Arrow: 413 “Sins of the Father” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The League of Assassins has been a shadowy force of destruction, menacing Team Arrow from the shadows ever since early on in the second season, and even threatening Star City itself throughout season three with Ra’s al Ghul at its helm. It’s been under new management since then, however, with Malcolm Merlyn having assumed the leadership role in the third season finale. Needless to say, certain people in the League weren’t too happy about that…
This week’s episode, Sins of the Father, possessed an impressive level of thematic depth and tied together its disparate plotlines very effectively, but found itself inhibited by core issues in the story it was telling. Arrow tends to be at its best when it has a clear theme to focus on, and Sins of the Father certainly delivered in that regard, with every subplot in the episode pivoting around the idea about fathers and whether they can truly change. These themes manifests itself in diverse ways across the episode, coming to different conclusions to the question of whether someone changing is possible that creates a nuanced, balanced level of depth to this thematic exploration – with a complex mix of answers to the same question posed within the episode, Sins of the Father avoids the didactic and preachy tone that some episodes have slipped into in the past. It’s an episode that deals with a great number of conflicts and characters, some of which have barely anything to do with the other, but it all feels focused and meaningful because every plotline in the episode serves to enhance this episode’s exploration of these themes by adding their own complexities and layers to the discussion.
The most important father in the episode was undoubtedly the most insane of the lot, Malcolm Merlyn. Taking aside the question mark over whether Merlyn has outstayed his welcome as a character (and that’s certainly worth discussing after this episode’s events), Merlyn can be an enjoyably volatile presence here, with the uneasy combination of his instinct for self-preservation and his fatherly instinct to protect Thea making it difficult to predict exactly how he’ll act on any given issue. Sins of the Father utilises this unpredictability well for a couple of great twists – his demented willingness to sacrifice the daughter he claims to love in order to keep his position of power was an effectively shocking moment that effectively reminded us that this is still very much the same guy that wanted to destroy half of the city a few years back despite all his talk of ‘doing everything for his daughter’. Arrow’s made a real mess of the question over where Merlyn is meant to stand in our sympathies since season one, but this lack of easy categorisation and uncertainty over just how trustworthy the guy really is works in Sins of the Father’s favour, because it’s often very difficult to second-guess what Merlyn’s reactions are going to be to the numerous propositions and double-crosses that occur.
Merlyn’s rival, Nyssa, was an equally hard character to pin down, but that too proved to be a boon for this episode. Nyssa was one of the best things to come out of the rocky third season, and she continues to be an asset for the show here. Sins of the Father presents Nyssa’s arc as an intriguing foil to that of Malcolm – they’re both starting in a slightly murky place where they’re ready to shed blood to accomplish their goals, but while Malcolm regresses into self-preservation, Nyssa opens up to Team Arrow and eventually relinquishes her role as the new Ra’s when she’s given the ring. It’s a great contrast that allows the central feud of the episode to focus on characters first and foremost – with the League theatrics providing very sparse intrigue, the complementing effects of the power struggle on Nyssa and Malcolm gives the viewer something to latch onto in this nebulous debate because it concerns significant changes to characters we know and care about. This is especially true of Nyssa, whose redemption at the end of the episode is the truly satisfying culmination of the journey she experiences from the moment she conscripts Oliver into her war at Thea’s hospital bed – it’s particularly effective because it uncovers what we already know to be true about the character, with Nyssa embracing the altruistic side of her character that’s endeared her to so many viewers when she throws away the League ring.
Outside of the League civil war, another conflict between father and daughter was occurring. I praised last week’s episode for the great reveal that the Calculator, villain of that episode, was Felicity’s dad, and Sins of the Father builds well on that reveal with a subplot that succeeds by taking a familiar premise and then going in a very unexpected direction. If Nyssa’s redemption arc is the optimistic take on the central question of whether change is possible, then Felicity’s father’s arc is quite the opposite, existing to puncture Felicity’s father’s layer of deceit and excuses and to reinforce the inherently selfish, unsympathetic nature of this character. It’s a brand of pessimism that I wouldn’t want to see too much of in Arrow, but it’s the natural conclusion to an arc that would have felt unearned and clichéd if it had ended in a more hopeful place for Felicity’s father – and the nihilistic take on humanity is balanced out by the optimism espoused by Oliver and eventually Nyssa, ensuring that this unusually pessimistic ending doesn’t drag down the episode as a whole. The moment where Felicity calls the cops on her father is also a potentially fascinating moment for her character, partially because Sins of the Father leaves her precise thoughts on this action fairly opaque – the magnitude of the repercussions on Felicity’s psyche feel deliberately uncertain, adding another intriguing layer of unpredictability to Felicity’s character arc this season, which is growing in terms of intrigue and excitement each episode.
The large majority of the character material works really well, and is tightly bound by a theme that ensures that it all feels necessary for the episode to work as a whole – and as a result, you could expect this to be a season-best episode, as it possesses many of the characteristics that made this year’s best efforts a triumph. Unfortunately, Sins of the Father is held back from greatness by the fact that the foundations that the character material is built on are rather shaky. Firstly, there’s the show’s perennial League of Assassins problem. On paper, the League is a fascinating concept, with a rich and complex mythology that was ripe for exploration across the League-focused third season. Unfortunately, that potential was never capitalised on, and the League have continued to disappoint – instead of an intriguing group with an unusual back-story and considerable history, it’s just a bunch of nondescript goons with swords; a boilerplate evil organisation with a fancy lick of paint. The League is afforded no more depth in this episode – just about the only interesting thing about the group is the mention that they control world affairs, and even that idea’s effectiveness is tempered by the fact that this revelation comes out of nowhere and isn’t supported at all by anything Arrow has ever shown. Therefore, it’s hard to really become engrossed in the politics of an organisation whose only interesting actions occur entirely off-screen, and whose on-screen presence generally amounts to cannon fodder for Team Arrow to knock out.
This is prevented from being a major problem, however, by the aforementioned fact that the two characters at the centre of the power struggle are compelling and complex – and, furthermore, Arrow appears to have put a definitive end to any future League stories with Nyssa’s dissolution of the organisation at the end. Existing as a remnant of the unsuccessful third season, the dissolution of the League feels like a justified mercy killing of a plotline that needed to be removed from the equation so that Arrow could get on with telling more original, and ultimately more interesting stories..
The other issue is that of Malcolm Merlyn. John Barrowman has always been excellent in the role, nailing Malcolm’s demented delusion with ease, and the character has often been used well post-season two, such as this episode, but Sins of the Father fails to provide a compelling reason why Malcolm doesn’t die here. Oliver’s reasoning throughout the episode is barely logical, resting on platitudes about Merlyn being Thea’s father that fail to really stand up to scrutiny, and his seemingly clever final move in which he lops off Malcolm’s hand results in Malcolm regrowing his burning grudge against Oliver, to the point where he provides Damien Dahrk with crucial information about Oliver’s son. Keeping Merlyn alive feels like a transparent reason to keep creating conflicts that could be created by other means – and as much as I enjoy John Barrowman’s performance, it’s hard not to feel that Merlyn’s story feels complete at this point. Merlyn’s survival just makes Oliver look short-sighted and naïve in the long run, compounding a problem that’s been growing ever since season three where Merlyn became a kind-of honorary member of Team Arrow.
The twist that Dahrk is now presumably gunning for Oliver’s son is an interesting way to end the episode, creating an intriguing contrast between the two men who now both have families to protect, and bringing back a plotline that seemed rather disparate from the main body of the show, having occurred in a Flash crossover. It makes the Dahrk/Oliver conflict more personal, and that’s ultimately a compelling reason to prolong a conflict that’s gone on for far longer than most conflicts between Oliver and the Big Bad that Arrow has presented. And, most importantly, it means that after a few weeks off, Damien Dahrk and HIVE are coming back to plague Team Arrow once more…
Sins of the Father is a thematically complex episode that excels as a character piece, but the effectiveness of that character development is slightly inhibited by the fundamental blandness of the League and the shaky plotting surrounding Malcolm Merlyn.