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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Arrow: Streets of Fire

Penultimate episode! And yet strangely enough, this felt very patch-work-y (sorry, that's the best word I can come up with to describe it), with a lot of subplots haphazardly grafted onto the main narrative thrust of Oliver trying to track down the mirakuru cure.
It's not that scenes involving the Lance family drama and Thea's reunion with her biological father are bad, only that they have very little to do with the most important thing that has to happen in this episode: Team Arrow getting their hands on the cure sent in from Star Labs.
It involves a lot of shuffling around of the various characters, but this close to the finish line surely it's time to draw them all together, not pull them apart.

As we're reminded in the "previously on" segment, newly-made Mayor Sebastian Blood is ordering his mirakuru-enhanced soldiers to take back the city (from who? And for what purpose? I've never understood what exactly this guy's motivation is) while Slade repeatedly promises that "only one more person has to die" in his vendetta against Oliver (an ambiguously-phrased threat that Ollie just can't seem to figure out).
***
On the heels of the last episode, Oliver and Laurel have been separated by fallen debris, though somehow Oliver's bow is right next to Laurel and not him. How did that happen? Despite the unlikelihood of this, it's a nice sequence as he talks her through using an explosive arrow to free herself from the rubble, one that feels like a deliberate stepping stone on her way to becoming the Black Canary.
Outside Diggle is barely able to hold off an advancing Isabel, only for Felicity to get her Big Damn Heroes moment and hit her with a car – however, it's not to last, as Isabel just shrugs it off.
The police in the precinct are having similar trouble with their mirakuru-drugged attacker, but Quentin manages to take him out with a bunch of grenades that somehow don't kill all his colleges in the process. He then comes up with the idea to call in help from the vigilante – though in a pointed detail, refers to him as "the Arrow."
This show has always been very particular in how Oliver's alter-ego is discussed by others, with terms ranging from "the vigilante" to "the Hood" to "the Arrow", and in many ways the evolution of Oliver into a bonafide superhero has always been closely tied to the earning of Quentin Lance's acceptance and validation.
Back when Oliver/Laurel were a viable couple, it was a fun extra layer to the whole "try and earn the future father-in-law's approval", but even with the loss of that subtext Quentin still exists as the man whose respect Oliver wants and needs in order to fully embrace his destiny, whether he's aware of it or not.
Perhaps this exists on more of a Doylist level than a Watsonian one, since Quentin's thematic role has always been as Oliver/Arrow's biggest sceptic and therefore his greatest obstacle (a sort of symbolic father in the absence of Oliver's own, requiring him to follow the familiar arc of a son trying to make his old man proud).
And given Quentin's position on the police force (which he regains the same way he lost it, by advocating for the Arrow) Oliver's credibility in the eyes of the law rests entirely with him. The moment Quentin corrects his college's use of the term "vigilante" to instead refer to him as "the Arrow" is the moment Oliver stops existing outside the law and becomes an ally instead.
It was a significant shift in the dynamics between the two characters and Oliver's relationship with the law, the Arrow and Starling City itself – one that possibly should have been given a bit more emphasis, but was still striking despite the swiftness of the scene.
***
Though a plan is formed over the phone (that the police will attempt to contain the soldiers while the Arrow makes his way to the injured courier with the mirakuru cure) things quickly go south. Team Arrow is slowed down by a car accident, the cure is snatched by Slade's soldiers, and somehow our heroes end up at the clock tower where Roy's unconscious body has been moved.
We get some acting that is both overwrought (from Emily) and underwhelming (from Stephen) as Felicity spouts what feels like her millionth "I believe in you" pep talk while Oliver continues to angst about how sad he is as the city burns right below him, but it turns out help is coming from an unexpected quarter.
Slade's soldiers are have started attacking municipal buildings, and after one of them murders Kate Spencer right in front of Sebastian, our new Mayor finally realizes he's in over his head. To be frank, his entire arc reminds me of Agravaine on Merlin: a thinly sketched Hidden Agenda Villain whose aims, motivation and background are needlessly fuzzy, and who's forced to wait until the same episode he's killed off to get some nuance in the five or so minutes before his death.
Seriously, I'm still completely unclear as to who Sebastian was, what he expected from this situation, or how setting lose a bunch of drugged soldiers on the city while wearing a skull-mask in any way jives with his insistence that he only wanted "to help people."
What's more frustrating is that there was a remarkable amount of promise in keeping him around. After stealing the mirukuru cure from Slade and delivering it back to Oliver, we learn that Sebastian still has every intention of remaining the Mayor of Starling City – and he's got the perfect leverage to keep Oliver quiet: his secret identity.
It's a great setup: Oliver and Sebastian, both powerful men in their own right, both with mutual knowledge of each other's dark secrets, and both caught in a stalemate with one another.
So naturally, Sebastian is duly executed seconds later by Isabel, presumably because the writers either didn't notice the potential for season three, or because they felt the impasse between the two characters would be too much work to sustain. Either way, it's a pity.
***
With their hands on the cure, Team Arrow head back to the clock tower, where they debate the ethical implications of testing an untried drug on the unconscious Roy. Oliver decides he can't go through with it, until he gets a phone-call from Detective Lance.
In response to the chaos, Amanda Waller has sent in ARGUS troops to block the city's exits so that subsequent drone strikes can more efficiently level the entire city. The point is to destroy all of Slade's soldiers, but 576 thousand civilians are likely to die along with them.
Amanda is okay with this, and I call bullshit.
Look, I know she's long been characterized as a woman who operates with ruthless pragmatism and no lasting sense of guilt or accountability, but this is just too much. No way are those odds acceptable to anyone who has even the slightest grain of common sense, if not simply because ordering a drone strike to kill thousands of innocent American civilians in order to wipe out a handful of soldiers is enough for her own team to mutiny against her.
And despite all the talk about how indestructible these soldiers are, we've already seen Quentin Lance AND Malcolm Merlyn each take one down. Heck, Malcolm manages with just a single arrow to the neck! I get that the show is trying to ratchet up the stakes, but I think the writers overreached themselves this time. Basically, I can see Amanda killing a few people to save a majority, but killing a majority to kill a handful? No way.
In any case, we're left with a time limit on how long Oliver has to stop the mirakuru soldiers before the city is decimated, and it's enough incentive for him to unhesitatingly inject Roy with the cure.
***
In somewhat unrelated events, Laurel heads out into the streets by herself and immediately runs into trouble, as Thea simultaneously tries to dodge Malcolm Merlyn at the train station. Both are based on amazingly Contrived Coincidences given there's no way Sara or Malcolm could have known their sister/daughter would  have been in that exact place at that exact time, but both clear the way for some interesting family dynamics.
Sara is grappling with her past and the burden of knowing she's not a hero but an assassin. Her backstory is just begging to be told, and would probably be more compelling than Oliver's at this stage, for unlike him Sara feels that she's crossed a line when it comes to her moral accountability, leaving her certain that she's irredeemable.
The problem with making this statement is that we have very little idea about what she's done to have led her to this conclusion, and knowing what I do about the third season premiere, it's unlikely we're going to get answers any time soon.
What we're left with is an oddly self-contained little subplot (which is even stranger when you consider what they've got planned for Sara next season) in which Laurel gives her words of encouragement before one of those parents who are terrible enough to leave their kid in a burning building but invested enough to scream about it on the street gives Sara the chance to save a small child.
One overheard conversation later, in which a cop remarks that she's "a hero", and we've got incredibly trite closure on Sara's internal crisis. (I mean really, a kid caught in a burning building??)
Meanwhile, the Black Archer saves Thea from a mirakuru soldier and begins what can only be described an attempt to "seduce her to the Dark Side" by pointing out her vulnerability and their biological connection. It's a pretty blatant attempt at grooming, but for now at least she's not falling for it – the episode cliff-hanger ending is Thea shooting him, which considering that Malcolm isn't even the Big Bad of this season is a pretty unusual choice.
***
Over in the flashbacks, we're heading toward the big confrontation with Slade.
Sara has been captured, because this show ALWAYS resorts to holding love interests hostage when it comes to demonstrating Oliver's sense of responsibility and heroism (Felicity, you've got a lot to look forward to) but before he goes to her rescue he instructs Anatolie to sink the Amazo with the submarine's last torpedo if he's not back in an hour.
(I've completely lost track of what everyone's trying to do at this stage – do they not want to take control of the freighter to get home anymore?)
In any case, there's a nice moment between Oliver and Anatolie that gives us the last link we need in the lasting friendship we've seen continue in the contemporary timeline, and once he reaches Sara we're introduced to a Choice-with-a-Capital-C that will no doubt be intrinsic to the final episode: whether to kill Slade or cure him.  
Miscellaneous Observations:
I didn't actually realize that Sara has been wearing a wig in her Canary costume all this time. Wow, what an impractical addition. And a pointless one, considering she would still be described as "a blonde" by any witnesses trying to identify her.
That was our penultimate episode of season two, and despite all my snark (which often comes across as more scathing than I mean it to – remember that I wouldn't bother writing these reviews if I didn't essentially like the show!) it was a pretty effective lead-up to the finale.
Though it wasn't as much of a team effort as you usually expect in ensemble casts, and a lot of the characters spent this time running erratically from one location to another, there was a pooling of resources and an escalation of threats that definitely makes it identifiable as a second-to-last episode.
One more to go!

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