Juliana Harkavy (Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW)

This week, Arrow would like to remind you that it’s the dark one. In that, mission accomplished. This is an hour that begins with bodies bobbing like corks just off shore, ends with a woman turning back to a life defined by violent vengeance, and spends its B-story with a father trying to convince his dead daughter’s doppelgänger that maybe she’s not a deeply evil person. The closest that “All For Nothing” comes to levity is the moment when Felicity tries and fails to make a tension-breaking joke. The only really positive development is the news that William is in a bunker with Raisa somewhere, presumably going stir-crazy but at least unlikely to be blown up by a traveling bomb.

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It’s bleak, to use the short version. And that would be fine, but it’s also not much else.

There are much bigger issues than this, but here’s one small example. “All For Nothing” features a guest performance from Kacey Rohl, who plays Alena (a.k.a. Kojo Sledgehammer, a pseudonym I’d forgotten but will now attempt to use in my daily life.) Alena’s a reasonably interesting character, often charming, and a solid foil for Felicity. The last time she appeared on Arrow, she’d been shot, but managed to sell Felicity on the idea of mass-producing the chip that allowed her to walk again. She’s probably not likely to crack anyone’s list of the top five greatest characters in Arrow history, but her appearances are mostly welcome. And whatever you may think of Alena, Rohl is a talented, compelling performer. She comes back to deliver some tech babble and one punchline while wearing a cute outfit. That’s it.

It’s not impossible to put together a relentlessly dark hour that’s peppered with moments of, if not lightness, at least vim and vigor. That’s not to say that it has to be funny or particularly action-heavy, though Arrow has proven on more than one occasion that it’s capable of all three at once. It’s also not that this series, or any series, can’t spend an hour setting up a major turn of events for one of its characters. But if it’s going for dark, it has to be more than dark. If it’s about setting things up, it has to be something else, too. If it’s both, god help us, it’s at least got to be energetic.

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The most bewildering choice in Arrow’s big Vicent Sobel hour is the decision to include flashbacks to the beginning of his relationship to Dinah and then center those flashbacks almost exclusively on stuff we already know. Listen, a series of Dinah and Vincent scenes wouldn’t be high on my list of desired flashbacks, and the number one item on that list is definitely ‘no flashbacks,’ so personal preference comes into play here. But if this is important to the story — to this episode, and presumably, to the rest of the season — then why spend the time on plot, rather than character, especially if we already know what happens?

Don’t show us when they met, show us when, and more importantly why, they began to fall in love. Don’t show us the moment they thought they were made, show us what they did to comfort each other. This isn’t a critic being prescriptive. This is just common sense. If we already know what happened — they were undercover together, they got made, particle accelerator explosion — then at minimum we should learn more about the characters and their relationship. Otherwise, why on earth would you even spend the time?

In this case, it seems the point was the continued redemption tour for Vigilante, a character who was attempting to assassinate city counselors about five minutes ago. Such an arc is somehow possible, something evidenced by this show’s existence. The issue is not the transformation, but the speed: all of a sudden, Vincent Sobel’s gone from broken, dark, and kill-happy to soulful and steadfast. Put another way, he jumped from the land of early-days Oliver Queen to aw-shucks Oliver Queen in a real damn hurry, and it took actual Oliver Queen a long-ass time to do that.

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But Arrow doesn’t have time. Vincent needed to hurry up and get likable so he could die on schedule, so Dinah could go back to being Dark Tina and take up the mantle of early-days Oliver. In that respect, the episode succeeds, and now we’ve basically got Team Arrow and Team Not Arrow That’s Like Early Team Arrow Because Of All The Killing. In terms of table-setting, it gets the job done, but this is also an hour designed to make the audience care that Vincent dies, and to make them understand Dinah’s grief and rage are so all-encompassing. That’s the real mission, and it’s nearly impossible.

As Vincent, Johann Urb does about the best he can with what he’s been given, which is essentially an entirely new character. Juliana Harkavy fares better, and even comes pretty close to making the dreadfully on-the-nose “do you trust me?” kiss scene work. They’re both fighting an uphill battle, however, diving into scene after scene of either exposition or broad-strokes emotion, with no room left for subtlety or even suspense (it’s obvious from moment one that all questions of Vincent’s loyalty are gone, and that he’s doomed.) But two good actors can’t force a relationship to suddenly become moving and compelling if the writing, and more importantly the time, isn’t there.

The Quentin and Not Laurel story doesn’t fare a ton better, but in that one respect — time — it has the Dinah/Vincent storyline beat. Like so much of this episode, the video scene is so on the nose, but it’s grounded in the emotional experience of a character we’ve spent years with and ties directly to a relationship this show spent several seasons exploring. Sure, there’s that moment when Not Laurel steps into the light and hisses like Nosferatu, but it’s a cool shot, and it neatly sets up the experience that Not Laurel has when she has to decide whether or not to kill Vincent Sobel. It’s not about plot, but about people, and while it’s not top-tier Arrow, it’s effective enough.

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At the end of the day, most table-setting episodes aren’t designed to thrill, just to move the pieces so they’re placed for whatever comes next. It’s necessary sometimes. But combining such an episode with leaden flashbacks while centering it on a sorely underdeveloped relationship seems like a recipe for disaster. This isn’t a disaster. It’s just not very effective, or entertaining, or — one seriously gruesome death aside — memorable. It’s fine that Arrow goes to dark places, but dark isn’t enough, and it’s a little late in the season to spin those dark, dark wheels.

Stray observations

  • TAMVP: Oh, who knows. Paul Blackthorne, I suppose — he was very good in Quentin’s big Laurel Art Installation.
  • Salmon ladder: If they can’t make time for Kacey Rohl to be interesting, they definitely don’t have time for the salmon ladder. More’s the pity.
  • Oliver’s final appeal to Dinah seemed startlingly un-empathetic, coming from a guy with such a huge problem with guilt and self-blame, to say nothing of a lot of experience with grief.
  • Quentin, please don’t walk and watch videos at the same time.
  • Also disappointing: the surprising lack of creepy-fun Michael Emerson line-readings.
  • I’m a bigger Rene fan than most, but man, he could say Hoss about 50% less and it might still be too much.

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