Monday, June 30, 2014

Arrow: Trust But Verify

Well, this was certainly a very busy episode – perhaps a little too busy.

Our main plot involved Oliver and Dig coming to near blows concerning the latest name in Ollie’s book – apparently Ted Gaynor (giggle, snort) is not only a man that Dig served with in Afghanistan, but a commanding officer who once saved his life. Dig point-blank refuses to believe that he could be a suspect in the latest string of armoured truck robberies. Oliver has total faith in his father’s list and decides to pay Ted a little visit.

Naturally, Dig sabotages The Hood’s attempt at questioning Ted by showing up at his office and chasing off the vigilante. Ted is a bodyguard now, just like Dig, and what’s more – is played by Ben Browder. Yup, he’s still got the “aw shucks” nice guy charm, so there’s no telling what side of the equation this character will fall on.

He’s also amazingly uninterested in the hows and whys of Dig turning up at his office in the middle of the night in order to chase off a bow-toting vigilante. Heck, the first question out of my mouth would have been “how the heck did you know he was gonna show up here?” but Ted decides to flag all this in favour of going out for hamburgers.

The whole “loyalty to friends versus commitment to the mission” is an interesting conundrum to introduce to any plot, and Arrow tinkers with the usual formula by spreading it between two individuals: Dig speaks up in favour of trusting Ted, Ollie has condemned the man on the basis of his inclusion in the list. A couple of interesting points emerge from their argument.

First of all, Oliver defends his position by stating that there’s no way he would deliberately distance himself from the people he loves if he didn’t have absolute faith in the list. Huh. Nice point.

But Dig’s counterargument is that the list wasn’t written by Ollie’s father, but by “whoever hired the black archer.” Hmm. Ollie dismisses this argument, suggesting that there’s still a lot more fleshing out to do in his flashbacks.

As it happens, Ted was behind the assaults on the armoured trucks, and after a fairly convoluted series of events (Felicity decrypting the information on the flash-drive, the police not figuring out the obvious pattern behind the way the trucks were hit, Ted pre-emptively kidnapping Carly on the off-chance that Dig would break into the garage on that exact night), Arrow shoots him dead.

Here’s the problem as I see it: it’s nearly impossible to get much of an emotional resonance from one-shot guest stars. There’s barely any time to establish them as three-dimensional people, they exist mainly as a plot device to drive the action, and most of the time they’re lucky if they get to fit into the underlying themes of the episode.  

Ted did better than the likes of Deadshot or Firefly, but still only just scraped by thanks to the novelty of Ben Browder playing against type and the obvious purpose he served as a dark foil to Dig (both ex-army, both struggling with adapting to civilian life, both playing bodyguards to snotty rich kids). 

And all things considered, I like that the show allows Dig to be something more than Ollie’s sounding board and a convenient backup. He has a past and he has a love interest with complications. That’s more than Pete Ross from Smallville ever got. All he had was product placement.

But the divide in Ollie and Dig’s trust issues also links into this episode’s island flashbacks – and they were more compelling than they’ve ever been before. After his friend gets captured and Ollie accidentally kills one of the special ops men, he disguises himself in the dead man’s clothes and makes his way to an encampment marked on a map found in the guy’s pocket.

Luckily for him, all the men wear balaclavas – even when they’re casually lining up to get food (no indication of whether they EAT the food with the balaclavas on). Bless them, the show actually lampshades this nonsense by the end of the episode, for after Ollie is found out, Nigel asks him why all his men cover their faces. It’s something to do with the strength of a person’s eyes, because apparently fulfilling some figurative nonsense is more important than common sense.

But believe it or not, I was thrown by the final reveal of Yao Fei in league with Nigel and the rest of the special ops. What exactly is going on here? Because I’m beginning to feel as though Oliver has been played by these people from the second he landed on this island, all as part of some much grander scheme to shape him into a super soldier. Perhaps they are the ones that didn’t just train Ollie, but set him this particular mission in Starling City.

Meanwhile Thea’s eighteenth birthday is coming up. Though she seems to be mainly composed of droll comebacks and teenage petulance, she occasionally gets something more interesting to do. I was intrigued by her witnessing the conversation between Moira and Malcolm – but unfortunately our little gumshoe completely misconstrues the situation and believes that Moira is having an affair. I’m pretty sure I read this plot in a Sweet Valley High book. And possibly thousands of other teen reads, which tells me that it really shouldn’t be used as a subplot on this show.

A couple of party pills and a joyride later, she’s crashed into a ditch. I care about Thea, but I’m having trouble seeing how her teenage dramas connect to the bigger picture of the show’s plot.

Finally (since I’ve been listing these subplots in decreasing order of how badly they were staged) comes Malcolm’s dinner with Tommy and Laurel. This reached Narm levels of ridiculous when it was eventually revealed that Malcolm’s real motivations in reaching out to his son was actually to get his signature on papers that confirm the shutdown of a free medical clinic that was run by his deceased mother.

As Phoebe Buffet once said: “Too much”.

Then, after Laurel confronts him, Malcolm tells us that getting shot in the head was Mrs Merlyn’s way of teaching her son that the world is a harsh and cruel place. He actually makes it sound as though she got shot on purpose just to teach her son this lesson.

Some free advice: if you feel the need to telegraph a character’s less-than-likeable qualities, then don’t involve puppies, orphans or free medical clinics. Unless you’re writing a comedy.
Miscellaneous Observations:

Yet another example of a person entering a scene and smoothly inserting themselves into a conversation that they can’t possibly have heard from outside the room. Today the task falls to Tommy, discussing Oliver’s car troubles. Seriously, this could be a drinking game. Note to self: put it on TV Tropes.

Nigel: “You do seem rather green.” Heh.

I’ve just noticed that Thea has the same mark on her upper lip as Moira does. Is that deliberate? Because if it’s a natural birthmark that both actresses coincidentally happen to have... wow, great casting!

I get that Merlyn probably is the comic book name of these characters, but it still sounds absurd when said out loud.

Oliver goes to Felicity for a job that actually makes sense for an IT girl’s capabilities. Win!
Finally, I’m really intrigued by Moira and what she represents in this story. More than any other archetype she fits into the Evil Matriarch category (a powerful, ambitious mother figure) – yet at a mere glance you can see that’s an oversimplification of who she is.

I’d like to see more of her as a ruthless businesswoman, but I love the fact that in their portrayal of her, the writers have very much weaponized her maternal instincts. She fights tooth and nail for her children, yet she’s about as far-flung from Cersei Lannister (another powerful Mama Bear) as conceptually possible.

At the same time she’s obviously in Malcolm’s power, she’s also not making much of an effort to break free of it, and though she manages to convey a calm and placid veneer, her children are beginning to notice the cracks in her behaviour.  She’s wise and dignified enough to let Oliver and Thea keep an idealized version of their father, but is clearly in way over her head when it comes to whatever conspiracy Malcolm has her roped into.

What I’m trying to say is that she’s possibly the show’s most original character: an older woman who is allowed to be powerful in one respect, yet disempowered in another; confident and effective on the one hand, afraid and uncertain on the other. Embroiled in some strange conspiracy that we don’t yet know the details of, capable of staging the kidnap of her own son and green-lighting the disappearance of her husband, and keeping secrets just as complex as Oliver’s,  she has what’s still denied so many female characters: sympathy despite moral ambiguity.

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