Arrow: 518 “Disbanded” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Is Arrow a show about a team, or about a lone wolf? It’s offered consistently varied answers to that question over time – in the first three seasons, almost everything revolved around Oliver, while recent years, especially this season with its introduction of the new Team Arrow, have increasingly come in with an ensemble approach. There’s been a very clear reason for that change – while Oliver’s tortured psyche and unorthodox morality were compelling to begin with, they soon lost their lustre and became irritating by season three, as Oliver became a vacuum of brooding darkness at the centre of the show. Oliver Queen is still an interesting character, but at this point in his development, the character isn’t worth much without others to reflect his own struggles back at him.
This week’s episode, Disbanded, made that abundantly clear. At its centre, we have Oliver at his lowest he’s ever been, stuck at the bottom of a very, very deep pit of despair and unable to listen to any kind of reason. That’s the kind of character conflict that has the potential to be deeply annoying – a whole lot of directionless brooding with no tangible dramatic value. Yet Arrow makes it compelling by offering a whole world of contrasts to Oliver. There’s Chase, the psychopath who stokes up Oliver’s moral guilt in one hand while killing freely and with enjoyment in the other. There’s Diggle, a long-time companion who’s been through the moral ringer himself, and has emerged as a beacon of moral stability who wants nothing more than for Oliver to undergo the same process. There’s Anatoly, a former ally who fell into moral depravity and corruption in Oliver’s absence under some deeply familiar reasoning. And there’s even Felicity, who’s immersing herself further in a morally questionable environment of privacy invasion and vigilantism in an attempt to put her own guilt to rest. Not all of these characters are like Oliver, but they’re united in the same push and pull between allowing themselves to become what others perceive them to be, or to make the difficult push to forge their own identity and cast off their own past mistakes. It’s because of this that Disbanded is a terrific episode of Arrow – one which offers a thoughtful commentary on the themes that have typified the entire run of this show in a way that’s genuinely universal. It’s not all the way yet – there’s still some of the shortcutting and messiness that any CW DC viewer will be intimately familiar with by this point – but if this episode is any indication, Arrow is finally becoming the morality play it’s wanted to be for some time.
Last episode left Arrow in a tight spot with its deeply sombre tone of conclusiveness that brought Oliver’s conflict with Prometheus to a point of no return. In its own way, it was a twisted kind of season finale where the bad guy won, which raised a challenge in just how it could be followed up in a way that didn’t immediately unravel its impactful final twists. Thankfully, Disbanded found a way to both move on from Oliver’s total despair, an innately unsustainable idea, but also to explore it to a satisfying enough degree beforehand. It does so by shining an intimate spotlight on one particular relationship that’s been pivotal to Arrow’s moral struggles from the very start – Oliver and Diggle, the archetypal relationship between the flawed hero and his conscience. Except, of course, it’s more complicated than that. Diggle has been through his own moral crucible with the murder of his brother this season, and that fresh moral torment informs every aspect of his actions here, ensuring that this relationship, the oldest in the entire show, is being explored from a new kind of angle. It lends their scenes a special kind of poignancy in which Diggle’s words of advice have a real weight and depth beyond simple platitudes, coming from painful informed experience. His tenacity in coming back time after time to warn Oliver of the path he’s going down and to offer a better way hits much harder in this context, because we know just how much is at stake emotionally for Diggle in saving his own friend.
Oliver and Diggle’s scenes together always have a sense of resonance that other interpersonal relationships on this show can’t really match – when they’re fighting, such as in this episode, the blows land a lot harder because they come from a place of deep understanding of one another shaped by five years of history together. That sense of history is compellingly portrayed by David Ramsey, whose performance is uncompromisingly intense as he tries to pull Oliver back from the brink, suggesting a depth of emotion to Diggle that gives him a powerful sense of individuality in his role as Oliver’s conscience that goes a long way beyond the script. Seeing Diggle break down Oliver’s defeatism is just as cathartic as last week’s episode was downbeat and bleak. That opens up the value of Disbanded compared to last week, which offered a blunter thesis statement with Oliver’s final confession. It’s a story of how any statement of one’s character, such as a confession that killing is, sometimes, quite fun (sorry to twist your words, Oliver) is only as valuable as you make it, implying a way out through the help of supportive friends and the optimism that anything broken can be fixed. As I said above, Oliver’s not a dynamic character on his own – he needs outside perspectives to get him out of the toxic cycles of self-punishment that he can easily become trapped in and to remind him of his reasons for helping people. In Diggle, Disbanded has a ‘perspective’ who’s far richer than just a reflection for Oliver, augmenting a storyline that’s conceptually familiar and making it powerfully insightful in action.
Oliver and Diggle are a tried-and-tested relationship that almost always makes for satisfying drama, so the success of their storyline isn’t much of a surprise. What did strike me is that Disbanded offers another parallel for Oliver that’s almost as compelling in Anatoly. In the flashback storyline, Anatoly has always been a fun and likeable character anchored by a consummate performance in David Nykl, but has always served as a sounding board for Oliver more than a character in his own right. That doesn’t necessarily transform in Disbanded – Anatoly’s character still remains tethered to Oliver’s in his present day incarnation. It’s more that the episode figures out a way to make the dynamic he shares with Oliver compelling in its own right, as opposed to just functional. Even more so than Diggle’s, Anatoly’s arc is terrifically well-rounded here. It’s a story of moral decline that feels distinctly familiar to us, as we’ve seen every beat of Anatoly’s transition from idealist to hardened criminal play out before. He’s an obvious parallel for Oliver, consumed by brutal pragmatism until the philosophy of the ends justifying the means is the only thing he has left. Disbanded brutally hammers home the extent of his decline with a clever parallel between past and present, wherein Anatoly goes from stealing drugs to give to ailing children to stealing the same kinds of drugs in order to make a street drug more addictive than heroin, making clear just how thin the line between morality and amorality is, and how easily it can be breached without thought.
What’s most interesting isn’t the fact of his moral fall, but its nature – the way in which it comes about as a result of his loss of Oliver to keep him anchored. Arrow has never made us think about their relationship from that angle before – it’s always characterised Anatoly in terms of how he could influence Oliver. Flipping the script to look at the other side of the equation is excellent storytelling in how it maintains that symbiotic relationship between the two men, only from a wider perspective – it’s common sense that if Anatoly influences Oliver, then the same would be true vice versa. Inverting the typical exploration of Oliver’s moral decline and the man who spotted it long before also has the intriguing side effect of suggesting what Diggle more or less articulates – that Oliver’s moral capacity for good is no smaller than his capacity for evil, that he’s equally capable of being a terrifying killer and a moral prop that keeps Anatoly above the typical Bratva muck. Plenty of characters are cast as the voice of morality in Disbanded, but it’s striking and very informative that it’s Oliver who fills that role for Anatoly, passing Diggle’s advice on to illustrate his desire to follow his better angels. For such a bleak episode, Disbanded has a strange but welcome optimism to it, deliberately counterbalancing the nihilism of last week with something more thoughtful and suggestive of the potential for redemption. Arrow has become better this season at keeping a flicker of light going so not to fall into apathy-inducing hopelessness, and that balancing act has become more impressive as the bleakness of the characters’ situation has piled up.
Felicity plays less of a role in Disbanded than before, but she’s still a valuable contrast to Oliver. Like Anatoly, Felicity has retreated into an organisation that allows her a position of power and belonging at the cost of her own moral certainties, and the episode does a good job of increasingly walling her off from Team Arrow in how she rebuffs Diggle’s moral arguments and consistently finds herself absent from the team’s missions, indicating the addictiveness of a lifestyle that provides a quick and briefly satisfying fix to her trauma. Felicity’s storyline remains surprisingly relevant to the action of the show, with her pivotal role making her increasing insularity a genuinely significant plot shift for Arrow in general, which has a notably different tone and feel when she’s not milling around the Arrowcave and helping out with missions. While it seems like a nitpick, however, Felicity is the one character with whom Disbanded could have done a bit more. The parallels of her situation to Oliver and Anatoly’s makes her a very pertinent character in terms of the episode’s themes – and while she has plenty of screen-time, Disbanded fails to challenge the moral complexities of her actions to the same extent as it does, say, Anatoly. In an episode that keeps a delicate moral balance in its stories of lone wolves who find themselves improved in the company of others, the fact that exposing Chase is designated as a morally honourable solution while it’s achieved through the resources of the ever-problematic Helix is a rare bit of clumsiness that goes unchallenged.
Season five takes a month’s break now, and while it’s frustrating to wait that long to see what happens next, it feels like a good time for the season to come to a pause. Adrian Chase is in a drastically new situation, having been exposed by the cops as Prometheus once and for all, and the perfectly chilling final scene that depicts his carefree escape puts him in a genuinely ambiguous place going forwards, with no clue as to where he’ll attack next. And with five episodes on the clock, almost every character feels revitalised, with a sharper sense of clarity about their purpose, which puts them in an ideal place to cut the gap with Chase with some genuinely assertive action. It’s fortunate, too, that Arrow goes into the hiatus on an episode that resoundingly affirms its ability to spin a gripping story that offers a complex and rewarding take on the moral struggles of its characters. At the best time, it’s safe to say that Arrow is back where it belongs again.
Disbanded is an excellent follow-up to last week’s bruising episode, offering a tightly-wound story that deepens existing relationships while opening up new ones. It feels like as Arrow comes into land on the first ‘chapter’ of its story with the end of this season, it’s coming closer to a definitive statement on the themes of heroism and morality that have percolated throughout the entire show; and it’s a statement that’s far bigger than just the struggles of Oliver Queen.