Arrow: 505 “Human Target” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
This week’s Arrow might have been named for its high-profile guest star, but the title equally fits as a description for Oliver’s predicament as he found himself in Tobias Church’s crosshairs, both as the Green Arrow and as Mayor Oliver Queen. Human Target brought season five’s opening arc with Church to a speedy conclusion before pivoting right into the main conflict of the season, and given the huge amount of action and plot developments that kind of storytelling shift requires, it’s a thrilling episode.
Yet despite the propulsive pace and intriguing set-ups for conflicts later on down the line, Human Target is somewhat lesser than the sum of its parts. There’s an enormous amount lacks the singular focus needed to tie everything together, with less of a handle on the intriguing themes and character parallels that distinguished season five’s opening salvo. It’s a hugely entertaining episode with the scripting and visual craftsmanship at Arrow’s best, but Human Target can’t help but feel like an ungainly pick and mix of plotlines, packing in development for just about every character and ongoing conflict Arrow has going. That kind of thrills-over-coherency approach doesn’t always pay off, with some plotlines included with not a lot of justification for their inclusion while other intriguing stories are evidently cut down to the bone. For instance, the interesting parallel between Diggle and Wild Dog as two veterans ruing their mistakes and aiming to repent on a new kind of battlefield gets barely two short scenes to breathe before the episode has to cut away, meaning that the episode doesn’t have the time to really linger on the emotional impact of this new bond. Yet despite all those legitimate problems, it’s hard not to be impressed by the swagger that Human Target exudes – the very fact that Arrow is confident enough to spin all these plates while adding in flourishes like the supremely dumb Mission: Impossible homage speaks volumes about just how this show has simply become more interesting, and knows it.
Given Arrow’s propensity for wheeling out villains of the week before seguing into the Big Bad relatively early on, it’s been surprising just how long Tobias Church has stuck around as the show’s primary antagonist. As I mentioned last week, his longevity hasn’t been wholly beneficial – the character’s appeal was solely focused on Chad L Coleman’s scenery-chewing performance that turned his cookie-cutter crime boss dialogue into something vibrant and intimidating. Yet in his send-off episode, Church finally returned to the attributes that made him such a compelling foe in his introduction. Simply put, Human Target allowed Church to be incredibly smart and competent in his business – a few mistakes excepted, he comes within a hair’s breadth of consolidating a whole bunch of drug empires while (seemingly) managing to call a successful hit on the Mayor in public. Having Church presented as such a strategic, crafty foe does wonders in a creating a sense of live-wire tension that runs throughout Human Target.
That tension doesn’t necessarily derive from whether Church will be taken down or not, because Arrow’s formula dictates that he would be eventually anyway – instead, the tension smartly derives from the question of how Team Arrow will get past a plan that’s put so many factors into consideration, providing a legitimate challenge that seems intimidating even for this bulked-up incarnation of Team Arrow. Meanwhile, once the action turns physical in the final act, Human Target wisely pivots away from the slightly unconvincing idea from previous episode that Church was a powerful brawler – he goes down like a chump pretty quickly in his one-in-one with Oliver, and it’s his litany of thugs that serves as the harder challenge for Team Arrow. Church worked best as a villain whose primary weapons were his ruthless disposition and engaging rhetoric, and Human Target reaps the benefit of specifically honing in on those aspects of the character, making for a villain who’s uniquely intimidating but not supernaturally competent, making his defeat a matter of exploiting established, realistic weaknesses that sprang naturally from his previous depictions.
Partly due to the fact that he wasn’t even himself for some of the episode (it works in context!), Oliver doesn’t get as much of a substantial arc in Human Target – more the hints of two advancements in his personal and professional lives as Oliver Queen that certainly hold a lot of potential. On the professional side, it’s fun to see Oliver (even if it’s not actually Oliver, the Chance-as-Oliver we see clearly acts as an aspirational template that Oliver can, and probably will follow) as a genuinely competent mayor for the first time, successfully winning over Susan Williams and winning out in the quarrel with the stubborn councilman simply through outsmarting him with incriminating information. Arrow has wrung a lot of drama out of Oliver’s inexperience, logically, in these early episodes with his absences and need to place political burdens on those around him, so it’s a refreshing change in the formula to develop his skills as a politician and establish his personal growth in his time in the mayor’s office.
And personally, Human Target returned to the plotline that a substantial contingent of Arrow fans don’t want to hear about (and, to be honest, that’s not without justification), which is the relationship between Oliver and Felicity as their future was finally explored. I was braced for the worst when the Oliver discovered Felicity’s relationship with the detective, yet, hearteningly, it appears as if the increased maturity and complexity seen within this season’s storytelling has spread to Arrow’s handling of romance. It’s a quiet, heartfelt story about moving on and opening up to exploration and experimentation, and nearly every emotional beat felt true to the current psychological states of these characters and the way in which they’ve evolved to understand one another and work together to solve problems instead of just aimlessly butting heads. Human Target avoids the absolutes and definitive statements of previous melodramatic conflicts between these characters, and settles on the satisfying middle ground that these two people do, undoubtedly, care deeply about one another, but don’t need to express that affection romantically. Considering how the ‘Olicity’ relationship has been the principle minefield for this show in the last couple of seasons, it’s downright impressive just how their scenes click as natural extensions of their ongoing development and as an affirmation of the platonic dynamic between them that’s worked so well so far this season.
One of the biggest selling points of Human Target, unsurprisingly, is the titular hero who swoops in to disguise himself as Oliver at an opportune moment here. Christopher Chance’s inclusion is really a double-edged sword for the episode. On one hand, the conceit of his character is just the right kind of silly, offering the kind of nonsensical fun that still works within this grounded season with his creepily realistic disguises, and Wil Traval’s performance taps into the effortless clean-cut charisma that he displayed in spades… for a time in Jessica Jones. Yet on the other, the Human Target is a bit of a head-scratcher in terms of how he fits into the episode. We get an oblique reference well before the event to ‘a guy’ Diggle knows, but the first real time we’re aware of Chance is where his abilities are introduced, and that lack of familiarity with the character combined with a curious lack of explanation of his skill-set (you almost expect a bubble to come up saying ‘Find out more in Human Target #1, on sale now!) makes him into a very cheap plot device. He’s a get-out-of-jail free card for the seemingly inescapable quandary of how to outsmart Church, and in doing so, Human Target pulls off the timeless storytelling cheat of setting up a problem, and then plucking a solution from the air that didn’t even seem to exist when the problem was introduced. It might seem like churlish nitpicking to poke at the construction of such a fun character, and admittedly Chance’s abilities lend him to these types of miracle solution, but just a quick scene, for instance, of Diggle ringing up an undisguised Chance would have at least provided some basis for that neat reveal moment where we pull back from the news report to see Oliver alive. It’s summative of this episode’s push-and-pull between coherency and thrills, and in this case, thrills certainly win out.
Human Target closes a chapter with the capture of Tobias Church, but it also segues seamlessly into teeing up the next stage of the story, and it’s certainly one hell of a set-up that we get. Prometheus has sat out the last couple of weeks after those first couple of foreboding stingers, making his return here all the more impactful as a reminder of just how insubstantial and small-fry Church’s bluster really was. That’s a point that Human Target makes in its superb final scene that acts as a perfectly judged handover between villains and a huge upping of the stakes going forward. It’s written all over Church’s face, with his smug complacency replaced by naked terror as he loses all control over his fate and becomes reduced to pitiful bargaining, and implicit in the chilling sounds of arrows hitting their targets and a sword slicing through flesh that are heard outside the prison van. We barely need to see Prometheus to do anything to gain a clear understanding of just how ferocious and clinical this guy is – but when he coldly slices Church’s throat and the extent of his massacre is revealed in the final shots, it’s definitive that this is someone to be scared about; whose lack of powers is clearly supplanted by his murderous drive to get to the Green Arrow. After his slightly generic introduction, Prometheus acquits himself here as a villain who throws the last long-term foe into insignificance, and it’s hard not to be extremely intrigued as to what will happen next now that he’s finally free to go directly for the Green Arrow…
Human Target is a thrilling but messy episode that gives a great send-off to a strong villain while compellingly setting up the next, while providing a hefty dose of both fun and well-judged character development with Oliver and Felicity. It’s let down by spotty construction that blunts the impact of some scenes while offering easy ways out for difficult problems, but it’s nonetheless an extremely entertaining instalment.