Arrow: 514 “The Sin-Eater” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Prometheus, and despite Arrow’s clear attempts to keep the echoes of his actions reverberating throughout the episodes where he hasn’t appeared, season five’s momentum has begun to flag a little in the wake of a lethargically paced story arc that’s taken several roundabout stops in Hub City, Russia, or for a special episode on gun control.
This week’s episode, The Sin-Eater, purports to come out swinging with a visit to Prometheus’ mother in a search for answers before the titles have even rolled. And sure enough, quite a few important things happen in the season arc plot this episode, including a genuinely exciting cliffhanger that heightens the peril that Oliver faces no end. Yet the increased flow of twists and revelations can’t stop The Sin-Eater from feeling disappointingly mechanical in its execution. It dutifully sifts through several complex and potentially fascinating storylines and shifts around the pieces on the season’s chess board, but rarely finds time for anything truly surprising, save a few scenes that are galvanised by some committed performances. We arrive in an interesting place by the end, but The Sin-Eater doesn’t have much interest in making the journey any more exciting than it strictly needed to be, resulting in an episode that could best be described as competent, and not a lot more.
The central problem of The Sin-Eater revolves around Oliver’s firefighting after his past in Russia and his accidental murder of Detective Malone are dredged up by outside forces. The combination of these problems had the potential to make this episode into an intense trial for Oliver with his back up against the wall, but the episode skips over the complexities inherent in its stories all too often for that. The story about the Malone cover-up is particularly bland. The ACU’s abrupt about-face when provided with an indication of the Green Arrow’s culpability is barely substantiated and is clearly just mandated by the plot to provide Oliver with an additional adversary to contend with. They never pose an actual threat – their only attack on Oliver leads to an easy flashbang escape – and soon enough they’re back on his side as if nothing ever happened. Moreover, it’s the way The Sin-Eater clears up their threat that encapsulates its box-ticking approach. All it takes is one slightly unconvincing speech that describes the Green Arrow’s frame job and emotions after Malone in such precise detail that it’s amazing that the police captain doesn’t pick up on it, and all the moral ambiguities of Oliver’s culpability in Malone’s death are cleared away for the episode. While the cliffhanger ensures that the problem isn’t going away, which at least provides the reassurance that this wasn’t wrapping up the fallout of Malone’s death, within the boundaries of this episode, it’s disappointing to see Arrow skips over a potentially fascinating new threat to Oliver as the Green Arrow in favour of a clean and easy way out that calls into question just what the point of the ACU’s brief vendetta against him was.
On the other side of the equation, Susan Williams’ shady double-dealings come to fruition as she directly confronted Oliver with the evidence she’s gathered. This story took a very different tack than I expected, to its credit. Instead of making Susan into a morally questionable nemesis for Oliver using their murky relationship to her advantage, she ends up as a complete victim who loses control over proceedings once Thea got involved to move her out of the equation. It’s interesting to see this difference from expectations, but ultimately The Sin-Eater creates quite a simplistic story out of some very complex character relationships and moral ambiguities at play. In this story, Oliver’s role as someone who became involved in a clear conflict of interest without ever considering the consequences doesn’t factor as a potential problem, and ultimately he’s wrong-footed not for his ill-advised dealings with Susan, but for the Malone cover-up that was orchestrated by Chase. This links to a key problem of The Sin-Eater, which is its singular perspective where everything is filtered through Oliver’s worldview, and the events that affect him.
There’s not a doubt that Oliver’s culpable for a lot of what begins to bite him in this episode, but he’s rarely interrogated in any meaningful way for his actions. The perspective that Arrow takes on the Susan Williams story is his – that she’s a helpless victim, something that’s questionable in of itself given how she hopped between a relationship with him and an active investigation, and that Thea is unequivocally wrong for attacking her. The Sin-Eater rarely strays outside this perspective, and it constrains the episode severely, as it constantly shies away from painting Oliver in a genuinely negative light at any point. His story of the week is about learning not to be a ‘sin-eater’, something that could have been fascinating elsewhere due to Arrow’s preoccupation with blame and responsibility, but, within the context of an episode where a more robust interrogation of his flaws was necessary, it exemplifies a tendency to over-develop the main character’s perspective to the exclusion of others. Arrow has improved a lot this season in its ability to honestly expose Oliver’s flaws and suggest ways that they could be cast off and learned from, so The Sin-Eater’s softball approach which depicts a lot of easily blamed external obstacles for him and demands little change of character is a disappointing step back. Fortunately, Stephen Amell manages to at least provide an engagingly intense central presence as Oliver, communicating the urgency and panic of the situation as the adversities pile up, and his two-hander scenes with both Willa Holland and Carly Pope are a textbook example of strong performances bringing a vitality to material that’s flat on the page. They don’t rescue Oliver’s story, but there’s at least a sense of deeper and more complex emotion in the scenes than their characterisation would first suggest.
To its credit, The Sin-Eater does have an ace up its sleeve, and that ace is Thea Queen. With Thea, the episode feels like it should have been across the board, with a scenario that strikes the right balance of justified within the moment and ethically questionable, and that develops her character in a meaningful and ever so slightly foreboding way. Her gambit of unjustly discrediting Susan is a really interesting way to move the journalist out of play for the time being and to show just how comfortable she’s become with moral compromise under the timeless, horribly flawed belief that the ends justify the means. And it doesn’t feel forced to stir up some tension – Arrow has clearly sketched out a well thought-out path for her character for the rest of this season as shown by the intriguing accusation of Oliver that Thea’s actions are mirroring her mother’s. That’s just the right place for a character who’s sometimes struggled to neatly slot into the wider ensemble (her three-episode holiday on a ‘conference’ after the Christmas break exemplified that), offering up moral quandaries without the brooding and self-recriminations that define Oliver’s decision-making and therefore becoming more of an ambiguous figure who rests in the thin boundary between good or bad. It’s the rare example within The Sin-Eater of Arrow taking the time to flesh out a character’s decision-making process for doing what they’re doing instead of defining them bluntly as obstacles or allies to Oliver, as Thea ends up being both at once.
The villains of the week are a trio of familiar faces in China White, Cupid and Liza Warner. They might be familiar, but they’re certainly not memorable, as The Sin-Eater consistently fails to meaningfully justify their presence. Their alliance is never explored or explained in any detail, and their overarching objective of grave-robbing Tobias Church is a dull one that’s devoid of any moral complexities that could dovetail with Oliver’s own turmoil or the complicated involvement of the ACU. Individually, there’s little to dig into – the closest the episode gets to an interesting villain is Liza, whose dynamic with Lance has the bones of something challenging in its criticism of his moral transgressions but feels dated in how it’s based in a plot point that was dispensed with well over a season ago. Cupid has never been a good villain, no matter how many times Arrow tries to make it happen (four times now, and nope), and China White reminds us quickly just why she spent so long off-screen by possessing absolutely zero defining characteristics. The Sin-Eater, in its defence, has a lot more on its plate than the basic villain of the week structure, but given how it’s plucking established villains out of the roster rather than creating new ones, it’s surprising just how unengaging they are, and how mechanical their role is in posing a physical obstacle to Team Arrow beyond the shenanigans in the mayor’s office.
While The Sin-Eater struggles to make its piece-moving dynamic, the episode receives a jolt of energy at the eleventh hour with a cliffhanger that sets up a compelling premise for next episode while, at the very least, putting some of the episode’s flaws in context. The threat of Oliver’s impeachment is a great way to keep the mayoral side of the story on an equal playing field with the Green Arrow, providing an immediate threat that has nothing to do with masks and punching, and it’s a way to put the values that define both sides of Oliver to a defining test, providing an open door for Prometheus to head back into the fray. It’s also a relief, after an episode that studiously avoids any surprising curveballs, to have the Malone cover-up blown right open in a way that feels realistic, as well as providing a second chance for Arrow to probe the questions of Oliver’s guilt and responsibility in his own downfall that it avoided this episode. It shows that Arrow is still committed to stories that are politically tinged and invite the viewer to make their own moral judgements, which can’t help but feel reassuring, even if it’s essentially a promise that almost every episode this season has fulfilled quite easily.
Ultimately, it’s doubtful anyone will look back on this episode with either fondness or scorn. It’s more likely that they’ll swiftly forget almost all of it, and remember the more explosive events that this episode sets up. The cliffhanger throws The Sin-Eater’s function as a table-setting episode into a clear light, and in that regard, it’s not too bad. It follows through on the challenges that previous episodes had set up for Oliver without walking them back, throws in a moral challenge or two, and ends in an exciting place that couldn’t have been reached without the legwork this episode provided. Yet as a standalone episode, this was distinctly lacklustre. It never reaches particularly memorable lows for Arrow, keeping at a base-line of well-acted, well-directed, competently written drama, but it avoids several storytelling opportunities that could really have distinguished it by constantly failing to challenge Oliver Queen as a character despite the episode’s clear ability to do so. Alongside a bland villain of the week story, and there’s only Thea’s compelling decision to save it from mediocrity. There’s a very good chance that something better is coming next, but it’s a shame that it was set up by such a formulaic and risk-averse episode.