Arrow: 411 “A.W.O.L.” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Episodes of Arrow focusing on Diggle are typically memorable ones. This season, we had the season-highlight Brotherhood, which revived Diggle’s brother, and in past years Diggle-centric episodes have featured a whole roster of characters such as Deadshot and the Suicide Squad. Did this week’s episode, once again shining the spotlight on the Diggle family, hit the mark?
A.W.O.L. is a solid slice of superhero action, but it’s not particularly memorable – perfectly enjoyable, well-acted filler that’s a step up from last week, but filler nonetheless. The chief strength of A.W.O.L. is the fantastic character work it does with not just John Diggle, but also his brother Andy. That plotline showed signs of a creative surge last week, and A.W.O.L capitalises on that well by actively delving into the back-stories of the Diggle brothers. The flashbacks to their time in Afghanistan do an excellent job of illustrating Diggle’s delusion regarding his brother, framing almost all the flashbacks directly from Diggle’s perspective and only showing us the Andy he knew in an effective display of how Andy managed to continue his illegitimate activities right under Diggle’s nose by playing into Diggle’s self-created narrative of his criminal brother’s redemption. In an episode where some other big character moments are somewhat more didactic, the flashbacks are a great example of how the perspective and framing of shots (with Andy seen just out of earshot in an ambiguous conversation with the Shadowspire leader, for instance) can say just as much about a character as reams of revelatory dialogue.
Likewise, the Diggle story plays out well in the present day. After episodes of her playing the clichéd role of the nurturing love interest, A.W.O.L. managed to put Diggle’s wife, Lyla in a more active role, underlining Diggle’s important, unique place in the show of being the only central character in Team Arrow to maintain a functioning, stable family. Andy was also finally let out of his cage in a pleasing development that finally saw some degree of redemption for this character, putting the Diggle-Andy feud to bed in satisfying fashion. Truth be told, I’m not sure if there’s a permanent place for Andy in the show, so it’s likely he’ll be relegated to dispensing advice most of the time in a similar manner to Lyla from now on – but despite that fact, this was a good wrap-up to this redemption arc that utilised the time this storyline had been simmering on the boil to provide a genuinely substantial payoff.
Elsewhere, Felicity was suffering from a whole bunch of issues following her confinement to a wheelchair last week. The problem with Felicity’s arc this episode is that it takes a well-written, incisive study of Felicity that uses the developments from her ‘origin’ episode last year to challenge Felicity’s very place in Team Arrow, and then executes it in a manner that’s intermittently effective but often downright ham-fisted. Hallucinations are a convenient plot device for characters, but used badly, they can be a way of awkwardly spelling out the character’s conflict in bright letters for the audience. That’s often the case here, with scenes between the two Felicities that merely serve to directly tell the audience about the details of Felicity’s internal conflict rather than letting the viewer infer from dialogue. Felicity’s arc is, as stated above, really great on paper, and it sparks briefly in an excellent heart-to-heart with Oliver that punctures the trite self-blame both characters had been trapped in. With a ridiculously unsubtle moment of symbolism seeing Felicity literally burn away her old life at the end of the episode, however, the actual success of Felicity’s arc is somewhat intermittent.
Despite the uneven execution of Felicity’s arc, however, the chief problem with A.W.O.L. is that it’s unashamedly Arrow in second gear. Shadowspire are intriguing enough as bad guys, but they’re notably underdeveloped, coming across as a thinner and more conventional version of the considerably more colourful and exciting HIVE, right down to the bland leader figure, Joiner, who pales in comparison to the gleeful exuberance of Damien Dahrk. Likewise, the ARGUS plotline feels like a bit of a relic of a past period of Arrow, from a time where the bad guys were street-level criminals and the most heightened element was a super-solder serum. ARGUS are fun to go back to every now and then, but it’s hard to muster much emotional investment in the organisation when it’s gradually faded away in terms of importance across seasons three and four. A.W.O.L. takes plenty of familiar elements from previous seasons and presents a perfectly competent, occasionally excellent take on each one, but ultimately it’s an episode that lacks the true dramatic spark, or the big ‘wham’ moment such as Oliver and Lance’s massive fall-out in Beyond Redemption or Diggle’s stunned reaction to his brother’s true nature in Brotherhood to really catapult itself into the big leagues.
Take Amanda Waller’s death. It’s hard to blame Arrow for the fact that the films side of DC keep insisting on characters who are appearing in their movies to be removed from Arrow – it happened with Deadshot, so it’s no surprise that it happened to Waller here. Indeed, Waller’s death functions effectively enough as a way to establish Shadowspire as a credible threat, and it provides the increase in stakes that the episode’s final act really needs. But with all that said, Waller’s death is still very perfunctory in nature – a tossed-off moment that’s quickly forgotten about aside from a slightly awkward toast at the end of the episode. Waller hasn’t been a major part of Arrow for a good while now, but she’s still been a prolific character, so this death, which is arguably more for shock value than anything, is a bit of an ignominious end. The forced sacrifices to the DC Films gods are unfortunate for Arrow, but considering that the show managed to deliver a satisfying send-off for Deadshot in season three, Waller’s death is a clear example of this episode’s general lack of inspiration.
All in all, this review may have given a harsher impression than is deserved. This is a stronger piece of television than last week’s mid-season premiere, possessing the coherence and clear focus that Blood Debts sorely lacked at times. It takes a story arc, Diggle’s brother’s return, that had all the makings of a lazy and uninteresting rehash that would peter out, and delivers a really satisfying conclusion that puts David Ramsey and Eugene Byrd’s considerable talents to good use. And while the hallucinations were a pretty lame plot device, it’s still good to see Arrow using the mid-season finale’s cliffhanger for substantial character development when it initially appeared to be little more than a cheap shock value ending. A solid piece of filler, then, but one that could very well fade from memory soon enough..
A.W.O.L. continues the Diggle resurgence of season four with a great storyline for the Diggle brothers and enthusiastically delves into Felicity’s fractured psyche following her paralysation, though an unsubtle script and a fairly humdrum villain inhibit it.