There’s something about the Huntress that tends to bring out the best in Arrow, because “Birds Of Prey” is a triumph. This is the new highpoint of an already strong second season, and it might represent the best hour that the show has yet churned out; only last season’s “Sacrifice” rivals tonight’s story, but that earlier episode had the slightly unfair advantage of being a big-budget season finale. What’s particularly remarkable about this episode is that Oliver remains, if not exactly on the periphery of the story, then at least away from its center. The episode takes its name from the acclaimed comic book series that spotlights the heroines of the DC universe, most notably Black Canary and, more occasionally, the Huntress. In keeping with its title, this episode focuses on the journeys that the show’s women find themselves on, as the Lance sisters and the returning Helena Bertinelli—otherwise known as Oliver’s three most notable girlfriends, a point that does not go unacknowledged in tonight’s proceedings—all struggle with how they choose to define themselves. As the Arrow, Oliver has found a piece of mind and a sense of purpose that eluded him as the Hood. This episode isn’t about its three central women finding all the answers they need, but at least they end the episode with a much improved sense of what questions they should be trying to answer.
In these reviews, I’ve kicked around a number of ways to think about the philosophy of the superhero, and “Birds Of Prey” hits upon one of the clearest articulations of this ethos: Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and, conversely, doing the easy thing isn’t always right. For Sara and Laurel, the insanity of the hostage crisis pushes them to rely on bad habits of the past. In Laurel’s case, that means reaching for the nearest bottle of hooch, whereas for Sara that means fighting like a killer. The vast gulf between those two choices indicates just how far apart the sisters are in their respective arcs on the show, but the specifics don’t really matter. Both must put their past traumas aside and face the situation head-on in order to emerge with their souls intact. And really, if Laurel were ever going to relapse, now is as understandable a time as any, as she’s sharp enough to recognize that Adam Donner only pretended to rehire her because he needed expendable bait for the Huntress trap: What she briefly thought was an affirmation of her recovery turned out to be a cruel reminder of her perceived uselessness. But her sister, hiding behind a wig and a surprisingly effective voice modulator, gives her the strength she needs to keep fighting, even if that means staying to help the hostages over the objections of the Arrow and Black Canary. Laurel repays Sara later by getting through to her where Oliver could not, as she’s the one who challenges Black Canary to be more than just a friend of the good guys.
More than once, the Arrow declares that “Nobody dies tonight.” That can sound like a promise or a guarantee, but it’s more accurate to call it an aspirational statement. Oliver’s goal is to save everybody, and his efforts shouldn’t be judged a failure because Frank Bertinelli was caught in the crossfire, a presumably unintended target of the police chief’s hatred of all things vigilante. Instead, Oliver earns a pair of muted but crucial victories: Sara doesn’t kill Helena, and Helena doesn’t get to kill her father. Again, Laurel deserves her fair share of the credit for the former result, but let’s look at Helena’s situation. For years, she has convinced herself that the only way to find peace is to murder her own father, the man who killed her beloved fiancé. And hell, maybe that really would have given her the satisfaction she so desperately sought, but now she will never know. In the episode’s final scenes, Helena finds herself at a crossroads, forced to find a new reason for her existence after her all-consuming goal is taken away from her. The good news is that, when confronted with the futility of it all, she doesn’t plunge further into the abyss. Instead of blaming others—Oliver could well have been top of the list—for robbing her of her destiny, Helena is finally willing to listen to what Oliver was trying to tell her all along.
Then again, as Oliver himself admits, it’s only now that he really understands what he was trying to tell her. The Hood had no business lecturing the Huntress about the immorality of her actions. He too was a killer, and the fact that he was an ever so slightly more principled killer made little difference. All Oliver could offer Helena last year was one arbitrary set of rules about whom she could kill and whom she couldn’t to replace her previous arbitrary set of rules. The Oliver of last season lacked that compelling idea, that defining vision that would allow her to see a better path than that of vengeance and destruction. The man had no ethos, basically, and he tried to substitute love and lust in its place; it’s not exactly surprising that their relationship quickly went toxic. Now though, Oliver has his no-kill rule and his knowledge that everything he does as a vigilante is to honor Tommy, a good man who died doing the right thing instead of doing the easy thing. Oliver understands why it’s important to say that nobody dies tonight. He still screws up, and, as he recognizes tonight with Roy, he’s still not quite at the point where he can really communicate his vision of heroism to those who fight alongside him. But that makes sense. After all, Oliver is only the Arrow. He isn’t yet Green Arrow.
It isn’t just in the present that tonight’s Arrow explores its characters’ journeys. The flashback story this week focuses on Sara, as she is forced to decide whether she will turn the engineer Hendrix over to Slade Wilson. Arguably, the decision she makes here—to knock him out, tie him up, and send him to Slade—is what sets her on the road to be a killer. Yes, she did plenty of questionable things in her year onboard the Amazo, but she always did so as the de facto prisoner of Anthony Ivo. It’s only here that she really has freedom of choice, and she decides that one man’s life is worth sacrificing to save Oliver’s. Now, “Birds Of Prey” arranges this scenario so that the moral calculus involved isn’t as cruel as it sounds; after all, Hendrix is a complete ass, and a gun-wielding one at that. But turning over Hendrix still represents the easy, expedient decision. Maybe there weren’t alternatives. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal. But it’s choices like that that eventually led her to become a killer. As the present-day Sara observes, she is what she needs to be, with the implicit statement being that she does whatever is necessary to survive. But it’s only when she spares Helena that her life as Black Canary gains meaning beyond the mere fact of her continued survival.
The two characters who could so easily suffer in this story are Laurel and Thea, as it’s necessary for them to be in the dark about the other main characters’ secrets. “Birds Of Prey” pulls off the truly remarkable feat of telling a successful Laurel story; no, she can’t remotely equal Sara in fighting prowess, but the mere fact that she is willing to fight back against Helena and her henchmen suggests she can equal her sister’s courage. With both Thea and Laurel, the show downplays their obliviousness as much as possible and emphasizes the areas in which they demonstrate genuine insight. Just because Thea doesn’t know why Roy is pushing her away doesn’t mean she’s an idiot. As she tells Oliver, she knows full well that Roy only put the moves on another woman in order to force the breakup. She lets Roy go not because she was tricked but she understands that he is determined to leave her, even if she has no idea why. Her acknowledgment that everybody except Oliver lies to her is also telling, especially when you consider how often she accused Oliver of lying last season. In an episode full of bad liars—the flashback version of Sara, Roy, the off-screen Moira—Oliver is a convincing liar, and that’s because he’s the only who truly believes in the reason why he must conceal the truth. He alone has clarity of purpose, and that allows him to be compelling. If that’s the case, it’s even more worrisome that Thea gets into the car with Slade Wilson, as he’s the one person even more committed to his cause than Oliver is to his.
“Birds Of Prey” is a rousing success, a thrilling hour-long movie that features all the elements of Arrow at its best: intriguing development of its characters, bone-crunching action scenes, and tricky, surprising storytelling. Between “The Promise,” “Suicide Squad,” and now this, the show appears to have found a new gear for its storytelling. The fact that the beginning of that streak coincides with the reveal to Oliver of Slade’s existence in present-day Starling City bodes very, very well for this season’s endgame.
- If there was one element of this episode that didn’t quite work, it’s the vigilante-hating cop. There wasn’t quite enough time in the episode for Arrow to really explain the various law enforcement factions, and the guy ended up serving more as a plot device to trigger the climactic fight than anything else. Still, if his presence indicates the start of another story, I’m intrigued to see where it goes.
- “Hugo Manheim: warrants out for racketeering, extortion, murder. The goomba trifecta.” Glad to see Detective Lance’s demotion to non-detective hasn’t robbed him of his way with words. That line is no “mobbed up to the eyeballs,” but it’ll still do nicely.
- The Huntress is still a long, long way from redeeming herself, but Frank Bertinelli pretty much had to die so that the show could start telling different stories with Helena. Here’s hoping one such story involves her joining the Suicide Squad, as she seems the ideal candidate for such service.
- Stephen Amell is now turning in at least one awesome acting moment per week, and the highlight in “Birds Of Prey” is his purposefully even, calm order to Roy that he has to break things off with Thea. It’s clear that Oliver is working through his emotional issues about his failures as a mentor and the danger that Roy poses to Thea, but he never lets that affect the cool, measured tone with which he commands Roy. It’s a really cool moment, as that delivery could so easily seem bland and uninterested, yet Amell conveys a ton without ever really altering his tone.