Any show with a complicated, mysterious mythology can eventually make an episode like “The Undertaking,” in which the show features a series of flashbacks that snap the present into focus, revealing what motivates the show’s characters and what choices they made on the road to the current state of affairs, but not all shows make that episode as great as this one. Technically speaking, Arrow already does this sort of story every week with its island flashbacks, but those feel like their own, largely self-contained narrative, with the five-year timeframe building in enough time for just about anything to happen short of Oliver dying. In contrast, the flashbacks in tonight’s episode hurtle toward a clear endpoint, as they take us full circle back to the sinking of The Queen’s Gambit. Plus, because Malcolm Merlyn states that his plan will need five years to come to fruition—and, indeed, the completed disaster-causing technology is seen en route to Starling City at episode’s end—the flashbacks also link up with the story happening in the present. Instead of telling two distinct stories in different timeframes, as is Arrow’s usual approach, “The Undertaking” tells one big story that just happens to be split across half a decade.
Even then, we don’t get the full story, particularly when it comes to Moira Queen. As presented here, she initially has the only sane reaction to Malcolm’s plan to level the Glades, which is to greet her husband’s confessions with shocked horror. There’s zero indication that she betrayed her husband or was secretly in league with Malcolm—indeed, the show has been consistent on the point that she only joined the Undertaking after Robert’s death—so the question becomes how she came to accept Robert’s death as necessary and to become Malcolm’s most trusted lieutenant. Those answers will likely come before the end of the season, and it makes sense to leave them out of this episode, because it sets up a natural parallel between Moira and her son. Both trusted Robert Queen to do what was best, and his failures end up transforming them both into hardened, twisted versions of their former selves.
Indeed, with Arrow headed towards an inevitable final confrontation between Oliver and Malcolm, it’s vital for the show to explain the original conflict between Robert and Malcolm. Making his first return appearance since the early episode “Legacies,” Jamey Sheridan plays Robert as an impotent idealist, someone who wants to make Starling City better but lacks the determination—something both Malcolm and Oliver have in spades—to really get it done. His stated reason for improving the Glades is brazenly self-serving, as he explains to Moira that he accidentally killed a local politician in the Glades when the man solicited him for a bribe. He claims all his subsequent work is a penance for that action, but it’s not the people of the Glades who did anything wrong; it was just Robert Queen, who apparently decided against turning himself into the police, which is our society’s agreed-upon form of penance for manslaughter. In fairness, Malcolm’s big speech, in which he reveals he ignored his wife’s dying pleas for help and yet still blames everyone except himself, might actually be even more self-serving and hypocritical. These men might have briefly had noble intentions in their quest to destroy the Glades, but even then, their original motivations are just as toxic as their final goals.
Robert eventually decides to buy up property in the Glades to foil Malcolm’s scheme, although this seems like an ineffective way to stop a zealot like Malcolm even if Frank Chen weren’t planning on betraying him. That last detail is a clever touch in light of Frank’s later life, as he later turned on Malcolm just as he did Robert, and that ultimately cost him his life. The recurring theme of these flashbacks is that everybody underestimates just how far Malcolm is willing to go; Arrow has never really done all that much with the class divide themes that are so central to the Undertaking, but it’s telling to see how Robert Queen assumes all of Starling City’s problems can be solved with board meetings, albeit secret ones. His most naïve moment comes at episode’s end, as even though Robert fears a potential reprisal from Malcolm, he still thinks it’s perfectly fine to let Oliver come along on his fateful cruise. It’s possible the show still has a twist waiting in which it reveals Robert is really some kind of master manipulator, but right now, it seems the man behind Oliver’s list was always fatally out of his depth.
“The Undertaking” offers a similarly unsympathetic portrayal of the young Oliver, who proves every bit the cad we thought he was. Stephen Amell still has a fairly narrow range, but he’s winningly goofy in the flashbacks, and he’s totally unafraid to make himself look like an ass. Oliver’s function in the flashback is mostly to set up a contrast with his present-day interactions with Laurel, which remain one of the show’s less compelling elements, but at least the show reaches a moment of clarity when Oliver implicitly admits he still loves Laurel, because he’s already lying about too many other things in his life. The problem is that Oliver and Laurel’s relationship still feels superfluous, particularly when contrasted with Oliver’s barely suppressed, primal rage when Malcolm shows up to ask how Walter is doing. Oliver, Laurel, and Tommy’s romantic triangle might lead to a bit of mopey, CW-approved pining, but—to follow the episode’s lead and borrow a quote from Casablanca—the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
Besides, if we have to focus on the interrelationships of three characters, I’d much rather it be Oliver, Felicity, and Diggle, because at least that trio gets results. The main story in “The Undertaking” is a lean, straightforward one, as Oliver and Felicity happen upon a vital clue about Walter’s disappearance, one that takes an undercover Felicity into an illegal casino. After multiple weeks that have called Oliver’s methods and motivations into question—and those questions aren’t really resolved until he apologizes to Diggle and asks for his help—it’s good to see the Hood be so effortlessly competent. He easily dispatches henchmen and major villains alike, and he’s at his most unstoppable when he tears through Malcolm’s secret prison to free Walter. In a particularly nice touch, Oliver doesn’t kill any of the men he fights his way through, and the shot in which a couple dozen men moan and wince in pain makes Oliver seem far more fearsome than if they had ended up in the morgue. It’s taken an entire season, but the Hood seems close to becoming the Green Arrow.
Best of all, he’s finally one step ahead of his enemies. When a grief-stricken Moira rushes off to confront Malcolm, the audience could, given Arrow’s usual glacial pacing, be forgiven for thinking that would be the end of the story for another week. Instead, the camera pulls back to reveal a surveillance arrow, and suddenly Oliver knows the truth about his mother and Malcolm. The fallout of that big reveal will have to wait until next time, because Oliver prioritizes his family—including Moira—by saving Walter. He allows them a happy reunion, but he knows a storm is on the horizon, and there’s no easy way to excuse his mother’s actions this time around. After weeks of selfishly letting others down, Oliver now finds himself the betrayed one. But unlike Tommy or even Diggle, he doesn’t run away from the coming conflict. When faced with his greatest test yet, Oliver emerges triumphant, and he realizes he needs all his friends if he is to survive the next challenge. He’s come a long way in five years, and, as “The Undertaking” emphatically proves, Arrow has come a long way in 21 episodes.
- “The Undertaking” makes great use of Felicity, even if her “I’m glad you’re inside me” line seems too contrived and awkward, even by her standards. I do like her pair of encounters first with Laurel and then with the Queen family, as nobody has any idea who she is. Oliver’s simple declaration that she is his friend is a very sweet moment, and it probably portends the continued development of their relationship. I’m not sure they will ever go beyond friendship, but it makes at least as much sense to me as Oliver and Laurel.
- Seriously, young Oliver is such an asshole in the pizza scene. How dare that delivery guy not have change for a hundred!
- I hope Walter’s safe return means that Colin Salmon will have a place on this show again. He always adds a touch of British-style class to the proceedings.
- For fellow D.C. Comics fans, tonight’s episode features references to Bludhaven—the city that makes even Gotham City look good—and to Ted Kord. In the comics, Kord is best known as the second Blue Beetle, who is sort of like Batman without all the angst. As non-superpowered heroes go, the Blue Beetle is an obvious fit for the Arrow universe, so here’s hoping Ted Kord shows up in a future episode.