Arrow: 510 “Who Are You?” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Through the first nine episodes of the season, Arrow surged back into form with a tightly-wound, compelling story arc that revealed a newfound focus on rewarding character arcs, a careful balance of the show’s dark, but not gloomy tone, and a much sharper understanding of the kinds of stories that this show tells best. However, as any Arrow fan will tell you, a season is a game of two halves. In both prior seasons, relatively strong first halves of the season gave way to a final run of episodes that fell into repetition and manufactured, frustrating character drama, culminating both times in unsatisfying conclusions that were a far cry from a promising start. The midseason premiere, therefore, is a big test for the direction that Arrow promises to take in the back half. Did 2017’s first episode keep up the strong momentum of the first half, or signal a decline into old habits?
As it turned out, Who Are You? split the difference. Parts of the episode, especially the character arcs, are as thoughtful and complex as the best episodes of the season’s first half, and it’s a relief in particular to see that Oliver’s arc is continuing to mine the most interesting aspects of his character for some enlightening development. But Who Are You? also provides some dispiriting reasons to be wary of Arrow’s new direction. There’s a clumsiness to the episode’s storytelling in certain areas that season five had mostly avoided so far, with numerous moments where it seems as if the writers have become lost in the stories they’re telling, and a final stinger moment that, instead of promising new and exciting things for the future, doubles back and promises a redo of the Black Canary story. It’s a good episode, all things taken into account, but the seams are evident here in a way they haven’t been since season four.
The midseason finale ended on the effective shock of Laurel standing in the Arrowcave, seemingly alive and well, and Who Are You? wasted little time in parsing out just what this miracle exactly meant. In fact, the episode churns through the fake explanation of Laurel’s survival, the team’s myriad responses to the ‘miracle’, the hints that not all is as it seems, and then the reveal that she’s actually Earth-2’s Black Siren in ten minutes, not all of which is even dedicated to that story. It’s storytelling so compressed that it becomes whiplash-inducing, and the first act suffers from the headlong sprint through a section of the story that deals with a lot of messy emotional nuance.
However, the ultra-quick turnaround for the ‘Laurel returns from the dead’ story thread pays dividends in allowing the episode to spend most of the episode with a much more interesting and thematically relevant story, which is Black Siren’s thwarted redemption arc, one that reflects quite clearly on Oliver’s headspace after Prometheus’ midseason finale gambit. The introduction of the doppelganger concept to Arrow is surprisingly smoothly done, and it allows Arrow to tackle this week’s preoccupation with the impact of circumstances on who we are with satisfying directness. Of course, the Black Siren scenes are contingent on a performance that finds the careful balance needed for a doppelganger, and Katie Cassidy proves up to the task as she takes her broad, outwardly evil performance from The Flash and colours it with a greater emotional depth, developing a dynamic with Stephen Amell that’s uncanny in its simultaneous senses of familiarity and unease.
Those themes of circumstance, and the debate as to whether characteristics are innate or not are extremely pertinent to Oliver’s arc this episode – and no surprise, given that he’s grappling with Prometheus’ experiment that seemingly proved him as a killer at heart. His desperation to prove that Earth-2 Laurel is a product of tragic circumstances who just needs a supportive environment is evidently reflective of his own scramble to prove to himself that he can be more than who Prometheus says he is, with Stephen Amell delivering a reliably strong performance that conveys the difficult notion that Oliver’s optimism regarding Laurel isn’t a choice because of his worldview, but a necessity in order to stave off the difficult questions gnawing at him. Somewhat less successful is the episode’s attempt to tie this to Oliver’s ongoing grief surrounding Laurel’s death, because it delves into the age-old plot point that Oliver blames himself for something that wasn’t truly his fault, but Who Are You? manages to stick the landing nonetheless with a conclusion that’s surprisingly bold in its outright pessimism. Oliver’s hopes are thwarted, with Black Siren choosing the easy way out by sticking to her antagonistic position, and therefore the episode leaves him in a place of uncertainty that has ample potential for an extended exploration of his need to define himself as something more than the bloodthirsty killer he once was. Thankfully, though, this pessimism doesn’t drag down the story, and Oliver finishes the episode galvanised to further action, showing just how far he’s come from the brooding and uncommunicative hero of a couple of seasons ago. For the most part, it’s a solidly told story that’s pleasingly unafraid to offer a purposefully grim conclusion that deprives viewers of the typical gratification that most ‘redemption’ stories typically offer.
Another effective story is Curtis’, whose character takes a great leap forward as Arrow finally seems to find a concrete place for him in the story. Too often, he’s been a spare part of the new Team Arrow, with his blunders serving to obstruct the story on frequent occasions, and there’s never been a defined reason as to why he had to become a brawler like the rest of the team. However, building upon the emotional groundwork of his break-up with his husband in the midseason finale, Who Are You? clarifies Curtis’ specific role in the team and poses a more fitting place for him going forward by stripping down his character to the fears and hopes that motivate him before building him back up in a way that seems far more sustainable. It’s an effective jolt to see the typically sanguine techie angrily lash out at Rene, but it’s one that makes logical sense – in a team of proficient fighters and one magical rag man, it’s somewhat inevitable that the newbie vigilante of the team would overinvest in his role in the team and therefore feel empty when his usefulness is undermined. That’s something the prior episodes hinted at by showing Curtis falling behind the fighting skills of his teammates, but his character benefits hugely from Arrow actually doing something with these implications and seeking to rectify them. In his own way, Curtis’ arc is a more positive mirror of Oliver’s as he’s faced with unavoidable problems in the identity he’s constructed for himself and therefore seeks to define himself in a way that’s true to his real self instead of an idealised version. While Oliver’s story offers uncertainty, Curtis’ story offers the satisfying catharsis of a character figuring out who he wants to be, which offers a necessary counterbalance to the grimness elsewhere with a splash of genuine optimism. For all its problems, Who Are You? manages the difficult task of rehabilitating one of this season’s most frustrating characters, which is no mean feat.
What doesn’t work quite so well here is the involvement of Prometheus, for a multitude of reasons. For one, his role in the episode is identical to that of the midseason finale – he’s once again seeking to prove that Oliver’s a murderer who cannot be changed, which is a point he made quite effectively with the gambit of tricking Oliver into killing Detective Malone. Given how every appearance of the character so far has evolved him in some meaningful way, keeping him as an engagingly nebulous character who can never be pinned down, it’s disappointing that Who Are You? boxes him in the traditional Big Bad role as someone who crops up all the time, with roughly the same motivations, to fight Oliver to a stalemate before escaping, as it’s a choice that risks eroding the unsettling nature of the character. And secondly, his role in relation to Black Siren is messily defined. Is he conscripting her, as the first scene would suggest? Are they equal partners, as the latter scenes would suggest? Or, as the very final scene would suggest, are they essentially separate entities who are helping each other out? Black Siren’s reasoning for working with Prometheus is never actually pinned down, and as such, the episode never offers a defined reason for Prometheus to be there at all given the individuality afforded to Black Siren above a typical ‘henchman’ character – indeed, he exits the final fight as if he were never there in the first place, with the emotional conclusion falling to Felicity’s (sigh) KO of Laurel. Of everything in the episode, this is probably the most concerning point for the future as it’s uncannily similar to the way Damien Dahrk began to be treated in season 4 as his threat loosened with every token appearance, and… well, we all know how that ended.
Meanwhile, out in the fringes of the show, Diggle’s story arc as a convict (take two) got underway. It’s a mixed bag of a story, although there is enough to enjoy within the committed performances that bring vitality to dialogue that could have been dull and lifeless in the wrong hands. David Ramsey could play Diggle’s hardened but soulful determination in his sleep, and the gravitas and emotional realism that he brings to Diggle’s role ensures that there is, at least, some sense of stakes in urgency in a plotline populated by non-event villains and vague threats. Likewise, Josh Segarra is a capable screen partner as Adrian Chase. In case we didn’t think Chase was Vigilante already, Segarra’s offbeat, deeply intense performance that makes an ordinary question sound like an interrogation makes those links even clearer, but in an interesting way – it’s a fun shift to see the lawmaker in the picture cast as the unstable rogue figure, with the convict as the sager and wiser one. For all the good work of Ramsey and Segarra, however, the plotline can’t shake off its tangential status. It’s playing out in a bubble, scarcely affected by anything else going on, and as with any subplot with no connections to the main story, it’s therefore hard to really invest in the story as a perilous conflict for Diggle given how low a priority it’s given in the episode’s pecking order.
After a handful of episodes off for crossovers and season one flashbacks, the Russia flashbacks returned here with Oliver in the hands of a traitorous Bratva agent. The flashbacks, frustratingly, are more sluggish than usual here, as we cycle through some familiar and tired scenes of Oliver being beaten up by nondescript crooks with little advancement in the story, but the flashbacks do eventually arrive at a cogent point, examining the role of circumstances in shaping Oliver into the brutal, conflicted killer of five years ago. The comparisons to the present day are as subtle as a sledgehammer, but they make their point effectively. And the cliffhanger the flashbacks offer is tantalising enough to keep faith, as a mysterious figure named Talia pops up to save Oliver. She doesn’t give her surname, but I have a feeling that it’s an important one…
As was revealed in the season premiere, Laurel made Oliver promise to keep the Black Canary mantle going, and it appears as if Arrow is about to make good on that promise, as we see a new character with Canary Cry abilities taking out some crooks in Hub City in the stinger. It’s easy to respond in a kneejerk fashion here, really. This is the third official Black Canary in as many seasons, and that’s discounting Evelyn’s brief stint in the suit after Laurel’s death. That persona, and the commitment it requires, has been explored from so many angles that it’s hard to tell exactly what a new Black Canary could actually bring to the table other than reheated echoes of stories already told. Scepticism comes easily, and there are valid reasons to feel concerned. However, time will tell – Who Are You? simply doesn’t spend enough time with Juliana Harkavy’s character for a full judgement on the value of her character in the long term to be made. The idea of a new Canary is worth viewing with uncertainty, but there’s every chance the execution, with the specific characterisation of this new Canary and the role she’ll fill in Team Arrow yet to be determined. For all we know, this might not even pan out to be a permanent move, as this new Canary could easily just turn down the call to action. While this midseason premiere might have been weaker than what this season has offered up so far, it still shows plenty of signs of promise for the future – and besides, one mildly underwhelming episode shouldn’t spark a total loss of faith. Arrow has given us plenty of reasons to trust it this season. Let’s just hope it continues building that goodwill, instead of reversing it.
Who Are You? is a flawed return for Arrow that suffers from some messy and unclear storytelling and a final scene that offers a questionable path forward for the season, but it stays afloat with compelling and insightful character arcs for Oliver and Curtis, a strong grasp on the season’s themes and uniformly strong performances that bring gravitas even when the script is sorely lacking.