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

Arrow: “Uprising”

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The idea of the Arrow—or of Oliver Queen, for that matter—can be a damn dangerous thing. As I touched on last week, only the Arrow could successfully position himself as Starling City’s protector, maybe even its savior. Everyone else who has donned silly costumes to fight crime has been just that: a well-intentioned person in a goofy mask. As Roy suggests in his pre-battle conversation with Laurel, he knows full well how insane all this is. The mask is just his way of crossing the proverbial Rubicon, of placing himself in a position that leaves little room for doubt. I say “little,” because it’s clear in Roy and Laurel’s body language as they face Brick that they are not without fear. They walk to their appointed hour where the Arrow would stride; Oliver’s great gift is that he can make everyone watching—both in Starling City and on the screen—forget the otherwise inescapable fact that there must be an ordinary person underneath that green getup. That makes him a powerful symbol, but it also relieves the people at large of their responsibility to defend their home. The Arrow could never ask what Arsenal and Canary end up asking of the denizens of the Glades, and not just because of pride or whatever. No, such a request just wouldn’t make any sense coming from one as seemingly all-powerful as the Arrow.

Yet the Arrow proves only an incidental player in the uprising, concerning himself mainly with a last-ditch effort to save whatever remains of Malcolm Merlyn’s soul. And, crucially, the Arrow uses his post-victory speech to beg forgiveness of the people for his absence, to promise them that he will never abandon them again, and to tell them that they once again rest easy, for he is once again there. Now, make no mistake, this isn’t a bad thing. Starling City survived without the Arrow for a month, but only by the slimmest of margins. One successful rebellion in the Glades is not proof that Starling City no longer needs the Arrow. The troublesome aspect is more in how the Arrow invites the townspeople to see themselves and their vigilante protector. He doesn’t totally elide the bravery the common folk have shown tonight, but he comes close. This isn’t arrogance. Rather, it’s born of Oliver’s sincere but almost certainly wrongheaded belief that he bear the entire weight of the world—or at least Starling City—upon his shoulders.

I must admit, I had wondered whether the occasion of Oliver’s return to Starling City would provide the necessary impetus for him to adopt the character’s true name—Green Arrow—with the more lighthearted outlook such a moniker requires. Felicity was hoping for something like that as well, at least that last bit, as she notes she had allowed herself to hope during Oliver’s long absence that he was alive and that he would return changed. And really, what the still theoretical adoption of a name like Green Arrow—or more emotionally available interactions with Felicity—implies is a far greater clarity and strength of purpose than anything we have yet seen. Oliver moved from the Hood to the Arrow when he realized that he had to stand for something more than murderous vengeance, but the challenge now is whether he can keep bending his no-kill rule when the situation demands it. There’s definitely some tonal whiplash here: After all, it was Felicity who worried not so long ago that Oliver would have the ability but not the willingness to kill Ra’s al Ghul. Now, the positions reverse, and all we are really left to conclude is that Felicity and Oliver alike remain deeply confused about what it is they truly want, both of each other and of themselves. At least Felicity can recognize the role she had positioned herself to play, and how ill-equipped Oliver is to protect those he loves.

But again, this is why it’s so tricky to turn Oliver into a symbol. Felicity tries to live by the ideals she believes Oliver died for, whereas Roy tries to move past Oliver’s shadow, though only to define himself as standing outside it; after all, his advocacy for allying with Malcolm Merlyn is less a positive argument for Malcolm’s reform—though that’s in there, borderline incoherent as it is—than a negative acknowledgement of the limits the team has without Oliver there to lead them. We don’t see the deliberations, so there’s plenty of room for interpretation here, but it feels telling that Diggle is the one to turn down Malcolm, and he does so on the grounds that the team cannot let the ends justify the means. There’s no mention of Oliver in this argument, either as the example to which Diggle aspires or as the missing leader that can only be replaced with Malcolm’s general murderousness. By the second half of “Uprising,” Oliver has started to transform in the eyes of his team not unlike what he sees Tommy as: a cherished memory and an inspiration, but not the leader from beyond the grave. Oliver’s return, and his immediate admission that he is working with Malcolm to prepare for the return of Ra’s al Ghul, is a stark reminder of just how dangerous it is to assume one understands the inner workings of a mind that messed up. After all, Malcolm tells Oliver how much killing robs a person of his soul, and Oliver still has a lot of bodies on his conscience. Maybe the Arrow can transcend that long enough to convince Malcolm of a better way, but Oliver is another matter.

This notion of confronting grim truths runs throughout “Uprising,” with John Barrowman sporting what can only be termed a heroically ‘90s haircut to portray the grieving, pre-League version of Malcolm Merlyn. Given how crazy a journey the flashback Malcolm has to go on in just a few short scenes—from comforting the young Tommy to pulling a coin out of the young Nyssa’s ear—it’s to the episode’s great credit that the moment of transformation feels as plausible as it does. After all, the younger Malcolm never does get that confession he so desperately wants, and the reason why he doesn’t speaks so directly to what drives him to the League: He is far too raw and untrained to hold his own in a fight, let alone extract vital information, yet he is angry enough to pull the trigger. Unlike Oliver, who at least was forced by circumstance to become a killer, Malcolm chooses to prove that he is capable of doing what the lowlife believes he cannot do, and he chooses to flee Starling City to go on some journey of post-murder discovery. It’s easy to see the contours of the present-day Malcolm in this flashback version, and perhaps even the seeds of his eventual undoing.

Then there’s Captain Lance. There’s no funnier moment in “Uprising” than his immediate recognition that Arsenal is Roy Harper, and his general amusement at the goofy codenames speaks volumes about how hard it is to respect the team in the Arrow’s absence. Yet, Sin immediately recognizes what Lance apparently has not, that the Canary is not Sara. (Technically, she says the Canary is not Lance’s daughter, which manages to be both completely wrong and totally correct, but let’s leave that for another time.) Perhaps Lance really has always known, much as he’s always known that Oliver is the Arrow—or at least he would know these things if he bothered to think them through for even a moment. So much of Starling City’s safety rests on these transient illusions of vigilantes who are somehow not just people running around in silly costumes. Lance, intentionally or not, has managed to persuade himself that the Arrow is just the Arrow, and perhaps that has helped him not realize that this new Canary is not Sara. But this illusion looks set to shatter, and seriously, that’s not going to end well. I’m not sure anything is, at the rate we’re going.


Stray observations:

  • Oh, Sin, how we’ve all missed you. Also, nice save there, with Lance mentioning he hadn’t seen her in ages, followed by Sin immediately changing the subject.
  • I’m a little surprised the show didn’t elect to string out the Brick plotline a bit longer, but I suppose the blighter had so escalated the situation that it really did need to be resolved pronto, before all Starling City descended into chaos.
  • I am already dreading what Oliver is going to have to sacrifice to defeat Ra’s al Ghul. I invite any and all Arrow oddsmakers to assess who or what are the most likely candidates. Just know that all my money is on the salmon ladder.