Liam Hall, Manu Bennett (Jack Rowand/The CW)

Vigilantes: they’re just like us.

In the second half of a Slade Wilson-centric two-parter, the issues of the first half persist. Characters tell us what they feel, instead of allowing us to discover their feelings alongside them, and as a result, scenes designed to get us from point A to point B fall a bit flat. Where “Promises Kept” has an advantage, however, is in the fact that it’s got all those nice conclusions to head toward. People make decisions and deal with the consequences; they make realizations about their own strengths and failings, and change or stay the course. It may take awhile to get there — and in the case of at least one character, they never actually do — but things happen all the same.

Arrow has always been at its best when it focuses on three things: character development, cool fights, and the salmon ladder. We may only get two of the three here (and if we’re being totally honest, it’s closer to 1.5), but it still makes for a decent episode. “Promises Kept” does not include a salmon ladder sighting, and that’s disappointing, but it does pretty well in that first category. By jumping from Slade Wilson and Oliver Queen as they contend with Wilson’s murderous son to Diggle and company as they hunt down a new and brutal team of thieves, and putting on the breaks now and then for the occasional flashback to Wilson’s life after leaving Lian Yu, credited writers Oscar Balderrama and Rebecca Bellotto are able to narrow the focus of the hour. There’s some good stuff with toward the end there, and a few solid moments with Lyla and the members of Team Arrow, but this is the John Diggle and Slade Wilson variety hour, and that’s not half bad.

It works in part because neither Manu Bennett nor David Ramsey treats it as such. Both actors have been given plenty of opportunities to devour Arrow’s scenery over the years, but here, they resist that temptation, instead opting to play things pretty close to the vest. There’s one exception, of course — Slade’s descent back into the throes of the mirakuru, complete with a ghostly vision of Shado (Celina Jade), lands firmly in Grand Guignol territory — but other than that, both Ramsey and Bennett keep it all low-key. If at times, that makes “Promises Kept” feel a bit subdued, it’s a worthy trade. By trusting in the writing and in their own skills, both performers allow the audience to fill in the blanks. We sense, rather than see, Wilson’s shame before he details it for us; we intuit the depths of Diggle’s fear and self-disgust before he spells it out. They’re good at their jobs, and that helps their stories along, even when the plot feels silly or the dialogue redundant.

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The same can’t really be said of Liam Hall’s Joe, and that’s not necessarily the fault of Hall. Bennett and Ramsey both have a huge advantage in that most of those watching will now have spent years with these characters, and that allows for heightened insight as well as interest. There’s no such attachment to Slade Wilson’s son — or, to be precise, one of his sons — and so there’s no way to read too much into his silences or the reasons for his choices. His one big moment, in which he tells his father that he saw him murder someone on their long-ago camping trip, then boasts that he made his first kill not long after, doesn’t pack much of a punch. Nothing we learn about him in this episode, or in the previous one, proves all that compelling, and while his story, that of a young kid seeing his dad murder someone and then choosing to do the same in hopes of gaining his approval, might be gripping and disturbing stuff in another context, here it’s just glorified narration. When you treat a character’s emotional life as though it’s exposition, you’ve basically condemned it to a heap of colorless backstory. A great actor might be able to salvage such a mess. An actor that’s mostly pretty OK doesn’t stand a chance.

That’s what takes what could have been a pretty great Slade Wilson story and renders it merely interesting: the character on which both the plot and the primary character’s emotional life hinge is kind of an empty shell, and not in a good, messed up, dead-inside way. Luckily, Slade’s plus-one is in pretty fine form, and that makes up for the imbalance a bit. Stephen Amell’s Oliver is mostly here as a kind of mobile therapist and mission support system, and while he gets caught doing the latter pretty damn quickly, he manages to stick that first job out until the very end. His efforts earn him something of a happy ending, albeit with a sad story in tow. Olicity fans can find plenty to love in Oliver’s final scenes here, from William and Felicity playing video games to Felicity’s decision to skip the bunker meeting, but the real (and probably short term) win comes in the form of Oliver’s big discovery. He’s glad he’s done being the Green Arrow. Violence isn’t something that suits him at the moment, and he really, really doesn’t want to turn his kid into an amoral murdering nightmare of a human being.

Still, the best scene in the episode belongs to John Diggle and Team Arrow. Frankly, an entire hour could have been devoted to Dig coming to terms with the dangerous position he’s put himself, his family, and the team in, and that final scene could have lasted much longer. Yet it doesn’t feel underdeveloped. Dinah reacts with compassion instead of anger, Rene points out all the times Diggle has saved him, and Curtis makes the best point of them all while also scoring the episode’s biggest (and one of its only) laughs by reminding them all that he literally invented the chip that made it possible for Felicity to walk again. Ramsey’s especially great here, balancing shame and frankness, fear and calm, sorrow and gratitude — all in one little scene.

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That’s the kind of stuff Arrow should be aiming to do, week after week. One benefit of being a television show in its sixth season is that there’s a long history on which to call, echoing major moments from the lives and relationships of its characters with grace. Arrow doesn’t take that advantage very often, and perhaps it should. Until the show is more deliberate, we’ll have to continue to rely on the actors, and luckily, it seems most are up for the challenge.

Stray observations

  • I know it was an homage, but damn, Kane Wolfman is a hilariously bad name.
  • Salmon ladder watch: I’m beginning to think it’s just never going to happen again.

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