Paul Blackthorne, Stephen Amell, Sydelle Noel (Photo: Dan Power/The CW)

“Thanksgiving” sure has plenty of stuffing. (I’m sorry.) Here, if you’ll allow it, is a brief list of some of the events that take place over the course of this one hour: Oliver Queen gets arrested by an FBI agent in front of his son; Bad Laurel and Cayden James steal a bunch of dangerous stuff and evidently Bad Laurel’s got something of a death wish; Oliver gets arraigned and Felicity coughs up a bunch of her company’s investment money to spring him from jail; Curtis gives Diggle his prototype, Diggle winds up seriously injured, and he and Felicity fight about it; Diggle and Oliver have a serious argument and then a serious apology-off; Oliver puts the hood back on, lies to his kid about it, and asks Diggle to keep being the Green Arrow after he’s well; James threatens a Billy Joel concert and Billy Joel is actually there but the bomb is a fake and it’s really an excuse to tell Oliver about his kid and also to get footage of the team beating up fake cops; the vigilante bill passes; Thea wakes up. Just another day at the office.

It’s a lot, and yet given all that, this is an oddly lackluster episode. It’s spiced up by two things. The first is some really strange tonal stuff. It often seems as though the episode is arguing that vigilantism is bad and brings out the worst in the people who practice it, while simultaneously telling us what good people they all are, and while it’s unlikely that the resulting tension is intentional, it’s interesting. The second is good acting.

There’s that list up there, of all the big things this episode contains. Half of them would still make for a packed hour. Here’s what actually lingers: Michael Emerson saying, “And yet!” David Ramsey’s Diggle quietly talking about what he wants in life. Paul Blackthorne’s eyes as Quentin listens to Dinah talk about her fears. Stephen Amell’s emphasis on the word ‘demand.’ These things aren’t monumental. They’re not Twitter-bait. They’re just good moments of plain old acting, and each is more thrilling than any big fake bomb could ever be.

It’s Thanksgiving. This review won’t ignore the not-so-great stuff about this episode, but perhaps in the spirit of the holiday, we’ll start with the good stuff and dwell there for awhile. Think of it as starting with the mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing and a giant slice of pie, and leaving the right-out-of-the-can cranberry relish for last. So, here goes. Michael Emerson is definitely the mashed potatoes of this season of Arrow.

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We still don’t know much about Cayden James, and the thing we do learn here — that he’s got a son and somehow links his son’s disappearance to Team Arrow — sounds a lot like the situation with Prometheus’s dad, making it a plot point that feels frustratingly routine. It doesn’t matter. Emerson plays with language so well that even the dullest dialogue positively sizzles. It’s not a surprise that “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war” lands so well, but Emerson makes “It’s not like I have your number” sing every bit as much. He does more with the words “And yet!” than Josh Segarra (as Adrian Chase) did with any one line in all of season five. And Segarra’s good!

All the Arrowverse shows sometimes run into villain troubles. For every Eobard Thawne (of The Flash), there’s a handful of baddies along the lines of Cupid, Vandal Savage (Legends of Tomorrow), and Savitar (The Flash.) Most often the problem stems from the writing. Maybe there’s an uninspiring motive, or a twist that’s nowhere near as clever as it wants to be. Sometimes it’s a silly idea that doesn’t quite work, and sometimes it’s a good idea that then gets recycled ad nauseam (see: almost all of The Flash’s big bads.) There’s still time for Cayden James to become a lousy villain, but there’s absolutely no chance he’ll ever feel cookie-cutter, because Emerson is having entirely too much fun, bringing his considerable skills to a role that he could honestly play without a ton of effort. He’s got that presence, that face, and that voice. He could phone it in. That he’s not is a real boon to Arrow, and he alone makes this odd hour of television worth watching.

He’s not the only one bringing his A-game to the proceedings, however. David Ramsey’s had flashier moments on this show, including some season-long angst, but his second scenes with Stephen Amell this week are among the best stuff he’s done for the show. While the content of their first scenes is a little bewildering — I refuse to believe that neither of these men actually thought through any of the things they’re discussing before agreeing that one would pass the hood to another, and neither acts in a way that feels in keeping with what we know of these characters — the second works incredibly well, because both actors, Ramsey in particular, handle the material with ease and restraint. It’s the kind of scene that will always be most exciting on a show with a long history, because if the writers and actors are in good form, it will be based in all we’ve learned about the characters and their relationship over the years. Here it feels like some of that history is lost, but not much, and that’s due in large part to Ramsey’s sad, subdued performance.

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Really, everybody’s pretty good this week. Juliana Harkavy isn’t always given the best material, but she makes the stuff she gets sing (particularly when she’s in cop mode.) Rick Gonzalez’s Rene continues to be the show’s secret weapon. Emily Bett Rickards, Echo Kellum, Paul Blackthorne — all good. The only off-notes are Katie Cassidy, who plays Black Siren as though it’s business as usual, even when the story has her willfully risking her own unnecessary death in almost every scene in which she appears, and Sydelle Noel, who is selling the hell out of a character whose actions don’t make a ton of sense.

Agent Samanda Watson remains a sort of generic hard-ass, and it’s the currently single most frustrating thing about the Arrowverse that doesn’t involve Andrew Kreisberg. If you’ve seen GLOW, you know Noel is terrific. And that’s apparent here, too. Every time she comes on screen, I’m interested, because some performers are charismatic even in the dullest of circumstances. But we have no insight into who Watson is, or why she does what she does. Even her speech to Oliver tonight doesn’t make a ton of sense. The idea that she’s be offended by people who refuse to take ownership of their actions is a reasonable and an interesting one, but the dialogue has such a sheen of Oooh, this’ll be important later that it falls totally flat. It’s a moment for Oliver, not for Watson, and until they give that character something to do besides be tough, she’ll remain an uninspiring addition to the cast.

Though that scene might not work, it doesn’t hold a candle to the strangest moments in “Thanksgiving.” The most obvious is the moment when Rene fires his guns into the air in a crowded stadium as a way of getting people to leave, but they’re scattered throughout. Felicity asks Oliver why he doesn’t shoot reporters with arrows, and also puns inappropriately on several occasions. Curtis describes the team as the Big Brother of Star City. Dinah suggests they just leave Oliver’s cell unlocked. The whole team beats the holy crap out of people who look like cops in front of a pack of civilians, all carrying phones, without attempting to warn any of those civilians about who the police are or what panic their actions might cause. And the story there isn’t that they put innocent people at risk, it’s that they made vigilantes look bad.

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If Arrow is teeing up a story about how, in fact, the vigilante referendum is a good idea because vigilanteism is dangerous, that’s interesting. It’s unlikely, given Oliver’s speech at the end of the hour, but it’s possible that every one of those odds moments is intentional. If so, then in hindsight, this episode will be considered key. It’ll be the moment when Arrow got all sly and subversive and started commenting on itself and its storytelling.

That’s not going to happen. What’s more likely is that, in hopes of creating a rollicking Thanksgiving episode, the Arrow writers room packed this thing to the rafters, and became so focused on plot that they stopped thinking about what the plot said about the characters. It’s no accident that the best scenes in “Thanksgiving” are the quietest, simplest, and slowest. In those scenes, the focus is on what’s happening between two people, not what big exciting moment’s coming next. It’s a chance to take a breath, and in an hour this packed, you might need quite a few breaths.

Still, flaws and all, this is a solid way to spend an hour of the holiday (or, more likely, a DVR-ed hour of the holiday weekend, perhaps with a plate of leftovers.) We can be thankful for returning characters — welcome back, Willa Holland! We can be thankful for inexplicable Billy Joel cameos and cool Shakespeare references. Best of all, we can be thankful for good actors, because they’re magicians. Even when an hour is bloated and silly, they can drop one little “And yet,” and we’re hooked.

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Stray observations

  • Salmon ladder watch: we can not be grateful for salmon ladders, because there were none. We can, however, be grateful for cool handstand pushups.
  • “Besides, The Flash is much more my type.”
  • “I’ve seen every episode of The Closer... twice.” “...Well, I’m a real life cop.”
  • “I happen to like a wide variety of music, and The Stranger is a treasured piece of rock and roll history.” Rene, I agree.
  • “I’m gonna crush my french fries and pretend they’re mashed potatoes.” Rene, you’re a genius.
  • Next week: Nazis! A reminder that if you want to have any sort of understanding of what the hell is happening in the next episode, you’ll need to watch the rest of the crossover event. See you on Earth-X!

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