We were headed this way for a while, but I’m ready to call it: Arrow is officially a superhero now. A vigilante is allowed to let the ends justify the means, to leave a trail of the corpses on the path to what he calls justice. Even in the beginning, Oliver was never quite as grim as that, but his final actions tonight still feel a million miles from the Oliver who once killed a man in cold blood to protect his secret. While he can do little to stop the short-lived mob war between the Mafia and the Triad, he does ensure Frank Bertinelli makes it out of there alive. He allows Helena her final confrontation with her father, but then he forcibly stops her from giving into her worst, darkest impulses. While it’s certainly a nice bonus that Oliver’s actions lead the police to Frank and his incriminating laptop, he heads to that mansion out for neither justice nor vengeance. He’s simply there to save Helena, at first her soul and then her life. He succeeds in the latter and seemingly fails in the former, but he still saves her from an irreversible mistake. In a way, being a true superhero isn’t simply about serving the greater good or helping the cops catch criminals. Sometimes, it’s about putting everything on the line just to save one person, whatever the odds.
“Vendetta” builds beautifully on the ideas first laid out in last week’s “Muse Of Fire,” as Oliver pursues a romance with Helena while simultaneously trying to redeem her homicidal vigilante alter ego, which for convenience’s sake we’ll refer to as the Huntress. The final scene of the previous episode was my favorite moment of the show so far, capturing in one debate-turned-embrace just how damaged both Oliver and Helena truly are, and how twisted they would have to be to think vigilantism is any sort of solution for their crippling emotional trauma. Tonight’s episode essentially takes that brief moment of insight and builds the entire episode around it. That’s a risky decision—this early in Arrow’s run, there’s no guarantee that it can support a concept that meaty—but the episode hits all the right notes as it explores the pair’s doomed romance.
Once again, it falls to Diggle to lay out the moral of the story, as he likens Oliver and Helena’s crime-fighting to an addition, arguing that Oliver’s attempts to redeem Helena are a way of convincing himself that he doesn’t need help himself. Beth Schwartz and Andrew Kreisberg’s script smartly incorporates the show’s usually disconnected relationship melodrama elements into this plot, as it’s a disastrous impromptu dinner date with Tommy and Laurel that ends Oliver and Helena’s short-lived happiness. While Oliver and Laurel are perhaps a tad overfamiliar in the scene—and Tommy’s meltdown over asking Oliver for a job certainly doesn’t help matters—Helena spins entirely out of control, declaring that Laurel is Oliver’s true love and, worse, Oliver manipulated Helena into opening up to him just to crush her once again.
Irrespective of whether Oliver and Laurel are destined to be together—and, yeah, nearly a half-century’s worth of comics says that’s pretty much inevitable—there’s no reason to think that Oliver isn’t entirely committed to Helena, and there’s certainly zero indication that he used the death of Laurel’s sister to manipulate Helena into anything, other than the fact that he explicitly showed her Sarah Lance’s grave to illustrate how his own selfishness had killed people. Helena undoubtedly overreacts, but that’s exactly the point: She’s not stable enough to endure even the slightest hiccup in a relationship. The fact that “Vendetta” reveals that during a failed third date is actually more satisfying than if Helena’s issues came to light during a moment of overzealous vigilantism. Lots of superhero stories have done the latter, but the former feels distinctly Arrow. That’s right, I’m actually choosing the soap opera-y stuff over more vigilante ass-kicking. Believe me, I’m as shocked as you are.
That’s not to say the superhero stuff is a weakness of the episode—quite the opposite in fact. Helena and Oliver’s all-too-brief honeymoon period is entirely tied up with their crime-fighting, which is really the first best indication that this thing isn’t going to last. Still, what we do get is a ton of fun, starting with Oliver blatantly showing off his ridiculous prowess with the arrow. His decision to bring Helena along for this kind of crime-fighting leads to her transformation into something very closely resembling the comic book Huntress, complete with crossbow and her purple costume. After only really paying lip service to the iconic looks of Deadshot and the Royal Flush Gang, it’s a thrill to see Arrow take Helena’s gun-toting, superficially badass leather biker get-up and put her into something that is undoubtedly a comics-inspired look. Arrow has learned well one of the key lessons of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy: It’s wise to approach all the potentially goofy superhero stuff with a degree of caution, but you shouldn’t run away from it entirely. Like Batman Begins, Arrow’s early episodes never ignored the show’s superhero aspects, but it tended to deemphasize them in favor of more conventional crime dramas. It’s only taken eight episodes for Arrow to fully embrace its comic book influences and, even better, to have the confidence to weave them into a larger, more complex story. That’s a seriously good sign.
A lot of the credit for the success of “Vendetta” goes to Stephen Amell and Jessica De Gouw, which is mildly surprising inasmuch as I wasn’t always convinced by their performances in “Muse Of Fire.” De Gouw in particular rang false at times last week, and I suspect a big part of the problem was that both she and Amell had to convey multiple levels of lies and deceit as each hid their secrets while trying to work out the other’s. Tonight’s character arcs are much more straightforward, and De Gouw really brings across Helena’s psychotic rage towards her father and how it infects every aspect of her relationship with Oliver, from their breakup at the restaurant to her final vindictive warning that he had best stay out of her way. Amell has to sell a few big declarative monologues in which Oliver lays out his philosophy of justice and his evolving feelings towards Helena. A lesser actor could torpedo the entire episode if he’s incapable of this thematic heavy-lifting, but Amell acquits himself well. Crucially, both Amell and De Gouw carry over the sense of being hopelessly lost in one’s own damage that the ending of “Muse Of Fire” suggested.
“Vendetta” is easily the high water mark for Arrow thus far, and what’s particularly encouraging is that this doesn’t feel like the show aping other successful superhero stories. The show has developed its own style, one that can use a failed double date as a believable engine for a vigilante’s downward spiral into murder. It even manages to make Oliver’s final declaration that “I have a feeling I’ll be seeing her again” not seem ridiculously clichéd and cheesy. Or at least, it’s gloriously cheesy in the way only the best superhero stories can be.
- The big subplot of the episode is Walter Steele and Felicity Smoak’s continued investigations into just whatever the hell it is Moira is up to. I’m guessing this is all headed towards one very unpleasant confrontation with John Barrowman, but Colin Salmon and Emily Bett Rickards are getting the most out of this slow-moving mystery.
- I like that Helena keeps her new costume, give or take the mask, even after she decides to go back to murdering. There’s clearly hope for her yet.
- It’s a happy coincidence that the Huntress’ trademark weapon is the crossbow, as it makes perfect sense for Oliver to give her one. Certainly, it makes more sense than its comic book origins, which go back to the original, 70s-era version of the character, who was the daughter of a semi-retired, married Batman and Catwoman (long story on that one, but it involves multiple universes) and I believe found the crossbow among her parents’ old equipment. Which raises the obvious question—when the hell did either Batman or Catwoman use a crossbow? Point is, Arrow did this one better.