Tonight’s episode of Arrow, “Dead to Rights”, was written by Geoff Johns and directed by Glen Winter. Johns also co-wrote the teleplay to “Muse of Fire” with Mark Guggenheim, an episode that also featured both Tommy (Colin Donnell) and Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman) and Moira (Susanna Thompson). Johns’ script and Winter’s direction resulted in an episode that delivered a number of terrific performances from Donnell, Barrowman, Thompson, and Stephen Amell. This was Winter’s first time directing, and I felt his strongest scenes were the more emotional, character-driven ones. The initial fight sequence was good, though it felt like the helicopter got in the way, but I felt the fight sequence with China White (Kelly Hu) was too choppy and cut up to really enjoy or appreciate.
This episode was very much about trust and the bonds of family, and that played into every character’s decisions. The loss of a family member and the subsequently strained relationship with a parent was a theme that touched on Tommy’s relationship with his father, Oliver’s relationship with his father, and Laurel’s relationship with her mother. In addition, Diggle (David Ramsey) is also confronted with his brother’s death again when Lawton/Deadshot (Michael Rowe) turns up alive. Ramsey is terrific in the scene when Oliver breaks the news to Diggle. I’m also very much enjoying the chemistry between Diggle and Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). It feels very much like the team is becoming a family themselves, especially as Diggle begins training Smoak to be able to defend herself in the event she has to fight to protect herself.
One of the things about the show that has impressed me from the beginning is the complexity of the characters. This is a tribute to both the writing and the acting on the show. The characters are anything but black and white, stereotypical comic book good and bad guys. Instead, they are very real characters with complex motivations, and one of the ways that this manifests itself is in how difficult it is to label a character either good or bad. This in itself holds a mirror to the Vigilante. Is he bad, for committing violence, or good, for defending the city?
Up to this episode, Malcolm Merlyn seemed to be the straightforward bad guy as the head of the “Undertaking” and as the Dark Archer. He seemed to have no fatherly feelings towards Tommy and even tried to get Tommy to disband the charity that his mother had set up. This episode shows Malcolm as the head of the “Undertaking”, telling his fellow conspirators that “There is hope on the horizon. We won’t fail this city.” Yet, while making his speech for Humanitarian of the Year award he says “I haven’t done enough for this city. I’ve failed it. I’m going to do more.” This echoes Oliver’s tagline to the villains that “You have failed this city.”
Malcolm also refers to his wife Rebecca’s death in his speech. He is obviously still very affected by her death. When the attempt on his life comes, Malcolm is most concerned about getting Tommy to safety. He reveals his fighting skills to Tommy when he disarms and then kills some of the attackers. Tommy is stunned. Malcolm is about to reveal his alter ego to Tommy in the secret chamber in his office when Deadshot prevents him from doing so. However, Malcolm does finally open up to Tommy in the hospital and reveals that when he went missing after Rebecca’s death, he was on Nanda Parbat. He tells Tommy that “I found a man who helped me find a purpose for my life to make this city better for everyone.” Nanda Parbat is a fictional city in the DC universe that has featured in several comics as a place of healing and enlightenment.
Malcolm’s story seems to eerily parallel Oliver’s. It seems that Malcolm’s intentions may have started out in an effort to do good, to avenge the death of his wife. Oliver saves Malcolm twice: once as Malcolm and Tommy flee through the hallways, and once by identifying the poison and getting Tommy to do the transfusion. Both times, Malcolm seems unhappy that it is the Hood saving him. It’s possible that he feels guilty for having tried to kill the Hood, but it seemed more like he simply didn’t want the Hood to be the one to save him. John Barrowman does a fantastic job in this episode. It would be very easy for him to play Malcolm over the top and his restrained and sincere performance kept me guessing as to his true feelings. Given how campy Barrowman was as Captain Jack in Torchwood (which I loved), I was concerned initially about how he would play Merlyn, but he completely put those concerns to rest in this episode.
Moira also continues to be intriguing. Thompson is likewise doing a marvelous job keeping the audience guessing. It’s clear that Malcolm, based on his asking Moira to dinner after the awards ceremony, would like their relationship to be something more, which makes getting Robert and Walter out of the way even more sinister. Moira, for her part, is able to keep a completely false face to Malcolm even as she executes his assassination. Yet, as she is getting ready for the awards ceremony, her hands are shaking so badly that she can barely get her earrings on. Winter frames a great response shot of Thompson’s face in the crowd at the ceremony of Moira’s anguished realization that Tommy is in the audience and is about to witness his father’s assassination. We’ve already learned at this point that Tommy virtually grew up in the Queen household, so this is a nice touch that Moira appears to have a maternal concern over Tommy. It is, of course, ironic that Malcolm tasks Moira with finding the traitor. I suspect that poor Frank, her co-conspirator, will be offered up in order to save her own skin.
Another mother joins the cast this week as Laurel (Katie Cassidy) is confronted at the end of the episode by her own mother, Dinah, played by Alex Kingston. Laurel has been ignoring phone calls from her mother throughout the episode, so she shows up on Laurel’s doorstep. It’s a nice parallel to Tommy’s rebuff of Malcolm when he shows up at Laurel’s doorstep during Tommy’s birthday party. We also learn during the party that Sara had a black canary as a pet growing up. Black Canary is prominent love interest for the Green Arrow in the comics but her alter ego is actually Dinah Laurel Lance. It’s unlikely that the Black Canary will end up being Dinah, but as the pet was Sara’s, it will be interesting going forward to see just who does end up being the Black Canary.
My favorite moments in this episode come between Oliver and Tommy, but before I rave about those, I want to mention again what an amazing performance Stephen Amell is turning in week after week. It’s important to note that episodes are shot over an eight day period and that includes all the scenes for a particular episode, so it’s not as if all of the flashbacks were shot at one time. What this means is that Amell has had to keep two separate but related character evolutions in his head at one time. We are seeing a very gradual change in Oliver on the Island from the spoiled rich kid who knew nothing about survival and who cared about no one but himself to the accomplished fighter and survivalist who left the Island while at the same time we are seeing a gradual change in present day Oliver from the estranged, cut off and guarded man who returned from the Island to the warmer and more caring man he is becoming. Amell delivers yet another nuanced performance as two very different facets of the same character.
In this week’s flashbacks, Slade (Manu Bennett) attempts to get Oliver to train to be able to fight – it’s pretty hysterical given the now famous salmon runs to watch Oliver fail to do four basic pull ups. He is, however, able to fix the radio enough for them to be able to overhear Fyers latest plan – or at least that he is planning something. Oliver’s knowledge of The Odyssey comes in handy again. I love the chemistry between Bennett and Amell and the comic moments that help to lighten the tension, such as when Slade suggests Oliver collect bamboo so they can build a boat like the characters did on Gilligan’s Island. It’s unclear exactly what Fyers is up to at the end of the episode with the missile launcher or what Oliver and Slade will do to stop it.
I thought that every scene between Donnell and Amell was terrific. Their banter and body language are perfect for best friends who grew up like brothers. I love their whispered relief that Laurel hadn’t cooked the birthday dinner. Both actors also knocked it out of the park in the scene in the Chinese restaurant. Oliver is supportive of Tommy’s decision not to want to have anything to do with Malcolm, but he also wisely advises him that whatever else happens, Malcolm is always going to be Tommy’s father. Tommy obviously has a somewhat romanticized memory of Oliver’s childhood, and tells Oliver that Robert was much more of a father to him than Malcolm ever was. Oliver tells Tommy, “I have a lot of anger still at my Dad, but at the end of the day, he’s still your Dad.” Tommy, of course, has no idea just how complicated Oliver’s relationship with his father is – including Oliver’s vow to honor his father’s dying wish and his mission to work his way through the list.
Yet another aside to mention the scene where Oliver gets up to “visit the restroom” and actually goes into the kitchen and takes out the guys in the back room, blinding one with hot sauce before interrogating him. The best part of the scene is when the guy tells the other bad guy that the guy who attacked him had to be Chinese because he spoke perfect Chinese! Loved Oliver simply slipping back into his chair and calling for the check!
Another powerful scene, is, of course, the big reveal. Oliver must reveal himself to Tommy in order to save Malcolm – the irony! Tommy is stunned to learn that Oliver is the Hood. Once again this parallels Tommy’s astonishment at what his own father is capable of. On leaving the building, Quentin Lance finds it curious that the Hood has once again saved Tommy and asks him, “Is this guy a friend of yours, Merlyn?” Tommy answers, “I don’t know who the hell he is.” On the face of it, Tommy is protecting Oliver’s identity – we don’t see Oliver ask him to do it, but he does it anyway. However, on a deeper level, Oliver has just proven to Tommy that Tommy doesn’t really know the Oliver who came back from the Island.
The most powerful scene in the episode, however, is the final scene between Oliver and Tommy. Both Amell and Connell deliver amazing performances. I felt for both of them. Tommy obviously feels betrayed that Oliver didn’t confide in him. While it was brutal, I was relieved that Oliver was honest with Tommy when Tommy asked if Oliver was ever going to tell him. It was only for Tommy’s own safety that Oliver kept his identity a secret. Hopefully, once Tommy thinks about it, he will be able to forgive Oliver for not telling him. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if he keeps this a secret from Laurel – I suspect strongly that he will. If he does keep it secret, it can only harm their relationship. Just as Oliver’s continuing to lie to McKenna (Janina Gavankar) can’t end well.
A lot of balls were left up in the air. What is Fyers up to? Will Tommy forgive Oliver? Will he at least continue to work in the club or will he let Malcolm give him back his trust fund? Is Sara alive? Will Laurel let Dinah back into her life? Will Moria try to kill Malcolm again or frame Frank? We have two weeks without a new episode! So lots of time to ponder all these questions... What did you think of the episode? Let me know in the comments below.