Arrow: 508 “Invasion!” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Four years ago, the CW launched its first comic book show since Smallville starring a relative B-lister, the Green Arrow. Very few other superhero shows were on air at the time, so Arrow drew most of its influences from film instead, doggedly following The Dark Knight’s gritty and grounded template at the beginning. It was a rocky start, but Arrow quickly found its feet and become a stalwart of the genre, helping to spark a rebirth of superhero TV as it became the first block in an expansive DC multiverse that now encompasses The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. It’s fitting then that Arrow should reach its celebratory 100th episode in the midst of the biggest crossover yet, with Invasion! hopping from nostalgic throwbacks to the show’s grounded past to a final act in which our heroes find themselves in a space battle and are rescued by a time ship.
The Flash’s chapter served as a very fun kick-off to the action, but Arrow’s instalment of Invasion! really stepped up a gear. 100 episodes is an admirable milestone to reach, and Arrow takes the perfect opportunity to push forward with this season’s exploration of the difficult push and pull between looking back and moving ahead with an emotional arc for our main heroes that brilliantly encapsulates how far they’ve come and what they’ve lost in the process. It’s an Arrow episode first and foremost, but there’s still plenty of enjoyable character interactions as the Flash and Supergirl team up with the new recruits, and the overarching premise of the episode serves as a smart way to flesh out the threat that the Dominators pose, showing their cunningly manipulative nature and ability to spot and ruthlessly exploit the weaknesses of their enemies. The central emotional story here, and the main conduit for all the nostalgic throwbacks that this 100th episode packed in, was a riff on the traditional superhero trope of a hero experiencing the life they could have had if they hadn’t picked up the mantle and suffered losses in the process. It’s a trope that should be fresh in the minds of viewers as The Flash recently had its own go at the concept with Flashpoint, but Invasion! manages to breathe new life into the premise, delivering a satisfyingly expansive and fleshed-out emotional story within the familiar framework that spoke not just to Oliver’s own attitudes towards the life he’s chosen, but also that of his closest friends who’ve joined him in his crusade.
Above all, though, this was Oliver’s story, receiving the most substantial arc of the lot here. Before mentioning any of the rock-solid scripting, it’s worth highlighting the exceptional work of Stephen Amell here. Amell has truly grown into the character over the 100 episodes, shifting from a slightly awkward woodenness to a nuanced, convincing performance, and Invasion! allows Amell to illustrate his now-considerable strengths as an actor with one of his strongest performances of the series. The emotionality and nostalgic feel of Invasion! allowed Amell to play a softer side of the character at ease with his life and those around him, but his performance truly shone when the script asked the most of him. It’s the scenes where Amell has to show an untapped emotion and typically repressed sadness that we hardly see from Oliver that have the strongest impact, powerfully making the point of the emotional pain Oliver feels in leaving this ideal reality behind and bringing real nuances to Oliver’s reaffirmation of his commitment to his crusade. It’s a terrific performance that elevates material that’s already strong, and reminds us of just how much of an asset Amell is to Arrow these days.
Impressively for an episode that takes place within a wider narrative, Oliver’s story is the perfect confrontation of Oliver’s current season-long uncertainties about just what how much his past should define his future, and what his crimefighting crusade should mean now that it has progressed beyond its initial directive. Invasion! provides cathartic clarity on those difficult struggles, ensuring that the experience is of vital importance to Oliver’s ongoing story, and doesn’t just feel like a gimmicky ‘what if?’ experiment in the way that Flashpoint now seems in retrospect. To achieve this clarity, Invasion! looks back to the very beginning of Arrow and finds the inner struggle that defined Oliver from the get go, which is his inability to be truly happy for any sustained period of time. The premise of the episode obviously speaks deeply to that struggle, as it’s the story of Oliver finding himself in a world where he is truly and unequivocally happy, his internal turmoil and external conflicts with others finally put to rest. The first divergence from many of those similar stories, especially Flashpoint, and one that feels appropriate for Oliver’s more conflicted personality, is that Oliver quickly rebels against this happiness, reflexively pulling back from the idea of contentment and instead picking at the uncertain loose ends of his reality. It makes the point that Oliver seems to feel more comfortable with uncertainty and turmoil rather than calm in his life, reminding us of the innate similarities he shares with his past self despite all of his developments, a key theme of season five considering its continued probing of Oliver’s ability to change, but Invasion! manages to go deeper and more complex than just returning to an old idea.
In fact, in his heart-to-heart talks with Laurel and Thea that mark the episode’s emotional peaks, Invasion! arrives at the revelatory conclusion that Oliver does want happiness, but doesn’t feel that he deserves it until he has truly accomplished everything he has set out to do, a sharp change from the grim and self-hating Oliver who returned from the island. While season five has seen Arrow turn inwards and regard the stories it’s told with an awareness of its own inconsistencies, Invasion! makes the emphatic case, appropriately for 100 episodes, that every episode was worth it in telling just a little bit more of the overall story that the show continues to tell. Returning to the above idea of clarity, this really feels like the episode in which both the characters, and the show itself gained a clear picture of just what that overarching journey is, and what each step on the line, from huge sacrifices like the death of Oliver’s parents to smaller instances, meant in that wider journey. In essence, Arrow has always been about doing the right thing, regardless of one’s own desires or traumas, and the struggle to define just what that ‘right thing’ means, and that’s a core idea that’s humane and empathetic, speaking to the basic concept of selflessness.
The show has often been criticised as the colder and less emotionally accessible of the superhero shows out there, but if Arrow can recognise it, it’s abundantly clear that it’s as good-hearted and warm a show as any comic-book TV below the dark sheen. Invasion! really grabs hold of that idea and runs with it in terms of Oliver’s journey, powerfully reminding us of that mission statement of heroism for the sake of heroism. That’s exactly why the alternate-reality of the framework works so well within this season of Arrow – in a season where the characters have struggled to define what end goal their heroism is working towards, Invasion! offers the characters the easy, instant gratification they’ve wanted, before reminding them that the only way to really achieve that is to keep working hard, putting faith that heroic acts are working towards an ultimate good.
While Oliver’s arc takes centre stage, Oliver’s closest allies out in the field also receive rewarding and substantial stories that shine a light on what they truly want through their intriguingly different reactions to the concept of a perfect life without the traumas that have shaped them. Thea’s perfect life closely mirrors her contentment with her progress in season five, only with the added, idealistic bonus of having both her parents and biological father living seamlessly in her life, providing her with all the support and affection that she lacked after her father’s death. It’s a fitting reflection of Thea’s comparative stability and self-awareness of her own flaws that she’s far more content with the idea of staying in a fantasy world, with her topsy-turvy and uncertain life pushing her to embrace the opportunity to stay in blissful stasis without a chance of something ruining her happiness, as exists in the real world. Thea’s story adds to the power of the scenes in which the characters grapple with leaving this world, illustrating the difficulty in returning to a chaotic and uncertain world and thus heightening the impact of the characters’ selfless decision to leave their ‘reward’ behind. The alternate reality needed to seem genuinely alluring to work, and Thea’s story powerfully made the case for that.
Diggle’s story receives less focus, but there are some fascinating implications about the character that Invasion! offers up. Having Diggle as the Green Arrow in the alternate reality seemed little more than a cutesy inversion of expectations, but Invasion! smartly uses that gimmick for two really substantial narrative reasons. It aids with Oliver’s own narrative arc, as he’s allowed to confront the tortured season one style persona that he’s been trying to escape from all season face to face – seeing the merciless, deeply conflicted Diggle side by side with this better-adjusted, mature Oliver was a vital contrast. More importantly, though, it links smartly into Diggle’s ongoing difficulties in making peace with his past mistakes after killing Andy. Of the five characters in the hallucination, it’s Diggle’s that’s easily the least outwardly utopian, but it makes a surprising degree of sense to place Diggle in this situation as his ideal reality. It sheds light upon his self-hatred and profound disquiet, revealing his pathological need to atone for his own sins with a life that’s consciously deprived of real human connection or comfort, and providing sharp clarity to the vague idea that previous episodes haven’t really been able to articulate, which is to place Diggle adjacent to the Oliver of season one. The contrast isn’t exact, given Diggle’s continuing status as Oliver’s confidante and provider of wisdom, but the regression into the barely repressed violence and self-recrimination fuelling his crusade illustrates the extent of emotional damage that recent events have wrought on Diggle. It’s a much needed bit of clarity after a season where Diggle has been placed mostly in the sidelines, and John Ramsey continues his excellent work from The Flash’s crossover episode, nailing the difficult balance between Diggle’s outward raw aggression, and the pain that’s evidently informing all of his actions.
Invasion!, justifiably, places a significant amount of focus on the Arrow characters and thus leaves comparatively little room for the continuation of the overall crossover narrative. The subplot we do get as Team Arrow plus superpowered back-up Flash and Supergirl hunt down the location of the abducted heroes is quite noticeably weaker and less thought-out than the alternate reality plotline. The vague emotional arc that Invasion! tries to pass off in order to justify the super-powered digressions on a thematic level (about Wild Dog learning to accept meta-humans and aliens) is extremely threadbare, resolved so abruptly that it’s hard to discern why the writers even bothered in the first place. Nonetheless, there’s still a lot of fun to be had in these crossover scenes, from Rory and Curtis’ enthusiastic reactions to meeting the Flash and Supergirl to all the geeky interplay in the lab thanks to Cisco’s arrival, and Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist are as charming as ever in their brief scenes. It’s abundantly clear that tomorrow’s episode of Legends of Tomorrow plans to dial back up the crossover material, and The Flash certainly covered a lot of interplay between heroes, so it’s not too frustrating that this episode is relatively light on crossover scenes, especially since it lends more time to the emotional arc of the story. Nonetheless, the subplot can feel like an afterthought, dutifully packed in to remind viewers that they’re still watching a crossover instead of naturally slotting into the story that’s being told here.
What certainly does work better in terms of crossovers is our final left-field turn into full on sci-fi territory as Arrow’s grounded emotionality segues into the operatic weirdness of Legends of Tomorrow. It’s a really enjoyable burst of craziness after the heavy focus upon character that manages to reinvigorate the momentum of the overall crossover, reminding us of the insanity that exists just an inch beyond the margins of Arrow’s typical framework. A tribute to 100 episodes ought to fit in a recognition of the expanded and diverse universe that this show spawned, and the final act does that very well, arguably better than the crossover subplot itself. We’re left with another major cliffhanger to chew over, as the Dominators steer their mothership towards Earth in preparation for their full-on invasion. The final shot of the enormous spaceship heading to Earth tantalisingly sets-up the grand scale and ambition of the final battle that’s to come as the crossover enters its last stage, and should hopefully lead to a real focus on the Dominators as villains as they finally unleash their plans. Tomorrow, it’s (ahem) Legends of Tomorrow’s turn to wrap up this year’s crossover as the collected heroes gather together for a final battle against the Dominators…
Arrow’s chapter of Invasion! is an exceptional episode, paying tribute to 100 episodes in the best way possible. The image of Oliver nodding to the ghosts of his past before moving ahead to confront the Dominators sums up this episode’s rock-solid emotional story, where the show looks back into its past in order to keep its character moving forward into a more hopeful future. The crossover subplot with Flash and Supergirl is somewhat weaker, weighing down the episode a little, but this was a fantastic middle chapter on the whole.