Let’s begin with some caveats.
“The Thanatos Guild” is not an unbearable hour of television. So noted. It efficiently moves a few storylines forward, even as the show goes on a temporary side quest. Well done. Some fun moments pop up here and there, even if they’re tonally inconsistent, and fun is nearly always welcome. All that’s true.
Most importantly, I’m willing to forgive quite a lot when a television show opts for a fond farewell over a brutal one. Humans make these shows. They work together for years, in strenuous circumstances, until one day, they don’t. It’s understandable that such a parting could lead to a story that’s soft or sentimental, and that the resulting episode might be as much a goodbye for a character as a love letter to the person who portrayed that character. In brief, I’m totally cool with a somewhat happy ending for Thea Queen, I’m glad that Arrow left the door open for a possible return, and I’d be interested in the continuing adventures of the Lazarus Pit Hunters, should Willa Holland decide she misses that vigilante life.
Still, one of Arrow’s most endearing characters receives a thoroughly lackluster farewell with “The Thanatos Guild,” and it’s not right (but it’s barely OK.) This hour doesn’t grievously wrong Thea Queen. She doesn’t suddenly betray her brother, or become helpless and hapless for the sake of narrative convenience. She heads off into the sunset on an adventure of her own, and while you can’t exactly say that Oliver’s desire to right his father’s wrongs has been the healthiest choice, the episode suggests that it could be for Thea.
That suggestion only holds water if you ignore a hugely significant aspect of Thea’s overall story — her struggle with bloodlust after her experience with the Lazarus Pit. While it makes sense that the discovery of three more pits would draw her out of retirement, it hurts to imagine Thea, who was horrified with herself after threatening Nora Darhk’s life, going back to a life that will include violence. That she’s not doing it alone is some comfort; that there’s a possible end to her quest makes it easier to bear. She’s not curing a city of all corruption, she’s destroying three pits. Daunting, but doable.
But for a moment, forget her choice to retire from vigilante life out of fear of what she’d become. Forget, too, that she was in a coma for six fairly recent months, and that maybe an assassin-fighting road trip to three places sure to mess with one’s head isn’t the best idea. Let’s assume she’s cool with fighting the Guild and that she can FaceTime with her therapist. Where does that leave us?
It leaves us with an episode that attempts to cram a season’s worth of character development into a single hour. That’s a generous assessment, given that the subplots and commercials take up a pretty decent chunk of that hour, and it’s more like a season and a half’s worth of character development. The reappearance of Katrina Law’s Nyssa is welcome enough, and the idea that Malcolm Merlyn is still messing with Thea’s life from beyond the grave seems just about right. But imagine that story played out over weeks, if not months. There’d be some mystery about the nature or goals of the Guild, rather than some clunky dialogue that can’t honestly be called exposition, since it doesn’t actually explain much. There’d be vague warnings from Nyssa, who may or may not understand what her adversaries want — and there’d perhaps be some explanation of what the hell she was doing with them, and why plastic explosives were the way to go.
But the biggest win would be a chance for Thea to discover what she wants over time, and for Willa Holland to do some real acting. Thea’s a thoughtful person whose experiences have imbued her with two sometimes conflicting traits: caution, and an unshakeable desire to do anything it takes to keep the people she loves safe from harm. The reemergence of Nyssa and, particularly, the discovery of the Lazarus Pits should throw that conflict into sharper relief. The previous episode wasn’t one of Arrow’s best, but it worked well enough, in large part because Thea’s journey was clear. She’s retired, but knowing Roy is in danger immediately draws her out of retirement and compromises her judgment; she knows Roy makes her happy, but doesn’t feel she can or should have that happiness.
That’s all at play here, but there’s so much haphazard world-building and premise-setting that Thea’s story is well and truly lost in the shuffle. When asked to describe what this episode is actually about, you could be forgiven for saying “Malcolm Merlyn did some bad stuff, and also Willa Holland was ready to leave Arrow.” It doesn’t feel like a Thea-centric story. It feels like an end-of-contract story, like a story tossed together because the show’s writers (admirably) wanted to give Thea (and Holland) a happy ending that was more interesting than simply riding off into the sunset with Roy Harper. This story isn’t necessarily the wrong way to achieve that, but shoving this much information into one episode severely limits what such an episode can be.
What “The Thanatos Guild” winds up being is an occasionally entertaining but poorly handled first chapter to a story we’ll never get to see. There are fun elements — the traps, for example — and an affecting moment or two, particularly what may be the final scene we see between Stephen Amell and Holland, which directly references their first scene together. Some of the best work those two performers have done on Arrow, they’ve done together, and nearly all their scenes here underline that fact. But nearly everything else — including, frustratingly, the scenes between Thea and Roy — is rushed through or skimmed past, ignored in favor of more League lore or an anticlimactic fight or two.
Perhaps in that sense, “The Thanatos Guild” is an appropriate end for a great but badly served character. The issue isn’t really this episode. The issue is that Arrow hasn’t known what to do with Thea Queen for some time now, and “The Thanatos Guild” makes that even more clear. A beloved character with a rich history is leaving a show in its sixth season, so Arrow throws big, wet, muddy handfuls of plot at the wall in hopes that something will stick.
Thea deserves better. Let’s hope, should she and Holland ever return, Arrow will be ready to make that right.
- I’ll miss Thea, and Willa Holland, a lot. Arrow may not have known what to do with her, but Holland’s deadpan is top-notch, and if nothing else, her departure will significantly reduce our exposure to wisely underplayed punchlines and covetable clothing.
- Marc Guggenheim on tonight’s episode.
- Thanks to my Arrow TV Club predecessor Alasdair Wilkins, who upon being asked if the above headline was too much, replied with an all-caps “DOOOOOOO IT.”
- There has not been nearly enough time spent in these reviews praising Stephen Amell’s knack for making a line funny by coughing or awkwardly breathing in the middle of it. Tonight’s gem was “I’m sensing a [loud throat clear] work conversation, so…”
- Some very odd editing in this episode, to say nothing of an incomprehensible fight scene — a pitfall Arrow almost always avoids. That would be frustrating in any episode, but is especially so here.
- They could dial Curtis’s schtick down one or two degrees on the dial and it would be a lot more charming. (Is the cute cop going to be corrupt, or is he doomed?)
- How did we feel about Kyra Zagorsky’s Athena?
- “I’m sure death has cleared him of his disappointment.”
- Would love to hear your favorite Thea moments in the comments or on Twitter. One of mine: “I felt pretty lame not recognizing my own brother just because he’s wearing a hood.”