Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Arrow: League of Assassins

So here's an interesting fact: becoming a superhero makes your voice drop. It's apparent in any half-way decent portrayal of Clark Kent/Superman, Christian Bale's Batman took it to absurd levels, and Oliver even uses a voice modulator to help him out. It seems that Caity Lotz also got the memo, as the clearest difference between pre and post-freighter Sara is to be found in how deep her voice sounds.

This episode tackles the job of filling in some of the blanks of Sara's survival story, and how she went from one of Oliver's ditzy Girls of the Week to a stone-cold assassin who doesn't hesitate to kill a man.

Trigger warning: This review has a brief discussion of rape implications.

As is to be expected, her story has a markedly different tone than Oliver's – at least in one crucial respect: the underlying threat of sexual violence. Perhaps it was inevitable.

Although Oliver was tortured and injured and threatened and traumatized, we're constantly aware that it's part of his "toughening up" phase. There's a certain amount of Schadenfreude in watching the spoiled little rich kid get knocked about, and a security in knowing he's already come out the other side as a green-hooded kickass machine.

It's a different story with Sara. Dressed only in her underwear and a kimono, she's dragged through the bowels of the ship in terror, begging for help. We'll never know how the scene in which she's forcibly pulled toward the crewmen as one of them tells her "if you struggle it'll hurt more" would have ended had Professor Ivo not intervened, but the implications are clearly not lost on her when she fearfully asks: "why did you lock the door?" as soon as they're alone in his cabin together.

Despite Oliver's suffering, we're never really made to fear for him. But when female characters are put in hostile environments, you're always going to anticipate the threat of sexual violation – whether it actually occurs or not. And although Oliver certainly had trouble readjusting when he returned home, it's clear that by this stage that he's leagues ahead of Sara in terms of mental health and wellbeing.

Do we really need such undercurrents? I suppose some might say they're inevitable, though I also suspect these are the types of people that complained Ichabod Crane wasn't more racist toward Abbie at the beginning of Sleepy Hollow and defend the endless rape scenarios of Game of Thrones by insisting "that's just how it was back then" despite it taking place in an entirely fabricated history.

My point is that just because it's "realistic" that a woman on board a ship of mercenaries would face sexual violence, it doesn't mean you have to depict it, however implicitly. Seriously, has anyone considered the possibility that maybe you just don't have to plant that idea in an audience's mind?  Especially when it has no real bearing on the plot or characterization?

But that's a debate for another time.

What the flashbacks to the freighter do exemplify is the difference between the two Saras. While the girl on the boat lived in a state of perpetual terror, the one we see in Starling City seems to have made her peace with it. Any fear she demonstrates is eventually revealed as being on behalf of her family, who are the targets of the League of Assassins should she not return to the fold.

(Yeah, there's clearly still a lot more backstory to be revealed here, and Sara's missing years seem to be divided over two distinct periods: her time on the freighter with Oliver, and the time after her second presumed death when she was found and trained by the League).

But of course, the problem with introducing the League of Assassins is the problem that every story faces when they attempt to bring in assassins: they're inevitably going to be really shit at their job. In order to make them relevant to the action, they're usually sent after one of the main characters. But because the main characters are played by actors on the payroll, they can only ever fail miserably at killing them.

So if you chose to utilize elite assassins who strike fear in the hearts of all who hear of them, then for goodness sake – make them credible threats. And no, a guy catching an arrow in mid-air doesn't cut it when he's then rendered totally incompetent at fulfilling his mission.

Sure, I get that the paradox of making assassins scary while keeping your cast alive is a challenge. But here are some basic tips:

Don't have assassins attack their targets in the middle of the freaking day!

Don't have them burst through glass windows. It makes a mess and a loud noise, two things that any self-respecting assassin wants to avoid.

Don’t have them leave souvenirs in people's apartments. It's either going to tip them off or render them mildly confused. (Seriously, what was the dagger in Laurel's apartment meant to prove?)

"Oh look, a Good Samaritan has left you a present!"

And since there's no way that a highly trained and ruthless assassin would EVER leave their target alive, maybe you could find a way around the problem by instead having their client hire them to carry out a kidnapping. Or deliver a message. Or something that isn't fatal.

But hey, at least we find out that Sara was once in the League and that her reluctance to contact her family is due to a) the danger she fears she's in and b) her shame at having worked (and killed) for a cartel of assassins. The Lances don't just need protection from the League, but also the truth about Sara.

There were some great fight scenes in this episode, with Sara yanking down the lintel from above the door in the Queen house, and later the twofold fight in which Oliver and Sara fight off their opponents on different levels of the warehouse interior. 

The show even manages to be subtle in regards to Oliver's momentary confusion over Al Ow-Al's (not LOL, as I momentarily assumed) identity. Oliver immediately thinks he's facing Malcolm Merlyn, when in fact the man's attire is a clue to where Merlyn got his training. It's not the assassin that was dressed as Merlyn, but rather Merlyn who dressed like the assassins. Nicely done.

Having learned the truth about Sara, Laurel and Quentin are put under fairly half-assed protection – so half-assed that Sara decides to reveal herself to her father. And here's where my very easy-going suspension of disbelief was stretched some more.

No matter how ridiculous your premise or flamboyant your characters, everyone involved must have emotional realism. You can't laugh in the face of a loved one dying. You can't be fearless in the face of a genuine threat. And if you were to see your daughter alive again after five years of believing she had drowned at sea ... well, I imagine a lot of things would happen. You'd be hysterical, incoherent, devastated, furious, euphoric, uncontrollable – the whole shebang.

You would probably not be in a good mental place to successfully fight off assassins before bidding your long-lost daughter farewell once more.

As actors, I think Caity Lotz and Paul Blackthorne did a pretty good job of selling the father/daughter reunion to the best of their ability. But trying to force plot through characters who by all accounts should be in shock is to do a disservice to those characters.

Still, it’s difficult for me to come up with a suggestion of what else they could have come up with. It just felt like all this needed a little bit more breathing room to be carried off successfully, though at least Detective Lance is in on a secret for the first time in the show's history.


But the opening sequence, in which we're reminded of what happened on the Queen's Gambit just before it sunk, made me remember just how badly Laurel was treated by her boyfriend and her sister. Having established that Oliver and Sara were messing around behind Laurel's back, the show never really dwelt on this betrayal and the effect it must have had on her.

I mean, they've glossed over the fact that Oliver has slept with sisters (ew), and we don't even know how exactly Oliver/Sara hooked up in the first place. Neither one has been taken to task for their cheating (unless you consider all their tribulations on the island/freighter as karmic punishment), and one gets the sense that though their subsequent trauma eclipsed their cheating, it was something that Laurel had to carry around with her for five years without any closure.  

I like and defend Laurel, and it's clear that she's now entering her own personal island/freighter/crucible metaphor with her newfound dependency on alcohol and pills. It's not an easy thing to watch, but it's an understandable course of action for her to take.

I've steered clear of fandom's OTT hatred for this character, but if there's one complaint that strikes me as disingenuous it's the accusation that Laurel's storyline is too detached from Oliver's to really be relevant. First of all, it doesn't mesh with the other main complaint directed at Laurel: that she's "just the love interest". Either she's in his story as a love interest, or she's out of it and doing her own thing. You can't complain about both.

Second of all, I have no problems with a female character getting focus and development (however downward the trajectory) outside of the male protagonist's "lead" story. See also: Constance and Queen Anne on The Musketeers. All that Laurel is currently going through is heading towards her assuming the mantle of the Black Canary, and (as much as I hate the whole "suffering leads to strength" deal, a theme which was also present on the otherwise excellent Korra) I appreciate that this story, in its own way and in its own time, is dealing with her movement toward that role.

It's comparable to Roy's journey towards Arsenal, running alongside Oliver's without yet intersecting, like three distinct paths slowly merging. Arguably you could watch a "Roy cut" or a "Laurel cut" of this show, focusing solely on their scenes, and get a fairly coherent origin story out of each one.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Why on earth would you keep a picture of the Queen's Gambit, which took the life of your husband and son (temporarily at least) displayed on a table in the entrance hall of your house?


Likewise, though that was a great visual of the canary landing beside Sara, what on earth was it doing out in the middle of the ocean?

Moira. She's got a secret. We get it. Time to move this plot along.

The names Professor Ivo and Amazo are ringing all sorts of bells, though it's been a few years since I watched Justice League. But hazarding a guess: he's a crazy scientist (is there any other kind?) and somehow this is all connected to Sebastian Blood.

That Sara is called the "beloved" and is told the child of Raz al Ghul wants to see her made me wriggle with impatience, knowing what this means. Of course, knowing how it all pans out (in broad strokes at least) also makes me dread the whole thing.

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