Arrow: 404 “Beyond Redemption” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
This week’s episode of Arrow looked like a shaky one on paper. A generous focus on Captain Lance, a character who’s still interesting but possesses frustratingly inconsistent characterisation and a continuation of the haphazard Sara resurrection arc hinted towards an episode that could have slowed the solid momentum season four has built up. Did these uncertain parts coalesce into a satisfying whole?
Though it’s considerably less flashy than its predecessors (no comic book villain here), Beyond Redemption was a triumphant showcase of how great Arrow can be as a piece of drama. The action sequences we had entertained, but it was the impressive thematic depth and superb character work that really elevated this episode to unexpected heights. Undoubtedly, the main success story here was Captain Lance, who took centre stage for the first time this season. Season four has so far left Lance in a holding position, circling above and patiently waiting for a new place for the story to take him so he can land (terrible metaphor, apologies), but Beyond Redemption was a great soft reboot of sorts for the character that thoroughly justified his continued existence on the show after several narrative possibilities had already been exhausted.
What’s great about Lance this episode is that the status quo for the character was entirely inverted. Here, we see a broken and destitute man who’s even shed of the moral superiority he used as a weapon in season three. We’ve seen a broken Lance before, but never like this – this was uncharted waters for the character, meaning that all the material felt entirely fresh, which is unusual for a character who has been subject to a great deal of storyline recycling in the past. Paul Blackthorne is asked to do a great deal here, but he crushes it, with a fantastic performance that showcases his considerable talents like never before. His performance never dips into simplicity, with Blackthorne consistently displaying the volatile mix of emotions that Lance is feeling – in every scene, Blackthorne is committing to something far more nuanced and complex than just ‘being sad’. His almost shooting of Sara is a true highlight here, as Blackthorne segues from resigned determination to confusion to being completely and utterly lost as Lance breaks down entirely without missing a beat. Stephen Amell matches him, too, in an electric scene between the two as Oliver confronts Lance over his relationship with Damien Darkh. Amell has grown considerably as an actor over the course of the show, and it’s doubtful that he would have conveyed Oliver’s shocked fury and disappointment at his father figure (of sorts) in a particularly compelling manner in season one. Here, however, he more than holds his own against Paul Blackthorne, creating a scene that’s undoubtedly one of the strongest of the scene so far, as sharp writing mixes with two excellent performances.
Beyond Redemption is also the most thematically sound and tightly written episode of the season. The title is pretty appropriate for an episode that’s all about the broken city and the desperate things its citizens are now forced to do – a great way of acknowledging the show’s longevity and the sheer number of terrible things that have happened to the city. It’s a theme that permeates every aspect of the episode, creating a sense of unity that even justifies the relatively weak corrupt cops who occupy the villainous role here. Sure, they’re fairly dull and pretty unthreatening, but they work excellently as a visual representation of Star City’s corroding effects, tying in neatly into Lance’s character arc for a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. Unusually for Arrow, this theme goes hand in hand with a generous dollop of hope here. The broken city is displayed well through Lance’s moral destitution and the corrupt cops, but Arrow refuses to slip into nihilism, ending on a pleasingly hopeful message that the city can be dragged out of the darkness. What emerges is a balanced, satisfying exploration of a broken city that acts as a fusion of sorts between the gritty, downbeat tone of last season and the lighter, more optimistic tone of this season.
Impressively, Beyond Redemption even manages to make something of the previously nonsensical Sara arc by placing Laurel’s vaguely demented determination out of focus and holding back on actually showing Sara for chunks of the episode, and instead integrating it all into Captain Lance’s character arc, with his sparing of Sara acting as the moment the entire episode hinges on. It’s a storytelling choice that sidesteps the feeling that it’s all shameless set-up that’s only benefiting Legends of Tomorrow due to the fact that Sara is intrinsically linked to the character arc of Lance, someone who I thoroughly doubt will be popping up frequently on Legends (I wouldn’t mind that, come to think of it). It washes a bit of the bitter taste of last episode away by once again putting Arrow first, and this sense of improvement is compounded by the slower-burn approach to the plot. There’s no longer a sense that Arrow is frantically trying to get this plotline out of the way – instead, it’s actually being mined for the surprisingly large amount of drama that it can yield, mostly with Captain Lance. Sara will doubtless scuttle off soon enough (probably next episode), but while Arrow has her it’s logical that it take advantage of the potential this development has for pushing forward character arcs, and therefore it’s great that the show is now doing exactly that.
There were also some solid developments for other, slightly more peripheral ongoing storylines. Beyond Redemption pushes forward Oliver’s mayoral candidacy a great deal, making a pretty reasonable case as to why Oliver could actually be a credible candidate by tackling doubts about the idea head-on. His speech is perhaps a little too on the nose, spelling out the episode’s themes in a slightly didactic manner (and that opening monologue really doesn’t work as well in actual dialogue), but it ties in neatly enough with the episode’s overarching themes, and dovetails into the Lance plot by actually giving Oliver the moral high ground over Lance for once, allowing Oliver to recruit Lance for a potentially deadly undercover mission within HIVE. Likewise, the second piece of Legends set-up appears to be chugging along nicely, if slowly, as Felicity confronted the idea of listening to Ray’s last words. Once again, this is a piece of set-up that’s being exploited for the genuine dramatic potential it has, and Beyond Redemption does a great job of showing Felicity’s internal struggle as she’s faced with the chance to hear her ex-boyfriend’s last words. This is a plotline that really doesn’t need to be rushed either, so the slow pace of the plotline this episode is a boon rather than a slog, with Arrow wisely ensuring that it doesn’t miss a great opportunity to wrap up an arc (Felicity and Ray) that never really got a satisfying conclusion in season four.
What didn’t work here were the flashbacks, which are becoming a perennial problem even as the present day story motors ahead. They’re a tad more interesting than the sluggish and insipid Hong Kong flashbacks, but there’s still a definite sense that Oliver’s island adventures are meandering and dawdling between each plot point. It’s not as if the plot is particularly interesting, either, even ignoring the slow pace – the drug harvesting storyline is a pretty colourless one that’s yielding passable but painfully average results. There’s just not that much intrigue or excitement currently, with the entire story sapped of the vitality and energy the present day story now has in spades. With the flashbacks having lost their links to the present day, what we have here is simply a boring and uninteresting subplot that’s beginning to weigh down the show as a whole.
Despite the flashbacks, there’s a real sense here that season four is a lot more sure itself than season three ever was. The pacing is moving at a fair clip, yet there’s still plenty of time for introspective examination of characters – and there appears to be a hell of a lot more to come. First up? There appears to be a bit of a need for assistance, seeing as a feral Sara has just escaped captivity. Who better to call than an expert in dark magic and restoring souls – hello, John Constantine…
Season four takes a great leap forward with Beyond Redemption, an excellent character-based instalment featuring some fantastic performances and some of the most incisive and intriguing character work yet. The flashbacks continue to be an issue, but there’s a real feeling now that Arrow has a genuine chance of reclaiming the form of season two…