Arrow: 415 “Taken” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Arrow’s fourth season has been a pleasant return to form on the whole, with better pacing, a substantial dialling back of hysterical relationship drama and a far more engaging central villain, and it’s generally kept up that solid standard in 2016. Nonetheless, since its mid-season break, Arrow has been somewhat dancing around the issue of Damien Dahrk, who hasn’t faced off against Team Arrow since all the way back in December’s mid-season finale…
This week’s episode, Taken, dived right back into the Dahrk conflict with the issue of William’s kidnapping, and as a result this was the most propulsive episode Arrow’s put out this year thus far. It’s certainly flawed, but for the vast majority of the run-time this was a solid injection of momentum into a story arc that had certainly slowed since the winter break. That propulsive pace had a notable benefit; while Felicity’s frustrations over Oliver’s secret keeping were clearly displayed early on, Taken generally compartmentalises that issue in order to create a more streamlined episode that’s entirely focused around the search to fight William. This ensures Taken keeps up the considerable momentum from last episode’s cliffhanger right through to the closing credits – there was no stalling or delaying of conflicts like there have been in recent weeks, with the episode efficiently moving through its plot at a fair clip while incurring genuinely major changes to the season’s status quo.
Earlier this season, Arrow parachuted in John Constantine for a guest spot during the Sara arc, and Taken called upon another DC universe hero in the form of Vixen, who has already appeared on a short animated show set in the Arrowverse. Constantine, despite being a lot of fun, was little more than a handy plot device in his first appearance, so it’s good to see that there’s a little more substance to Vixen’s guest spot beyond the novelty factor. Vixen’s animal spirit powers (and imagine having that in season one) benefited from solid special effects that gave the fight scenes a little more of a unique visual identity, with the strikingly unusual sights of Vixen’s powers considerably brightening up the fairly standard action scenes, but her appearance worked as more than just a way to add visual distinctiveness to the action. Vixen’s backstory as someone abandoned by her real parents fits very neatly with Oliver’s current quandary as a father, ensuring that her function in the episode is twofold – simultaneously pushing forward the storyline through her magic and dispensing sage advice to Oliver about his child. It’s the type of smart, considered usage of an ‘outsider’ DC character that really justifies her inclusion, and this is compounded by the charismatic performance delivered by Megalyn Echikunwoke, who conveys the same type of gravitas that Matt Ryan did in his appearance as Constantine last year. Vixen was a really great inclusion here, supplying plenty of badass moments and useful advice in equal measure – and considering that her series is still ongoing, here’s hoping that this the first of many live-action appearances for her, be it on this show or Legends of Tomorrow.
For all my concerns about the irritating drama that William’s re-appearance would dredge up, Taken actually uses Oliver’s son’s kidnapping for what is almost entirely interesting and entertaining drama. William’s mother Samantha smoothly slots into Team Arrow as the concerned mother figure, and there’s a notable attempt to scale back the slightly manipulative, harsh edge that was given to her character back when she made that strange ultimatum to Oliver in the Flash crossover. Taken retains her strong, protective maternal instinct, but manages to add nuance and likeability to her character that makes her a far more enjoyable presence than previous appearances would have indicated. Likewise, Taken finally gives something for Laurel to do as she faces the reverberating consequences of her former boyfriend’s party-boy behaviour while they were dating – it’s a small plotline that takes up very little time, but it’s a good recognition of her previous role on the show as well as a way of drawing a meaningful contrast between the focused, political Oliver of the present day and the Oliver who fathered the child he’s now having to rescue.
By extension, William’s kidnapping also leads to conflict between Malcolm and Thea that’s surprisingly rewarding viewing – after weeks of seeing Malcolm at his most selfish, willing to sacrifice his own daughter to maintain power and teaming up with HIVE just to get back at Oliver, it’s extremely cathartic to see Thea rip apart his excuses and expose his consistent game of semantics. Willa Holland is great at showing the disillusioned fury of someone who’s been failed time and time again by a father who utterly refuses to admit he’s in the wrong, and John Barrowman… well, he’s John Barrowman, and as usual, that works just fine here. Malcolm can be a frustrating character when he’s placed on the side of the angels, so it’s a hell of a lot more satisfying to see the world’s worst father squirm as he reaches for the same old invalid excuses to justify himself.
Taken also benefits from the first substantial appearance of Damien Dahrk in a while. There’s a likeably arch, self-referential approach to the conflict between Dahrk and Team Arrow this time around, with an acknowledgement of the slight absurdity that their protracted war of attrition emanates. It’s agreeably comic-book like, fitting the lighter and less grounded tone of this season, and takes good advantage of the fact that Dahrk is the first Big Bad who’s been completely visible from day one, meaning that his conflict with Team Arrow has spanned the entire season. That self-awareness is backed up by a minor exploration of the mythology behind Dahrk’s powers – it’s well-judged, because it doesn’t seek to ruin the mystique of it all by providing a step-by-step explanation, simply existing to reveal Dahrk’s weak spot in a surprisingly early display of vulnerability. I’m pretty certain that Dahrk’s defeat here won’t stick, and that he’ll be out of jail in time for the usual end-game malarkey in a couple of episodes, but it’s still something Arrow’s never done with its Big Bad before – considering that most of its main villains have appeared to be invincible right up until the end, it’s intriguing that Dahrk is taken out so easily here without his totem.
At the very least, Dahrk’s imprisonment opens up a whole other area of storytelling possibilities, and gives Arrow a substantial opportunity to vary the way in which it utilises its main villain in the final run of episodes, as it’s generally stuck to the same end-game formula to the point of tiredness in the past three seasons. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it’s a good development for the story, the execution leaves something to be desired – after all the build-up with Vixen smashing the totem, Dahrk’s defeat is kind of mechanical and perfunctory in nature; a development that’s thrown in so Arrow can get onto the Oliver/Felicity drama. The fact that he doesn’t appear again after his anti-climatic defeat only exacerbates this issue, reflecting the way that Taken curiously underplays a moment that should feel like a landmark in the season, reducing Dahrk’s (temporary) defeat to something that feels more like the defeat of a run of the mill standalone bad guy.
But generally speaking, this was a cracking episode for a good 40 minutes, balancing fun and inventive action with meaningful development for the main story arc of the season. But then we get to the final scene and… oh dear, it all went a bit wrong here. The flipside of the compartmentalisation of Felicity’s issues is that we don’t get a full sense of her feelings on Oliver’s secret-keeping, with the only scene focusing on her grievances occurring right at the top of the episode, so there’s not that much indication throughout the episode as to what the extent of her anger actually is. Her decision to take off her ring and walk out (yes, walk) therefore feels drastically underdeveloped, springing from feelings and grievances that we’ve only had a glimpse of – while the lack of focus on Felicity’s reaction helps to streamline the episode, it also means that her opinions aren’t even close to being fleshed out enough on-screen to justify this decision. Perhaps the writers had great, justifiable reasons for Felicity’s decision that they couldn’t put into the script, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. But what we see on-screen comes across as a contrived attempt to create a rift between Oliver and Felicity based on hazy, underdeveloped foundations, and that’s not even getting into the fact that almost all of the conflict that exists between this particular couple has been uniformly tedious – Oliver and Felicity have only really worked as a couple this season because they’ve been a stable and happy unit.
And then there’s the ham-fisted melodrama of Felicity gaining the ability to walk again just as she wants to break up with Oliver, a credulity-straining attempt to add power and symbolism to this moment that just looks deeply silly because it’s based on comic-book nonsense science that was cooked up last episode. This last scene is a bad one on multiple levels, and it’s deeply frustrating to see Arrow trip up like this on the last hurdle after such a strong episode. There’s still a lot to look forward to when the show returns in four weeks (groan) such as Damien Dahrk’s travails post-arrest, but it’s hardly encouraging that the show’s return in March will be dragging along ready-made Oliver/Felicity conflict with it. Season four can still count as one of Arrow’s strongest yet if it stays the course in the final straight, but now it’s got one hell of a minefield to negotiate along the way…
An top-tier episode for the majority of its run-time, Taken reduces itself to merely above-average levels by badly failing to stick the landing in a muddled, ham-fisted conclusion that slightly undermines the material that came before it.