Arrow: 512 “Bratva” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Season five of Arrow has been the story of past and present – of acknowledging the contradictory progress of Oliver Queen’s journey, and therefore an attempt to find something meaningful and summative of the show’s first five years. There’s no better location for an episode, then, than Russia, the home of this year’s flashbacks and the embodiment of all the morally questionable things Oliver has fought so hard to avoid.
Bratva wasted little time in contriving a scenario to send Team Arrow overseas, and the result is an episode that’s all killer, no filler as it depicts characters at the end of their tether, considering quick-fix actions that are a few clicks away from their typical morality. In some places, it’s lean to a fault, so blunt in its aims that it hammers away nuance in favour of making its point very loudly, but not particularly logically. And it’s hard not to wonder whether Arrow is channelling its drive into a story that’s been well-covered already this season in Prometheus’ episodes. Nonetheless, at a point where the season can so often meander and lose focus, it’s fitting and arguably necessary to have an episode that crystallises what Arrow is trying to achieve this year.
The central emotional arc of Bratva centres around moral compromise. It’s something that Oliver is intimately familiar with, and the episode wastes no time in acknowledging that he doesn’t have the same qualms about parking his morals for a while if the ends serve the means. In fact, that’s very much the point – the lean pace of the episode ensures that Oliver is ingratiated rapidly back into the Bratva’s world, indicating the ease at which he can return to the tormented criminal of five years ago without even really thinking about it. It’s an effective way to show the thin line between Oliver of the past and present, indicating the fragility of his quest to redefine himself in the future, and it’s an important reminder that he’s still far away from completing his journey as a hero despite his considerable experience. Less successful is Bratva’s blunt attempt to make this struggle crystal-clear in a conversation between Oliver and Dinah that serves as little more than a recap of Oliver’s turmoil post-Prometheus. It discusses some fascinating ideas and nudges Oliver in a satisfying new direction of breaking his vicious cycle, but the rest of the episode does a far better job of showing his difficulties in outrunning the past in a more natural way. Indeed, when it’s spelled out bluntly in dialogue, the conflict begins to feel distinctly familiar from earlier in the season in its constant references to Prometheus – a similarity that lurks beneath the different visuals of the Russian setting.
The benefits of showing over telling are key to the successful flashbacks this week, too. While previous episodes, especially in past seasons where the link between past and present was more tenuous, were blunter about the past’s effect on the present with a repeated quote or a clear lesson as a link, the flashbacks in Bratva don’t have that same didactic connection. Instead, the parallels are implicit, as the flashbacks clarify and make tangible the past compromises and violent mistakes that Oliver is trying to put right in the present. His journeys in past and present are running on two very clear parallel tracks, and his existential woes about ascending out of the muck are made much more engaging and believable by the opportunity to see just how far he descended in his ‘ends justify the means’ philosophy.
On one hand, this shrewd usage of the flashbacks carries benefits for Diggle and Felicity’s own personal stories this week. Their whole story is predicated on the idea that they’re descending into uncharted waters morally, and the chance to see just how deep those waters go with Oliver’s journey in Russia ensures that there’s urgency to Oliver’s quest to set them back on the straight and narrow. And it’s always compelling to see characters we know well pushed into dark and surprising new places. For Felicity, it means that Bratva can follow through on last week, depicting her temptation by the alluring promise of taking down more crooks. It’s a genuinely solid story, and one that displays an understanding of the boundaries and individual strengths of her character in a way that Arrow so rarely does in its tendency to place her either as the peppy comic relief or as the unconvincing romantic co-lead. This arc just treats her as an interesting character with the capability for darkness, and it’s all the better for it.
Diggle’s story doesn’t work as well. The fundamentals are all fine, paying off Diggle’s simmering animosity with the backstabbing General Walker with some good old fashioned revenge, and his overall arc from murderous rage to the catharsis of letting due process do its process makes good sense. The problem is that Bratva is telling a story of Diggle at his absolute lowest ebb, and it just hasn’t laid the basis for that. General Walker only came in this season, and while he certainly screwed over Diggle, his actions were impersonal while someone like Deadshot’s hit home right with Diggle’s loved ones – he’s a significant antagonist, but he’s too distanced personally from Diggle to make a convincing arch-enemy capable of inciting the rage we see here. We barely even see the guy this episode, with most of his dialogue coming when a gun is pointed to his head at the very end, so his threat is amorphous at best. Diggle’s urgency, therefore, is somewhat hard to buy, especially given how far it goes beyond Diggle’s typical restraint and wisdom, and the frenzied shouting and violence begins to feel forced and uncharacteristic soon enough. Diggle’s story had the nuts and bolts of an impressive arc, but it overshoots the mark in the melodramatic execution where a greater sense of restraint and thoughtfulness would have worked better.
Surprisingly enough, one of the strongest parts of Bratva doesn’t take place on Russian soil. Wild Dog and Lance is certainly one of the odder pairings this show has found in its time, but their two-hander proved to be a genuinely satisfying and enlightening story that touched on new depths for either character. Lance has been absent for a few episodes since his trip to rehab, and Bratva paints a complex picture of his psyche after that experience – still scarred from the same trauma that sent him to rehab in the first place, but with a self-awareness that, after time to think, allows him to find a healthier way to move past those issues. Rene, meanwhile, was finally shown in a different light other than good-hearted but impulsive vigilante. To be sure, ‘good-hearted but impulsive’ still broadly defines his character here. Yet Bratva shows off a quieter and sharper side of his character who’s more perceptive than his brash demeanour gives him credit for, and it’s satisfying to see that his hardball strategy ends up being right, as opposed to an indicator of his continuing flaws. His story at the end is, despite his contrivances, a nice way to sum up this more mature depiction of the character – someone who’s found peace with his flaws and works to make a difference despite them. The result is that Rene ends the episodes as a better-rounded character with a tangible link to Oliver’s journey in his own struggles to outrun the mistakes of his past, yet still able to retain the defining, offbeat appeal of his character as the hot-headed vigilante.
In an episode where past and present are constantly threatening to collide, it’s no surprise that there’s a warning that they could soon become inextricably bound up with each other. Bratva only deals with Prometheus’ threat tangentially, so its hook for the future is a hint that Oliver’s time in Russia could come back to bite him. This should be more exciting than it actually is. It’s the kind of development that hits all of the main themes of this season and provides an additional element of peril beyond the physical and psychological threat of Prometheus. Yet in practice, it’s hard to care. Perhaps it’s because it’s coming through the character of Susan Williams, who has proved to be a frustrating mess of a character, participating in one of the least convincing romances that Arrow has ever coughed up. A lot of the twist at the end hangs on the idea that it’s a betrayal of Oliver, but the betrayal is decidedly unsurprising because Arrow never gave us a good reason to even like Susan in the first place. Coupled with the fact that the core threat of her investigations is to expose Oliver’s identity, something that’s incredibly hard to invest in after the Roy Harper shenanigans of season three rewrote the first reveal, and it all just falls a little flat. Arrow has found so many ways to explore the past’s inexorable influence on the present, so a rehashed and rushed storyline like this can’t help but feel extraneous. This show can do, and has done, better.
Bratva is paced like a bullet train, and it’s certainly an entertaining episode – one that’s keen to take its characters to darker territory than we’ve seen them in, or to pair up characters who have barely even interacted beforehand. It does, however, sometimes cut corners and present storylines that are designated as important without the groundwork being laid for that. Much like the characters in this episode, Bratva could have done better by focusing more on the means as opposed to just the ends.