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Arrow reveals its main villains, and they are terrifying

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Arrow

"Checkmate"

Season 5 , Episode 16

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Let’s be honest about this: Crowbarring Talia into this season, and into the flashbacks no less, is some deeply convoluted storytelling. To keep Arrow self-consistent, we need to assume that Ra’s al Ghul and Nyssa never once let slip anything about another daughter of the demon, and that Oliver never once thought to make a connection between any of these slightly supernatural, definitely expert warriors. Indeed, if I’m remembering my wider DC history correctly, there’s a good chance Talia was only ever held back in favor of Nyssa because the character was still off-limits after her appearance in The Dark Knight Rises, so this season represents the tardy debut of the “real” al Ghul daughter. (Not to take away anything from Nyssa, who also has a comics background and is portrayed brilliantly by Katrina Law, but Talia is the iconic character.) It would be one thing to insert a character as big as Talia into Oliver’s present-day storyline, but it’s quite another to suggest the daughter of the man he spent the third season fighting was the woman who trained him a few years before. There are ways to justify all this, some more rigorous than others—I’m not averse to the argument “Well, it’s fun to see Talia, and Lexa Doig is fun in the role,” though that’s not exactly rigorous—but this is unquestionably the kind of byzantine storytelling that is straight out of the comics.

And yet, tonight’s episode makes all this feel, if not exactly plausible, then at least hideously logical. For the third season to work, Talia has to be estranged from Ra’s al Ghul, but such separation doesn’t preclude her feeling fury and wrath toward her father’s killer, especially when she trained him. (Hopefully that’s a thread Arrow picks up on, as surely Talia must feel some guilt for her own role in her father’s demise.) And yes, one can very reasonably wonder why Oliver never suspected some relationship between his mentor in Russia and his adversary in Nanda Parbat, especially when Lexa Doig has so obviously modeled her performance to match Katrina Law’s. But hey, this is Oliver we’re talking about: His obliviousness to threats right in front of his face may be utterly irritating, and it’s probably a legitimate storytelling flaw that Arrow has to rely on it so often, but damn it, his idiocy is consistent. If anyone could fail to make that connection for as long as he did, it’s him.

Once you grant that little bit of clumsiness, though, everything else falls into place. The fundamental story of this season grows clearer, as we are surrounded by the vengeful specters of those Oliver wronged in the past. There’s Adrian Chase, who has officially revealed himself as Prometheus. There’s Talia, who is an ideal representative for the villains Oliver has defeated in the prior four seasons. There’s Anatoli, who was once one of Oliver’s best friends but is now at best a begrudging ally. There’s Evelyn, who betrayed Oliver for his failure to save her parents and could presumably still put in a return appearance. Ever since the Queen’s Gambit sank, Oliver has blazed a path of death and destruction—hell, he hurt plenty of people in his non-lethal playboy days, if we want to extend the point—and all those chickens are now coming home to roost.

There’s a risk here that Arrow won’t end up saying much beyond the narrow focus of Oliver Queen, that the story will be so wrapped up in the bizarre particulars of superhero storytelling that any points the show makes won’t offer much by way of wider applicability. Still, there appears to be a solid theme emerging here, as suggested by how Oliver ends the episode. He hopes to balance out the wrongs of his past with what he has spent this year building for the future. He can’t escape Prometheus by himself, let alone defeat him, but he trusts in his team to save the day. Tonight’s episode finds Oliver wondering once more whether his attempts to be optimistic and trust in others have all been for naught. Such a relapse to old ways of thinking could be exasperating, but this season has earned some equity by having Oliver largely avoid what were once deeply repetitive character beats. Even here, Oliver muses on the issue without ever quite moving into full-fledged sulking, as though he remains legitimately uncertain about how best to move forward—until, that is, Prometheus clarifies the situation by leaving him shackled. At that point, Oliver no longer has the luxury of doubt. He has to believe in his team, and we will soon see whether what he has built and the connections he has forged are more than Prometheus bargained for.

As for Prometheus himself, Adrian Chase remains a fascinating premise. His position as district attorney lets him hide in plain sight in a way that surpasses any previous supervillain, as even the reveal of his identity doesn’t materially alter his working relationship with the mayor. Josh Segarra has made barely contained rage and emotional instability hallmarks of his performance, even when it appeared Chase was one of the good guys (or at worst engaged in relatively benign extracurriculars as Vigilante), and he keeps those emotions simmering even as he shows no sign of exploding. There’s a kinetic energy to his performance that is distinct from the swagger of a Malcolm Merlyn or a Damien Dahrk or even the animalistic fury of a Slade Wilson. This is all a game to Adrian Chase, yet he’s keenly aware how deadly the stakes are. What makes Chase frightening is the grim rationality of his approach. He outmaneuvers Oliver and company at every turn, and the one exception—when Oliver brings Chase’s wife to see what he has become—is handled with such detachment. Maybe he is legitimately sad about having to kill his wife, yet the next scene, where he reminds Lance that he’s in mourning, suggests this is little more than an inconvenience to him, another unavoidable casualty he blames on the Arrow. There’s certainly a risk here that Prometheus is too brilliant and too overpowered in his ability to outsmart Oliver—that’s kind of always been a risk with the Prometheus character—but what we get tonight is suitably chilling.

That just leaves Felicity, who is getting drawn ever deeper into the world of Helix. It’s more or less guaranteed that things are going to end very, very badly with this plotline, and the only question is how bad things are going to get. At this point, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that Helix will emerge as the true primary antagonists of this season—not necessarily betting on it, but their power and thus potential threat arguably outclasses even that of Prometheus and Talia. And, along the way, there’s the corruption of Felicity Smoak to consider. This story probably needs an entire Felicity-centric episode to come together properly, as I’m not sure Arrow can do this plotline justice when Felicity’s motivations and decisions remain narratively subordinate to Oliver’s. But for now, the show keeps ratcheting up the tension and making us wonder just how much trouble Felicity is in—and what she will have to do to extricate herself. As with everything else tonight, this is going to get worse before it gets better, and it’s all a hell of a lot of fun to watch unfold.

Stray observations

  • So, do you think we’re going to learn Vigilante’s identity—or just his deal in general—or is he going to be quietly forgotten? I could go either way on this.
  • Those T-spheres have just completely unlocked Mr. Terrific as a member of Team Arrow. I’m still amazed the show held out on introducing them for as long as they did, even allowing for the fact that, yeah, the CGI on them is more than a bit wonky.