Arrow: 416 “Broken Hearts” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Despite the numerous ways in which Arrow has righted the ship since that tumultuous third season, one problem that it seems to have carried over is the frequently frustrating relationship drama between Oliver and Felicity. The fanbase appears to have become quite polarised on this issue – with some loving the increased focus on their relationship, while others have become frustrated at drama that they see as detracting from the superhero action. We left off last month with that relationship coming to a boiling point, so, naturally, Arrow had a lot of unfinished business regarding their relationship on its return. Did it pull off an episode focused around this notoriously divisive relationship?
Unfortunately, Arrow did not come back with a bang with Broken Hearts, a frustrating episode that places unexciting relationship drama front and centre, even if there were plenty of redeeming qualities within this episode that prevented it from being a total mess. I appreciate that this is deeply subjective, but a lot of this episode’s weak points resided in that deep dive into Oliver and Felicity’s relationship, which was heavily incorporated into the episode’s A-plot. Put simply, Oliver and Felicity’s relationship problems have never been compelling viewing, mostly due to Arrow’s inability to write engrossing and mature relationship drama that’s not based in frustrating and illogical secret-keeping. The drama was particularly unexciting here, however, as Broken Hearts seemed absolutely dead set on reaching a particular conclusion with their storyline this week, despite the fact that I’m really not sure the conclusion here was a natural endpoint for the episode’s journey. Nothing here felt like truly organic plotting leading towards a conclusion that was supported by the rest of the episode – conversely, Oliver and Felicity’s relationship troubles felt like they were being railroaded towards a conclusion that wasn’t hugely different to the ending of last episode.
It’s the same problem that The Flash experienced a few episodes back with Patty – it’s absolutely evident from the start that the writers wish to conclude on Felicity leaving Team Arrow, so in order to reach that conclusion, characters behave in frustrating and counter-intuitive ways. It’s evident when Oliver refuses to discuss his issues with his friends despite this action completely contradicting the idea at the start of this season that this version of Oliver would be brighter and more open, but it’s specifically problematic with Felicity. I don’t hate Felicity as a character – there’s still the funny, engaging sidekick that earned her fan favourite status somewhere – but the writers seem intent on downplaying that side of the character in favour of more relationship drama. It’s never fully explained why Felicity is so unwilling to discuss any kind of way to patch things up with Oliver, so she ends up being frequently unlikeable as she brushes Oliver off time and time again for reasons that aren’t substantiated. With one side refusing to discuss his problems and the other brushing everything off without considering it, it’s pretty hard to invest in the drama that takes up a huge chunk of this episode, which means that Broken Hearts suffers from a fundamental problem at its core.
The villain of the week was Cupid, who was tied up with the Oliver/Felicity drama as she embarked on a quest against love. Amy Gumenick is clearly having fun, but the same problems persist as in her first villainous appearance – Cupid is far too cartoonish for a show with a relatively dark tone, and her exaggerated, heightened demeanour jars particularly with the very grounded and serious drama of Oliver and Felicity. The specific problem with Cupid here is that, despite having appeared three times, she suffers from a perennial lack of nuance in her characterisation – she’s solely defined by one burning motivation in this episode, and she flips her nihilistic view on love completely after a short and not hugely inspiring speech from Felicity. That becomes a particular problem when Arrow is trying to confront a complex thematic question about love – it’s all very well and good for the show to try and meaningfully ponder love with Oliver and Felicity’s speeches, but it all ultimately loops back to a villain who believes love is either the only thing in life or literally death, depending on her mood. It’s possible that Cupid, or at least a character like Cupid, could work very well in Flash or Supergirl, shows that would support her broadly drawn characterisation, but Cupid simply didn’t work here as a serious and credible villain, and she especially failed as a means by which thematic questions about love could be explored because her characterisation simply doesn’t really cohere with ideas as complex as that.
That’s a lot of words about what Broken Hearts did wrong, but it’s worth considering the things it did right. It’s not given the focus it needs to truly breathe, but the Damien Dahrk courtroom drama was certainly pretty intriguing viewing. In an episode where the ending of the A-plot felt like a foregone conclusion imposed by the writers, this courtroom subplot was refreshingly unpredictable – there was real tension here, with Neal McDonough exuding cocksure confidence with no lines of dialogue, genuinely making it feel as if Dahrk was entirely in control of the situation at all times. It’s not only through the unconventional usage of its central villain that the courtroom drama succeeded however, as it also benefited from injecting genuine stakes into this side of the story thanks to the intervention of Captain Lance.
I’ve written a lot in these reviews about the strange way that Lance has continuously flip-flopped from friend to foe, and it’s notable that Arrow’s truly found success with the character when it’s really committed to either side – see the ‘public enemy’ arc of season three for the former and most of this season for the latter. As Arrow has firmly placed him in the ‘ally’ camp this year, Lance has become a considerably stronger and more likeable character, which means that it’s successfully gotten this reviewer at the very least invested in his character arc. That investment really pays off here as Broken Hearts takes a genuinely big swing with Lance’s ‘career suicide’, putting him off the force entirely for the time being. That’s the type of major change in characters’ circumstances that Arrow’s often afraid of committing to, so it’s ballsy for the show to change the status quo with Lance’s character this much, especially when it was proving to be a very useful plot device for speeding stories along. This major shift also works because of its execution – the revival of Lance’s time as a conscripted ally for Dahrk demonstrates a joined-up handle on all the season’s events that’s not always displayed by the writers, circumventing the frequent problem that long seasons have of plotlines that bear no significance on the overall season arc. It’s also very well performed by Paul Blackthorne, who conveys Lance’s determined stoicism while not underselling how impactful his testimony is upon his career, once again proving how he’s one of this show’s secret weapons when given weighty material to work with. I’m not entirely a fan of how Dahrk has been parked in captivity while Arrow tells a couple of villain of the week stories (it’s the Bug Eyed Bandit next week… yay?), but Broken Hearts certainly wrings compelling drama out of that particular development.
There are a handful of fun moments peppered throughout Broken Hearts, mainly coming from the increasingly entertaining Thea (who, unencumbered from tedious relationship drama, is stealing all the best lines from Felicity), but this was a pretty downbeat and haphazard hour on the whole. Oliver and Felicity’s break-up is executed competently enough, but it simply doesn’t feel credible as something the writers will stick to long-term. This development gives off the appearance of a major shift in Team Arrow’s dynamics, but it unfortunately fails to convince for one moment that the initial appearance will be substantially reflected in next week’s episode, partially due to the way that Arrow has been unable to commit to relationship shifts like this in the past. In that respect, then, it’s one step forward and one step back – the fact that this seemingly brave twist rings completely false as a long-term twist means that Broken Hearts is running in place for a lot of the time as it gives off the pretence of really exploring Oliver and Felicity’s love for each other. At the end of the day, we’re left with not much progress made in that relationship since last episode’s ending, and with the inevitability that more’s on the way at some point – not a hugely inspiring way to end the episode.
Broken Hearts exemplifies the increasing problems that have crept in underneath all the entertaining Damien Dahrk material. This show is increasingly eager to emphasise Oliver and Felicity’s relationship as a major element, yet it’s seen a need to break up their relationship in order to create yet more slightly artificial drama, which means there’s a substantial problem at the core of Arrow at the moment. Can it be fixed, or at least papered over with more exciting storylines? With Damien Dahrk seemingly plotting his escape from jail, it looks like there’s a chance…
Broken Hearts is perhaps the weakest episode of the season thus far due to the way it pushes frustrating and unrewarding relationship drama to the centre alongside an annoying villain who saps the episode of thematic depth, while the most compelling storyline mostly plays out on the margins.