One of the great joys of a superhero story lies in exploring characters’ alter egos, and Arrow is piling up double and even triple lives at an alarming rate. Oliver’s various identities lie at the crux of the show, and then there’s Malcolm Merlyn the estranged father, Malcolm Merlyn the architect of the Undertaking, and Malcolm Merlyn the Dark Archer. Moira isn’t just Oliver and Thea’s loving mother, and she isn’t even just Malcolm’s most trusted lieutenant in the Undertaking—she’s also now a murderous traitor willing to enlist the Chinese Triad to take down Malcolm. Even Detective Lance acts as reluctant ally to the Hood while doing his best to bring the vigilante down, and McKenna Hall is now his partner in this, despite the fact that she and Oliver are quickly becoming an item.
A great deal of the narrative thrust of “Dead To Rights” is derived from the interplay of these dual, dueling identities. There are so many potential combinations and permutations that Arrow can explore, and the strongest moment of the episode comes when Oliver realizes he can no longer separate his life as the Hood and his life as Tommy’s best friend, so he makes a life-saving decision that may well have dire consequences. This is an hour rich in dramatic irony, as Oliver expends tremendous effort to save Malcolm, even though this means foiling his own mother’s exit strategy and possibly placing her life in peril—even though that means allowing the Undertaking to continue unimpeded, which also means potentially raising the suspicions of McKenna. Oliver can’t know about those first two, but this background knowledge for the audience casts a dark shadow over his now standard vigilante actions. Oliver is just one piece of a far larger tapestry, and his bluntly direct approach is liable to get someone he cares about killed. Arrow still has a few strangers it can kill of, though; if Moira walks away from all this scot-free (and I’d say that’s relatively likely), I wouldn’t feel too good about her friend Frank’s survival chances right about now.
“Dead To Rights” shines a spotlight on Tommy and Malcolm Merlyn, and both Colin Donnell and John Barrowman acquit themselves nicely. Up to this episode, Tommy has been a largely superfluous character, existing primarily to delay the comics-mandated coupling of Oliver and Laurel. This episode digs deeper into Tommy’s unhappy childhood—indeed, the episode wisely clarifies that his anger toward his father has little to do with the decision to cut him off—as Tommy confides in Oliver that his father disappeared for two years after his mother was killed. This isn’t new information, but it carries more force when Tommy shares it with our protagonist rather than another side character like Laurel. The scene at the Triad-controlled Chinese restaurant has to hit several notes simultaneously, as Oliver and Tommy have a heart-to-heart conversation about their fathers even as Oliver waits for the opportune moment to shake down a hoodlum for information on the hit. The writing and Stephen Amell’s performance hit the right balance here, suggesting Oliver’s heartfelt words are more than just a way to kill time before he can switch into vigilante mode. His little speech isn’t especially profound, although “Your dad is… your dad”, for all its tautological obviousness, does capture the ineffable quality of the relationship between fathers and sons and why a person can feel compelled to stick with it, even when one is being a huge pain ass to the other.
Malcolm’s acceptance speech for his humanitarian award offers the character a chance to obliquely explain his rationale behind the Undertaking, which would appear to involve the destruction of the Glades and the likely massacre of everyone living therein. Barrowman conveys the barely contained righteous anger lurking just beneath the affable façade, as Malcolm explains why all his work to benefit Starling City is in honor of his slain wife. Malcolm has generally been portrayed as the quintessential smooth operator and puppetmaster, staying icily cool even when Moira is demanding to know Walter’s fate or Tommy is angrily rejecting him as a father. That’s a good way to build up a supervillain, but it doesn’t offer much insight into what makes Malcolm tick. The assassination attempt finally throws Malcolm into a situation he doesn’t control, so this is arguably our best opportunity to understand Malcolm as a character. His immediate concern for Tommy’s safety is particularly telling—for all Malcolm’s villainy and plots within plots, he’s clearly motivated not only by grief over his wife’s death, but also by a genuine love for his son.
The scene where Malcolm efficiently kills a pair of Triad henchmen in front of Tommy’s eyes serves as an effective prelude for Oliver’s subsequent big reveal to Tommy. It isn’t just that Malcolm chooses to call on his secret skills to protect him and his sons; on some level, he is revealing his true self to his son for the first time, as evidenced by him seemingly deciding to show Tommy the Dark Archer getup right before Deadshot interrupts everything. The last scene in the hospital suggests Malcolm intends to be more honest with his son, at least within reason, but the contrast between his various personas is never clearer than when he suddenly, angrily orders Moira to find the traitor.
“Dead To Rights” deepens Malcolm’s character in a way that Arrow sorely needed, and in doing so it suggests an integral role for Tommy in the ongoing narrative. While he was previously a disconnected bystander, Tommy now unwittingly positions himself directly between Oliver and Malcolm in the coming war. The other half of that is Oliver’s decision to reveal his secret identity to Tommy. While his previous decisions to bring Diggle and Felicity into his world could be considered calculated risks, this is a choice motivated primarily by compassion for his friend. Oliver is forthright when he tells Tommy that he never planned to tell him the truth, and while Tommy ably lies to McKenna and Detective Lance, it’s hard not to see him as a major liability going forward, even before you consider what his father might do with this information.
When Tommy decided to attend his father’s award ceremony, I actually wondered whether Arrow was gearing up to kill off the character, to have him caught in the crossfire of Moira’s assassination attempt. I should have realized Arrow isn’t that daring, but it’s making a real skill out of always going with the second strongest choice. Killing Tommy (or Malcolm, for that matter) might have forced Arrow into more dangerous territory, much as a proper confrontation between Moira and Oliver would have in “The Odyssey”, but Oliver revealing the truth to Tommy is a solid consolation prize, much as Moira shooting Oliver was. Oliver’s decision tonight should be rife with long-term consequences, as should Moira’s attempt to kill Malcolm and Tommy’s potential reconciliation with his unhinged, murderous father. Arrow is a good enough show to let its own stories play out, even when they might disrupt the status quo. Now it’s just a question of actually depicting those consequences and forcing characters to pay for their mistakes. At least in the short-term, “Dead To Rights” offers plenty of that, and so it stands as one of the show’s stronger efforts.
- Tonight sees the return of Floyd Lawton, alias Deadshot, who I wrongly assumed was dead at the end of his last appearance. Deadshot is the show’s most clearly serialized villain, as tonight’s episode introduces his iconic eye patch and reaffirms that Diggle still wants vengeance for his brother’s death. “Dead To Rights” makes much better use of the character that his previous appearance, which is still my least favorite episode, but I’m still missing that dry, devil-may-care wit that characterizes the best incarnations of Deadshot.
- I’ll admit I’m way less interested in China White than I am Deadshot—maybe if she had been featured in an episode of Justice League Unlimited I’d feel differently—but Kelly Hu does some nice work in the role, and that was one hell of an enjoyably brutal fight sequence between her and the Hood.
- This episode does a good enough job making Tommy relevant to the proceedings, but it also hints at a similar plan for Laurel with the introduction of her mother at the end of the episode. The elder Ms. Lance takes the form of Alex Kingston, sporting a Laurel-like haircut and a decent American accent—actually, this now means that both of Laurel’s parents are Brits playing Americans—and claiming that Laurel’s sister Sarah is still alive. That seems awfully unlikely, given what we’ve seen of Sarah’s demise, but I know better than to doubt the word of River Song.
- Laurel mentions a pet canary tonight, taking us one step closer to her apparent destiny as Black Canary, as unlikely as that might currently seem. Malcolm also mentions he traveled to Nanda Parbat, a mystical city that’s most famous as the home of Deadman. Since a ghost character seems like a non-starter for the world of Arrow, I’m guessing Malcolm didn’t meet Boston Brand on his spiritual quest—or at least, not a Boston Brand with whom comics readers would be familiar. Amusingly, time is said to move differently in the comics version of Nanda Parbat, and people could spend years there without aging a day, which might be the closest we ever get to an explanation as to how John Barrowman could possibly be Colin Donnell’s father.
- The island story has reverted back to its usual glacial pace, so there’s not that much to say about it for now. Still, a little Manu Bennett is better than no Manu Bennett at all.