This is a damn good John Diggle episode. While revealing Andy was alive didn’t immediately unlock as many compelling story possibilities as one might expect, that changes in a big way tonight as John and Andy come together to save Lyla. (To the extent that Lyla needs saving. In a halfway fair fight between her and those Starspire goons, I’m betting on Lyla.) “A.W.O.L.” builds nicely on last week’s idea that John needs to look at Andy not as a H.I.V.E. soldier or as a criminal, but as a brother, something that becomes all the more difficult as the episode delves into how Andy wasn’t exactly on the straight and narrow in his previous life, either. Andy’s troubled past is a bit of a retcon, maybe, and I would have liked the show to acknowledge the incongruity a little more clearly than it has so far, but it’s not as though it’s implausible that Diggle would have chosen to remember only the best parts of his brother when he still thought Andy was dead. Either way, David Ramsay and Eugene Byrd build up a nice fraternal chemistry here as their relationship gradually thaws, with Andy proving he can be trusted, at least until his sudden but inevitable betrayal.
Both of tonight’s key plotlines involve characters wrestling with their past, though Felicity does so rather more literally than the Diggle brothers do. Bringing back the raven-haired hacker Felicity as a hallucination proves a decent way for the show to externalize Felicity’s complex feelings after her life-altering injury. It’s to the show’s credit that it teases some serious backsliding on Felicity’s part—I was half-expecting her to break back out the hair dye during parts of this episode—before swerving back. It’s tricky for Arrow to sell us on Felicity’s growth from her past when we’ve only seen her (relatively) dark side in one flashback episode and when the Felicity we first met really isn’t that different from the one we know now. Wisely, the show doesn’t oversell the temptation the hallucinatory Felicity represents, instead using it primarily as a way to indicate the real Felicity’s temporary distraction and doubt before pulling out a seriously awesome bit of ARGUS hacking to reveal Felicity is once again fully onboard.
This is all solid, well-handled Arrow storytelling, the kind of thing we’ve seen the show pull off quite a few times as part of its general return to form this season. And since what we get here is broadly in line with good things we’ve seen before, I want to examine a few of this episode’s flaws, because their roots are unique to Arrow and its superhero show siblings. For better or worse, Arrow now has to exist in a much larger universe than the one its creators first devised four years ago. That reality can take on several different forms, and just about all of them are on display in tonight’s “A.W.O.L.” There’s the fact that Arrow and its television brethren have to coexist with all the various DC Comics-based movies in the pipeline, and those films are always going to have dibs on characters, regardless of who got there first.
The still only hypothetical Booster Gold movie is why Brandon Routh is playing the Atom instead of the Blue Beetle, and the upcoming Suicide Squad movie has now claimed its second recurring character, with Amanda Waller now joining Deadshot in a premature, movie-mandated grave. A cynical Arrow viewer could be forgiven for assuming tonight’s episode really just exists to close off the ARGUS plot thread—give or take the occasional flashback appearances, maybe—and to kill off Amanda Waller in a way that manages to somehow be both shocking and perfunctory. Her death is remarkable for its suddenness, but it’s a pretty ignominious end for a relatively major player, especially when it gets forgotten almost immediately as the episode barrels onward to its climax.
Still, I’m not going to pretend that killing off Amanda Waller is that big of a deal. Cynthia Addai-Robinson has been fine in the role—though as Amanda Waller actors go, she and everyone else are always going to be chasing Justice League Unlimited’s C.C.H. Pounder—but Waller on Arrow has often been more of a plot device than a character, and the plots she has set in motion haven’t generally been all that compelling. (Hi there, whatever the hell last year’s flashback plot was!) If I weren’t aware of how great Amanda Waller’s character can be when developed with care, and if I weren’t aware her execution tonight is almost certainly part of clearing the board on behalf of Suicide Squad, maybe her death would register in the way the show wants it to. As a general rule, it’s fairest to evaluate a show strictly on its own terms, without bringing in outside stuff like this. But again, this is why Arrow and other superhero series exist in their own weird category, and why it sometimes feels inadequate to consider an episode strictly in terms of how good the storytelling is, as those stories just can’t exist independently of what DC Comics and Warner Bros. are doing elsewhere.
Sometimes it’s Arrow’s own sibling shows that produce the weirdness. Consider Oliver and Laurel’s interaction during their training scene. The exchange starts off well, positioning Laurel in the kind of supporting role that serves her best, specifically here as the empathetic confidante who gets Oliver because she has some distance from their former love. It feels natural for Laurel to offer advice as the only other person still in Oliver’s life who has dated him, and Katie Cassidy is best equipped to deliver this kind of material. But then, because Arrow—never a grounded, realistic drama, admittedly—has to acknowledge its place in the heightened universe The Flash has created. Oliver explains he’s brooding not just over his immediate responsibility for antagonizing Damien Darhk and indirectly triggering the attack that has left Felicity paralyzed—a reasonable thing to feel, even if Oliver is once again being way too hard on himself—but also over how Barry time-traveled last month and how maybe Felicity’s devastating injury is the timeline trying to reassert itself. I have no idea how Laurel ought to react to a statement like that, and Cassidy doesn’t appear to have much idea either, as Laurel just looks kind of vacantly dumbfounded. Which, honestly, I’m not going to blame her for, as the scene as written isn’t really playable any other way. Acknowledging the larger, crazier reality comes perilously close to derailing the entire scene.
While “A.W.O.L.” is sometimes led astray by these bigger-picture issues, there are also plenty of occasions here in which that larger context works in the show’s favor. Oliver leans on the fourth wall real hard when, after giving Felicity her new codename, he admits that he thought about Oracle, but, well, it was already taken. (I’m fine with that being purely an inside joke, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some payoff to that later in the form of meeting just who in this universe took the name Oracle.) And, in the episode’s closing scene between Oliver and Felicity, Arrow comes up with a seriously clever move by having its characters acknowledge the reality of living in a comic book universe: There’s no real reason for Felicity to stay in the wheelchair forever unless the writers want her to. Oliver’s monologue signals Felicity’s injury will likely be the status quo for a little while—I’d guess until the end of the season, give or take, but I’m very prepared to be wildly wrong—but he also recognizes that there’s more than enough magic in this world to think that a miracle could someday happen. It might be dangerous to hope for that miracle, but it’s worth searching for. Moments like those are unique to Arrow to, and a good reminder of why even the show’s tricky position as part of much larger universe—both fictional and corporate—can lead to damn fine moments just as readily as they can to moments of weirdness. It’s a fair trade, all things considered.
- I was really, really hoping the mystery boss Andy meets in the flashbacks was going to be Damien Darhk. Mystical soldier dude isn’t really doing much for me.
- Oh, like hacker Felicity isn’t adorable!