Arrow: 407 “Brotherhood” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The fourth season of Arrow has been a definite return to form for the series, but as mentioned last week it’s suffered in places from a huge amount of Legends of Tomorrow set-up, inhibiting Arrow’s ability to tell its own, natural stories. This week’s episode, Brotherhood, was almost entirely free of Legends set-up – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s one of the strongest episodes thus far this season.
Season four has gradually been nudging the spotlight back onto Diggle, who’s frequently short-changed by the show, but Brotherhood was the first time that Diggle’s truly taken centre stage this season. It’s a little unfortunate, however, that all the excellent work done with Diggle’s character this episode rested on shaky and not wholly convincing foundations. The resurrection of Andy, Diggle’s brother, makes complete sense for the emotional story Brotherhood tells, but it suffers from bad timing – we’ve had two major characters return from the dead already this season, and especially with Ray still knocking around, Andy being alive unfortunately comes very close to straining credibility entirely. It’s a comic book show, of course, but Arrow is running the risk of cheapening death as a whole if it pulls the same trick so frequently.
In fairness, it’s relatively easy to forgive the way Andy’s story mirrors recent plotlines due to the superb way his return is handled. In particular, it finally gives David Ramsey a substantial amount of material to sink his teeth into, and Ramsey steps up with a season-best performance that expertly mixes fury and shock in a way that isn’t hammy or overplayed, ensuring that the moments when Diggle does snap in anger have a genuine, unexpected impact. It’s terrific news that Arrow is giving Ramsey material worthy of his considerable talent, because he’s quietly become one of the strongest performers on an ever-improving cast.
Diggle’s struggle also allows Arrow to dip into murkier, more ambiguous material than normal. For the first proper time this season, Oliver finds his sunnier and more optimistic disposition challenged, as he seriously contemplates pulling the same trick within HIVE as he did with the League of Assassins last year. I have no desire for Arrow to return to the broodier version of Oliver who often weighed down last season, but Brotherhood manages to at least display the flickers of Oliver’s old self, assuaging the niggling issue throughout this season that Oliver’s change of disposition was a little too contrived and drastic. Oliver’s change of mind has had a pretty positive effect on the show, but it’s great to see the show expose a few flaws in his new outlook every now and then, to ensure that he doesn’t become dull in his pure righteousness.
This also allows Oliver to finally tangle with Damien Dahrk out of costume for the first time – a plot development that introduces an intriguing, entirely different new dynamic to the fray. Notably, it’s the first time in ages that Arrow has used Oliver’s secret identity for something over than manufactured drama as others struggle to figure it out – there’s genuine potential returning to Oliver’s double life, and Arrow seems to be doubling down on that potential by giving him the same villain to battle in and out of costume, using entirely different ways to try and take him down. I previously wanted Dahrk to unearth Oliver’s identity early on, but it seems as if Brotherhood is finally using Oliver’s dual life in original and interesting ways to change up the way the Dahrk/Oliver feud is handled. Plus, it means more of Neal McDonough – and as the guy has portrayed a villain to rival the very best Arrow has served up in the past, I’m not going to argue with that.
Speaking of Dahrk, Brotherhood reveals a few bits and bobs about the supervillain and his organisation whilst muddying the waters even further. The idea of the Ghosts functioning as hollowed-out husks entirely controlled by Darkh is a nicely chilling one, demonstrating Darkh’s insane megalomania while furthering our understanding of the capacities of his powers. The potential to explore the psyche of someone who’s had their entire identity and free will stolen away is huge, and Brotherhood seems to be delivering on that right away with Andy. Despite that revelation about the Ghosts, Brotherhood adds yet another layer of mystery to the shadowy goons of HIVE with Darkh’s cryptic, ambiguous comments about the Ghosts truly being ‘ghosts’. There’s multiple ways Arrow can go with this, but by far the most intriguing would be Darkh’s comment genuinely being literal – that the Ghosts have somehow been resurrected for nefarious purposes. It’s probably just that their deaths have been faked – but Arrow is accommodating both theories equally right now, deepening the mysticism of HIVE by ensuring that we know even less about them now. One of the most intriguing developments, overall, is the revelation of Dahrk’s weakness when he’s around Thea. The effect she has is ambiguous and mild enough not to undermine the careful work Arrow’s done to establish Dahrk as a powerful threat – but after seven episodes of Dahrk being virtually invincible and unknowable, a little bit of weakness is a smart addition that adds an unexpected sliver of complexity to the character.
A great deal’s been said about the directing debut of James Bamford, regular stunt co-ordinator on the show – and his debut just about lives up to the hype. The action scenes feel distinctive and stylised here, ditching the glossy and disorientating jump cuts of some of Arrow’s weaker action scenes. They’re surprisingly visceral, getting into the thick of the action rather than holding it at arm’s length, and most importantly, they’re impressively shot. There are a handful of brief fight sequences here with no cuts at all, and the camera swooping in and out of the action gives a greater feeling of high stakes by showing the effort necessary to take out the Ghosts. They’re not quite as accomplished as Daredevil for the most part, and there’s still multiple moments where a brief kick and punch takes a Ghost out entirely – but Arrow does briefly go beyond that with a terrific elevator fight scene with Thea, which really doesn’t feel that far off Daredevil’s brand of crunchy violence thanks to the scrappy and protracted nature of the brawl. Considering the limitations of Arrow’s budget compared to the extensive budget afforded to Daredevil, it’s a real indicator of Bamford’s instant knack for directing action that Arrow gets relatively close to that hallowed standard.
It would have been easy for Brotherhood to conclude with Andy’s final death or a total reconciliation with Diggle, so Arrow’s choice to take the middle path is a surprising, but effective one. It certainly doesn’t wrap up Diggle and Andy’s story with a neat bow, leaving on a surprisingly bitter note that acts as a rare occasion where Oliver was actually wrong. Considering Arrow’s heading into two episodes of zany crossover action and cliffhangers, it’s likely that it’ll take a slow burning approach to Andy’s story – but considering just how inconclusive (in a good way, mind – a clean ending would have felt unearned and simplistic) a note Brotherhood leaves Andy on, that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing for once.
There’s storytelling hiccups along the way, but Brotherhood is a resounding affirmation of how dynamic, exciting and powerful Arrow can be when it’s going full speed ahead with its own serialised stories. It’s almost a shame the progress is about to get interrupted by the crossover in a fortnight – but with everything this year’s team-up promises, it’s not exactly the end of the world.