detective Lance hurling accusations and Oliver countering with barely adequate deflections. In the context of the episode, Oliver escaping this latest trap makes a reasonable amount of sense, since he previously made it clear he was chasing every possible lead to save Thea, and the reckless streak of his civilian identity would certainly seem to stretch to paying off some Russian lowlifes for a chance to meet the Count. Still, from the perspective of the larger narrative, Oliver getting caught in the act like this should be a much bigger deal and have consequences that extend beyond a single scene. If Arrow wants to become a genuinely strong show, it needs to do more than this.
Thankfully, the other big logical test of Oliver’s captaincy is handled much better. To test his loyalty to Bravta, the Russians force Oliver to kill a man in front of them. Without hesitation, Oliver kills the man and takes the body outside to handle the disposal. Diggle is incredulous, at which point Oliver chides his partner for having such a low opinion of him and magically resuscitates—seriously, Diggle even refers to it as “a neat trick”—the man. Oliver dispatches Diggle to set the man up with a new identity elsewhere, and everything is taken care of. On most other shows, this solution would be a horrible cheat: Oliver should have to either kill the man or burn his relationship with the Russian mafia, and this third solution is palpably ridiculous. But then, this is a superhero show and, within reason, Oliver is allowed to pull off the impossible every once in a while. After all, Arrow isn’t the sort of show and Oliver isn’t the sort of character who would just straight-up kill a man who posed no threat to him. Even when he murdered a guy to protect his secret in the series premiere, that was an armed thug who clearly had no compunction about killing Oliver—and even then, it’s clear that Oliver has come a long way from those early days.
What really redeems that moment comes later in the episode, when the Hood injects the Count with his own medicine, sending him into incomprehensible pain and quite possibly frying his brain. Of course, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the Count, particularly when Seth Gabel, Fringe’s Lincoln Lee, plays him with the insane flamboyance of a true comic book supervillain. The Count has killed several dozen people in pursuit of his perfect high, and his early murders were macabre enough to earn him the Dracula-inspired nickname. It’s a delightfully unhinged performance that recalls Cillian Murphy’s excellent work as the Scarecrow in the Dark Knight trilogy, albeit without even the occasional pretense of sanity.
But even so, for all Oliver’s insistence that Diggle should know him better than to think he would kill that anonymous henchman, his actions with the Count might suggest otherwise. Without the use of his arrow, Oliver is particularly brutal in taking down the Count’s henchmen, and his decision to drug the Count comes so fast that the audience barely has time to react. Detective Lance orders him to stop, but it’s obvious that this is personal for Oliver, that his drive to protect Thea blinds him from what he’s about to do. Later, as a convulsing Count is led away, the revulsion on Paul Blackthorne’s face says it all—the Hood has crossed the line. He definitely isn’t a hero. He’s an irredeemable vigilante and a menace. As much as that decision might be forgivable, given what we know about the bigger picture, it’s clear that this is a mistake that Detective Lance will make him pay for. More to the point, this is a mistake he should pay for. That’s a great moment for Arrow to reach, one suggestive of the show’s remaining untapped potential. Now, of course, it’s all about the follow through.
- The episode’s final scene is also promising, though I’m inclined to wait until next episode before really digging into it. Felicity finally calls Oliver out on his transparent bullshit, but then she entrusts him with the book of names that Walter entrusted to her before his disappearance. This has the potential to really shake things up, both in Oliver’s relationship with Felicity and, more importantly, his relationship with his mother, as he now knows she was in possession of a book like the one his father gave him.
- “If this is an energy drink, why is it in a syringe?” “I ran out of sports bottles.” Stephen Amell still has his limitations as a leading man, but the guy sells blatantly terrible lies like nobody’s business. Speaking of which…
- “Your B.S. stories are getting worse.” “Well aware.”
- The Count gets a great establishing scene in which he doses a henchman who failed him with a lethal dose of Vertigo, then gives his victim a gun with a single bullet in it, telling him he can either shoot the Count or himself. The only problem is that Arrow doesn’t offer any later payoff for this scene—I can’t help but compare this to how the third season premiere of Justified featured a villain who posed a similar dilemma to his victims, and then it forced Raylan Givens to come up with a way out of this apparent no-win scenario. Of course, Arrow isn’t in remotely the same league as Justified, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up hope that it might someday reach such heights.
- Katie Cassidy really hasn’t gotten all that much to do of late as Laurel, and the connection she draws between her sister Sarah and Thea feels a little forced, but she nicely sells a final moment in the law office, when she says it will be nice to have Thea around. Her eyes suggest just how much it means to spend time with someone who reminds her of her lost sister.
- Once again, I’m bumping discussion of the island flashbacks to a later date—honestly, I may need to devote an entire review just to chewing over all that’s been happening five years ago. In any event, the reveal that Yao Fei is still looking out for Oliver isn’t too shocking, and flashback Oliver seems to be well setup for some adventuring now that the soldiers think he’s dead and he’s got a map.