Arrow: 504 “Penance” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Arrow’s fifth season is now well underway, and while you might have expected the show to take a breath and slow down a little after the rapid fire introductions of the first three episodes, it kept its foot on the gas this week for another episode packed out with major plot developments and action scenes. Penance was another confident entry for a season that’s quickly showing off a newfound consistency even if it’s yet to truly reach the dizzy heights of Arrow at its very best, capably balancing screen-time for Oliver’s personal mission and his new recruits’ fight against Tobias Church without.
It was the first mission, Oliver’s prison break that offered the most substantial action of Penance in which the episode dealt directly with the titular theme of paying for one’s sins. It’s interesting to see Oliver shoot off so quickly on his own suicide mission after taking pains to appear as the sensible, measured leader to his unruly recruits in recent episodes, reminding us of the impulsiveness and headstrong nature that practically defines Oliver as a character. It felt less irritating here, however to see those less sympathetic sides of the character because the episode utilised them for a legitimate moral dispute between Oliver and Felicity, rather than the tedious squabbles over secrets that have filled their conflicts in the past.
Oliver’s decision is appropriately bone-headed enough and flawed in its assumption that Diggle will be okay with choices being made for him that it’s understandable to see Felicity and the recruits so vehemently disagree, but there’s some pertinent points made by Oliver about Diggle’s abandonment of his family that equally justify his perspective on events. Arrow has fallen into the trap of pushing Oliver into making decisions that just seem inexplicable and frustrating from any point of view, so the finesse here in sketching out Oliver’s moral reasons for rescuing Diggle (and, conversely, ensuring that Diggle’s objections do seem a little selfish and poorly thought-out) shows some significant progress in fleshing out each character’s point of view so that there’s no clear bad guy in any given situation.
The prison break itself is a fun sequence that pivots more around the stealthy and silent action that Arrow has mostly dispensed of now that we have a large team of vigilantes, and that more classical feel is compounded by the renewed focus on the brotherly relationship between Oliver and Diggle that’s been a bedrock of the show since season 1. Their co-dependency and clear empathy for each other’s problems (there’s a refreshing lack of conflict once they do meet up, with Diggle trusting Oliver’s judgement pretty fast) is on display in the lived-in chemistry that Stephen Amell and David Ramsey have cultivated over the five seasons, illustrating how Arrow is still in touch with the key ingredients that launched it to success in the first place, despite the developments elsewhere.
The drama portrayed here feels almost akin to The Flash in that it’s a story of Diggle’s self-recriminations and guilt being assuaged by Oliver’s compassion in rescuing him, with Oliver’s help allowing Diggle to redirect all this brooding into something more positive (staying with his family) by the end. That’s unquestionably a good thing, and the story is notably streamlined and punchy in how it hits its character beats without dragging things out, coming to the surprisingly heartwarming conclusion of Diggle’s reunion with his family in HIVE that shows the benefits of when Arrow focus on the simple humanity at its core. Some of the plotting around the prison break is a little convenient, with their escape route mostly paved by lucky turns of events such as Lyla’s miracle plane and the ‘anti-molecular substance’, but Penance gets the key themes and character beats right enough that those logical issues feel like only minor blemishes.
On the other side, we had Team Arrow 2.0’s first mission without Oliver versus an emergent Tobias Church who came out of the woodwork big time after a week off. Church’s agenda is perhaps the least engaging plotline of Penance – it works functionally as a catalyst for the recruits to leave the nest and take a risk saving the city on their own, but Church’s plans are generic crime drama fodder that leave very little room for genuine originality. There’s a lot of charisma in Chad L Coleman’s gleefully scenery-chewing performance, but it’s being wasted on a boilerplate kingpin character who’s not fleshed out in any depth from his promising appearance in the premiere. Thankfully, the character drama with the recruits fared much better as Arrow marches forward in fleshing out these new personas and their reason for joining the fight.
In particular, Ragman’s plotline was a noteworthy highlight of the entire episode, building from the promising confession scene with Felicity last episode and bringing it to a really strong and earned conclusion. If there was ever a plotline to show Arrow’s increasing maturity in its character drama, it’s this one. Every step of Ragman’s dilemma as he comes to terms with working with the person responsible for the deaths of his entire family is believable and sympathetic with Joe Dinicol convincingly portraying Rory’s quiet yet powerful pain at all his painful memories resurfacing, and his emergence back into the fray is a great moment of catharsis that works as a really satisfying and convincing pay-off to his reticence to take part in Team Arrow beforehand. Likewise, Felicity herself plays an important but not overpowering role in this, with Penance carefully allowing for an exploration of her continuing guilt at seeing the manifestation of her mistakes but not allowing it to overshadow the core story of Ragman coming to terms with her confession. Their conclusion where they both agree to help one another overcome their guilt is a quietly powerful one for Arrow – as with the Oliver/Diggle story, the narrowing in scope to focus on the humanity of two people with a lot in common putting aside their differences and helping one another yields the most affecting results this show has achieved in a while. With character drama, less is sometimes more, and I’m glad Arrow has been dialling back the convoluted backstory and twists that have often fuelled its conflicts before.
I enjoyed how the new team is developing collectively into a more cohesive whole who stand united and plan together despite their clear differences in background and approach, but admittedly there’s some work to be done with some of the individuals on the team. Penance understandably sits back on developing Wild Dog after two episodes where he was the most prominent recruit, which allows Ragman to come a little more to the fore, but elsewhere the other two recruits, particularly Evelyn, are getting left far behind in terms of development. Curtis’ development into a fully-fledged vigilante has been curiously rushed with his deficiencies in the field and adoption of the Mr Terrific moniker quickly skipped over so that he can fight alongside the other, better-trained recruits. Arrow hasn’t put the time into justifying those sudden spurts in development with Curtis, and as such it’s hard to really be convinced by his entirely equal placing on the team in combat at the end of the episode. Likewise, Evelyn is turning out to be a deeply bland character, handed a smattering of lines each episode that could really be given to anything else while her own individual storyline is entirely ignored. As the only female member of Team Arrow who started off in a really interesting place as the new Black Canary last season, it’s frustrating that she’s becoming an also-ran who only really becomes noteworthy in action scenes. The new recruits are doing a lot to shake up the energy of this show, and I like their relaxed family dynamics that are quickly developing, but as with last season it’s clear that Arrow has spread itself a little too thin by piling on four new characters at exactly the same time.
Once more, the flashbacks here prove to be the final piece of the jigsaw for the themes that Penance is exploring. It’s perhaps a little too neat and convenient that Oliver just so happens to be in the same kind of situation five years apart, but his scenes in Russia provide some really substantial development for his younger self that go a long way to justifying his journey towards the brutal killer of season 1 that’s often been talked about but rarely portrayed convincingly. His brutal, clinical behaviour in the prison when he callously snaps Kovar’s money man’s neck seems incongruous with the still-developing Bratva recruit we’ve seen in the previous episodes, but Penance follows this up strongly with Oliver’s regretful, worried evaluation of his actions after he’s completed the mission. It’s a surprisingly compelling portrait of a man caught between two versions of himself and struggling to reconcile them, and it’s once again used to heighten the impact of the present day scenes. In isolation, Oliver’s note that he needs to do some penance of his own comes across as a forced way to link to the episode’s themes, but Penance’s uncompromising portrayal of his brutality in the past justifies his regretful tone, as well as linking nicely to Oliver’s own struggle to reconcile the benevolent team leader and ruthless lone wolf that he’s required to be in the present. The pastm and his struggle in learning what lessons should be taken from it are both key aspects of Oliver’s ongoing story, and it’s striking just how much more effective his character arcs are when that past is portrayed in compelling depth in a way that carefully links to his own development in the present day.
With the Tobias Church conflict heating up as the opening stage of season five draws to a close, Penance leaves us with an intriguing cliffhanger in the form of Wild Dog’s capture by Church. It’s a strong way to power through into next week’s supposedly pivotal instalment because it makes for the kind of propulsive race against time story that Arrow does so well, and should finally allow us to get some significant face-time with a villain who has been somewhat inscrutable in his appearances so far. The task certainly looks difficult, so here’s hoping that Team Arrow will have some help from… maybe a human target of some kind?
Penance is a rock-solid instalment with two engaging central plotlines and deftly handled character drama that steers away from the mistakes that Arrow has made in the past, as well as a heap of thrilling action to keep the pace ticking over, though it’s let down in some part by the continued underdevelopment of certain individuals in Team Arrow 2.0 and some slightly cheap shortcuts in the prison break.