Arrow: 402 “The Candidate” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Arrow wiped the slate clean last week for the introduction of what seemed like a fresh new version of the show, spearheaded by the introduction of the lighter and more hopeful Green Arrow. His villainous counterpart, Damien Dahrk, also received a pretty encouraging introduction, with an intriguing if slightly off-kilter mystery instantly established regarding Dahrk’s powers. So, with those solid foundations laid, did Arrow build upon them in episode two?
In many ways, it did, and The Candidate did display that this new version of Arrow appears to be a genuine success. The more light-hearted version of Oliver continues to inject levity and pathos where dull and turgid moping previously filled the gap, and there’s a really notable difference in every one of Oliver’s scenes this week. He packs Felicity’s lunch, he jokes around with the titular mayoral candidate, and at episode’s end he announces his intention to run for mayor – Oliver from seasons one to three would never even have thought of doing these things, so this version feels like an extremely welcome refresh for the character that The Candidate shows clearly works on a continuous basis. Likewise, there’s a heightened comic-book sheen to affairs throughout the episode – the plot cleverly and self-consciously uses the thoroughly ridiculous concept of Star City’s mayors constantly dying as a key plot point, and the final battle involves Anarky being defeated by being set on fire. It’s silly, but consciously so, showing a smart stylistic evolution from the grittier previous season without losing the gravitas and grounded emotion that’s distinguished this show from The Flash.
The Candidate also showed some strong progression from some of the conflicts set up last week. Thea’s Lazarus Pit side effects were merely a footnote last week, but The Candidate does a good job of putting some meat on the bones. Admittedly, the sight of Thea punishing criminals in an extreme way wore thin further every time Arrow pulled that trick, but Willa Holland does a decent job of showing a Thea who’s slowly but surely falling off the rails and descending into becoming a pure psychopath (even if her snarling in her fight with Oliver veered into unintentionally funny territory), and there’s a really effective shock factor to the moment where Thea zaps Anarky, lighting him on fire. It’s a good way to push along Oliver’s growing realisation that the Green Arrow alone can’t be an inspiration, puncturing his idealism without truly tearing it apart (I’d rather we had optimistic Ollie for a solid amount of time before the eventual angst returns). It also dovetails nicely into the episode’s cliffhanger as Laurel discovers the existence of the Lazarus Pit, showing that the often irritating penchant for unnecessary secret-keeping on Arrow has actually helped to nudge along the story for once, rather than hinder its progress. Arrow is yet to provide a satisfying answer as to why Thea’s side effects are only resurfacing now – but with a clear acknowledgement of that issue this episode, an answer is presumably forthcoming.
Likewise, The Candidate actually provides a satisfying continuation to a plot point that appeared to be tired and repetitive last week – Captain Lance’s cynicism surrounding Ollie. In the premiere, it appeared to be an uninspired rehash of Lance’s subplot last season (compounded by the frankly weird moment where Lance was revealed as a mole for Damien Darkh), but The Candidate does a considerably better job of justifying Lance’s actions and presenting him as a reasonable character once more. He actually gives Oliver a chance to prove himself here, and the subsequent lighting on fire incident gives Arrow a genuinely logical reason for continuing Lance’s distrust of vigilantes – it’s based upon Oliver seemingly failing to prove himself as a different hero, rather than the disproportionate and hazily defined grudge we had last season. Lance’s dispute with Oliver feels toned down and less showy this week, meaning that it feels like an actual subplot here and therefore doesn’t threaten to overshadow the more immediately important plots.
Felicity’s plot this week is marred a little by the fact that it’s undoubtedly simplistic and rushed, presenting generic and clichéd corrupt executives rather than any particularly interesting or nuanced figures for Felicity to butt heads against, but there’s a trump card here – the introduction of Echo Kellum as Curtis Holt, the future Mr Terrific. Holt is an effervescent presence, playing off Emily Bett Rickards well without feeling like a gender-swapped clone of Felicity. Alongside the more light-hearted Oliver and the return to the quippy Felicity of seasons one and two, the introduction of characters like Curtis Holt shows that Arrow’s unafraid to present seceral sunny and optimistic characters who are just purely fun to watch – we’re a far cry from Ray Palmer being the only remotely light-hearted character on the show. The introduction of the openly gay Curtis also helps to naturally increase the diversity on Arrow – alongside Captain Singh from The Flash, it’s pleasing that the powers that be are striving for greater LGBT representation on both shows (it also means that there’ll be no tired love triangle between Ollie, Curtis and Felicity, which is a bonus).
Unfortunately, all the strong material in The Candidate is inhibited a little by the fact that the main plot is paint-by-numbers stuff, as Jeri Ryan’s mayoral candidate is menaced by Lonnie Machin aka Anarky. We’ve seen an awful lot of this before – the kidnapped daughter, the generally psychopathic villain and the abandoned warehouse base are all staple elements of Arrow that have been wheeled out again and again to the point of tedium. It’s compounded by the dull nature of Anarky – the introduction of this relatively famous Batman villain was a great chance to link into the political themes flagged up by the introduction of the mayoral candidate and provide a meaty political debate whereby there’s no truly correct answer. What we get, however is an utterly bland villain with no personality or motivations, who also happens to be a pretty pitiful adaptation of a popular comic book bad guy, so this show’s much-hyped adaptation of Anarky (announced to much fanfare back at San Diego Comic Con) proves to be a waste of a unique and intriguing villain. There’s glimmers of hope here, as Anarky escapes leading his trademark ‘A’ tag, raising the prospect of a more faithful and unique return for the character later on, but Anarky is a lazy and frankly boring bad guy for Oliver to square off against. The appearance of Damien Darkh does little to elevate affairs – Neal McDonough continues to be enjoyably malevolent, but Darkh is undoubtedly crowbarred into this episode in a pretty awkward and contrived manner that doesn’t push forward the ongoing HIVE plot at all, and therefore fails to add a bit of colour to Anarky’s plot.
It’s reflected in the main plot, really, which despite the strong subplots and character work surrounding, fails to create much suspense or excitement. The plot moves at a fair clip, but there’s no real intrigue to it all, with the interesting issue of Anarky’s scrambled fingerprints being handwaved away by ‘Felicity magic’ and the plot stopping abruptly in a short, if relatively exciting final fight. Considering the final reveal, the intentions of Jessica Danforth’s mayoral candidacy as a plot point are perfectly clear, but Arrow could have portrayed the road to Oliver standing for mayor in a more original and exciting manner, instead of the generic, if entertaining plot we had here.
The Candidate does close out on a couple of intriguing revelations, however. The idea of Oliver running for mayor seems ridiculous at first glance, but it’s actually a clever way to find a way to bring Oliver Queen back as a public figure. Arrow has always struggled with this – the playboy shtick of season one was unashamedly Batman-lite and product of the Dark Knight-aping days, and the identity crisis of season three basically left no room at all for Oliver Queen to exist as a separate identity – but it might just have landed upon a good way to utilise the Green Arrow’s alter ego here. It’s a plot point faithful to the comics, which helps, but it’s also a chance to really show how Oliver has changed as a person in a meaningful and detailed manner, and a chance to actually use the secret identity again to set up conflicts with characters like Damien Dahrk (who’s not afraid to go public himself) in and out of the costume. Truth be told, Arrow set itself a fairly high barrier to leap in terms of ridiculousness when recently convicted Moira ran for mayor in season two, so Oliver standing for mayor at this point actually feels feasible and realistic in comparison.
Admittedly, I was wary of the trumpeted set-up for Legends of Tomorrow that Arrow has to do in the season’s first half. Could plot points that are really in service of a separate show have meaning and consequence within Arrow (and The Flash, for that matter) itself? The Candidate certainly helped to alleviate a little of that, by giving a scenario for Laurel to resurrect Sara that directly links into Thea’s Lazarus Pit side effects. Resurrecting Sara is a hugely risky prospect that could completely undermine a death that underscored all of season three, but the beginnings of that plotline here are more relevant to Arrow than I expected – if I was unaware of Legends of Tomorrow, I doubt I would be aware that this was set-up for a spin-off, and that’s certainly an indication that Arrow is moving in the right direction with this mandated set-up. Can it actually follow through when Sara is resurrected in the next couple of episodes? As ever, time will tell…
A generic A-plot and bland take on Anarky don’t overshadow an episode packed with intrigue and solid writing, but they do pull this episode down from the bull’s-eye it could have been to a mere red on the target (I apologise for that).