There’s a moment right at the end of “Muse Of Fire” in which everything suddenly snaps into focus. Oliver Queen has arrived in Helena Bertinelli’s room for a tête-à-tête between the Arrow and the Huntress (not that either of them actually use those names, of course). Oliver launches into a lecture about how Helena has confused revenge with justice, and she responds by pointing out just how thin the distinction between them really is. For a moment, it seems as though the episode will end on the millionth iteration of that hoary old superhero cliché, in which the “good” vigilante tries to distinguish himself from the “bad” vigilante even as his adversary points out the massive logical flaws in his argument. With characters like Batman, the old “No Kill” rule means there’s always a quick way of delineating between vigilante justice and vigilante vengeance, but Oliver doesn’t have that luxury, which means any moral point he’s likely to make will be hopelessly muddled.
Then Helena starts to cry, and the silly arguments fall away. She’s crying because she can finally tell the truth to someone; in Oliver, she’s found someone with whom she can be herself without any pretense or disguise. In that shared realization between Helena and Oliver, their ethical debates seem hopelessly minor. That moment captures the profound loneliness of their vigilante lifestyles in a way that Stephen Amell’s pensive glances have never quite managed. The fact that their immediate response is to kiss passionately is also a reminder of how young they both are, a pair of lost souls not all that far removed from childhood who have made righteous murder their calling. On the one hand, these two are perfect for each other, because they both recognize no one else could possibly understand them. On the other hand, the reason why they’re so beyond other people’s comprehension is because they are both profoundly damaged people, so it’s hard to imagine how their prospective relationship could be anything but a sick, codependent disaster. But in that brief moment, Arrow manages its own moment of insight into what it means to be a hero, a vigilante, or whatever else you want to call it. That it involves hot people making out surely makes The CW happy, but that doesn’t diminish its impact.
“Muse Of Fire” is Arrow’s first big attempt at real multi-episode storytelling, with next week’s episode left as the payoff for tonight’s setup. In the Huntress, Oliver is presented with a narrative triple threat: his first real love interest, his first rival vigilante, and his first major ethical quagmire. As such, it’s understandable that Arrow would take a couple episodes to let that all play out, although the surrounding material mostly just represents minor variations on the themes the show has been hammering for the previous six episodes. When Helena’s assassination of one of her father’s lieutenant catches Moira in the crosshairs, Oliver improbably decides to chase the assailant’s motorcycle down on foot—seriously, it wouldn’t have been a better idea to get his own motorcycle that was sitting just there less than 20 feet away?—which leads to a fresh round of pained rebukes from Thea for her brother’s continued lies and unfathomable recklessness. Detective Lance is mostly just here to remind everyone that Helena’s actions could end in an all-out mob war between the Mafia and the Triad, although the episode does find a small wrinkle in his relationship with Oliver when the detective warns him about getting too close to Helena and her family. Moira and Thea get a little closer to accepting the new Oliver, but I doubt it will stick. “Muse Of Fire” gets inside Oliver’s head, but at the expense of most of the supporting characters.
The one big exception to that is Tommy Merlyn, who finally works up the nerve to ask Laurel out on a proper date. Their relationship is one of the parts of Arrow that I mostly just tolerate—I don’t have any particular problem with it, but it’s certainly not why I tune into a show about an arrow-wielding, crime-fighting badass. The one sequence that does work is Tommy explaining to Laurel how he wishes they were just meeting for the first time, that they could be giving their relationship a shot without all their messy prior history getting in the way. It’s not revelatory, but it at least lets Arrow put its own spin on the standard relationship subplot between a pair of secondary characters. Of course, all that is overtaken by the revelation that Tommy’s father has cut him off, and that his father is none other than John Barrowman’s mysterious well-dressed man, who rather amusingly spends half his big reveal scene in full fencing getup before the climactic zoom-in once his identity is at last shown. It’s a cheesy moment for Arrow, since it isn’t all that hard to tell it’s John Barrowman’s voice coming out of the fencing uniform, but the occasional bit of overcooked goofiness really has to be part of any CW show’s charm.
I must admit, I did not see the big twist about Barrowman’s true identity coming, mostly because it makes no sense at all. Susanna Thompson is already brushing up against suspension of disbelief as Stephen Amell’s mother, and John Barrowman crashes through it completely as Colin Donnell’s father. There’s only 15 years’ difference between Barrowman and Donnell, with the former a fairly youthful 45 and the latter a relatively mature 30. I’d be a whole lot quicker to believe the pair as brothers, but father and son is pretty damn hard to wrap my mind around. Right now, this feels like a misstep, but it’s too early to judge—if I can’t get through any scene in which Donnell calls Barrowman his dad without immediately going, “No, he isn’t”, then that might be a bit of a problem. As it is, it’s really only a problem when the two share a scene; Barrowman and Donnell do convey a believable father-son dynamic, but the painfully obvious closeness in age undercuts it.
“Muse Of Fire” does deserve credit for its intriguingly counterintuitive casting choices when it comes to Jeffrey Nordling—whom I know as Coach Ted Orion from D3: The Mighty Ducks, as all right-thinking people should—as mob boss Frank Bertinelli and Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse alum Tahmoh Penikett as his main enforcer, Tom Salvati. Frank Bertinelli comes across less a ruthless mob boss than he does your typical affluent businessman and detached father. Even his dismissive crack about the Triad’s reputation for rationality (or lack thereof) seems far too wry and put-upon for a standard crime lord. The hope is that his relative normalcy here will make the reveal of his true colors next week all the more jarring. Penikett, for his part, channels all the self-righteousness he used for Helo and Agent Ballard into Salvati, a true believer in mafia loyalty who of course is also a complete psychopath. The role seems a shade too small for someone with Penikett’s genre pedigree, but Arrow makes perfect use of Penikett’s flair for characters who will always say and do what others won’t. That the show flips what is usually a virtue of his characters into a lethal vice is just one neat trick in an episode that has quite a fair few of them.
- Although the Barrowman reveal remains fairly ludicrous, credit to the show for an earlier scene where he tells Moira that Thea let him into the house. That detail makes a lot more sense once it becomes clear that he’s Tommy’s dad, and so presumably a longstanding family friend.
- I suppose Tommy’s newfound poverty is one possible engine to transform him into the villainous Merlyn, as per his comics alter ego. I hope not, if only because it would be a little weird for Arrow to suggest quite so direct a link between not having money and turning evil, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.
- “Yeah, well, I’ve seen her on the web. You’ve made quite the sacrifice.” I hope John Diggle’s gig as Arrow’s partner isn’t going to permanently sideline him, but at least he gets a few good zingers in. David Ramsey’s enjoyably dickish delivery really sells it. I also love the idea that Diggle spends his time Googling random Starling City socialities.