There’s no shortage of things to appreciate about “Fundamentals.” Like last week’s Diggle/Queen showdown, this is an Arrow episode which mercifully slows down and focuses on the characters—here a single character, to be precise—rather than ricocheting through plot developments of varying degrees of effectiveness, as so much of this season has done. Also like last week’s episode, this is an hour that’s filmed with care, this time by director Ben Bray. And again, like “Brothers in Arms,” it’s rooted in solid performances. All that, and a Napster joke, too. Works for me.
Unfortunately, it’s got something else in common with “Brothers in Arms,” and it’s more of a problem here than it was there: When you think about it for more than a few minutes, it starts to fall apart.
Oliver Queen’s trip into his own psyche, via an involuntary Vertigo dosing, is a reasonably compelling watch. The pounding of doom makes for a nice, ominous motif (ask not for whom the rhythmic metallic clanking tolls...). Adrian Chase (Josh Segarra) might not seem like the best fit for the role of Official Emcee of the Oliver Queen 2018 Baggage Tour, but Segarra and Amell play well together; the costuming for Chase has always painted him as Oliver’s dark shadow, which is especially useful here (the ties in particular are a nice touch). The shifting locations are disorienting and unsettling, and the shot of Oliver flat on the bunker’s lit floor, a la Vertigo, is a stunner.
The trick of stories like this one, though, is that while the landscape can be dreamlike, the personal and thematic stakes have to be crystal clear. Whether it’s a trip, a fever, a dream, a dream ghost, or an actual ghost, there needs to be clarity, specifically of the emotional journey and the relationships. A Christmas Carol works, in part, because the visits are so clear. Past, present, and future; who you were and what you lost, who you are and what you’re missing, where you’ll be and how you’ll be remembered. What Oliver thinks of himself has that kind of clarity: loads of guilt and self-loathing, no surprise, plus some fear of abandonment, which, given the circumstances, is pretty understandable.
It’s everything else that’s unclear. While the glimpse of the old Queen mansion is kind of a thrill, what does Oliver’s very poor treatment of Laurel have to do with his current struggle? What is Oliver meant to take from his encounters in the hospital, besides a hostile vibe? Arrow can’t seem to decide whether or not it’s Oliver’s fault that Rene ended up hurt, if he’s the reason the team fell apart, if he was wrong to help Laurel be the Black Canary. When it’s narratively convenient, he was right; when they need it for the drama, he was wrong.
But there are bigger problems than those. His time with the Adrian Chase guilt-ghost gives Oliver some clarity, or so he tells Felicity. He needs to get back to those titular fundamentals, which in this case somehow means going it alone. What about this experience teaches Oliver that he needs to fly solo? He spends one day in a Felicity-lite zone and everything goes to shit, so apparently that tells him working without others is the way to go. If nothing else, how does doing the Green Arrow’s work without assistance keep him from being spread too thin?
Now this could be, and in fact almost certainly is, an instance of the protagonist learning the wrong lesson, which sets up in arc in which he discovers how wrong he was. So noted. But there’s nothing wrong with Oliver taking a totally bogus path. The issue is that there’s no reason for him to do so. Nothing that happens in any of those sequences, save perhaps Laurel and Rene blaming Oliver for their life-ending or -altering injuries, would seem to steer a person to making that bad a choice. Beyond that, it’s tough to believe that Oliver Queen would listen to a part of his psyche personified by Adrian Chase, particularly when so much of last season centered on Oliver confronting his past and learning that he’s not a murder monster, despite Chase’s desire to prove the opposite.
There are real pleasures to be found in “Fundamentals,” from that great Vertigo shot to Mayor Lance to William fetching sneakers for Felicity to that first fight with Chase. But if you’re going to do a thoughtful, character-driven episode, you have to actually be thoughtful and character-driven. Those are the rules. Amell, Segara, Emily Bett Rickards, and Paul Blackthorne work their asses off here, and the results are entertaining. Just don’t think about it too hard, and it might be best to kind of stand back and squint.
- “Okay, you need to get back to your secret lair. Get yourself well.”
- Emily Bett Rickards got a handful of great one-liners in this one. Among them: “Drugs are bad;” “Dad is on drugs;” “Okay, I Parent Trap-ed you;” “Sure you’re not still high?”
- TAMVP: Nice job, Stephen.
- Salmon ladder watch: He couldn’t have tried to work out some of those feelings with some salmon-laddering? Helped get the toxins out of his body?
- I’m still bummed they blew the Tommy Merlyn return on the “Crisis on Earth-X” crossovers. This would have been the perfect place for it. Tommy would be a much better vessel for this very bad advice. See also: Samantha Clayton. Segarra is good, but story-wise, they would both have made more sense.
- Keeping Rene in the mask in the hospital was odd, no? Maybe it wasn’t actually Rick Gonzalez?
- What do you make of Diaz’s comment about Oliver being more powerful as a martyr in the dying-Raisa sequence, which he then repeated almost verbatim in the episode’s final scene?