At the beginning of this week’s Arrow, we know that Malcolm Merlyn is ready to commence the Undertaking, in which he will use an earthquake-generating machine to level the Glades. We know that Moira is Malcolm’s accomplice and signed off on the kidnapping of Walter, although it’s difficult to judge how guilty she actually is. We know that Malcolm is secretly the Dark Archer. We know that Laurel and Oliver still have unresolved feelings for each, and we know that Tommy is pissed about… well, about everything, really. We know that Roy is obsessed with finding the Hood and that he’s haunted by his past. By the end of this week’s episode, we still know all those things; the only difference is that the characters now know each other’s secrets. Leaving aside Malcolm and Oliver’s final confrontation, there are really only two major new pieces of information introduced in this episode. First, Felicity Smoak’s hacking has finally left a trail, and now, Detective Lance and the Starling City police know she is somehow involved in this mess. Second, Oliver and Laurel fall back into bed together, and Tommy arrives just in time to get his heart crushed once more.
None of this is to say that “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” is boring; indeed, the episode is packed with big action sequences and dramatic reveals. But the episode’s propulsive, plot-driven approach means that there’s precious little time for characters to react to what they learn, and yet those reactions really should be the most compelling part of the episode. Oliver’s response when Felicity asks if he’s okay is a great line, and Stephen Amell displays his growth in the role with the pain and suppressed rage that he conveys. When Oliver finally learns the truth about his mother—or, more accurately, his mother finally learns that Oliver knows the truth about her—the episode quickly hits the right beats, as Oliver recoils with shock and fury. But it’s only a brief moment, and so the episode skips past a golden opportunity to take stock of where Moira and Oliver’s relationship stands now that one of their biggest deceptions is finally out in the open.
A lot of this episode falls under the heading of table-setting, as the show prepares for its big finale. As such, it’s possible that the character beats largely missing from this episode could be explored next week, particularly considering Oliver’s capture at the end of the episode. But plot machinations dominate this episode, and it doesn’t help that significant time is given over to two of the show’s least compelling plots. I already discussed most of my issues with the love triangle in last week’s review, and this episode doesn’t make any more convincing an argument as to why Laurel and Oliver are some great romance. When Oliver says that nobody knows him better than Laurel, this seems like transparent bullshit, as just about everybody—Diggle, Felicity, and Tommy, for a start—knows him better than Laurel does. It’s not that Laurel should have worked out Oliver’s secret identity, but after 22 episodes, she still proclaims that she doesn’t know who Oliver really is. And while that might be taken as a commentary on Oliver’s inner conflict and his own slippery sense of identity, there are too many people on Arrow who recognize that, for all the moral gray areas, Oliver is on the side of good. Hell, even Detective Lance has figured that out, even if he would deny saying it.
As boring as the Laurel subplot often is, it at least has one redeeming feature, albeit indirectly. Oliver’s realization that the Undertaking is really what his father intended him to stop is a big moment for the episode, as it allows him to place an endpoint on his vigilantism. Oliver calmly tells Felicity and Diggle that he plans to hang up the hood once he’s foiled Malcolm Merlyn, and then he decides to declare his love for Laurel. Now, there’s no chance that Oliver is actually going to retire, because even The CW wouldn’t make a show about Green Arrow in which he spends all his time running a nightclub and dating Laurel (at least, I sure hope they wouldn’t). But Oliver believes he has a way out, and he doesn’t wait to pursue what he really wants, which is Laurel. The show’s previous indifference to this relationship robs the moment of much of its potential impact, but it does set up some intriguing possibilities for Oliver and Laurel going forward. Plus, Colin Donnell has a knack for death stares, and his reaction to Oliver and Laurel’s embrace suggests he’s fully capable of siding with his father in the coming war. That is one seriously angry rich kid, and Arrow has developed his flaws and insecurities in enough detail that it actually makes sense when he pushes his former friends away.
“Darkness On The Edge Of Town” is at its best when Oliver is investigating the Undertaking. He and the team might not learn much we don’t already know, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in watching them get caught up. Oliver and Diggle’s interrogation of Moira is especially clever, as Oliver recognizes that neither he nor the Hood alone have sufficient leverage over Moira to get her to confess the truth, but the two together make for one hell of a compelling deception. That strategic thinking carries over to the team’s infiltration of Malcolm Merlyn’s headquarters, which proves to be a classic little caper full of flimsy disguises, tranquilizer-laced burgers, and grappling hooks. Felicity’s awkward flirting with Oliver has officially crossed over into inadvertent declarations of love—or, perhaps more accurately, lust—but she’s still capable of pretending to be one of Tommy’s bimbos when Diggle has to rescue her from a suspicious security guard. Arrow is still struggling with some of its character dynamics, but at least it’s become a very dependable delivery mechanism for vigilante heroics and goofily fun action sequences.
The episode’s most effective moment comes right at the very end. Oliver and Malcolm’s initial confrontation is intentionally a bit unsatisfying, as Oliver doesn’t know Malcolm is the Dark Archer and Malcolm doesn’t know the Hood is really Oliver. As such, their exchange is impersonal, a slightly bland bit of posturing between a superhero and a supervillain. But after their wonderfully brutal fight leaves Oliver unconscious, Malcolm removes the hood and lets out a horrified whisper: “Oh, no.” In that moment, Malcolm is no longer just the calculating villain who is 10 steps ahead of everyone. He is legitimately surprised by what he discovers, and that one tiny line—possibly the best two words John Barrowman has ever delivered—personalizes the conflict again. The Hood is no longer a faceless adversary for Malcolm, but rather the beloved son of the friend he had murdered. That’s a whole lot of emotional baggage, and Malcolm drops all his usual fronts and disguises. It’s a brief moment of absolute honesty, and the hope is that next week’s finale can build on that, making Oliver and Malcolm’s climactic battle not one between comic book archetypes but rather one between real individuals.
- I may have problems with Oliver and Laurel’s story, but that’s nothing compared to the Roy and Thea plot. Roy Harper could be a worthwhile character once he actually meets the Hood, but his search has proved tedious. Oliver’s attempt to intimidate Roy and warn him off is another great moment for Amell, though.
- Back on the island, we finally learn just what Fyers is up to, and Yao Fei is seemingly killed off for good. We also learn that some unidentified woman is behind the plan to destabilize China; I’m trying to think of any character we’ve met other than Moira who could conceivably be behind this. I suppose it’s more likely that this mysterious woman will be a bigger foe heading into season two… or it’s just going to be Moira, which would be one hell of a ridiculous twist, even by Arrow standards.
- Colin Salmon appears to be on his way out from the show. I’m going to miss Walter as a character, but there really is no way he could remain with the woman who quite clearly allowed him to be kidnapped. Salmon also delivers one hell of a devastating monologue when he wonders just how he ever survived his captivity.