Arrow: 502 “The Recruits” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
We’ve had a lot of vigilantes coming in and out of Team Arrow in these five seasons, from two Black Canaries, two people sporting the Arsenal outfit to Diggle, who only just suited up last season before upping sticks and leaving in the finale. However, as the season four finale cleared house with most of Team Arrow moving onto other pastures, Arrow had something of a void to fill with Team Arrow – and it set about that task in this week’s episode, aptly titled The Recruits? How did the new batch of vigilantes fare?
The Recruits is a solid follow-up to last week’s strong premiere, and while it offers precious little conclusiveness as it scurries about setting up character relationships and plotlines that’ll reverberate throughout the rest of the season, it’s punchy and entertaining stuff that effectively builds upon the premiere’s foundations. The focus here was more on Oliver’s attitude towards creating a new team than the recruits themselves, which proved to be a wiser approach than frontloading the season with character development for the newbies. The Recruits introduces the new team, sketches them out very broadly in archetypal terms and lets them serve as foils to the ultra-gruff Oliver in his own character arc, which allows for a tighter and more focused episode that offers a much clearer direction for Oliver’s character this season. The only new recruit who gets any real screen-time on his/her own is Ragman, an unusual addition who we’ll get to a bit later, but for the most part The Recruits smartly recognises that there will be plenty of time in the weeks to come to slow down and flesh out the stories of Team Arrow 2.0.
Oliver’s story was, in many ways, nothing new – the basic idea that Oliver is a brutal and abrasive trainer was covered, as the episode itself points out, when Roy and Laurel joined the team, but it benefits from the explicit parallel that The Recruits draws between present day Oliver and his time in the flashbacks. The modern and flashback stories are more linked up than ever here with the central idea of the bell training exercise, and that’s a framework that allows for a really interesting exploration of the way in which Oliver has completely transformed as a person since his ‘five years in hell’, but also how he’s stayed frozen in stasis in many aspects of his character.
Having Oliver as the trainer in the present and the trainee in the past is the kind of thematic contrast that fully justified the flashbacks as a means to further Arrow’s character work in the first place, but it’s also fascinating to see his changes in attitude that The Recruits portrays. In the past, he’s cooperative and resourceful in his ability to win the game, but also somewhat naïve in failing to recognise the every-man-for-himself brutality of the place he’s in, and that lesson in trust is reflected in his cold attitude in the present, where he attempts to force the same cooperation out of his recruits using the same approach as the Bratva higher-ups in the past. In short, he’s a curious, contradictory mix of team player and ruthless coach, and The Recruits does well to show just how he’s been pulled in separate directions by the myriad influences he’s been subject to. Oliver can often be an unwieldly character due to all the course-corrections and reversals Arrow has pulled with him, but the best development comes when Arrow gets that he is essentially an enigma with no defined moral centre, and mines it for drama as Oliver is pulled towards taking a genuine stance, and moving on from the destructive tactics in the past.
The Recruits also takes a step up from the premiere in exploring an aspect that episode skimmed over, which is the paradoxical balance of Oliver as the charismatic mayor and shadowy vigilante. For one, we get a much clearer insight into Oliver’s working life as mayor with the AmerTek business and the visit to the medical clinic – and while that’s not particularly thrilling, it helps to establish his seat-of-the-pants approach to leadership and inability to truly commit to his position as mayor, a plot point that feeds in nicely to his stubborn refusal to take on the recruits to lighten his load. With the clinic set-piece that intertwines both sides of Oliver protecting the city, The Recruits builds upon its incisive character development by visualising the uneven balance of Oliver’s life, and his self-destructive refusal to help himself. It’s strong characterisation, because it takes aspects of Oliver’s character that are often only lightly touched upon or taken as normal and holds them up to scrutiny, exposing their flaws and then allowing these aspects to be replaced with something more positive. This speaks to the more purposeful feel of season five, which has hit upon a very specific set of ideas and is working efficiently towards them as opposed to piling on concepts that end up contradicting each other and slowing the show down, as occurred with season four.
Though their stories were somewhat less weighty than Oliver’s, The Recruits delivered some solid material for both Thea and Lance, who are both proving to be stalwarts of Arrow’s retooled and streamlined ensemble cast. I commented last week that Thea’s character was given a boost by the decision to keep her sequestered in the real-world, mayoral part of the story, and that’s a choice that’s further justified here. The Recruits sets up some minor tension between Thea’s professionalism and her instincts to stick with her big brother (as shown with her spying on the AmerTek exec), but the episode allows the character to flourish simply as a confidante and ally to Oliver in the light. Finding new places for characters who have been taken all over the map in nearly 100 episodes of television is tough, so credit has to be given to Arrow for revitalising Thea’s character while keeping what made her likeable in the first place.
Likewise, The Recruits also nudges Lance into a really interesting new position. Granted, the decision to install him as deputy mayor isn’t wholly credible, beyond the obvious ‘he’s a drunk’ criticisms the episode itself raises (he’s not a politician, it’s essentially nepotism), but I’m all for anything that finds a sustainable place for Lance, who can be a powerhouse character as both a moral centre and terse adversary if he fits into the narrative the show is telling. What Arrow appears to be teeing up is a redemption story of sorts, linked back to Laurel and her legacy in providing an example to her father, and Paul Blackthorne appears up to the job with a performance that’s just naturally sympathetic – it’s hard not to root for Lance thanks to Blackthorne, despite his consistent self-destructiveness, which is crucial to the success of a storyline that’s resting on shaky foundations logically.
An intriguing new addition here was Ragman, a vigilante who served as the episode’s villain before The Recruits dovetailed back into the threat of Tobias Church in the third act (who doesn’t get very much to do until the final scene, so doesn’t warrant much of a comment). Ragman is a bit of a conundrum, because he feels so fundamentally at odds with the atmosphere that Arrow has been self-consciously trying to create of grounded, semi-realistic grittiness – it’s hard not to feel like a bit of a season four hangover with his magic, two-thousand-year-old rags and nonsensical backstory.
However, there’s something that genuinely works at the core of the character, which is Arrow’s attempt to (finally) address the biggest hanging thread from last season in the nuclear bomb dropped on Havenrock. That was something that went entirely unexplored after it happened, and Arrow’s refusal to engage with such a significant event seemed at best wasteful, and at worst, tasteless. Thankfully, though, that’s rectified here, and I like how explicitly Ragman stems from that disaster as the sole survivor of Havenrock. Not only does that at least provide some sense of consequence from such a huge twist on a continuing basis by showing its wider impact on the world, but it also leads itself to characters (okay, essentially Felicity) finally facing their role in that catastrophe as it can no longer be avoided. I have some issues with the character of Ragman himself, who never quite makes sense on a psychological level as he makes his two key decisions of the episode – abandoning his revenge and joining up with Oliver – far too easily with little justification. However, as an idea, he works well, and I’m looking forward to seeing Arrow engage with its own consequences a little more instead of running from them.
A less successful part of the episode, however, is the Diggle subplot in Chechnya. I appreciate how Arrow is trying to segue into Diggle’s return to Star City in a way that justifies the changes that he’ll inevitably have undergone, but it could have been done a little less mechanically than this. The subplot suffers because of its total separation from any of the action elsewhere – it’s not linked to any of the stories in Star City or 2011 Russia thematically in any way, and the only familiar character is Diggle, so it’s somewhat difficult to really invest in the action as something that’s urgent and thrilling. The subplot ticks its boxes competently enough, and at least leads into something more interesting with his betrayal, but there’s no unpredictability or spark to the subplot, and as such it falls flat in its own right as well as a reflection of the main stories.
True to form for the Arrowverse, we close out on a final scene that inches forward the main arc with another cryptic tease about the agenda of the season’s Big Bad. We don’t learn a lot more about Prometheus besides his burning grudge for the Green Arrow, but it’s a big shake-up in the season’s power dynamics to have Tobias Church under the thumb of someone else. Since Church has been established as such an influential and imposing villain, for someone to cut through his security and completely dictate terms to him establishes how ruthlessly effective Prometheus is in enacting his agenda, which continues last week’s work by building up a picture of Prometheus as a smart and formidable opponent for Oliver. Where it’ll go from here remains unclear, but it’s a surprisingly early twist to have Church penned back, which just heightens the tension while keeping the season’s central mystery still firmly under wraps – a nice mix of propulsive and slow-burn plotting.
The Recruits is not an episode that’ll be held up as one of Arrow’s finest individual efforts in the future, as it’s got its eye on the future too much to act as a truly satisfying individual experience. There’s nothing wrong with a set-up episode if it’s strong enough, though, and this is an instalment that makes its table-setting compelling in its own right, with great character development across the board, continuously strong action and a handful of plot twists such as Ragman’s introduction and Prometheus’ power play that keep the season powering along with all of the momentum it created last week. Season five has gotten off to a strong start, and the stable consistency of these first two episodes, and the explosive potential they’re storing up for the future, indicates that, after half a season of floundering, Arrow is truly on the right track going forward.