Arrow: 409 “Dark Waters” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
For nine weeks now, Oliver and Team Arrow have been locked in a perpetual duel. They’ve confronted each other many times, but it’s always ended in an escape from one side, and the conflict has never really developed into something deeply personal as it was with Slade Wilson and, to an extent, Ra’s al Ghul. Suffice to say, that by the end of this mid-season finale, things got real personal, real fast.
Arrow has always had a flair for delivering exciting, tense mid-season finales with a hell of a cliffhanger, regardless of the quality of the episodes surrounding it. Season four’s gotten off to a stronger start than perhaps any other season yet (yes, even season two, which reached its fabled highs well into the second half), so it’s not surprising that Dark Waters was a taut conclusion to this greatly improved run of episodes, even if, much like The Flash, it didn’t reach the cracking heights of last year’s barn-storming winter finale. Nonetheless, this was one of the strongest episodes thus far in this season, despite a couple of niggles.
It honestly feels like a long time since we’ve seen Damien Dahrk properly considering the week break and the Flash crossover, and it was, as ever, a delight to watch Neil McDonough’s gleeful performance. Dark Waters (which, as many have pointed out, missed a trick by not being called ‘Dahrk Waters’) really stepped up its game regarding Dahrk however by making it completely apparent just how depraved and villainous the guy really is. Dahrk is such a fun villain that it’s easy to forget that he’s actually a pretty disturbing character – the first villain the show has served up who takes a sadistic glee in his actions. Dark Waters really takes this aspect up to eleven, underlining the enormous threat Dahrk poses to Oliver by showing him at his most despicable and evil, attempting to gas Oliver’s friends while Oliver looks on. It’s all very well and good to have a jokey, quipping villain who enjoys his work (and Dark Waters still serves up plenty of that), but it’s important to ground that sense of fun in an underlying notion that the villain is a hugely twisted human being. Dahrk really is at his most threatening and psychotic here (when beating Oliver to a pulp, he’s briefly scary), and it’s a fitting portrayal for his biggest episode since the season premiere. As for Dahrk’s plan? Dark Waters adds more questions to the pile regarding just what HIVE is doing with very few answers, but they’re at least intriguing questions that raise the idea of a huge project that transcends Dahrk’s petty rivalry with Oliver. I’m not entirely sure what the greenhouse thing Dahrk built is all about, but this is still a mystery that’s bubbling away nicely on the way to a hopefully forthcoming resolution.
Dark Waters works mostly because it really has the tension and gravitas of a major episode. The stakes here are higher than they’ve been all season, with Dark Waters putting just about every major character perilously close to death after being swiped away with ease by Dahrk. It’s signified by the unusually brutal, rapid little montage of Oliver beating up criminals in order to try and find Dahrk’s location – a moment cleverly harks back to Oliver’s less refined days in seasons one and two, efficiently indicating just how rattled our usually unflappable hero is. The endangerment of main characters feels about as threatening as it did in season three when a very similar trick was pulled – but it’s helped here by the fact that Arrow doesn’t overegg their peril and the way Diggle, Felicity and Thea’s imprisonment contributes to what should be a major shift in the season as a whole. As mentioned above, it transforms Dahrk’s conflict with Oliver from an enjoyably silly ‘Ah, Green Arrow, we meet again!’ feud to an emotionally charged battle of wits between two men who both have a hell of a lot to lose (and as I’ll explore below, it really is both men who have something to lose). That’s a far more sustainable and exciting conflict in the long-term, and allows Arrow to have its cake and eat it – keeping Dahrk as the Big Bad all season while ensuring a second half that feels fresh and interesting, covering new territory rather than rehashing this half’s conflict.
Oliver’s mayoral campaign has often been a side story this season, but Dark Waters saw it take a pivotal role with excellent results. This episode really made the benefits of this storyline clear – it allows for a separate conflict between Oliver and Damien Dahrk that takes on a more political vibe while staying intertwined with the more personal Dahrk/Green Arrow feud, meaning that Arrow can use the mayoral story to push forward Green Arrow storylines and vice versa. Dark Waters takes good advantage of this, with Oliver’s public reveal of HIVE pushing Dahrk into a more personal and emotional conflict with the Green Arrow without Dahrk discovering that the Green Arrow and Oliver Queen are one and the same (as that paragraph may have indicated, secret identities are confusing). Likewise, the mayoral story is finally allowing Oliver Queen as a public figure to re-emerge as a main fixture of the show. It’s far more interesting than the pseudo-Batman playboy shtick of season one, allowing Arrow to display the public of Oliver’s character that we rarely saw in the insular third season – a side of the character that’s similar yet separate from the usual identities we’ve seen throughout the show’s run.
Despite all this good stuff, I’m still drawing a bit of a blank on the flashbacks. They’re as stuttering, inconsistent and thin as ever, and continue to weigh down otherwise stellar episodes with a lethargically paced tale that’s promising plenty of magical occurrences but consistently under-delivering on that front. Dark Waters, as a mid-season finale, should have pushed the flashbacks to an exciting cliffhanger that changes the direction of the story – but, unfortunately, they’re as hopelessly bland as ever, with paper-thin characters and a vaguely drawn storyline that barely hangs together. Dark Waters even promises the potentially entertaining weirdness of Oliver vs a shark, but wimps out on that front by assuring us that plenty of excitement took place entirely off-screen before a ‘cliffhanger’ that puts the entire storyline back at square one. I hate to say it, but the flashbacks have passed their sell-by date, and the uninspired stuff the creators are serving up is increasingly sticking out while the rest of the show continues to go from strength to strength.
Every Arrow mid-season finale needs a huge cliffhanger to tide us over until January, and Dark Waters continued that time-honoured tradition with Felicity’s… well, I’d hesitate to say the word ‘death’. I’m in two minds about this ending, really. On one hand, this is a really well-executed moment – a thoroughly cruel offering of hope and happiness that’s brutally yanked away, accompanied by a dissonantly cheery soundtrack. It’s classic tragedy – a character cruelly taken away just as they were at their happiest, and this is heightened by the intriguing twist that Dahrk has a family, which is intercut with these final moments. This could have undercut Dahrk’s threat and impeded upon the cliffhanger, but it actually makes it a great deal more disturbing – the fact that Dahrk can callously order an assassination then waltz off to lovingly greet his family while Oliver and Felicity fight for their lives is a pretty messed-up one indeed.
So with that in mind, I do have a few qualms here. The decision to end very soon after Felicity’s wounds are discovered and the lack of any closure indicates that she’s almost certainly not dead – and it would be odd for Arrow to kill off Felicity in surgery from her wound in a dispassionate and rushed manner. Coupled with the obvious use of the grave flashforward in the ‘Previously’ segment and the inconsistent timing of this and the grave scene (it’s roughly three to four months on from the premiere in Arrow, and the grave scene took place six months on from then), and we’re in a very familiar situation of a ‘death’ that’s likely a fake-out. It’s too early to pass judgement in many ways, and Felicity could, on the off-chance, really end up dying – but nonetheless this does feel like a ‘fool me once’ moment crafted for an exciting cliffhanger. It remains to be seen how Arrow will follow up on this on its return in 2016, but for now there’s a bit of a question mark over this moment.
This has, however, undoubtedly been an extremely solid run of episodes – a return to form that’s more entertaining and dramatically sound than anything season three served up. Even if the Felicity resolution is a cop-out, I feel like this season is robust enough to handle that, with a plethora of other elements to paper over any cracks. It’s not perfect, but Arrow’s in a better state than it’s been in at least two years, heading into 2016 in good health.
Despite a slightly unconvincing cliffhanger and anaemic flashbacks, Dark Waters is a very good mid-season finale that pushes the season’s conflicts forward substantially while underlining the strengths of already existing plotlines.