Arrow: 507 “Vigilante” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Last week on Arrow, Oliver found himself challenged with a murderous, masked adversary hell-bent on making a point about his failings as a hero. This week, Oliver finds himself challenged with a murderous, masked adversary hell-bent on making a point about his failings as a hero. It’s a testament to this season’s strengths that the two episodes feel entirely different, thanks to the markedly different approaches to a premise that’s identical at first glance.
Vigilante is, in essence, a companion piece to last week’s episode, specifically its usage of Prometheus as a dark mirror to Oliver. While So It Begins was preoccupied with the past as Prometheus’ motivation stemmed from Oliver’s early beginnings as a hero, Vigilante turns its eye to the present and puts Oliver’s current approach and overall achievements to date under the microscope with equally compelling results. It’s not quite as tightly focused as last week, but Vigilante is nonetheless another knockout instalment to add to season five’s hot streak, crafting a satisfying one-and-done episode that broadened out and deepened the themes opened up in last week’s episode.
The crux of Vigilante, shockingly, is Star City’s latest creatively named masked vigilante… Vigilante (thanks, DC Comics!). Though the comparison is a little reductive in places, Vigilante can be seen as DC’s take upon the Punisher – a vaguely unhinged crusader fuelled by past traumas who makes liberal use of lethal force, often to make a point to more moralistic heroes. Vigilante quickly pivots away from yet another debate about the merits of lethal force, however – which is just as well, given this show’s perpetually confused stance towards killing. The episode, surprisingly, is uncomplicated about the broken morals of Vigilante’s quest, playing with the value of his more direct approach for a fitting amount of time before indicting his wanton murder spree as he incurs collateral damage. This lack of moral ambiguity actually helps Vigilante a great deal, because it allows the episode to zero in on what Vigilante’s presence means for Oliver’s ongoing quest, and what it says about its effectiveness.
For Oliver, the very existence of Vigilante is a confirmation of the failings of his quest to achieve justice by the book. It’s a perfectly fitting conflict to focus the episode around, because it speaks directly to the themes of legacy that season five has predicated itself upon in a really interesting way. Vigilante smartly hits the same level of uncomfortable accuracy on the villain’s part as last week. Arrow really has been going in circles for a while now as Star City has risen from the ashes only to descend into crime as the story demands it again and again, and Vigilante’s words pick upon the scathing fact that Oliver’s efforts have just been firefighting with extremely minimal genuine progress. Like so many of season five’s episodes, the story that Vigilante provokes is one of re-evaluation and doubt, where the idea of Oliver’s progress and beneficial change to the city is challenged by a reminder of the violence and cruelty that lurks within it. There’s even an interesting, if minor subplot where Vigilante’s main target is revealed to be the victim of an unjust sentence and released by the negligence of the prison system, illustrating the lack of control that Oliver has over so many parts of his quest now that he hands criminals over to face legal justice. In short, Vigilante represents that total, obsessive control that Oliver once pursued, with his judge, jury and executioner act masking the innate tragedy of a man projecting his own trauma and nihilistic worldview on the city with no-one and nothing to reel him in – a picture of what Oliver could be without the compassion and essential optimism that cause him to check his power.
That contrast opens up the central difference of Vigilante to last week’s exploration of Prometheus. While So It Begins offered minimal affirmation to Oliver because it rested in sins of the past that could not be retroactively changed, and thus became a darker and more ambiguous narrative, Vigilante’s story is fundamentally one of hope. Vigilante escapes, but Oliver essentially wins the argument that underlines their conflict, definitively proving Vigilante’s damaged rhetoric – which in reality tells us far more about the damaged psyche of someone who falsely believes that trauma is necessary for action than Oliver’s failings – to be inaccurate. The real contrast between these two men, far from a man who has total control versus one who relies on blind faith, is that they’ve both suffered huge losses, yet Oliver is able to bear his grief and channel it into something positive while Vigilante collapses into his worst instincts, showing how there’s something fundamentally hopeful about Oliver’s character at its heart despite all of the darkess that he has faced. Vigilante’s hopeful ending where the positive and altruistic side of vigilantism wins out indicates the way in which season five has found a really impressive tonal balance by mixing the approaches of recent years. Season five is a darker season that deals with a much more grounded setting and more visceral conflicts, but at its centre we have a hero who’s fighting to improve both himself and the city and leave an ultimately positive legacy that will inspire others. Considering how cack-handed season four’s approach to the theme of hope was, the fact that the quiet optimism of season five sits so well within the grimmer narrative is just another sign of this show’s enormous improvement this year.
I only have one niggle with the Vigilante story, however, which is how it ends. Vigilante’s escape is constructed well enough so that the episode still feels like it’s satisfyingly answered the questions it poses, but I’m not entirely sure about the choice to leave the character in the wind for the time being, with his identity unrevealed. Season five already has one identity mystery on the boil with Prometheus, and adding another on top feels unnecessary, especially considering how Vigilante has a known identity in the comics who happens to be on the show right now and qualifies as an ideal candidate (I won’t name names due to spoilers, but it’s not all that hard to guess). I’m somewhat interested about revisiting the character, but the episode wrapped things up so neatly and ran through Vigilante’s purpose so efficiently that it’s not entirely clear where Arrow could really do with the character when he pops back up.
Last week, we ended on a cliffhanger that a lot of viewers including myself, decried as a ridiculous fake-out as Lance was hinted to be Prometheus. While the editing last week still feels a bit manipulative, it’s clear that that ending was ultimately in the service of something truly worthwhile. Vigilante powers through secrecy and drama that could have dragged out for weeks in mere minutes with impressive maturity, as Lance puts all of his cards on the table and allows himself to be helped by a compassionate Thea. It even makes an intriguing mystery out of that seemingly lame fake-out, raising the question as to why Prometheus would try and target Lance as a scapegoat of all people and adding some urgency by indicating that he’s already capitalising on his knowledge of the Green Arrow’s true identity. Ultimately, though, Lance’s plotline works because it adapts the same deceptively optimistic approach as the main Vigilante storyline. It purports to be the story of the perpetual tragedy of Quentin Lance as he sinks further into booze-fuelled despair and fear, but U-turns to reveal that it’s actually about how Lance is helped out of his tailspin by a new daughter figure in the form of Thea. Thea and Lance’s partnership is a really strong one that’s helped by a warm sense of familial chemistry between Willa Holland and Paul Blackthorne, two of Arrow’s supporting stalwarts, and it makes for some surprisingly heartwarming scenes as Thea fills Laurel’s role of the concerned, wise-beyond-her-years figure who reminds Lance of his responsibilities.
Diggle’s story takes upon a similar structure to Thea and Lance’s storyline – and while it’s slighter, the conclusion is no less powerful. It takes an element of Diggle’s character that had mostly been ignored, which was his life as a fugitive where access to his family has been deeply restricted, and works it into a strong through-line that bubbles underneath most of Vigilante, revealing just how much Diggle relies upon his family to gain a sense of happiness and purpose in the world. The real point of the story comes in the ending, however, and it’s a nice way to open up a surprising new friendship between Diggle and Wild Dog with a simple act of kindness that, in turn, shows the empathy that Team Arrow’s impulsive recruit often pushes down below a brash exterior. It’s great that in an action-packed episode dominated by violence and discussion thereof that there’s still time for these quiet little moments of kindness and shared humanity that are given their space to breathe in amidst all of the chaos elsewhere, illustrating Vigilante’s strong balance between the large-scale and the intimate. Vigilante is one of the most deeply humane episodes of Arrow thus far, placing huge emphasis on the power of human connection to overcome any problem and proposing compassion and hope as the ideal antidote to the fear and loathing that can wash over anyone’s life so easily if they let it.
A somewhat darker story came in the flashbacks, where things just went from bad to worse for Oliver as he found himself in the hands of Kovar. It’s a really entertaining set of scenes this week, dominated by Dolph Lundgren’s guest performance in every sense of the word. Lundgren proves to be ideal casting for the villain, filling the frame with his hulking physique while imbuing his dialogue with a coolly measured, even affable sense of menace, indicating just how much of his full might Kovar is holding back for this feeble American pest he’s presented with. Vigilante’s flashbacks also find a strong link to the present in Kovar’s words that ‘truth is merely a matter of perspective’ and the ensuing reveal that Oliver’s work in the Bratva has achieved far less for justice than he proposed. It’s a compelling parallel that sees Oliver pulled in different directions by his support structures in past and present – one that enables his worst instincts under false pretences in the past, and one that reins him in and allows him to remain a hopeful symbol of heroism in the present. Oliver almost seems to fill the role of Vigilante in retrospect, playing executioner in his role in the Bratva with a casual disregard for the humanity of those he fights against, hammering home the hopeful message that, despite his recurring problems, he truly has come a long way as a person since his time on an island.
Vigilante leaves us on a cliffhanger to leave us hanging for weeks, revealing that there’s a snake in the grass in Team Arrow – Evelyn, who seems to be working for Prometheus. It’s a reveal that rises above the problems caused by the frequent usage of the ‘secret betrayal’ trope through the implications it has for character development. For one, it perhaps illustrates the irreversible damage Oliver has wrought with his approach, potentially pushing Evelyn towards evil with his inability to save her parents. And there’s also a sense that it’ll challenge Oliver’s ability to work with a team versus flying solo, demonstrating the risks of putting faith in others to save the city, so there are certainly the seeds of some compelling stories here.
Frustratingly, that’s it for Arrow for a couple of weeks, as the show will take Thanksgiving week off before returning with an episode that’s full of milestones – it’s both the show’s celebratory, nostalgia-filled 100th episode, but also part two of the uber-ambitious Invasion! crossover. It’s safe to say that Arrow will be looking a little different when it returns in a fortnight, then…
Vigilante is a terrific episode that offers up a compelling new challenge for Oliver in the shape of the titular villain’s quest, while delivering a couple of affecting side-stories that go for intimate and hopeful character drama above all.