Arrow: 517 “Kapiushon” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Every comic book story needs a hero who stands for something good and moral – whose efforts we can root for and sympathise with. Yet as plenty of mainstream creatives are now comfortable with saying, perfect heroes aren’t all that interesting. At some point, a superhero’s flaws need to be held up to the light and interrogated, breaking them down so they can be built up stronger later on. Arrow has always been especially enthusiastic about digging into the moral uncertainties of Oliver Queen. He has always been intended as a sympathetic character, but one with real, crippling flaws that prevent him from becoming the hero he wishes to be. Yet I don’t think Arrow has ever been quite as uncompromisingly critical of its hero as it was in this week’s episode.
Kapiushon is a brutal instalment, one that comes at you with its uncomfortable mission statement with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In psychological terms, it’s Oliver Queen’s Knightfall – a story in which untenable amounts of pressure are piled onto him until he shatters. Quite frequently, the unremitting darkness of tone that Kapiushon exhibits can derail superhero adaptations, rendering them dour and without humanity. Yet the grim tone works within the context of this episode because this, ultimately, is as human as Arrow will ever be – an intimate and focused character study of a horribly flawed person who made all the wrong decisions when starting on his path of heroism and might just have failed to fix them in the present day. It’s dark, in essence, because it needs to be to capture the extent of Oliver Queen’s dysfunctionality. Despite the slightly bloated flashback plotline that could have stood to be pared down a little, this was an impressively ambitious achievement that swung for the fences and reaped rich rewards.
The present day storyline in Kapiushon is uncomfortably intimate – just two psychologically tormented vigilantes working on a special kind of therapy. It was here that we really got a chance to view the complete Adrian Chase unencumbered by secrecy or by a hidden agenda, and it was quite a sight. Prometheus may have been introduced in the classic mould of a highly experienced vigilante with skills that potentially surpass the hero, but Kapiushon puts emphasis on the psychological aspects of his villainy in his unerringly effective strategies to break Oliver. Each trial that he places Oliver through unveils a disturbing new insight into Chase’s cracked psyche – his trick with Evelyn shows a perverse glee in corrupting Oliver’s influence in others, for instance, while his final ‘gift’ shows a creepy obsession with the idea of domination with the burnt tattoo symbolising the redefinition of Oliver’s past, with even the smallest triumphs turned to reminders of Chase. Josh Segarra continues his fine work as the unmasked Chase here, maintaining an unnerving sense of volatility throughout that belies his bragging claims of a ‘plan more intricate than torture’ – Segarra makes it seem tangibly possible, even likely, that Chase could snap from anger and impulsively destroy all of the groundwork he’s laid in this plan at any given moment.
Perhaps the most interesting insight that Kapiushon offers about Chase, however, is that he’s not the vaguely sympathetic villain we perhaps thought he was. Earlier episodes pointed strongly to the idea that Prometheus’ actions had some moral justification as retribution, but Kapiushon ruthlessly dismantles that by portraying Chase as unequivocally insane. There’s no real rhyme or reason to his quest – he doesn’t have answers for Oliver’s justified accusations of hypocrisy regarding the violence that Chase himself has participated in. He’s simply a shell of a human doggedly pursuing the scent of blood until he’ll eventually expire, and that’s actually a more unsettling notion than the idea that he has a reasonable motivation for his actions. Arrow has struggled to find a compelling antagonist for Oliver in the wake of Slade Wilson, but in the feral and unhinged dark mirror of Oliver that is Chase, season five has a villain who seems more than worthy of comparison.
Season four skipped out on the Arrow staple of the majority-flashback episode, but Kapiushon reinstated the tradition with a hefty storyline involving the return of Dolph Lundgren’s Konstantin Kovar. The flashbacks have lost some of the purpose seen at the start of the season, gradually losing their specific entanglement to Oliver’s own personal journey to become a more generic crime story. Kapiushon doesn’t fully rectify that problem – there are still too many characters involved whose presence and characterisation feels extraneous for a story that’s ultimately a character study – but it does successfully manage to bring the flashback storyline to its original purpose of throwing Oliver’s overall, ten-year character arc into relief. The Oliver of five years ago, at this point, is at rock bottom, and Kapiushon portrays his further descent into a vicious moral code with striking brutality. It’s genuinely uncomfortable to watch a protagonist who interrogates his enemies by skinning them, partly for ‘practice’, and callously sticks arrows in those he’s already incapacitated. In that vein, the final battle against Kovar is a notable subversion of the classic ‘good vs evil’ duel – it’s ugly in its raw physicality (it’s useful that Stephen Amell and Dolph Lundgren are now seasoned in stunt-heavy roles and can participate heavily in their action scenes), serves no real moral end since Kovar’s plan has already been foiled, and ends with a murder that’s wholly gratuitous. It’s abundantly clear that we’re not watching a pure-hearted crusader for good here.
Kapiushon gets plenty of mileage out of portraying Oliver at his most bloodthirsty and fanatical about his mission in order to lay the necessary groundwork for the final revelation at the hands of Chase, but it’s his thought processes and moral justifications that come under the most scrutiny here. It’s here where the flashbacks become the most compelling, and pertinent to Oliver’s own present-day quandaries. It’s heart-rending to see Oliver undergo brutal torture when he’s developed so much in front of our eyes, but it’s also true to say that he takes a hell of a long time to come to that final confession. Considering that he’s already heard everything he needs to know from Anatoly five years ago, who saw his problem and offered an unerringly accurate prediction, the morality of the episode becomes more layered. It suggests that Oliver is undergoing his quest to become a better hero in a fundamentally flawed way – refusing to confront the inconvenient truths about himself that would make him drop everything if he stopped to think about them substantively. Ultimately, if Oliver had actually worked through his own issues in his own time, he may not have ended in this situation at all. While the dialogue in the flashbacks does suffer from the traditional Arrow problem of didacticism, eagerly repeating points to create ironic echoes between past and present, Kapiushon’s flashbacks in their totality serve to make one thing very clear: Oliver was telling the truth when he confessed to enjoying killing, because he’d known it for years.
It’s a revelation that puts Arrow in a fascinating place going forwards. The first thing that we look for in a hero is a trust that they’re doing things for the right reasons, and this upends that trust entirely. Oliver’s confession seemed to be rooted in the past, confining that ill intent to a version of the character who’s long since been eclipsed. Yet it suggests that his crusade to save the city was rotten to the core from the start if it was founded upon such a huge lie, and it’s not clear whether it’s been re-orientated in a genuinely altruistic direction considering that Oliver is still killing. After all, this season’s premiere re-introduced Oliver’s use of lethal force in a way that seemed uncomfortably gratuitous. With Oliver’s journey in past and present, Kapiushon asks a tough question – does heroism count for something if it comes from a fundamentally misconceived place? Arrow has often said no to this question in the past, putting emphasis on the motivation of actions as something that is crucial to their morality. If Arrow maintains that stance here, is it suggesting that Oliver’s heroism counted for nothing when it began, and only began to mean something real when he swore off killing? It’s a fascinating moral rabbit hole to dive into, and I hope that Arrow will explore it to the fullest extent of its potential as opposed to shying away from it. From the looks of Oliver’s own shell-shocked reaction, heading to Team Arrow to brokenly inform his teammates that he’s packing it all up, it seems that Arrow is at least keen to raise the idea that everything about the notion of Oliver as a hero has been fundamentally thrown into doubt.
While Josh Segarra makes for an excellent psychological tormenter here, and Dolph Lundgren serves his role as a hulking physical antagonist with aplomb, Kapiushon belongs to Stephen Amell. It certainly asks a lot of Amell, requiring him to tap into a well of despair and pain that’s off the typical emotional charts of this show. Yet the result is a resounding affirmation of Amell’s growing talents as a compelling leading man, as he delivers a performance that brings visceral realism to every twist of the knife that Oliver faces in his torture. His tortured confession that he enjoys killing is delivered in a way that exacerbates its unsettling implications with a raw fury that evokes the bloodthirsty enjoyment of killing that forms the basis of the confession. Yet Amell is at his best in the episode’s last moments, where he’s utterly broken in spirit and body, reduced to a mumbling wreck covered with painful new scars. Amell utterly sells the idea that Oliver has been shattered by the totality of the episode’s events, and his shaken despair is so atypical for Oliver that it’s difficult to imagine him finding his way back to stability any time soon. As it seems, he is very, very far from okay. Kapiushon is a great reminder of the talent that the CW has been able to accrue in building its DC universe in how it builds so much around the talents of two actors sitting in a prison cell together, building up a tangible and gripping relationship founded upon pure fear and hatred.
To imagine that the bleak cruelty of this episode is taking place in parallel in the same fictional universe to Supergirl and the Flash dancing around a 1940s musical dreamworld is pretty stunning, but that just speaks to the sheer variety of the CW’s DC universe where you can have two episodes that are equally great for opposite reasons. Kapiushon is tightly-plotted and thematically rich, keeping a consistent focus on the moral ambiguities of Oliver’s heroism throughout that only wavers once or twice when the flashback sequences become bogged down in the intricacies of what’s going on. Most of all, though, it succeeds because it’s willing to be unremittingly dark in a way that Arrow is often reticent to be, descending to a place where the heroism of our protagonist is in complete question, and in which the villain seems to be utterly victorious, and making that darkness brutally impactful. Realistically, every practical consideration of a TV show contradicts the revelation that Oliver’s really going to pack up his crusade, but for a few moments, Kapiushon brings Arrow to a place where that kind of development is somewhat credible. Of all the things that this episode gets right, that, in particular, feels summative.