Arrow reaches a moment of truth about midway through “Unfinished Business,” as Detective Lance and what appears to be an entire battalion of Starling City’s finest stand in front of the door of the Hood’s secret headquarters, demanding Oliver let them in. The show has maneuvered Oliver into an impossible situation, and there’s no indication that he has a trick up his sleeve that could get him out of this predicament. Good shows place their main characters in these sorts of positions on a regular basis, and great shows routinely come up with clever solutions that are satisfying both on a narrative and a character level. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure how Arrow would solve this mystery. There are a number of ways it could cheat its way out of this mess: Laurel could come up with some legal technicality to invalidate the warrant, Lance and his men could be called out to another Vertigo-related crime, or I suppose Felicity could use her magical hacking skills to magically hack the problem away. Arrow has used narrative escape hatches like this before, and while that isn’t the worst of sins, this was a conundrum Oliver really had to solve on his own.
Except that isn’t what happens, and the solution turns out be something simpler and far more elegant. Tommy forced Detective Lance to go get a search warrant when he first came snooping around the club, and Tommy used that time to hide all evidence of Oliver’s extracurricular activities. Oliver had actually been cornered by Detective Lance, and it’s only his friend’s forward thinking that saves his ass. That solution is effective because it’s actually good to see Oliver caught flatfooted, to get proof that he’s not always five steps ahead of everyone else. What’s more, while Tommy’s intervention saves Oliver from Detective Lance, it places Oliver in an even more difficult situation. Tommy protected Oliver from his own carelessness—and based on Tommy’s bribing of the building inspector, this isn’t the first time he has interceded to protect Oliver’s secret—but now Tommy wants nothing to do with his former best friend. He explains that Oliver has become a complete mystery, a judgmental killer that is all too fast to believe the worst in those he once knew.
While Oliver has shown a reasonable ability to recognize his own errors, he is also quick to take for granted those he depends on most, and that gets him into trouble with both Diggle and Tommy tonight. He’s able to make amends with Diggle because the two fundamentally see eye to eye regarding their pursuit of vigilante justice. Diggle isn’t a killer, exactly, but he’s a trained soldier who is willing to kill when it’s necessary; he can forgive Oliver because he understands him. Tommy pointedly does not, and Arrow works in a necessary reminder that Tommy is the sane one here, as he’s the only person who refuses to rationalize Oliver’s decision to kill people. If Diggle or Felicity had the same reaction to Oliver’s secret, then there wouldn’t really be a show, but it’s vital to occasionally acknowledge just how insane the concept of superheroes really is.
Building on that, Tommy recognizes that his only real value to Oliver is as a front, as a distraction from his life as the Hood. This is a sharp critique, especially as “Unfinished Business” is bookended with two very different scenes in which Oliver and Tommy close up the nightclub. The first time around, both Oliver and Tommy indulge in the fantasy that they’re still just a pair of young entrepreneurs, although the façade doesn’t last long before Detective Lance shows up to inform them of a new Vertigo-related death. Once Lance is gone, Tommy mentions the vigilante’s previous run-in with the Count, tacitly approving of Oliver’s actions. The second time, however, Tommy is no longer willing to go along with the sham, explaining to Oliver that he has too much self-respect just to be a cog in his supposed friend’s grand deception. Colin Donnell hasn’t made much of an impression so far this season, but that may well just be because Tommy hasn’t had much to do. In “Unfinished Business,” Donnell hits a nice balance in his angry, righteous takedowns of Oliver. Oliver may not have had his secrets exposed in this episode, but he still pays dearly for his mistakes. Indeed, considering Tommy effectively chooses Malcolm over Oliver at episode’s end, he may have just placed himself in the line of fire for his father’s nefarious Undertaking.
The main plot of “Unfinished Business” isn’t as compelling as the breakdown of Oliver and Tommy’s friendship, but it’s still a huge improvement over last week’s misfire. The big twist works particularly well, because there’s a built-in audience expectation that Arrow wouldn’t go to all the trouble of bringing Seth Gabel back just to reveal that his character is a helpless lunatic. The conventions of superhero stories tell us that supervillains will return from any setback more dangerous than ever before, and the conventions of crime shows tell us that the culprit will be the most recognizable name in the credits—and the guy who played Lincoln Lee on Fringe qualifies for that title, at least in the context of genre television.
Crucially, the story here really isn’t about Vertigo or the Count; rather, it’s about Oliver figuring out who he is. He immediately assumes the Count is behind this new Vertigo supply not because it would be impossible for anyone else to make the drug—Oliver might think that’s the case, but it’s not hard to imagine the drug could be reverse-engineered, as indeed proves to be the case—but because he blames himself for being too soft in his original treatment of the Count. Oliver is essentially looking for proof that he was wrong to show mercy, and the Count’s reemergence as a threat would give him the perfect reason to commit himself to the eradication of crime by any means necessary. Instead, he ends up reaffirming his humanity when he decides to not kill the helpless Count. It may be too late for that psychopath, but it’s not too late for Oliver. It’s still a little worrisome that Oliver’s big emotional moment is essentially promising Diggle he will help hunt down and kill Deadshot, but hey—it’s a step in the right direction, and this is a superhero show.
On that last point, “Unfinished Business” offers a particularly good example of Arrow’s occasional willingness to buck superhero conventions when the Hood is knocked out by an orderly. It’s a longstanding tradition that the bad guys do not peek under the superhero’s hood, even when there’s no obvious reason why they wouldn’t. The crooked doctor who masterminded this new Vertigo shows no such restraint, and he immediately learns that the Hood is Oliver Queen. Of course, he and his henchman don’t live long enough to use that knowledge, as Diggle and Oliver kill them in the ensuing fight. Narratively, it represents the same endpoint as if the doctor had never peeked, but it’s another instance where Oliver isn’t given a free pass. He has to kill to protect himself, and as “Unfinished Business” masterfully shows, that has serious consequences.
- Back on the island, Oliver reaches a crucial point in his development, as Shado’s water-slapping training gives him the strength to pull back the bow. That’s a pretty huge milestone, but my main reaction was that Stephen Amell seemed to be playing past Oliver extra wimpy tonight, which was kind of hilarious.
- I suppose Oliver is a big enough local celebrity that it makes sense for the doctor to recognize him, but I wouldn’t have objected if Arrow had recreated one of the greatest moments in superhero history.
- Detective Lance seems to turn a bit of a corner tonight, as he recognizes how his Javert-like tendencies hurt those he cares about. I’m guessing this little epiphany isn’t going to stop him from squaring off with the Hood before season’s end, though.
- It would cheapen “Unfinished Business” to bring the Count back again as a villain, which is a bit of a shame, since I do get a kick of Seth Gabel’s fearlessly deranged performance.