Even at its best—and Arrow is right now at its best, or damn close to it—this has never been a realistic show. And I don’t just mean in the “hey, the dude with magical rags just used said magical rags to contain a nuclear blast.” After all, that bit is actually logically consistent with what the show has previously established about those rags, and Rory’s halfhearted assurance that he had faith underscored how preposterous the plan was at first glance. It’s more Arrow’s insistence on hanging onto its CW soap opera roots, which means Oliver is still very much dating Susan Williams despite this being a giant honking conflict of interest. (And a deeply dumb idea, given Williams’ previous willingness to violate trust in order to break a story—which is a good thing that good journalists should do, broadly speaking, but not ideal in a would-be girlfriend.) The simple fact this is a superhero show means Arrow exists in a heightened reality, and it’s willing to run with that when it comes to Oliver’s romantic dalliances, or Felicity’s ability to instantly orchestrate a shakedown of some poor Russian, or that it’s still even remotely hard to figure out that Oliver is the Green Arrow, or the fact that nukes going off in this world still don’t seem like nearly as big a deal as they ought to.

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To the extent Arrow’s job is to reflect some portion of reality, it doesn’t do an especially good job. While comics-inspired fiction tends to afford—or at least ask for—more latitude for those kinds of logical leaps in world-building, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse such wonkiness when other shows out there can deliver consistently compelling television without such bone-crunchingly dumb details. And yet Arrow has succeeded this season, sometimes in spite of those silly bits, and sometimes because of it—after all, it’s damn hard to argue that the Bratva storyline isn’t utterly ludicrous, yet it’s also awesome. In the flashbacks, the sheer audacity of it all carries the day. After a couple seasons’ worth of past-related tedium, Arrow this year has fully embraced a world where the Oliver of five years ago splits his time between being a loyal enforcer for the Russian mob and being the newest apprentice of Talia al Ghul.

In the present, we start to see the consequences of all those decisions, and that’s where things get interesting. Because that was a big part of the problem with last year’s supernatural business on the island: The connection between past and present was fundamentally one of plot details, with Oliver’s experience with magic then informing (or failing to inform) his battles with Damien Dahrk. The Hong Kong season was even less clearly linked to anything, beyond the fact that his allies during his ARGUS year later ended up entwined in his dealings with Ra’s al Ghul. But here, we’re seeing Oliver finally embrace the killer within and channel it into what would become the Hood. What made all the sense in the world for Oliver to do five years ago is unconscionable now, placing considerable strain on his once jovial relationship with Anatoli. The flashbacks and the main stories interconnect now on a character level, and it’s that attention to character that distinguishes Arrow at its best. Oliver doesn’t need to go on realistic journeys—even if, sure, the Susan Williams plotline still feels like a bridge too far—but he does need to go on recognizable, relatable journeys.

Indeed, “Bratva” tells what is a fundamentally very simple story: Oliver wants to leave his brutal past behind him, but he would rather go back there than let John and Felicity get dragged into the muck with him. This kind of moral murkiness isn’t uncharted territory for Arrow, but tonight’s episode sets itself apart in a couple ways. The biggest difference with episodes past is that we almost entirely skip Oliver’s requisite angst, with Dinah saying she can’t stand brooding. One of the show’s great achievements has been in how it has slowly built up Oliver’s formidability, a point underscored by how instantly he and Dinah took down Anatoli’s requested targets. This season has enhanced that by depicting a more emotionally balanced Oliver, which provides a good contrast with an unstable Diggle and an uncertain Felicity. John completely blurs the line between justice and vengeance, while Felicity’s guilt about leaving her hacker past behind leads her to target some low-level nobody. It’s all done in pursuit of General Walker—and Arrow does at least have the good taste to not go full 24 and bullshit about torture’s efficacy—but these aren’t the John and Felicity we’ve grown used to.

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That doesn’t mean Oliver is right to argue their role is to prove Prometheus wrong, to remain pure in a way Oliver cannot. Sure, he’s the show’s protagonist, but that doesn’t mean the characters should actually believe that everything revolve around him, and both characters ought to be free to make their own mistakes. And “Bratva” ultimately pulls out the right takeaway here, with Diggle using Oliver’s belief in him to find the strength necessary not to kill Walker in cold blood. As John says at episode’s end, all three make one another better. Oliver has grown enough to allow John and Felicity their occasional crises, and this is also where Rory’s place on the team has proven so important. I’m still not a fan of the Haven Rock plot point—if nothing else, a show probably shouldn’t do something that momentous if it can’t afford to show more than three seconds of the event on-screen—but Rory’s presence in this episode as Felicity’s conscience is crucial, considering Oliver has more than enough going on with John. If Rory really is leaving the show, even temporarily, that doesn’t portend well for Felicity, who sure seems like she could use some help at the moment to keep on the straight and narrow.

“Bratva” is another top-to-bottom solid episode in a top-to-bottom solid season. Each episode shows incremental progress from the previous installment, and it’s particularly heartening how the new recruits are coming into their own. Mr. Terrific is still shockingly not equipped with those damn T spheres, but his move to backup tech person makes way more sense than his dalliances in the field. Rene shows previously unseen depths in his handling of Lance and the interview prep. Dinah reads more like useful plot device than fully-formed character at this point, serving as heavy artillery and newbie wisecracker. If that’s still the case a month from now, we’ve got a problem, but for now her presence is most useful as a catalyst for the more established characters—she got Oliver to skip his brooding, after all. If that’s not a sign of a newer, better Arrow, I don’t know what is.

Stray observations

  • Look, I realize Roy Harper pulled that trick where he passed himself off as the Arrow when Oliver got arrested. I still don’t really understand how anyone with two eyes and a brain can’t work out the Green Arrow’s secret identity, but whatever, I’m still looking forward to Susan Williams’ sudden but inevitable betrayal.
  • Anatoli showed off a darker side tonight, just to remind us all that even the nice Bratva captains are still not to be messed with. I’m hoping we can avoid a full heel turn for Anatoli, because he’s such a delight, but I’m not sure how we avoid it.
  • For those keeping track, General Walker’s plan with the nuke is more or less the same as Doc Brown’s at the start of Back To The Future. And that one worked out pretty well for Doc!
  • Another episode’s absence and I’m going to have to invoke Poochie rules for Thea: Whenever she’s not in a scene, all the other characters should stand around and ask, “Where’s Thea?”

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