Arrow: 410 “Blood Debts” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Arrow left us last year with Felicity bleeding out in Oliver’s arms after an attack on their limo from Damien Dahrk’s Ghosts – suddenly making the whole Oliver/Dahrk conflict, which before had just been a fight between two people with opposing goals with little personal investment, into a personal grudge match for Oliver. Suffice to say, with Dahrk almost killing his new fiancée, Oliver was not a happy camper as Arrow kicked off its 2016 run…
The mid-season premiere, Blood Debts, got a lot right character-wise with solid emotional arcs for Oliver and Diggle, but failed to offer anything substantial on the villainous front with a couple of major storytelling blunders along the way. It’s worth starting with the good stuff here, and chief among the strengths of the mid-season premiere is Oliver’s slip back into violent old habits. The whole storyline suffers a little from a lack of subtlety, with Blood Debts somewhat bludgeoning the viewer over the head with reminders that Oliver is going off the rails at times, but Oliver’s regression into his aggressive season one ways is conveyed well by the ever-reliable Stephen Amell, who delivers a strong performance that mixes the intensity of earlier seasons with the fading idealism of this season. It also dovetails nicely into Felicity’s brief appearances, with Felicity acting as a moral anchor for Oliver even in her hospital bad, tethering him to the strict morality that he’s adopted over the past couple of seasons. Blood Debts avoids either making Felicity hellbent on vengeance or completely uncaring about taking Dahrk out, instead opting for a satisfying middle path that underscores her inner strength and willingness to go on.
Likewise, there’s some solid progression with the story of Diggle’s brother, which is consistently improving after its unfortunately timed introduction right after two other character ‘resurrections’. The fact that Andy’s loyalty to Dahrk seems to extend beyond his brainwashing, fitting in with his nihilistic worldview that Diggle always failed to spot is a far more compelling idea than the initial idea that Andy had just been brain-washed into following Dahrk, because it’s forcing Diggle to completely reconsider his idealised memories of his brother as a fallen hero, which formed an integral part of his motivations in the earlier seasons. David Ramsey is perhaps Arrow’s unsung hero, quietly putting in solid performances week in, week out, and his talents at nailing a wide, rapidly varying range of emotions are being displayed more than ever thanks to Diggle’s increased role this season. The Diggle/Andy storyline also ends with one of Blood Debts’ strongest scenes in which the two silently play cards – it’s a short but sweet exercise in subtlety that’s steeped in the brothers’ personal history, saying a hell of a lot about their emotional states without unsubtly spelling it out for the audience.
As for Thea, things were also generally pretty strong. Thea’s cycles of bloodlust, with an outbreak of violence every few episodes followed by some handy plot device to wave it away again, have been a repetitive and intermittently effective weak spot of season four, but Blood Debts manages to explore the psychological consequences of Thea’s dip in the Lazarus Pit without resorting to the same old scenes of Thea beating someone up a little too much. Her boyfriend, Alex the political strategist, is a pretty bland character with little to distinguish him from numerous similar characters from the past, which means her arc does pivot around one of the weakest regular characters on the show, but Thea’s arc is a generally strong character study that challenges the notion that Thea is only occasionally affected by the Lazarus Pit by presenting the intriguing idea that her experiences have permanently damaged her. The storyline could do with re-integrating John Barrowman and his insane parenting back into Thea’s life, but for now this is an ongoing emotional arc for Thea that’s ticking away nicely.
However, as mentioned above, it wasn’t a good week for the bad guys, with the return of Anarky, in particular, failing to deliver the goods. Anarky’s first appearance back in episode two was a bit of a dud, presenting a blank slate with little of the comic villain’s vibrant originality, and, to the credit of Blood Debts, Anarky at least has a vaguely distinctive personality here, with a relatively entertaining performance from Alexander Calvert. There’s actually a handful of enjoyable moments with Anarky, but moments are all Blood Debts has going for it regarding Anarky, because the plotting regarding the villain is unfortunately a bit of a mess. Blood Debts flip-flops continuously on what it actually wants to do with Anarky, turning him from villain to reluctant ally to villain again in rapid succession – that inconsistency may have been joked about in the episode, but that doesn’t really assuage the fact that the Anarky plot is a tangled mess from start to finish, with the script making it unfortunately difficult for this reviewer to actually get a handle on the character and his status within the episode.
He just kind of randomly crops up out of nowhere early on, and while his motivations do tie in intrinsically with Dahrk, Anarky has considerable leftover emotional baggage and pre-existing relationships from his first battle with Team Arrow, meaning that the hunt for Anarky gets in the way of the Dahrk storyline rather than helping push it along, feeling like a separate storyline that’s been awkwardly welded onto the hunt for Dahrk. The idea of Anarky becoming a reluctant ally is a flimsy one, too, based on the strange and unfortunately hand-waved choice for Oliver to attack a police van to break Anarky out (you’d think Lance might have been a little concerned), and it never truly meshes with Diggle’s attempts to get information about Dahrk’s whereabouts out of Andy either. Blood Debts makes attempts to tie these strands together, which is something (Dahrk’s location is found with a combination of Anarky and Andy’s help), but it still gets tangled up in itself too often, with plotlines that fail to complement each other.
The Anarky woes lead to a final confrontation between Team Arrow and Anarky, then Oliver and Dahrk, directed with the same consummate directing skill as you’d expect from Arrow. Blood Debts unfortunately fails to redeem its villain problems in the final act, however, instead doubling down on the frustrating plotting with both Anarky and Dahrk. It’s clear there’s more story to be told with Anarky, so his escape into the night makes sense in that regard, but it’s not a particularly satisfying conclusion because it leaves Thea’s character arc on such a confused note – if the episode is supposed to be about proving that she can be a hero without resorting to brutality, then why did her refusal to kill Anarky backfire, allowing a killer Team Arrow actually had captured at one point to escape once again to continue his crimes? Blood Debts feels like it’s working at cross purposes too often – it’s like the showrunners had two different visions for the episode, with those visions failing to really cohere into one satisfying whole, leaving the episode feeling unusually messy for a show that usually has a pretty clear idea of what it wants to accomplish with each instalment.
And then there’s the final confrontation with Dahrk, which starts promisingly with an emotionally charged tone that clearly suggests how the conflict between Dahrk and Oliver has become much more personal, but then stumbles notably at the last hurdle. Oliver saving Dahrk’s family helps to add complexity to this unusual villain/hero relationship, but the following moment where Dahrk grants Oliver an extra few weeks off is a pretty flat note to leave the confrontation on. It’s understandable that the next couple of episodes won’t see Dahrk in direct conflict with Oliver – after all, not all 23 episodes can be Dahrk vs Oliver, because that’d just be repetitive storytelling. But it’s one of those moments that desperately needed a little more panache to not seem like a thinly disguised delaying tactic, because it’s noticeably heavy-handed in its scripting. Perhaps the following few episodes will continue the main storyline in surprising ways that involve other villains, but for now the most exciting conflict of the season has basically been postponed to a later date, which is a bit of a disappointment after the six-week hiatus.
Still, Blood Debts does leave us with another piece of the flash-forward jigsaw to chew on. At this point, Felicity seemed like far too obvious a candidate for the mystery death, so it’s smart for Arrow to definitively take that option off the board by showing her in this future timeline (which, give or take a couple of episodes, will probably be around episode eighteen). It’s another intriguing addition to the mystery, densely packed with hints both subtle (Felicity and Oliver aren’t wearing their engagement rings) and clear (the dead person was clearly close to Felicity, which rules a few options out). It’s going to be very hard indeed for Arrow to deliver a satisfying, surprising answer to a mystery for which every conceivable candidate has been considered by fans, but for now it’s fun to have something to speculate about even as Arrow appeared to slow down here. Notably, we’ve gone from the flash-forward being six months off in the premiere to just two months, which means the candidate is unfortunately pretty close to meeting their maker. My guess is still Lance, who’s always been one of the most killable regular characters, but could it possibly be Diggle? Laurel? Felicity’s mother? Only two months until we find out…
Like The Flash’s mid-season premiere, Blood Debts is a bit below par – the story is pretty humdrum with some seriously messy plotting, but it does nail the emotional side of the equation for the most part with good, solid character material for its central characters.