B+

Arrow: "The Crucible"

B+

Arrow

"The Crucible"

Season 2, Episode 4

It’s funny how much one of Arrow’s episode-ending reveals can alter what came before it. For the first 58 minutes of tonight’s story, I was all set to talk about how Arrow has grown adept at letting its characters exist free of the typical demands of its chosen genres—which I’m still going to do, but one of my key examples is compromised. Anyway, yes, this show is a superhero story, and it’s probably still a soap opera as well, but what has elevated the show so far this season is that most of its characters act according to a logic that transcends the show’s narrative demands. By and large, these people feel like human beings who just happen to live in a universe where the scenarios of superhero and soap opera fiction unfold, as opposed to coming across as characters who only do things because, well, that’s how characters in those sorts of genre stories are supposed to act. Arrow hasn’t been perfect in that regard—“Broken Dolls” certainly had some sloppy characterization—but it’s gotten far more right than one might reasonably expect.

It’s the little things, really. When Sin shows up at the gun exchange and starts making trouble for Roy, Thea is nonplussed, perhaps moderately suspicious, but the show skips the wholly unnecessary beat where she demands to know how Roy knows this woman, because it very clearly doesn’t matter, considering Sin has just been shot. Perhaps I’m giving Arrow a little too much credit for avoiding the most clichéd possible story beat here, but this feels like a trap Arrow might have fallen into earlier in its run, when it struggled to define Thea as anything other than the spoiled, damaged brat. Thea has outgrown her archetype, and the show doesn’t undo that just to cook up some fleeting melodrama. That’s the example of the show sidestepping soap opera convention, and I thought I had the corresponding superhero example. The one I had in mind is even built around the same scene at the gun exchange, as Oliver saves the life of his uneasy ally, Sebastian Blood, leading the wary alderman to reevaluate the real worth of his billionaire benefactor. The two part as allies, when as recently as “Identity,” it appeared they would only be enemies, all because Oliver couldn’t hope to balance his vigilante duties with his civilian commitments. The show zigs where one might have expected it to zag.

But then, at the risk of sounding silly, it zigs again. The Mayor finds himself strapped to a chair in a police station, and a masked figure orders he be injected with some unknown, ultimately lethal serum. The figure then takes off his mask, revealing that he’s really Sebastian Blood, better known by the more ominous, comics-approved sobriquet Brother Blood. In that moment, it feels as though a chance for more complex, character-based storytelling is lost, as Blood is neatly placed in the “supervillain box.” Admittedly, that’s really rather ridiculous on my part. After all, there’s no sensible way in which this particular revelation could be considered surprising. The character is named “Blood,” for goodness’ sake; I’m not sure any self-respecting television show, let alone a pulpy superhero adventure show like Arrow, could introduce a character named “Blood” and then just have him be some random dude. If anything, it’s to the show’s credit that it sells the feint impressively enough that it didn’t occur to me that Brother Blood would be lurking under the mask.

Besides, it’s not quite right to simply say that Blood is an antagonist, then an ally, and then an antagonist again. Rather, he starts out as Alderman Blood, thorn in the side of billionaire industrialist and would-be do-gooder Oliver Queen. Sebastian and Oliver have a few moments where they appear to be allies. But now, he’s Brother Blood, deadly enemy to the Arrow, and he’s all the more dangerous because his alter ego has Oliver’s confidence. The final reveal reclassifies Blood so that he’s a more direct threat to what Oliver—and the show, for that matter—actually cares about, which is the stronger choice overall. I hope that at least a few of the show’s antagonists can remain adversaries for Oliver Queen rather than the Arrow—Isabel Rochev, I’m looking at you—but we’re still very much at a point in the show’s history where narrative streamlining is a good thing. All storylines really should lead back to the Arrow and the “real” Oliver, one way or another.

“Crucible” understands that principle particularly well with the story of Sara Lance, who I suppose is not yet technically known as Black Canary in the show’s universe, but it’s already hard enough to keep from calling Oliver “Green Arrow,” so Black Canary it is. Anyway, Arrow once again wastes no time this season in getting straight to the point, as the Arrow learns the rival vigilante’s identity before the end of the first act. Indeed, that final shot before the title card bears mentioning, as the show so often punctuates that particular moment with Oliver appear grimly determined or the episode’s plot beginning to unfold; here, Oliver looks like he legitimately has no idea what to do next, and that’s something new for the character.

The subsequent revelation that Oliver lied about Sara’s death on the Queen’s Gambit—and kept on lying about it right up to the moment Diggle and Felicity force him into at least partial honesty—may seem a bit implausible, a shaky retcon designed to allow Sara to appear in the flashback sequences. And, yes, that’s a fair interpretation. But it also gives Oliver a more direct stake in Sara’s actions, most obviously demonstrated when the pair cryptically agrees that Sara can’t tell her family the truth without the Lances hating Oliver forever. This revised state of affairs, one in which Oliver knew about Sara’s initial survival and apparently played some role in her second apparent death, drives yet another wedge between Oliver and his team, and Stephen Amell does some of his best acting when Oliver struggles to articulate to Diggle and Felicity something, anything, about what really happened between him and Sara. There’s a dark secret lurking here, and time will tell whether the eternally protracted flashback sequences will come up with a storyline worthy of all that’s hinted at here.

Ultimately though, this episode is really just the story of two lost sisters, and the big, well-meaning lug who wants to help them. The episode positions all three Lances with respect to its titular crucible: Quentin is slowly clawing his way out, Sara is still stuck in the purgatory-like existence she found on the Island, and Laurel is sliding into the abyss. Laurel’s characterization here will likely do her no favors among her detractors, as she roundly rejects the help offered by her father and by Oliver. It isn’t likable behavior, I suppose, but it’s certainly understandable given all the trauma she has endured since the end of last season, and the show has displayed some sympathy for her spiral. The problem is that Laurel’s storyline is now once again isolated from what’s going on with the Arrow; she has given up her vendetta, but that just means she gets to drink and drive away from the main action. That isn’t necessarily a problem for this particular episode, but it does mean Arrow needs to have a clear idea as to what precisely is the endgame for this particular character arc, and just what Laurel’s current predicament is going to mean for the show at large. Oliver and her father have roles to play here—something the show makes clear with the latter’s concluding monologue at Alcoholics Anonymous—but it’s still not entirely certain how Sara fits into this. Still, when an episode as strong as “Crucible” represents your typical episode of Arrow, there remains plenty of room for optimism.

Stray observations:

  • Flashback Oliver is on a boat full of Russians, everyone! And his cellmate is Anatoli Knyazev, alias KGBeast! The same guy that Oliver saved, which directly led to his captaincy in the Russian mafia! I will continue to breathlessly update you on this story as circumstances demand.
  • While Black Canary’s very specific crime-fighting philosophy, in which she takes on men who target women, could seem a little gimmick-y—and yes, the breakfast conversation between Sara and Sin has a few stilted lines—I was duly impressed with her reaction to the Mayor’s word choice. I really don’t like that word either.
  • Speaking of the Mayor, Clé Bennett is quite good as a villain who really only exists to rant about being a nobody and then help demonstrate just how badass the Arrow and Black Canary are when they team up. Seriously, the Mayor and his henchmen didn’t stand a chance. Still though, “The Mayor”? That’s Fred Hoiberg’s nickname!
  • Ah, so that particle accelerator is being built by S.T.A.R. Labs, eh? And people are protesting it, eh? And it’s the only thing Oliver ever sees on the news that isn’t directly relevant to the plot at hand? Yeah… I can’t imagine that’s going to be important. Also, is there anything that Starling City news shows consider too graphic to broadcast?
  • Summer Glau only gets one scene in as Isabel Rochev, but I like how “Crucible” offers just a hint of shading in her character; she’s ruthless, yes, but she’s not utterly heartless. I mean, she pursues business practices that are effectively heartless, but I’m willing to say there’s a smidgen of difference between that and, say, opining that the poor of Starling City should all just shoot each other. Such a villainous reveal is approximately three episodes down the line, if Brother Blood’s appearance here is anything to go by.

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