Arrow: 521 “Honor Thy Fathers” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Superheroes, despite the way in which they can act as symbols to their city of hope and justice and all the other good things, tend to be relatively screwed-up people, defined by past trauma that’s left them with constant doubts and dilemmas about whether they are on the correct moral path. And, as in real life, the reason for that is almost always the parents. Whether they died tragically or possess a shady past filled with violence and duplicity, the parents of superheroes are at the root of everything. It’s no wonder Oliver Queen’s parents have made such a mark on Arrow.
The flipside of this is that stories about heroes trying to overcome the influence of their parents or to surpass their trauma can be found by the dozen in comic books. Supergirl and The Flash, for their part, frequently explore parent-child relationships of all shapes and sizes, which means it’s hard to deliver a fresh perspective on those themes. In that tradition, Honor Thy Fathers isn’t strictly original – its title even directly echoes an episode from the start of season 1, back when Oliver was directly motivated by the list that Robert Queen left. Yet it’s much more compelling than its generic premise suggests, because the chequered history of Oliver’s father, and the direct influence it’s had on his son, lends itself perfectly to the themes of legacy and attempting to overcome the past that season five has explored. For Arrow to really explore Oliver’s history and reasons for being to its fullest extent as it promised at the start of the season, this was a story that needed to be told. And while some ongoing issues creep in at the seams, it’s a story that’s told with finesse and sensitivity.
It takes Honor Thy Fathers some time to really cohere. The cold open of the body encased in concrete was an involving way to begin the episode, but Oliver’s angst over whether his father could have killed someone is the falsest note of his character arc this episode. Robert Queen is much more of a symbol than a character, so we’ve never had a chance to understand exactly what type of man he was, but the actions we know he’s committed, such as killing a man and himself to save Oliver and participating in the Undertaking, don’t exactly point to a man who would be incapable of killing. The episode spends quite some time building up to the reveal that Robert really did kill the man, and then treats it as something utterly stunning, and that doesn’t really come across as natural either, because Robert’s actions were entirely accidental, and his main deliberate crime was simply covering it up (which would be fine, if the episode didn’t keep insisting that it’s murder in cold blood). It’s a clumsy opening to the episode that recalls a flaw that’s plagued the lower points of the season, which is an inability to reconcile the ambition and intent that’s evident in the character drama with everything that Arrow has established before.
Thankfully, Honor Thy Fathers finds its groove as it begins to add nuance to this story. The turning point of it all is actually the entrance of Thea, a character with whom Arrow has been confident in past seasons. Thea’s involvement, and her different perspective on the possibility that Robert could be a murderer that’s informed by the horrific crimes of her own biological father, gives Honor Thy Fathers to take a pivot into territory that Arrow is more comfortable with, which is the tension between past and present. It’s a fresh new angle from which Arrow can continue its dissection of the motivations and morals behind Oliver’s quest to stamp out crime in Star City, and its intensely personal nature gives the drama a more powerful kick than normal. Stephen Amell is consummately good as Oliver – no wonder, in a season that’s finally allowed him the material that his increasingly confident performance deserves – and his work in selling Oliver’s anguish and uncertainty after learning of his father’s crimes really sells just how vital the idea of Robert is to Oliver as a point of inspiration.
For Robert to be so thoroughly discredited in front of Oliver’s eyes is an understandable breaking point, but to its credit, Honor Thy Fathers doesn’t use the arc to dive back the despair and apathy that was well-explored after Chase’s interrogation a few episodes back – instead, it uses it as a turning point for Oliver to affirm his heroic quest, regardless of whether it began in an entirely legitimate place or not. As the season comes to a close, Arrow is doing an admirable job of taking conflicts from earlier in the season and bringing them to a place of stability as Oliver manages to reconcile them. Here, his affirmation to live in the present and accept that his crime fighting does some good in the here and now feels more concrete than his momentary epiphanies before, as it feels like he’s finally working out how to make his quest work now that its initial foundations have crumbled.
Thea’s own character arc is a worthy one in its own right, too, as it’s both a compelling counterpart to Oliver’s struggles and something very individual that recognises the vital importance of Thea to the premise of this series, in spite of her frequent absences this season that have underlined the way in which she’s no longer a fully permanent member of Arrow’s ensemble cast. It’s a thoughtful continuation of an arc that hit pause a good while ago – the break has evidently allowed Thea to work through the roughest parts of her struggle, but there’s still enough torment and uncertainty within her on her return for Arrow to explore, which allows Arrow to avoid rehashing her character arc before the break without skipping over interesting points in her development. Thea’s relationship to Robert, and her influences in general, is far more complicated than Oliver’s, and Honor Thy Fathers does well to acknowledge that – her difficult past with Malcolm gives her the world-weary cynicism necessary to strip away Oliver’s idolisation of his father as an inspiring symbol and see the genuine complexities Robert had, for instance.
There’s also an interesting vulnerability to the character that Robert’s crimes reveal that’s more acute than Oliver’s, suggesting the way in which Thea’s assumptions about her ‘broken’ character are ‘confirmed’ by the knowledge that her father was responsible for the same kind of violence she was. It’s the old nature or nurture question, and while Arrow doesn’t probe too deeply into the question of whether Thea is inherently like Robert as opposed to having learnt her less admirable characteristics through a tough upbringing, these are thought-provoking questions that are well worth asking. After so many episodes off, it’s great to see Thea promoted back to such an important role – and a lot of that reflects the way in which Arrow has naturally broadened out from Oliver’s perspective this year. The way in which the big emotional conclusion of the episode comes after Thea has seen her own video from Robert that suggests her comparative strength to her brother, and how Oliver’s realisations are shared immediately with her is a good sign of Arrow’s instinctive understanding that dialogue and shared emotion makes for more rewarding drama than the lone-wolf brooding of past years.
The third character who goes through their own journey of reckoning with parental figures is, surprisingly Rene. His ongoing dilemma of whether to open up his old life again and reconnect with his daughter makes for a natural and fitting companion to Oliver and Thea’s attempts to parse out what their parents meant to them, and the fact that Rene is experiencing those issues from the parent’s perspective allows these seemingly different stories to complement each other. It’s clear that Rene is grappling with the same issues that Robert must have been – legacy, and whether his nature could be transferred onto a child with far more potential for goodness than him; Rick Gonzalez does a very good job of dramatizing that turmoil and making Rene’s turmoil realistic and believable. There’s also some interesting nuances to his arc that distinguish it from simply being a flipped-perspective repeat of the Queen family drama, however. Rene’s relationship with Lance that catalysed his road to reconciliation with his daughter is an interesting one that’s rife with subtext – does Lance see Rene as a surrogate son, and vice versa, or are Lance’s attempts to help Rene a stand-in for Lance’s inability to further connect with his daughters? That burgeoning relationship founded on respect and compassion for shared experiences makes the conclusion of Rene’s no-show sting just a little bit more, as we can see the emotional impact of Rene’s negligence on a recognisable character who’s evidently invested far more into it than he lets on the surface. For an arc with much smaller emotional stakes than the rest of what’s going on, Rene’s arc is adept at making a powerful case for its existence as an important part of the season’s endgame. Arrow rarely tells intimate, quiet stories like this, and it allows it to strip away the layers of melodrama and artifice that can prevent the episode from engaging with its themes elsewhere.
In a robust episode for character development, it’s the villains that prove to be the weakest element here. Chase has his own clear link to the central theme of fathers/daughters and sons as it’s his own father’s murder that sparked his hatred of Oliver, but Honor Thy Fathers takes a long, long time to actually engage with that easy thematic link. The final confrontation in which Chase is finally made vulnerable by the knowledge of his father’s rejection is engrossing, but it’s the exception rather than the rule in an episode that doesn’t use him very well. Chase has been orchestrating events from afar for a couple of episodes now, but it was here that Arrow maxed out its credibility regarding what Chase is able to do. His non-appearance in the first two acts of the episode only adds to the idea that Team Arrow are fighting an idea rather than a character – an omniscient force that’s able to find any piece of information, no matter how obscure, that will force Oliver to confront his morality once more, and who seems to have made a fun hobby out of needlessly elaborate traps (what was the point with the concrete?). Gameplaying villains are fun, but it needs to be balanced with a sense that there is a real, flawed person using his own knowledge and past to pull strings and manipulate the hero how they wish, and that’s not always on display in Honor Thy Fathers. Derek Sampson, returning from the start of the season, is barely worth talking about. Cody Rhodes is an imposing physical presence, but his motivations and the details of his villainous plan are paper-thin to non-existent – and considering how he only becomes an important presence when Chase finally returns in the flesh, he’s quickly eclipsed anyway.
We end in a very familiar place for Arrow – the villain has been captured… only it seems that he wanted to be captured! Shock. This happened to the letter with Damien Dahrk last year, and while it’s likely that Arrow will have to be more urgent with Chase’s threat given the late point in the season, pulling the ‘they’re captured!’ trick and expecting us to believe it even for a moment is a clichéd move for a show that’s better than that. Other than that slight misstep, Arrow is in fine form heading into the final run of the season. Oliver’s arc, and by extension the season’s themes, are coalescing well, and even the flashbacks have accrued their own momentum with the return to Lian Yu and the last minute return of Kovar to make those final 48 hours on the island as much of a problem as possible. Even when Arrow isn’t able to deliver the all-round excellence it’s shown itself to be capable of this season, reliably solid episodes like Honor Thy Fathers show the extent of the confidence growth it’s experienced in just one year. What happens next isn’t clear, but it’s almost certain to be worth the wait.