Arrow: 412 “Unchained” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
After a season suited up as red-clad sidekick Arsenal, Roy Harper took one for the team towards the end of last season by faking his own death and claiming that he was the Arrow, driving off to parts unknown. Roy made a brief appearance to give his romance with Thea some closure a few episodes later, but his former girlfriend has since replaced him in the red suit. After a season where he’s barely been mentioned, however, Roy made his all-singing, all-flipping return in this week’s episode…
Arrow returned from its winter break with two reasonably underwhelming episodes, but it was back on form here with Unchained, an episode that might have just missed out on a season-best spot, but nonetheless managed to be comfortably the best episode of 2016 thus far. Roy’s surprise return proved to be a real boon for the show – Roy never was a particularly well-defined character as part of Team Arrow, and though his presence as Arsenal was enjoyable, Roy himself remained weirdly nebulous as he remained defined solely by one driving motivation at a time (such as his romance with Thea or his actions under the influence of Mirakuru). Unchained demonstrates that Roy arguably works better as an irregular character – his sudden re-appearance immediately injects considerable emotional stakes into the Calculator storyline that set this foe out right from the start as more than just a regular villain of the week. Likewise, his involvement in the Thea storyline as the loving confidant of sorts proved to be more effective than previous usages of Alex (the political strategist – I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve forgotten his name) in a similar role, because Thea and Roy’s relationship simply carries more emotional significance due to the fact that their slow-burning romance occupied a good two years of the show’s history, building up audience investment along the way. Using Roy allowed Unchained to take useful shortcuts that it couldn’t have done with slightly less significant characters such as Alex, meaning that the episode felt a great deal more streamlined and efficient than usual. Colton Haynes slipped back into the role with ease – freed from his Mirakuru angst and having absolved himself of his guilt, Haynes delivers an entertaining performance that combines a likeably laid-back attitude with emotional intensity when it was required in his scenes with Thea.
Meanwhile, Thea began to feel the Lazarus Pit’s effects again, though they didn’t manifest in the form of bloodlust this time around (preventing another rehash of what was already becoming a pretty tired concept). Thea’s storyline is far from perfect, and it’s all built on slightly weak foundations – the nature of the Lazarus Pit’s after-effects continues to feel as fuzzy and arbitrary as they have done throughout the season, and Oliver’s proposition to use Damien Dahrk’s powers doesn’t really work as a development due to the fact that it’s awfully rushed, with just one short meeting scene with Dahrk’s wife before Oliver decides, anti-climatically, to not go through with it. Despite this shaky plotting, Unchained nailed the emotional aspect of this storyline, wringing genuinely compelling drama out of the Lazarus Pit’s after-effects for the first time in a while. The great thing about this storyline is that while it begins with the conventional idea of Oliver choosing options to save Thea ‘on her behalf’, Unchained takes a left turn and ultimately retains Thea’s agency in the situation by allowing Thea to decide her own fate (even Malcolm agreed to this, which is unusual from a guy who put some ninjas in Thea’s bedroom earlier this season so that she would kill him). It’s a refreshing subversion of a typical trope that’s frequently used, and it’s great to see Arrow do right by one of its best female characters where it could so easily have resorted to tired old tropes, although the point is admittedly undermined somewhat by the fact that the decision about how to save her is most likely going to be taken on her behalf anyway now that she’s in a coma.
The villain of the week was the Calculator, cyber-terrorist/actual terrorist who plotted to blow up Star City with a ‘web nuke’. Unchained is initially very reticent to reveal much information about the Calculator, keeping his motivations relatively opaque due to the fact that he’s only seen on screen when he’s only talking to Felicity, ensuring that we never get access to the character when he’s off terrorist duty (well, until the very end, anyway). I’d be more critical of this reticence and general lack of depth if it weren’t for the final twist, which completely pulls the rug out from beneath the audience’s feet and basically renders all my earlier concerns about the Calculator completely moot.
The reveal that the Calculator is Felicity’s father is a great twist for many reasons. For one, it completely upends our perception of the character, forcing the viewer to re-assess the villain that Unchained presented entirely. Instead of a thinly defined villain, the Calculator takes on an intriguing level of ambiguity with this reveal for the time being – there’s quite clearly a considerable difference in demeanour between terrorist Calculator and er… dad Calculator, but for now it’s entirely unclear as to which of the two alter-egos is representative of the villain’s true nature, and what was simply a façade. Even before considering the implications for Felicity as a character, it’s notable how this final twist essentially reveals that Unchained was playing the long game with the Calculator, intentionally keeping details of his motivations and personality at arm’s length in order to service this reveal as opposed to the villain simply being nebulous and ill-defined because of poor scripting.
And then there are the implications for Felicity as a character. Arrow is holding its cards close to its chest now regarding what Felicity thinks of her father, but he’s never been talked about in particularly kind tones, and Felicity’s reaction is certainly one of shock. It’s going to be really intriguing as to how Arrow explores this unconventional reunion and the impact it has on Felicity (especially considering the fact that Felicity’s mother has become a far more regular presence on the show), not least because it finally gives Felicity another distinct plotline separate from Team Arrow. Some may dislike the increased focus on Felicity this year, but considering the fact that she’s clearly an integral part of the show nowadays, it’s best to place her in sustainable and compelling ongoing storylines that allow Arrow to explore hitherto unseen aspects of her character – though the potential could easily be squandered, it looks like the Calculator’s entrance could tick those boxes.
Simmering away in the background of Unchained, well away from the Calculator, Roy and Thea, there’s an intriguing conflict brewing with Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Assassins. The League of Assassins plot ended in season three in an unfinished way, with resolution proving to be elusive despite the death of the old Ra’s, so the choice to dive back into the League’s storylines at this point in the season is a smart move considering that Arrow, like The Flash, is in the awkward position between the mid-season premiere and the big twist that usually comes at about episode 15. Especially considering that the Damien Dahrk conflict is on pause for a couple more episodes yet, it’s good to see Arrow tie up some unfinished business before once again resuming the conflict with HIVE.
Though this storyline is confined to brief vignettes with Unchained that present Nyssa’s campaign against the League and its new leader, it’s an intriguing subplot that ticks along nicely until it seamlessly assumes greater significance with the final twist that welds the League conflict onto the main storyline with ease. Like the Calculator storyline, Unchained deploys storytelling that’s not always that gratifying immediately, with lots of mystical hints about ‘the Lotus’ and vague comments about Nyssa’s goals in getting to Oliver, that eventually coheres into an intriguing pay-off right at the end of the episode. It’s storytelling that rewards patience, showing Arrow’s commitment to mixing up its typically speedy pace at which it chews through story and revelations.
The cliffhanger we’re left with is the exciting conclusion that the League storyline in Unchained has been building up to: Nyssa’s request that Oliver must kill Malcolm in order to save Thea. Malcolm’s been something of a controversial figure among fans ever since he stopped being a clear villain, and while John Barrowman’s performance has always been hugely entertaining to watch, it’s perhaps true that Malcolm has run his course as a character, with Arrow having exploited every conceivable angle for his character for the time being. Though I’d prefer he isn’t killed off, some closure on the long dormant, simmering conflict/alliance between Oliver and Malcolm is necessary for the show to continue exploring new ideas inhibited by the remnants of old storylines that have run their course. And it looks like that closure, in some shape or form, is coming very soon indeed…
Unchained is a great return to form for Arrow, with game-changing revelations, the rewarding return of Roy Harper and solid emotional storylines, even if it often fails to be gratifying viewing in the short-term.