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One of Arrow’s best hours unites the future and the present

Katherine McNamara, Katie Cassidy, Juliana Harkavy, David Ramsey, Joseph David-Jones, Rick Gonzalez, Echo Kellum, Ben Lewis, Stephen Amell
Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)
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“Those are my kids.”

“Present Tense” is not the most ambitious Arrow’s history, nor its most inventive. It is, however, one of its best. Like every episode so far in this final season, it revisits ideas, plot devices, and characters from previous seasons (and recycles an old title card—this one is from season four, the Andy Diggle season). And like the young season as a whole, it manages to stroll down memory lane while heading in a new direction, imbued with the palpable energy of new ideas, new pairings, and the chance to bring the whole shebang home at last. Not all of it works, though one of the biggest wrinkles also seems likely to be sorted out, given the episode’s final act. But it’s smart, complicated, lively, often funny, with a number of solid performances and one of the single best scenes in the show’s history. What a gem.

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The episode picks up right where the last left off, with the current (as in 2019) members of OTA staring at FTA and Mia, William, and Connor, covered in blood and tears, staring right back. The big storyline centers on a guy in a Deathstroke mask with a bunch of little Deathstroke buddies putting bombs in rich people. Through some mostly unexplained sleuthing, the returning Curtis (welcome back, Echo Kellum!) determines that the Deathstroke gang are planning a Mirakuru-free Siege reboot, while Connor, William, Mia, and their interfering parents/aunts/uncles/mentors discover that the Deathstroke in question is not JJ, but Grant Wilson, who Legends viewers will remember from “Star City 2046.”*

It’s a fine Arrow plot, kind of vague but mostly effective. It doesn’t matter, anyway—it’s just a means to an end. The real meat of the story exists in the conversations between these people, and the presence of the Deathstroke gang makes those conversations about a thousand percent more interesting. Initially, the youngsters attempt to hide what’s happened from Oliver and company (heh), but as William wisely points out, there’s no keeping something like that from them. “This is Original Team Arrow we’re talking about,” he says, and sure enough, the truth comes out in no time. That’s all the truths, big and small: JJ “broke bad,” got courted by Grant Wilson, took over the Deathstroke gang, and killed Zoe. Rene is Mayor, but grew corrupt, just like any other shitty politician. Mia and William did not grow up together, Mia and Felicity never left that cabin, and things are, generally, not remotely okay.

It’s rough, complicated stuff, but the cast more than rises to the occasion. David Ramsey has one of his best episodes ever, playing a level of frustrated confusion perfectly in line with the way he’s reacted to time-travel weirdness before. (A reminder that JJ is Digg’s post-Flashpoint kid; before Barry Allen Barry Allened, Diggle and Lyla had a daughter.) As Connor, Joseph David-Jones gets some great moments too, and together, the pair absolutely sell the bonkers scenario that is a man feeling betrayed by the adult son he has yet to adopt as a child, the son feeling guilty about the stuff his child self has yet to do, and both just wanting to make it right for the other.

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Rick Gonzalez, Juliana Karkavy, and Katie Cassidy each have at least one excellent moment, with Gonzalez in particular doing a lot of emotional heavy-lifting and getting from “what the fuck, your son kills my daughter in the future” to “that future is never, ever going to happen” pretty damn fast. Cassidy’s great moment comes with Katherine McNamara’s Mia, who once again reacts petulantly whenever possible—consistent, if not particularly engaging. But their scene together, perhaps a glimpse of the dynamic we can expect from the potential Canaries spinoff, gives Cassidy a chance to lace Black Siren’s sharp-edged grief through with something a little wiser and wearier. Good stuff.

And then there’s Oliver. “Those are my kids.”

While again, Mia’s somewhat one-note spikiness leads to this hour’s few stumbles, it’s hard to be all that bothered, because Stephen Amell, Ben Lewis, and in the episode’s final act, McNamara all give performances ripe with confusion, heartbreak, joy, sorrow, excitement, gratitude, and loss. That standout scene mentioned at the top of the review arrives when, Mia having stormed off to one of the bedrooms in Felicity and Oliver’s mostly empty apartment, Oliver and William sit down to catch up a little. There are no bad scenes between the two—in almost any other episode, the pair’s other exchanges would be at the top of the pile. But not here. William tells Oliver he’s a billionaire. He tells him he’s gay, and Oliver tells him he knew. And they tell each other, with every smile and silence, how grateful they are for this moment and how much it will hurt when it ends. Which, of course, it will.

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Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)

Centering the episode’s action-y plot on Deathstroke is a stroke (heh) of genius. It forces these confidences to happen quickly. It dredges up Diggle’s feelings about Andy, and while it goes unsaid, probably puts turns Oliver’s mind to both Laurel, who he lost and whose death led him to take a life. It shoots the stakes through the roof while not adding plot complexity that might detract from the emotional stuff that drives the hour. It gives us an urgent reason to bring Curtis back into the fold (and just the right amount of him, too). It offers little moments like the realization that Curtis, an openly gay vigilante/genius, might be a particularly fascinating figure to William; Not Laurel’s admission that she still thinks Oliver is a dick, even if they’re now on the same page; and Dinah, John, and Rene’s agreement to do everything they can to change what’s about to happen. And it leaves time for Oliver Queen, his face flush with joy and disbelief, unwilling to hug Mia without her consent, unable to hold his son any tighter, and totally incapable of hiding his wonder.

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“Those are my kids,” he says, and with that admission, the door to a potentially series-best final stretch of episodes bursts wide open.

Stray observations

  • * Assuming said viewers have not skipped season one of Legends, as often suggested by me and many others. I regret nothing.
  • This episode is credited to writers Oscar Balderrama and Jeane Wong, and directed by Kristin Windell.
  • William Clayton has a better understanding of time-travel within an hour of time-traveling accidentally than Barry Allen has been with seasons of practice.
  • Speaking of—sincerely hoping at some point Oliver thinks to call Barry (or better yet, Iris) to ask for advice on having your future-kid show up out of nowhere.
  • “At least you didn’t throw up this time. Just saying.”
  • “Wow, Mom really liked playing fast and loose with the Fourth Amendment, huh?”
  • “Kids are a miracle, or whatever.”
  • “No human would actually wear something so ridiculous.” PUT BLACK SIREN ON LEGENDS. No, really. I know she’s supposed to be on that Canaries spin-off, but maybe Katie Cassidy could be a recurring guest and bop in and out, Gary-style?
  • Was there any salmon ladder?: No, but I did like Connor and Digg working on their stick-fighting together.
  • TAMVP: Anytime Stephen Amell is this good in an episode of a show he’s been doing since 1978, I am obligated to name him TAVMP. But let’s make it a tie, because hot damn, Ben Lewis just straight-up killed me this week. He’s consistently really good, but this was next-level. Almost everyone was, frankly.
  • This week’s Arrow as a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song. The Ballad of John Diggle/Connor Hawke:

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About the author

Allison Shoemaker

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.