Arrow: 503 “A Matter of Trust” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Oliver Queen has always had trust issues. As a self-professed loner who has always struggled at the kind of teamwork and cooperation that has been thrust upon him, Oliver’s favourite option has always been to assume the worst of anyone and put trust only in himself. And after last week’s episode finally saw new recruits hop onboard Team Arrow, you could be sure that the old suspicion and over-cautiousness would crop up once again.
A Matter of Trust is pretty clear about the story it intends to tell with the title: it’s an episode all about characters struggling with the eternally difficult choice between going it alone and taking a leap of faith that someone else could do the job better. It’s another solid episode in a season that’s looking remarkably sturdy three weeks in, encapsulating how Arrow has found new life when it’s concentrated on character over plot pyrotechnics and complicated mythology. A Matter of Trust cast a wide net in terms of the characters it explored with four or five concurrent plotlines all spinning at the same time, but it’s a credit to the efficient writing of the episode that the episode’s plot still feels simple and streamlined, pivoting around that basic theme with minimal frills to distract from it.
This episode played as a part two of sorts to the introduction of Team Arrow 2.0, concentrating much more on the individuals themselves and providing us with the fan-pleasing catharsis of the entire team suited up to fight alongside Oliver. Like last episode, the recruit that A Matter of Trust is most preoccupied with is Wild Dog, the resident hothead whose impulsive decision sparked the whole conflict with the Stardust dealer. Superhero shows love a hothead character who rush into the line of fire without planning, and it’s understandable why – they’re easy sources of conflict when they inevitably make things worse with their hasty intervention. Therefore, the basic premise of Wild Dog’s story isn’t all that compelling because it treads such familiar ground, but it sparks to life later once A Matter of Trust puts some meat on the bones of Wild Dog’s motivations and introduces a little nuance into his characterisation. For one, his decision to move in and take out Sampson did manage to accomplish what Oliver couldn’t with his own methods, and Wild Dog’s clear repentance illustrates how he’s far more self-aware of his impulsiveness and tendency to make things worse than he lets in. It’s small touches that hardly make him into a three-dimensional character, but taking a more balanced look at Wild Dog’s hot-headedness and ultimately evaluating it as well-intentioned and helpful(ish) makes that central theme of trust hit home harder as Oliver is shown to be at least slightly unjustifed in his complete dressing down of Wild Dog.
Oliver’s story this week covers some of the similar ‘learning to trust the team’ ground as last episode, but A Matter of Trust plays his arc of opening up and placing some faith in others differently enough so that it feels like relatively fresh ground being covered as opposed to a total re-tread. It’s a much leaner story than the arc that formed the emotional spine of The Recruits, and its place as a piece of a larger thematic whole justifies the relatively barebones nature of his arc, which speeds through his changes and brings about a change in his psyche much faster and with less stimulus than you might expect. Because A Matter of Trust is weaving a more expansive story, it can afford to take its eye off Oliver a little and treat him merely as the most prominent of a large ensemble, telling a specific story about trust and the importance of letting others bear one’s burden that neatly complements the similar stories elsewhere.
Diggle’s arc remained pretty disparate from the main body of the episode for almost the entire episode here, but his previously plodding military stitch-up story received a jolt with a much greater focus upon Diggle’s own psychology and the issues he’s dealing with. Oh, and it helps that A Matter of Trust serves up a hallucinated Deadshot as the manifestation of Diggle’s corrosive guilt over killing Andy. It’s an idea that playfully evokes the ambiguous nature of Deadshot’s death and the total lack of finality assigned to death in a universe where there’s always a get out of jail free card (especially when there’s no body) to provide an intriguing little mystery, but Deadshot’s presence truly works because it gets the episode to pivot back to the trauma that’s been fuelling Diggle all this time. Diggle’s guilt over Andy’s death never quite resonated in the way it was perhaps supposed to because Andy was such a diffuse character, but A Matter of Trust gives that guilt a little more visceral power by linking it back to the very start of Diggle’s character arc with his hatred of Deadshot as the supposed murderer. The episode arrives at a powerful realisation that’s extremely informative about Diggle’s character, which is that his hatred and guilt hasn’t sprung up from nowhere after Andy’s death – it’s simply shifted from an external scapegoat to himself, and the way in which the episode reminds us of how much Diggle hated Lawton calls attention to the depths of his current self-hatred. John Ramsey has always been a solid performer, and he capably takes this emotionally weighty arc on his shoulders, conveying the full weight of Diggle’s angst in a way that’s involving and sympathetic enough to make his plotline a crucial part of this episode’s success.
The theme of trust does play out beyond the vigilante action, with A Matter of Trust casting its eye towards Oliver and Thea’s political partnership. I’ve praised the new direction of Thea’s character this year in previous reviews, and it’s certainly still the case that Willa Holland is flourishing in a role that grants Thea more individuality and an ability to use her own intellect and cunning rather than just her fists. Despite that, the arc of Thea going up against a journalist who exposed Thea’s decision-making Oliver’s back wasn’t particularly compelling. It’s good to see Arrow exhibiting self-awareness of how outlandish Lance’s hiring was last week, and the exploration of Oliver’s administration in a wider context is encouraging given how non-committal Arrow has been in the past to fully-realised plotlines that don’t revolve around vigilantism or personal angst, but despite this, the conflict felt inconsequential in its execution. All that’s really shown is the main characters reacting to the news reports of the journalist Thea attempts to negotiate with, which slightly undermines the attempt to bring Oliver’s private shortcomings into a public arena – if we don’t see, or at least hear about the public reacting to this news, it’s hard to truly care about the supposedly destructive impact that the reports are having.
While I appreciate Arrow really trying something different with these politically-tinged subplots, they have a hurdle to overcome in that there’s always going to be less of a sense of stakes than the more immediate peril provided by the superhero action. That was the case here, with the threat posed by the journalist coming across as small-fry and tangential as opposed to equally important. While the plotline came to a satisfying stop with a speech by Oliver that (perhaps a little obviously, but what else are superhero speeches for?) really brought everything the episode had done into a conclusive message that evidently spoke to the growth in character that this arc had brought about, it couldn’t quite save the mayoral story from feeling a bit low-tempo this episode compared to the thrilling forward momentum elsewhere.
There’s no better way to point to Arrow’s improvement than to point out the sheer turnaround in quality that the flashbacks have undergone – from irrelevant sideshow to an important part of each episode, feeling increasingly like they’re on an equal footing with the present day in terms of the importance to the themes Arrow is trying to explore. The flashbacks are less action-packed this week, but this allows A Matter of Trust to refine the premise introduced last week that Oliver’s induction into the Bratva is both an inversion of and a reflection of the present at once. The strongest part of the flashbacks and their relationship with the present here is the development of how these two versions of Oliver contrast drastically, in more than just his progression from the recruit to the trainer.
The Bratva story is proving to be a really fascinating rabbit hole that splits the difference between regression and development, seeing Oliver grow as a person as he learns to trust others, but in the service of impersonal brutality that will turn him into a stone-hearted killer. That messy, violent growth is contrasted with the cleaner, more obviously progression he’s experiencing in the present as Oliver learns his lessons and becomes a better-rounded person, indicating just how much of an impact the circle Oliver has around him has. That’s arguably the key difference here – one journey played out in a nest of brutal killers and criminals who encourage Oliver’s worst instincts, and one played out in an inner circle of receptive and good-hearted people who push Oliver forward and challenge his stubbornness. The flashbacks are proving their worth once more, and the reciprocal relationship between the Bratva scenes and the present day is allowing Arrow to really enrich its characterisation of Oliver.
And finally, there’s an arc that plays out on the fringes of this episode that finally alleviated one of my chief complaints about season four: after weeks of ignoring it, Arrow acknowledged the Havenrock problem. Felicity’s deliberations over whether to tell Rory aka Ragman or not proved to be a surprisingly robust arc in its construction, broadening out the episode’s exploration of trust with a slightly more nuanced look at an instance of trust not quite paying off. Felicity trusts that Rory will process the information correctly and can make the calculation about lives said that prompted her decision in the first place, so there’s a real emotional wallop when he’s clearly heavily affected by the news and walks off without saying a word. It’s a great arc for Felicity because it completely focuses on her decisions and her consequences without leaning on any romantic tensions as her stories always tend to do, and the ending illustrates that Arrow is really committing to exploring the consequences of her decision in the long term instead of sweeping it under the rug as quickly as it can.
A Matter of Trust is another stellar entry to season five, which is already evoking the quality of Arrow’s best runs of episodes in the past. It’s an episode that illustrates Arrow has built something sustainable for this season with a cast of characters who are all offering up new possibilities and a focus on particular themes that binds together the expansive, spread-out cast. Fittingly, for the first time this season, I’m not too concerned about whether next episode will keep it up – bit by bit, Arrow is earning the trust that it’ll deliver the goods on a weekly basis without fail.