This week’s episode of Arrow was so tight that it brought backed a beloved regular from the past and it was probably the least notable thing that happened during the hour. A globetrotting adventure that took us from Nanda Parbat to Japan and all the way back to Star City, this week’s Arrow had no shortage of material as old friends returned, new enemies arrived, and strange bedfellows were sewn. This episode was so busy that it could only introduce major new plot points in passing, but as the official halfway point of the season, “Unchained” adds new elements to the seaosn’s arc that could potentially be followed up on in some very interesting ways.
Things didn’t start out that promising though. Were you wondering what happened to Nyssa? You probably weren’t, but nonetheless we’ve learned she’s been in Nanda Parbat prison since episode three, and that there’s something of a League of Assassins Civil War in the offing as the Nyssa’s loyalists are in conflict with those of the “Usurper” AKA: Malcolm Merlyn. In the process, the show somehow managed to dumb down the League more when one of Nyssa’s sympathizers all but says out loud that there’s a knife hidden in her dinner. Remember when bringing the League of Assassins into Arrow seemed like a cool idea?
So where was Malcolm that Nyssa was able to execute such a sloppy escape with success? He was in Star City at Thea’s bedside because her refusal to take another life has result in the curse of the Lazarus Pit turning on the host; if she won’t take a life, it will take her’s. It seemed like kind of a sudden turn, and a potentiality that was never mentioned in any previous discussions about Thea’s condition; if I didn’t know better, it seemed like the writers were looking for a way to create a red-hooded vacancy on Team Arrow in time for Roy Harper’s unwitting return to the place he took the fall for Oliver Queen.
Yup, Colton Haynes fans could celebrate this week with the return of Roy, who once again filled the Arrow Cave with this blank stare, flat delivery and admittedly above average physical performance. It always struck me as hilariously on the nose when Sin called Roy “Abercrombie” because Roy (and Haynes) looks like he walked off the catalog page, but bringing Roy back did let Oliver address some things, like his secret identity. Not as the Green Arrow, but as Diggle coined it, the “Guilt Arrow.” The episode kind of missed a step with this week’s flashback, but it seemed to be making the point through a spectral visit from Shado that Oliver’s forgotten a pivotal lesson from his island days: the only way out is through. He tries so hard to overcome his guilt, but maybe he just has to live with it in order to get to the other side.
So what brought Roy back to Star City? He was the unwitting pawn of the Calculator (“This is what you get when the villains name themselves,” Felicity said channeling Cisco) played by Tom Amandes. Amandes is one of those actors who seems like he was long overdue for playing a comic book villain, not of the Ra’s al Ghul or Damien Darhk variety, but being a sort of anti-Felicity trying to deploy a “web nuke” seemed like kind of the perfect fit for the actor. Fitting too then that the Calculator turned out to be Felicity’s father.
It was a good, but not unexpected twist that it turns out that Noah Kuttler is “Papa Smoak,” though I think the impact was somewhat lost by showing Noah sitting next to Oliver and beaming at Felicity’s smash success at the Palmer Tech presentation of the next gen battery that Curtis invented. (Yeah, basically he invented an arc reactor with two months notice.) I wonder if Arrow is threatening to over-stuff itself with villains. Obviously the Calculator is going to stick around, and obviously he and Darhk have separate but equal goals in mind for Star City. Then, on top of it all there’s Malcolm and Nyssa’s feud, which is also now being brought to Star City. Ascertaining the ownership of that mysterious grave in the future is now a very busy game of Clue indeed; is it the Calculator in the Arrow Cave with a bomb that blows up the internet? We’ll see….
Aside from balancing a buffet of villains, the episode also handled rather deftly Felicity’s new normal, her life in a wheel chair. I appreciated the way the episode phrased her struggle, not having the character address it as a matter of anger or depression, but as a matter of perspective. It makes sense that Felicity can handle zooming around the Arrow Cave fighting crime in her chair, that’s where her heart is, fighting the good fight with her friends. Felicity was already struggling with being CEO before she lost the use of her legs, so it compounds the effect on her already unsteady nerves when its suggested that it won’t boost consumer confidence if the big product launch is done by a bumbling woman in a wheelchair. That’s crude and insensitive, sure, but Arrow at least subtly acknowledges the stigma while allowing the character to confidently overcome it without feeling like an after school special.
Felicity’s struggle was part of the underlined message of the week about self-actualization. Oliver had to make peace with both the fact that it’s Thea’s decision to accept her fate – whatever it may be – and that it was Roy’s decision to take the fall as the Arrow, and to leave his life behind. Oliver did a lot of growing this week, which obviously plays into his later point of view graveside that what happened (whatever “it” is) isn’t his fault, but his responsibility. Whether or not “Guilt Arrow” is a thing of the past remains to be seen, but it’s an important thing to see Oliver realize he can’t control everything, even if it means losing.
Aside from some weighty and compelling thematic material, this was also a very well directed episode of Arrow. Kevin Fair, who has a wide-ranging experience directing various series and TV movies, shows the confidence of an action movie veteran. The scene were Oliver runs down Roy from rooftop to moving vehicle to a back lot maze was energetic yet had real flow and a great sense of pacing. Later, when Roy zip lines from the exploding factory, there was almost a Die Hard flavor, and it made for a real crowd-pleasing, punch-the-air kind of triumphant moment for Roy. Clearly Colton Haynes has kept up eating his Wheaties while away.
It seems like I say this every week, but this episode is definitely in the running for one of the best of season four. I hope this is a trend for the show that it’s being steered surely and carefully back to recapturing some of that lost glory, but next week we go back into full-blown League of Assassins territory as Nyssa now has a cure for what ails Thea, and the price for it is Malcolm’s head. For Malcolm Merlyn, we’ll have to wait and see if episode #13 comes up lucky or unlucky for the just recently minted Ra’s al Ghul.