Arrow: 520 “Underneath” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Arrow’s in a pretty good place right now, creatively. Despite a few underwhelming efforts dotted about the latter half of the season, the season has displayed a confident grasp on its central themes and character arcs, and is evidently heading in a direction that definitively wraps up Oliver’s five-year odyssey. It’s easy to forget, therefore, how rough things were just a year before, as the show slumped towards the end of a fourth season that’s acknowledged pretty widely as its creative nadir. Ask an Arrow fan why, exactly, season four came up so short, and it’s quite possible that ‘Olicity’ is the answer.
Oliver and Felicity made sense as a couple, as a time, put together solely because Stephen Amell and Emily Bett Rickards had good chemistry, and the characters complemented one another. It’s probably true to say that their relationship has an overly bad rap. Their relationship drama certainly got pretty tedious as it began to overwhelm the show last year, but there was always a sense that this was a good concept that was just being executed badly, and had the potential for improvement. Still, though, the prospect of returning to the Olicity well after a season that’s profited from a less messy dynamic between Oliver and Felicity didn’t exactly fill me with joy. Was it really necessary to return to their relationship this deep into the season?
Underneath is probably one of the better representations of Oliver and Felicity’s relationship that Arrow has served up. They hash out their issues in a mature way, and learn something from one another by the very end, which is far, far more than could be said for most of their season four drama. Their conflict and reconciliation has a good justification for its existence, too, as last episode left the tensions over Felicity’s work at Helix conspicuously unresolved, leaving an important conversation to be had between her and Oliver. The problem is that a handful of interesting revelations are used to hold up a somewhat airless (pun intended!) episode that lacks the drive and energy that’s defined this season. For all the pleasant surprises elsewhere, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is one big stall just when the season ought to be kicking into gear.
The central premise of this episode was neat and simple – a bottle episode in the Arrow bunker, now turned deathtrap. It’s established well in a good opening segment that sketches out the intricate extent of Prometheus’ preparedness in rigging the bunker, and the myriad physical obstacles that Oliver and Felicity will be facing on their way to freedom, like a nasty injury and the resumption of Felicity’s paralysis. After that, the concept is actually executed best in the scenes outside the Arrowcave, which have a spark to them in the fun interplay between Curtis, Rene and Dinah as they scrabble for solutions, and in which the ticking clock of the episode is much more visible.
Meanwhile, Oliver and Felicity’s predicament becomes steadily less interesting until the necessary set-piece climax. Underneath tries to create a sense of lethal urgency in numerous ways, but none of them are visually compelling (methane gas! The generator might turn on! Slowly escaping oxygen!) and therefore don’t feel very tangible, which makes the franticness of the characters feel somewhat forced. The whole idea that Prometheus could somehow have orchestrated the transformation of the bunker into a killing box without anyone noticing is also a little bit silly, all the more so for the way in which it’s never acknowledged as anything unusual (maybe Prometheus crossed that Rubicon when he put himself in an arcade game at the start of last week’s episode just for kicks) It’s a good idea that a psychologically-oriented villain is cooking up schemes that allow him to torment Oliver and friends without getting his hands dirty, but Underneath doesn’t really engage with that idea at all, which feels like a missed opportunity in an episode that devotes plenty of time to the details of Oliver and Felicity’s imprisonment.
The character work fares a little better, though it’s worth qualifying that Arrow can be, and has been, a show capable of juggling multiple important character arcs at once and doing them all justice, so the decompressed way in which Oliver and Felicity’s conflict is slowly unfurled amidst bouts of time-killing escape room silliness is indicative of an episode that doesn’t quite have enough to say on its own without dragging everything else out. Having said that, Underneath follows up on some of the dangling questions from recent episodes rewardingly, for the most part. The theme of trust, which forms the bedrock of Oliver and Felicity’s development here, is an old one for Arrow, but one that it’s always good at dramatizing in an interesting way. Here, Oliver’s insight that his abrasive and conservative attitudes towards Felicity result from a fundamental lack of self-trust is a thoughtful one, showing the continuing psychological impact of Oliver’s ordeal with Chase as his doubts have evidently intensified into irrationality. It’s fitting, too, for an episode that looks back for its sources of drama, that the concept that Oliver is projecting his own interior turmoil outward retroactively explains a lot of his most problematic behaviour, and, if not making it understandable, then at least justifies it on a psychological level.
Given how much anger it can provoke at merely a mention, it’s surprising that the Olicity drama this episode is quite good, stemming from the well-drawn character development that they’ve both experienced across the course of this season, often separate from one another. Back in season four, their relationship didn’t work dramatically, because every conflict was artificial, requiring one or both characters to act impulsively or cruelly simply to create anger that could spiral out of control, with the only rule being that the characters simply could not show empathy for each other’s problems. Underneath, to its credit, rectifies that, because it’s based upon Oliver and Felicity meeting each other in the middle with a greater understanding of what the other goes through. Felicity’s arc concludes pretty successfully, in this regard, because it shows the value of her morally compromising experiences at Helix in giving her taste of the life Oliver lives, therefore opening her up to a perspective she routinely rejects in favour of her own. Oliver’s realisation about his inability to trust himself, too, is a good twist because it’s a far better way of expressing his attitude towards Felicity than the clichéd, paternalistic protectiveness that he trots out as an excuse every time they argue (this episode even calls that out, which was a nice bit of self-awareness). It’s also a smart bit of arc welding, because that fundamental uncertainty of identity has been a cornerstone of Oliver’s journey this year as he’s fought to define his own crusade as the Green Arrow. What Underneath does is to simply link the two plotlines – that’s good storytelling that demonstrates an improvement in the show’s ability to make romantic relationships work; they simply need to be a part of the hero’s overall journey rather than existing solely for themselves in an enclave that doesn’t provide much excitement.
The flashbacks to season four, however, aren’t really needed. I’m not confident this was a gap that even needed to be filled – it could be surmised quite easily from the end of season four and the start of five that their relationship was in a strange kind of limbo, and the fact that they got together in the interim for a brief time doesn’t add a lot to that, as we already knew as viewers that their mutual attraction wasn’t dead. It’s an example of the way that Underneath crafts some solid and interesting stories and then stretches them out to breaking point, because all the flashbacks do is restate the idea that Oliver doesn’t trust Felicity and that’s a problem – transparent time-filler in the classic Arrow flashback tradition, except without the forward narrative momentum that those flashbacks offered even at their least interesting.
The only other real arc on display here was Diggle and Lyla’s continuing dispute, which essentially follows the same maxim as the rest of the episode – it’s good for what it is, but not much actually happens given the time afforded to it. What does unquestionably work is the way in which Underneath tackles the gaping flaw of their dispute last week – that Diggle’s disagreement about locking up criminals without due process is ridiculous given he’s both committed and abetted that exact behaviour for several years. It’s satisfying to see Lyla make that argument without apologising, and it’s even more satisfying to see Diggle think on it and acknowledge his own hypocrisies. As with the Oliver and Felicity story, there’s a real self-awareness to this plotline that suggests Arrow is playing a longer and more complex game this year, improved by learning from its past mistakes of fundamentally flawed character conflicts. Yet it’s a bit strange that their arc just stops there. Sure, they resolve their disputes in a way that works dramatically, but it’s somewhat odd for Arrow to tackle the thorny morality of extrajudicial behaviour, such as vigilantism or off-the-books black ops head-on, and then back off from that criticism so abruptly. It feels a bit toothless given how far the episode gestures in that direction, and, more frustratingly, Underneath had the time to do more. If there was ever a chance to explore a plotline like this in full depth, it was an episode that explicitly put a pause to the overall series arc for 40 minutes.
It’s clear that, by the end of Underneath, we’re back into the season endgame as Adrian Chase stops to greet the world’s unluckiest kid, William, in a cliffhanger that’s as exciting as it is transparently tacked-on. That’s just as well, because this was a momentum-killer that never quite justified the way in which it parked all things Prometheus at this point in the season. This is by no means a poor effort, thanks to some rewarding and insightful character arcs that display flickers of the storytelling finesse and thematic depth that this show exudes at its best, but it’s certainly one of the more forgettable episodes Arrow has served up thanks to a lack of ambition and a sluggish pace.