Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow swerves the audience even as its subplots stumble

Illustration for article titled Arrow swerves the audience even as its subplots stumble

I can’t in good conscience call it a shocking twist that Adrian Chase turns out to be Prometheus instead of Vigilante. That may sound surprising—perhaps even a tad hypocritical—given my previous assumption that Vigilante’s secret identity would be Chase, his comics alter ego. And, in fairness, tonight’s episode does a brilliant job with its Chase misdirect. Before tonight, Arrow has shown us flashes of Chase’s mental instability and propensity for violence, but it avoided suggesting any real connections between Chase and either of the city’s murderous villains. That changes tonight, though, as “Fighting Fire With Fire” does all it can to tease a reveal of Chase as Vigilante. He pointedly disappears just before Vigilante attacks the limousine, and he just as pointedly shows up in the immediate aftermath, all before displaying plenty of menace as he takes the piece of Vigilante’s visor off Dinah. After spending little time at all on even asking the question of Vigilante’s alter ego, Arrow shifts gears and appears to solve the mystery in short order. Chase is Vigilante. No big surprise there. Except, after a short confrontation between Prometheus and Vigilante, the misdirect is revealed, and Chase shows himself to be Prometheus instead.

It’s a terrific moment, a well-executed swerve after all the first act’s clues. And while I don’t mean to take anything away from its immediate effectiveness, it still isn’t that surprising if you consider this Arrow season as a whole. It’s just a basic question of how storytelling works. The fact that Prometheus’ identity is mysterious means there has to be a reveal, and that reveal has to have an impact. As Lex Luthor learned on Justice League Unlimited, there’s not much point to learning somebody’s secret identity if it turns out to be just some random guy you don’t know. Unless Prometheus is a big returning character—all the Tommy Merlyn theorists out there, I see you—he really has to be a major character from this season. And once Billy Malone got killed off, Adrian Chase was left as the only male character with significant enough screen time for it to make dramatic sense to reveal him as Prometheus. If you’re willing to fudge the details with respect to what we learned from Prometheus’ mother, I guess you could consider a couple female candidates—Susan Williams and Talia, mostly, both of whom are still at least theoretically in play for Vigilante, though neither feels at all likely beyond the simple fact of their prominence in the season.

But no, the answer really has to be Adrian Chase, and it’s only a certain default fealty to the comics source material among a section of the fans—myself included—that made that anything but the most obvious thing in the world. While I realize that sounds critical, this is actually an effort to locate just what is so impressive about the Adrian Chase reveal. It’s a twist that is shocking in the moment, yet instantly yields to the satisfaction that it could not possibly have been anything else. And unlike past Arrowverse reveals—The Flash has a particularly nasty habit of this—tonight’s episode doesn’t overegg the twist, having Chase unmask at the end of the episode and then stringing out his in-universe unmasking for a bit longer. Instead, Chase instantly ratchets up the creepiness and ends the episode by threatening Susan Williams, with the teaser for the next episode indicating that it’s all about to kick off between Adrian and Oliver. This is all just good, solid escalation of the story, even if Vigilante now feels even more preposterously mysterious than he was before, and not necessarily in a particularly compelling way.

As for the rest of the episode, the big questions tonight concern the states of Thea and Felicity. The former proves herself still more ruthless than she was last week, prepared to blackmail a councilman if it will help Oliver remain mayor. Her argument is a classic articulation of the ends justifying the means, with Oliver’s work as mayor so important he must remain in office at any cost. (Considering all previous mayors are some combination of assassination victims and supervillains, she may not be entirely wrong here.) Willa Holland channels a little bit of Susanna Thompson tonight, as Thea once again finds the role of Moira Queen comes all too naturally to her. It’s a little frustrating that Oliver never really calls out the obvious logical hole in her argument, that there’s no value in keeping Oliver in office if she has to commit increasingly unspeakable crimes to accomplish that feat. Then again, Oliver’s main job is as a self-appointed vigilante, so perhaps Arrow doesn’t have the moral grounding to really make a case against the ends justifying the means.

The trouble is that, without that, a lot of Oliver and Diggle’s arguments to Thea and Felicity can sound like haughty lecturing. Everyone admits that neither Thea nor Felicity is really considering anything worse than what anyone else has ever done. (I mean, blackmailing a councilman over his wife’s suicide is low, but Oliver has still killed more people than I can count, so he’s still done way worse.) Oliver at least locates his objection in terms of a concern for what will happen to Thea, saying she can’t hope to keep playing with fire without eventually getting burned. That’s a decent argument, and one Thea takes to heart when she resigns at episode’s end, explicitly comparing her current obsession with dirty politics to her bloodlust last season. The show’s argument for Felicity, though, is less compelling.

First off, I’ve got to call bullshit on the idea that Felicity’s superpower isn’t computers—computers are so obviously her superpower, and it’s staggering to suggest otherwise. Worse is the suggestion that her superpower is instead empathy, as it’s hard to separate that suggestion from the stereotypically feminine connotations around empathy as a character trait. Arrow has been walking a tightrope the last couple weeks, with the two most prominent male characters repeatedly telling the two most prominent female characters that they shouldn’t lower themselves to the same depths the male characters have, with Felicity especially been held up as a kind of token morally upright person to balance out the rest of the team.


Which, sure, that’s the least generous reading, and Arrow certainly isn’t arguing Oliver and John go to these darker places because they’re stronger or something. The Thea and Felicity subplots these last couple weeks have both made good sense for their overall character arcs, and it’s only when viewed in the context of each other that they start to feel a tad uncomfortable. The inadvertent subtext of these scenes need not be the result of any specific decisions made in the writing of this episode, but rather simply the residue of the show’s basic structure, in which all the characters’ purposes and motivations revolve around those of the male protagonist. That Arrow often avoids such unfortunate implications in its storytelling is to its credit, but Felicity’s story in particular is struggling to get off the ground.

Hell, for those who recoil at any discussion of social context, I can articulate this in purely narrative terms. Felicity’s growing association with Helix is the kind of murky, ambiguous storyline that requires the narrative agency reserved for a protagonist to work—Felicity needs the narrative space to screw this up and solve the problem all on her own. As it stands, her current place on the show makes it hard to see the inevitable Helix disaster as anything other than a way for her to disappoint Oliver and give him a problem to solve. Arrow is still putting out what are overall compelling, entertaining episodes, but it’s struggling to see Felicity outside of the context of Oliver, which was just about workable (leaving aside questions about what Felicity’s prominence ought to be) when the show was busy building up the new team, but it’s a potential liability when she’s being sent off to her own big, possibly self-destructive plotline. Think Laurel’s drinking problems, except with more hacking.


Stray observations

  • All that said, this episode gave us the damn T spheres at long last. I’m a happy man. Also, Curtis and Rene’s interactions had a nicely improvisational quality to it, which was a fun change of pace.
  • At this point, I’m really struggling to come up with a suspect for Vigilante. Are we down to Captain Pike as a top contender by default at this point? I was even seriously wondering whether Curtis’ (soon to be ex-)husband Paul could be our man.
  • I’ll admit I’m still not totally sure about Oliver’s decision to out the Green Arrow as a cop killer, but I guess I’m prepared to see where he goes with this.