Arrow: 511 “Second Chances” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
That’s more like it. After some concerning signs of a midseason wobble with last week’s underwhelming winter premiere, Arrow season five resumed normal service this week with Second Chances, an episode that possesses all the confidence and thematic depth that’s marked this comeback season. As Arrow parks its main season arc for a while and pads out the season with these excursions into side stories, it seems to have found a solid way to make each entry feel like a necessary addition, as Second Chances offers a fresh and thoughtful outlook on the Black Canary story that fits seamlessly into the themes that this season has been exploring of redemption and reckoning with your past.
The new Black Canary is Tina Boland aka Dinah Drake, former Central City cop and full-time metahuman with Black Siren’s powers. Replacing Laurel was always going to be a difficult task given how virulent the reaction to her death was, but Arrow’s frank self-awareness of the shadow the last Black Canary left works in its favour, as it carefully works towards bringing Tina into the fold, acknowledging the difficulties and sensitivities inherent in passing on a mantle on this as it goes. It also helps that Tina is a reasonably engaging character – her back-story isn’t particularly original, but Juliana Harkavy brings an intensity and no-nonsense approach to the character that contrasts with the comparatively warmer and more open Laurel. It’s nice to see a character who can see through Oliver’s stirring rhetoric and get to the messy personal issues that lie beneath, in another sign of this episode’s atypical regard for Arrow’s occasional clichés and past mistakes. The dynamic between Tina and the rest of the team is far more fraught and uncertain than we’re used to with the recruits, who all signed up voluntarily bar Rory who needed one quick speech, which shows a patience and commitment to laying the essential groundwork of complex and understandable motivations. Due to all the time the episode takes in establishing the particulars of Tina’s character that stray from the basic archetypes on which she’s built – it’s an enlightening and surprising moment to see her reject the typical ‘you’re better than this’ speech when she’s faced with her nemesis, her reconciliation with Oliver at the very end feels like it’s been earned. It’s too early to call whether she’ll become a worthy regular addition to the team, but Second Chances did a great job of integrating the character slowly into Oliver’s orbit, thus setting up some further important development down the line.
In another sign of Second Chances’ ‘back to normal’ feel, the flashbacks are substantially improved this week and once again feel like a relevant final piece of the jigsaw for the stories Arrow is telling. The presence of Talia al Ghul does a lot to add some unpredictability and a new story direction for the flashbacks. Lexa Doig’s poised, enigmatic performance makes for an intriguing mystery of a character whose ulterior motives are evidently lurking far, far beneath the surface, and the more assertive pace of the episode with Talia’s involvement ensures that there’s some important strides forward in Oliver’s war against the Bratva compared to last week’s wheel-spinning. There’s a tangible sense of forward momentum now, as Oliver’s long, circuitous journey from spoiled kid to the Hood finally seems to be drawing to a close that’s within reach. Arrow’s awareness of Oliver’s contradictions has been a real boon for his continuing journey, and that awareness is now finally extending to the flashbacks where the show frankly acknowledges that this was a story that had three years of gas at most, and has just been running in circles since then to mark time until the inevitable end-point. Talia’s storytelling purpose is clear – to finally break that loop and to remind Oliver of his readiness to take on his father’s mission. It’s been a long, long time since the flashbacks have had a sense of purpose as tangible as this, and the scenes this week come across as energised by the ability to work towards a clear conclusion that’s finally in sight. Let’s just hope the flashbacks don’t look back now.
Besides setting the end-date for Oliver’s journey to season 1, the flashbacks set the stage for the main arc of the week that extends to more or less all of the important characters here. Perhaps the best take on this theme of redemption and breaking a vicious cycle, aside from Tina’s, is Rene’s sentiment that Team Arrow is founded on the notion of second chances. It’s expressed with clunking obviousness, but the meaning actually brings a lot of clarity to the wider journey Arrow is heading on this season aside from Oliver’s own personal journey of reconciling his inner demons. Arrow has been, paradoxically, darker than ever in tone this season while it’s become openly more optimistic in his outlook, and the idea of second chances is a great way to articulate why that is. It’s a concept that’s inherently dark, acknowledging flaws and mistakes with often catastrophic consequences like the ones that birthed Prometheus and his/her plan to take down Oliver, but it offers a counterweight to that by stating that those mistakes need not define a person forever if they choose to take a different path. It’s why Team Arrow has taken on so many misfits and outcasts this year while taking its eye off the more conventional Diggle and Thea who have already taken those better paths forward, and it’s why Arrow is so focused on balancing its darkness with its light this year in a way that’s more substantial than just throwing a comically evil bad guy at the story. Every DC show this week, to some extent, has explored the idea that there’s hope for everyone to be good, but Arrow has perhaps delivered the most thoughtful dive into this subject.
There is, however, a bit of a wrinkle to this. Arrow has always had a queasy relationship with the particulars of vigilante morality as Oliver’s stance on lethal force has endlessly fluctuated, and season five began with a particular misstep with a moment of lethal violence that the story seemed to be working against. Arrow has mostly avoided the subject since then, and Second Chances doesn’t necessarily tackle it head on, but the weird contradictions and undertones to this show’s morality felt particularly prominent this week. It works as an unexpected development, but the episode is clear that we’re supposed to see Tina killing Soros as a bad thing – a moment of empty vengeance that she acknowledges explicitly to be unsatisfying as a means of closure in her later conversation with Oliver. Less clear is the moment where she tortures a goon to death with her sonic scream, an instance of flexible morality the episode soon forgets. Completely without clarity in any way is Oliver shooting down a helicopter without looking back, a few seconds before he pleads Tina not to kill a man who has evidently done a lot more awful things than his underlings. In a season that’s expelled so many of Arrow’s bad habits, it still fundamentally has no idea what to say about its morality other than what works in the exact moment, and the lack of consistency can’t help but undercut some of the thoughtful character work and ruminations on vengeance that occur elsewhere.
Meanwhile in Star City, Diggle’s plot wraps up, and it’s broadly speaking on the same terms as it was last week. It’s all fundamentally competent, and even occasionally compelling. Moreover, Felicity’s return to her hacker days and moral dilemma when confronted with an enthusiastic follower of her work is one of the better character arcs she’s had in a while, concentrating on her individuality and skills in a way similar to The Flash’s use of Iris this week. Yet while it’s eminently watchable, it’s never particularly exciting. Every turn of luck comes far too easily for the heroes, whether it’s the sudden appearance of Felicity’s hacker ally, the ease in which she gains the data or the credulity-straining speed of Diggle’s exoneration, which somehow involves a pardon for breaking out of a military prison. It sits better with the A-plot this week than last episode, as the themes of Tina’s story have clear echoes in Diggle and Felicity’s ‘second chances’, but Arrow continually fails to provide reasons for viewers to really invest in this story as a significant one for the characters. As it is, this was clearly a pleasant diversion that looped back round to where it began, with more or less nothing changed. That’s fine, but ultimately a little underwhelming.
While Second Chances might stumble with some of its core messages, or with the always difficult task of making two plots that are drastically different in stakes both feel urgent, it’s surer in its storytelling and more ambitious in its themes than last week, which was much more fundamentally flawed. Considering how unconvincing the premise of searching out a new Black Canary seemed on paper, the fact that Second Chances is a good, solid episode is commendable in of itself, especially how the Black Canary material is actually the most engaging part of the whole jigsaw. Arrow might, out of necessity, have put aside the headlong intensity of the hot streak of episodes that ended 2016 for the show, but if it can put out entertaining and well-executed episodes like this in the interim before Prometheus rears his head again, then season five can keep its impressive course towards drastically rebounding this show’s quality permanently.