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Monday, April 6, 2015

Arrow: Heir to the Demon

So the big draw-card of this episode was naturally: NYSSAAAAAAAA! Suffice to say I was very excited about her appearance, though I know very little about her comic book incarnation (I'm more familiar with Talia al Ghul, who I'm guessing is not making an appearance in Arrow because of her prevalence in The Dark Knight trilogy? Maybe?)

In any case GIF sets of Katrina Law as Nyssa al Ghul have been all over my Tumblr dashboard for a while now, and were in fact part of the reason why I decided to watch this show in the first place. I knew about her role as Ra al Ghul's daughter, I knew about her relationship with Sara, and I knew bits and pieces of what to expect from her.
Unfortunately, this episode in which she first appears is more than little ridiculous, with the emotional impact of Laurel and Dinah discovering that Sara is still alive somewhat squashed by the contrivances that get them there.

That said, there was also some brilliant stuff in this episode, including a scene of Arrow/Canary on a motorbike together that made me make squeaky noises and do the embarrassing "hand-flapping" thing.
But we'll get to that. The episode begins with a snazzy looking woman arriving at Starling City airport. She hands over her identification, the teller is alerted to a security risk, the guards immediately surround her and she effortlessly dispatches them before sauntering out.
The problem with this scene (apart from the fact that she didn't just take a private jet or use fake identification in order to avoid this situation) is that nothing comes of it. There's no manhunt going on in the city; there's no media coverage whatsoever. And shouldn't assassins be a little more subtle about their activities anyway?
Look, I can handle comic book logic and understand the need for attention-grabbing openers – but this is just the first of many examples of dubious Nyssa-related behaviour that doesn't make a whole lot of sense (either on a Watsonian or Doylist level). I can justify some of it by characterizing Nyssa as a woman awash in power and privilege – more on this later – but it's still a challenge to rationalize a lot of what she gets up to.
In any case the episode opens properly on Laurel in the hospital, having been found passed out in her apartment. Her parents think she overdosed on something; she's more interested in the fact she saw Sara, however confusedly.
As it happens, Laurel didn't OD – instead she was poisoned by snake venom (yes really) by a member of the League of Assassins, as ordered by Nyssa in an attempt to lure Sara back to Starling City. We actually see a man slipping something into Laurel's drink in the "previously on Arrow" segment, which I honestly didn't even notice in the last episode.
So after Sara gets an earful from her father, she steps outside and is confronted by Nyssa, flipping down from an overhead bridge on one of those sling thingys that Pink uses at her concerts and approaching Sara with a drawn dagger.
Turns out she goes for a kiss instead of a stab, but by her own admission she wasn't sure how that confrontation was going to end. Also odd is the fact that she (presumably) knew the whole time that Oliver was watching, which means you can't help but wonder whether that influenced her decision. She tells Sara that she's here to return her to the League, and after what can only be described as a dick-measuring stare-down between Sara's ex-lovers (and yes, I do see the irony in that assessment) Sara opts to accompany Nyssa – for now.
But the fact that a stabbing was legitimately on the table as a possible outcome to their meeting is a bit worrying, just as Oliver's insistence that Sara has to stay in Starling City is immensely annoying. (Dude, it's really none of your business and Sara clearly doesn't want your input).
Once they're alone, Nyssa tells Sara: "the only reason you're alive today is because of me" (warning bells go off in my head) and again reaches for her dagger when Sara refuses to return with her. So apparently she's at war within herself between letting the woman she loves free to be with her family and ... killing her.
Nyssa's next step is to kidnap Sara's mother to coerce her into returning to the League of Assassins, a decision that puts her firmly into bad guy territory.
Look, I can appreciate Nyssa as a morally ambiguous anti-hero – but it feels to me as though the writers aren't entirely sure what they're actually portraying here. I mean, see this scene here:

Plot Armour means that Sara obviously isn't going to be killed or even wounded by any of the arrows that Nyssa is shooting, but that doesn't change the fact that in the context of the story, she very easily could have.
So after telling Detective Lance what's happened, Sara gets the ultimatum phone call from Nyssa, who tells her: "I thought it would be instructive to suddenly loose someone you love. To have them ripped from your life without warning." If Sara gives herself up and returns with Nyssa, Dinah will be set free. And then... they'll resume their relationship? Sara will simply forget about what Nyssa did to her family and live happily ever after with her? They'll proceed as though none of this ever happened?
Again, I'm struggling to understand Nyssa's mentality here. She would have to be a serious megalomaniac if she honestly believes her relationship with Sara could pick up where it left off after all this extortion; which hey – I'm willing to accept if that's what the writers are going for, but I get the sneaking suspicion that they actually think the lengths Nyssa is going to in order to win Sara back is all rather romantic.
Team Arrow tracks down Nyssa's location thanks to the rental car her associate was using (so much for stealth, super-assassins) and Sara is reunited with her mother. Poor Alex Kingston has about three seconds to play a mother reuniting with the daughter she thought was dead before her ex-husband hustles her out the door (even though – somewhat hilariously – both parents rush back in almost immediately afterwards), at which point Sara collapses to the ground.
She's taken some of the poison in the attempt to kill herself and Nyssa's reaction is: "if you want to be with your family so badly, they can join you in eternity."
It's at that point Oliver turns up and an Arrow/Nyssa fight ensues, eventually to be interrupted by Sara who somehow managed to stumble away from both her parents. Oliver administers the antidote and Nyssa is sufficiently moved to release her from the vow she made to the League.
Whew. Okay, let's unpack this.
I get the feeling that the writers were going for something big and flashy and emotional for Nyssa's first appearance without giving much consideration as to what it says about her character: that she's willing to endanger the lives of two women in order to get her girlfriend back, prepared to kill said girlfriend's parents when she's rejected, and generally coerce Sara into obeying her commands.
I know same-sex relationships are rare and therefore incredibly important when they're finally portrayed on television, but on some level there needs to be recognition of what exactly constitutes a good relationship. And this wasn't that. Imagine the dynamic between Sara/Nyssa if Nyssa happened to be a male character ... yeah, it's pretty appalling.
Of course, this doesn't mean that people can't ship them or enjoy that relationship as a fictional construct. People are perfectly capable of doing that while simultaneously recognizing that it's not something they'd ever condone in real life – but for me at least the problem lies in the fact that I'm not sure the writers are completely aware of how villainous Nyssa came across.
Or maybe they did. It's not like I'm a mind reader. I know Nyssa returns in later episodes, so there's every chance they'll address some of the issues they raised here. But for now at least, if Sara/Nyssa was meant to be portrayed as a great and tragic love story (as I wish it had been)... I'm not buying it.
My take on Nyssa at the moment is that she's a woman so awash in power and entitlement that she honestly can't comprehend not getting her own way, which is a perfectly viable and interesting characterization for her – especially since it means she shares quite a bit in common with Oliver. In fact, when they come face-to-face for the first time, Nyssa confidently and casually stares him down in a way that suggest she's used to crossing paths with random masked-and-hooded vigilantes.

Right off the bat they felt like equals in way that we haven't seen between Oliver and anyone else – this is very unlike his rapport with Roy and Helena (his protégés), Diggle and Felicity (his employees, no matter what he says) and Sara and Laurel (his ex-girlfriends). Nyssa exists entirely outside his control; she doesn't give a shit about him or who he is; she came to Starling City for Sara alone – and that's refreshing.
But not only are they both wealthy, powerful and committed to their own agendas, they're (obviously) both romantically linked to Sara. And like Nyssa, Oliver's behaviour in this episode was all about controlling her, even if it was done less overtly. He's constantly demanding that Sara do this, do that, stay here, go there, with lines such as "it's been two hours, she should have gotten back in touch with me" (um, why? She made it very clear that it's none of your business) and eventually revealing that he put a tracer on her so he could track her movements because "she has a bad habit of disappearing on me."
So I wasn't impressed that the episode ended with Sara falling back into his arms – not just because he seriously overstepped his bounds here, but because (on a Doylist level) it occurs in the same episode that establishes Sara as a bisexual who up until very recently was in a pretty serious love affair with another woman. Why not give us (and her) a little time to digest this before throwing her back into a relationship with the main character?
All in all, I was primed and ready to love this episode for a number of reasons, but a lot of it was incredibly muddled. For now I just hope that some of the elements it introduced (Nyssa's personality, Sara's sexuality, Oliver's overbearingness) are acknowledged, explored and ironed out in coming episodes.  
Elsewhere, Felicity comes up with the brilliant idea to confront Moira Queen about the fact she knows Thea is Malcolm Merlyn's daughter. Perhaps not the wisest course of action, especially when the Queen matriarch starts casting these looks her way:

Seriously though, this was a great scene. It continued the "who's Felicity Smoake?" running gag and then quickly got very serious as Felicity spelt out her reasons as to why she was doing this (giving Moira a chance to tell Oliver the truth) only for Moira to respond by bringing out the big guns. She has no intention of telling Oliver the truth, and if Felicity does it in her stead, Moira says, then he will forever see her as the messenger of the news that tore his life apart.
Damn. I love seeing this cold and steely side to Moira, and it was a brave move on the part of the writers to have her threaten a fan-favourite, however obliquely. And of course, despite her fears of losing him Felicity follows her conscience and tells Oliver the truth.
Sadly the ensuing confrontation between mother and son isn't quite as powerful (the fact that Oliver is still going to be living under the same roof means the whole thing reminded me of Uther/Morgana's estrangement in The Witch's Quickening in which Morgana basically tells her father: "go to hell... see you at dinner") but it's certainly a shakeup of the status quo.
We also get some flashbacks to six years ago when the Queen's Gambit first went down and witness the reactions from those left behind – namely Laurel. These scenes initially depict a happy Lance family (with the trademark features of all flashbacks: muted lighting and whacky hair) though they don't really tell us anything we couldn't have envisioned by ourselves.
The one thing that stuck out was the subtle teasing that went on between the sisters, particularly in regards to Oliver. At this stage Laurel is apartment hunting so the two of them can move in together while Sara is considering meeting up with him on the boat. For a while I was wondering if this would all take a How To Get Away With Murder trajectory, in which Sara decides to sleep with her sister's boyfriend in order to prove to her that he's not worthy of her love, but ... no. If anything, it's Laurel's demeanour that galvanises Sara into accepting Oliver's invitation.
Which means that despite Laurel's earlier claim that she was excited to see Sara (when she thought she was a hallucination) the reality is quite a different story. It's not pleasant to watch Laurel scream at Sara to "get out!" as she pours herself another glass of wine, but it does make a certain amount of sense. Laurel's never gotten closure on Sara's betrayal; she's been carrying that poison inside her for the past seven years, and though there were a million better ways she could have handled the situation, the sheer craziness of Sara's return in the midst of her substance abuse crisis has clearly pushed her over the edge.
I'm sure it hardly endeared her to fandom (hah!) and a part of me wishes Sara's return could have been the beginning of Laurel's healing process instead of another blow to it, but conflict is any writer's bread-and-butter. Things have to get worse before they get better.
Miscellaneous Observations:
Am I forgetting something or was this the first time we've seen Oliver interacting with Dinah? In which case, that was a surprisingly warm welcome from a woman who is the mother of the girl he cheated on with her other daughter that she thinks died in the ship wreck that he was responsible for taking her on.
I did however appreciate what Caity Lotz did to her voice in the flashbacks – it was much higher than in the present day (almost helium-pitched) and as a result she sounded infinitely younger and more innocent.
I'll admit, this was the part when I started squealing and hand-flapping with glee:

Much like Roy and Oliver shaking hands and sealing their partnership, this felt like one of the Big Moments.
Finally, Felicity ascertains that the snake venom used to poison Laurel and Sara was acquired from the Starling City Zoo, which reported a break-in although nothing was stolen. So let's all take a moment to visualize a trained assassin breaking into the zoo enclosure in order to milk a snake. 


  1. Nice piece.

    This was actually the episode I watched as an attempt to get into Arrow when I started to hear buzz about it, and it forever convinced me that Arrow is not my show. It's terrible representation of lesbian and bisexual women, and I felt that as a visceral blow.

    From fandom chatter I have the impression that if you have watched Arrow (which, wrongly or rightly, I think is one big long brooding grimdark manpain power ballad) for a while, this show felt like a refreshing breath of air for its focus on female characters. But it is clearly not the show for me, for many reasons.

    I enjoyed your write-up, though. As someone who's spent a long time in activism against domestic violence in the LGBT community, though, I find it disturbing that the show doesn't seem to see anything wrong with abuse by both Nyssa & Oliver, and the only important point is that the show closes with the man getting the girl. Argh!

    1. For me Arrow is like Doctor Who - a show in which there are all sorts of painful tropes at work, but which I watch so casually that I can just enjoy the good stuff without letting the bad stuff get under my skin. That said...

      I find it disturbing that the show doesn't seem to see anything wrong with abuse by both Nyssa & Oliver, and the only important point is that the show closes with the man getting the girl.

      ...this was super-frustrating. I try to tread carefully when it comes to LGBT representation issues, as I've noticed (particularly after Korrasami became canon on "The Legend of Korra") that canonical gay couples are held to a MUCH higher standard than straight ones, which can lead to a "anything is better than nothing" mentality in response. So when something like Nyssa/Sara comes along, I'm never quite sure whether to place it in the context of LGBT representation, or judge it by its own merits. I did the latter, and it was a pretty alarming picture, especially since I'm sure the writers would have recognised (and avoided) how dodgy Nyssa behaviour was had she been a male character.