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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow: “Guilty”

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At some point, Arrow lost the thread with Roy Harper. The character worked best in his early days as part of Thea’s ongoing side plot, where their star-crossed romance proved a surprisingly effective use of the show’s soap opera elements. The decision to dose Roy with Mirakuru as part of the second season’s Slade Wilson arc wasn’t a total narrative bust, but it felt like a story too big and complicated for the show to pull off as its fifth or sixth most important plotline. Now this season, Roy has been little more than Oliver and Diggle’s backup in the action scenes; leaving aside his conversations with Thea in “Corto Maltese,” his main contribution has been to let the show do slightly larger-scale fight scenes. In theory, Roy is Oliver’s sidekick, his student and apprentice, but Arrow just hasn’t made developing that relationship into a priority. Team Arrow still feels like a power trio, just with a red-hooded, parkour-loving hanger-on. Tonight’s episode tries to deepen a relationship between Oliver and Roy that the show never really established in the first place, at least not in its current, post-Mirakuru form. “Guilty” is then a most peculiar kind of misfire.

Arrow is no stranger to setting up on-the-nose comparisons between an episode’s character work and its episodic narrative, but it’s more common for the show to find those resonances in the flashback material. Here, “Guilty” tries to illuminate Oliver and Roy’s relationship by spotlighting Ted Grant and Isaac Stanzler’s failed pairing, and it’s kind of ridiculous just how unsubtle the episode is in going about this. Ted draws a direct analogy to Roy when explaining who Isaac was, and Isaac spends his entire fight with Roy lecturing him about how the Arrow will inevitably abandon him. Such coincidence-driven plotting lies at the heart of Arrow’s storytelling style, so it would be silly to object to this out of hand. But where “Guilty” errs is in using Ted and Isaac not as a comparator for Oliver and Roy but rather as a stand-in. The episode elides much-needed exploration of Oliver and Roy’s relationship to spend more time with Ted and Isaac, heavily implying that everything we learn about these guest characters also applies to the regulars. This goes back to the old storytelling issue of showing versus telling. Yes, “Guilty” shows some of why Ted failed Isaac. But it only does so because it can’t think of a better way to tell us about Oliver and Roy, and we’re shown precious little of the latter’s relationship until the end of the episode.

Not that the end of the episode necessarily fixes all that much. While it’s nice to see Oliver take on a more active mentoring role in helping Roy discover his true memories, the scene turns on a deeply odd bit of logic from Oliver. His argument more or less boils down to the notion that it wouldn’t have been okay for Roy to kill Sara in a Mirakuru-induced fugue state, but everything is fine because he actually killed some police officer in a Mirakuru-induced fugue state. To the show’s credit, Roy immediately rejects Oliver’s distinction as a spurious one, but this is just the last example of several moments of moral weirdness in “Guilty.” In this instance, the episode appears less concerned with determining Roy’s culpability than it is with minimizing the wrongness of his actions in the audience’s mind. I’ll admit it had slipped my mind that the Mirakuru-addled Roy had killed a cop, and it’s hard for me to get too worked up about something that the show already excused last season with minimal fuss. But what’s odd here is that this transgression really is roughly equivalent to killing Sara, yet that would be considered an unforgiveable offense by most of the rest of the team.

This dovetails with Oliver’s generally nonsensical perspective throughout the episode. For Ted and Oliver’s story to work, it’s crucial that the pair went too far in their vigilante activities six years ago, and that means Ted Grant must be haunted by the killing of one of their targets. More than that, the story needs Oliver to be disgusted by Ted’s overreach, if only to help flesh out his resistance to Ted training Laurel. I can see why the episode has to have Oliver occupy this narrative position, and it would work just fine on most other superhero shows with a sacrosanct no-kill rule; it’s not hard to see Barry Allen espouse a more lighthearted version of these views over on The Flash, and Oliver’s revulsion at Ted’s deadly methods could be rewritten as for Batman in about five seconds. But Oliver most definitely isn’t Batman, and he proved that with the entire first season he spent killing anyone who got in the way of his righteous anti-corporate crusade. As such, it’s downright insane for Oliver to try to take the moral high ground with Ted, and it’s still more ridiculous that the episode never bothers to point this out. It’s as though the show forgets a huge swath of its own history to make this episode-specific story work, and neither Oliver nor Arrow come out looking all that great here.

“Guilty” isn’t a total loss: It does give us a nascent, impromptu form of the boxing glove arrow, after all, and that moment alone is enough to earn this episode a watch. But this is an episode where the show is oddly nervous about actually exploring what should be one of its core relationships. Oliver and Roy have an unbreakable bond here mostly because Oliver says they do. It’s a huge asset for Arrow that Stephen Amell has reached a point where his simply declaring something as true is almost enough to sell it, but even he requires a little help from the script. The episode gets some of the details right on the margins: It’s a small moment, but Arrow sells Oliver and Roy’s teacher-student relationship when the former orders him to rest. There’s a genuine concern for his apprentice that sits somewhere between paternal and brotherly; indeed, given all the familial upheaval Oliver has endured, it feels like an obvious option to explore just why Oliver is cultivating this bond with Roy. With Thea drifting away from him, is Oliver looking for a sidekick or a surrogate sibling?

As ever, it’s not that the show needs to go down any path I suggest. But “Guilty,” for all its apparent status as an Oliver and Roy episode, is stunningly light on insight into just why these two choose to stick together: “Not wanting to end up like Ted and Isaac” is the start of an answer, but the show can’t purely define one of its core relationships in terms of a couple of guest characters. After a nice little run of strong episodes, “Guilty” feels like a hiccup, a perhaps unavoidable result of trying to build up too quickly the show’s most underdeveloped relationship. The good news is that “Guilty,” for all its imperfections, does get us several funky steps closer to the proverbial fireworks factory. Even if this episode doesn’t do much with Oliver and Roy’s vigilante bond, it at least proves that the thing exists, and that fact should prove useful in future stories. I’m not willing to give up on this particular weapon in the Arrow’s arsenal—particularly not when the show is so wonderfully shameless about teasing the character’s eventual name—even if he does look too damn ridiculous in that red mask.


Stray observations:

  • “Waller doesn’t want you to kill him.” “That’s refreshing.”
  • “You’re playing a very dangerous game, Laurel.” “I can take care of myself.” “No you can’t, because you haven’t realized it isn’t actually a game.” Okay, that’s a nice line. It gets a little lost in the shuffle of Oliver being weirdly hypocritical throughout so much of the episode, but he’s on point in that instance.
  • “Are you telling me to abandon him?” “Yes, Oliver. If that’s what it means to find justice for Sara.” This line is as good a demonstration as any as to why “Guilty” doesn’t work. That exchange sums up succinctly all that we need to know about Oliver and Diggle’s relationship—a cornerstone of the series but a relatively minor part of this story—whereas it’s damn near impossible to find any lines that show similar insight into Oliver and Roy.