Arrow: 522 “Missing” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
As Arrow’s fifth season comes into land, we’re at that time of the season where everything must be pushed into place in time for the grand showdown in the finale. Whereas The Flash has often gone bigger and bolder with its penultimate episodes wherein it’s offered the biggest shocks of the year, Arrow had always been a show that prefers to leave the pyrotechnics for the very end of the year. It comes as little surprise, therefore that Missing, is a set-up episode in the orthodox sense, stacking the chess board of characters present and past who will be doing battle next week and pushing Oliver to the precipice of his yearly emotional breakthrough. As table-setters go, however, this was an assured and involving instalment that told a compelling story in its own right in amidst all the set-up.
One of the aspects of season five that’s been less acclaimed is that it’s gone darker in tone while retaining the humanity and focus on family that’s always been a key part of Arrow’s DNA, even if those are aspects more commonly associated with The Flash. Missing works because it brings that humanity to the surface and makes it the focal point of Oliver’s latest (I mean, he has about 23 of them a year) crisis of conscience. It’s easy to forget that Arrow has always been concerned with human connection as a theme because its protagonist is often inclined to push everyone away and do things on his own. In those many instances, the same excuse is usually thrown out: that forming connections with others endangers them and to cut them off is protection.
Except, that’s nonsense. It’s always been nonsense, and Arrow has been at its best when it’s acknowledged that all of those excuses come out of a reflexive fear on Oliver’s part. Missing seems to be heading down a predictable path when it sees Oliver pack Felicity and Diggle away to work on his own, undistracted, against Chase, but the episode soon makes it clear that it won’t be re-running Oliver’s struggle to be a lone wolf or not. For one, the episode soon surrounds Oliver with allies of a new kind whom he’ll use to fight Chase next week, and one of those allies, Malcolm, seems to be there just to call Oliver out and to point him in a more fulfilling direction of accepting the love others show him. The idea of opening up to the world and accepting the help others give is one that’s been key to Oliver’s character arc over the past five seasons, so it stands to reason that it would crop up right towards the end of this initial journey than began on Lian Yu. It’s something that this week’s conflict naturally brings to mind as Chase uses Oliver’s friends as a pressure point to extort his own freedom from ARGUS’ confinement, as their capture provides a chance for Oliver to consider just what his friends mean to him and how much he ought to sacrifice in getting them back.
It’s a thematically compelling conflict as it puts the connections Oliver’s made over the entire run of the show to the test and forces him to acknowledge the vital role others play in his life, though it is worth noting that there are some plotting details that prove to be a sticking point. Missing never really makes clear what the choices are in Oliver’s dilemma – is he deliberating over whether to accept Chase’s blackmail and save his friends, or is he deliberating whether to work alone or not in the process? The episode’s themes and intent are excellent, but the execution can get in the way – the final act particularly runs into this as Oliver cuts through US Marshals to get to Chase… only to do nothing and allow Chase to head over to his captured friends on Lian Yu. Missing is focusing on some very strong ideas that show a clarity of focus on what’s shaped Oliver over his hero’s journey as he heads into the final battle next week, but it shows the perils of feeding a morally complex dilemma into the template of a fast-paced conflict with comic-book villains like Chase who can see and affect everything.
The flashbacks, which receded to the background after the Russia arc was tied up a few episodes ago, play an important role in reflecting Oliver’s present-day dilemma in a much bleaker light, even if it comes round to roughly the same ideas. Missing is the first episode to really acknowledge the full extent of the bleakness of Oliver’s ‘five years in hell’ in which he’s lost friend after friend and endured horrendous pain on a regular basis. It’s another reminder that the greatest challenges Oliver faces aren’t from others – they’re from himself and his own self-doubt, which can hold him back and prevent him from being a hero just as much as any super-villain. While the execution of Oliver’s reckoning with his past trauma isn’t especially subtle – the flashes of those traumatic events are a bit melodramatic in how they repeat the same visuals again and again before moving onto the next nightmare, and it can all serve as a reminder of how ludicrous Oliver’s character arc can be when it’s laid out linearly – it accomplishes the goal of literalising his inner turmoil in the present well.
It also shines a light on the reason Oliver keeps fighting for his friends in the present, which is that he has a duty of care to fulfil for others even when all of his inclinations point him away from human connection; a strong example of using the flashbacks to strengthen the points that the main body of the episode is making. The flashbacks have been stubbornly good rather than great this year, as they’re still told with virtually no storytelling finesse (it’s six minutes an episode to state the ideas that the other 36 minutes must actually show), but at least they’ve dealt with some complex and interesting themes and character arcs this year. Accepting that Arrow was never going to recapture the compelling synchronicity of late season two with Slade Wilson (remember that guy?) fighting Oliver in past and present, this year has been a fitting send-off for Oliver’s long and convoluted journey back to Star City, with Missing setting up the point of convergence with the pilot well.
Missing can get pretty dark with the main plot of all the good guys bound up and captured, but it does find a surprising amount of fun from dipping into Arrow’s deep roster of characters to bring back a selection of old favourites just in time for the season finale. On the side of the heroes, we have Malcolm Merlyn, who conveniently fails to mention that he spent his time off trying to destroy reality with the Legion of Doom (okay, we don’t need references for everything, but a lack of continuity is painful to nerds like me), and Nyssa al Ghul. With Malcolm, Arrow has played the reluctant ally card more times than I can count, and rarely effectively, but he proves to be a good addition here – strengthening the theme of human connection as his alliance with Oliver is based solely on their shared love for Thea that’s stronger than any of their bad blood together, and acting as an amusingly straightforward counterweight to Oliver’s angst. Nyssa appears in the episode for all of two minutes, but the stage seems to be set for an al Ghul sister vs sister battle that looks to be one of the most intriguing match-ups, in the list of several dozen that next week has on the roster. There’s some familiar villainous faces, too. Black Siren’s back, as is her overwhelming air of moral ambiguity. Her scenes with Lance are intriguingly coy, hinting towards a potential point of redemption for the alternate Laurel in the form of affection for her father even as she seems to be a willing ally of Chase the rest of the time. We know Katie Cassidy will be back full-time next season as Black Siren, but Missing keeps it entirely ambiguous as to whether she’ll be in the capacity of friend, or foe to Team Arrow. Either way, it’s good to have her back on the show, as Earth-2 Laurel is a character with a lot of potential to be explored whether she becomes an ally of Team Arrow, and therefore a direct replacement to the original Laurel, or not.
Oh, and there’s one last old face who crawls out of the shadows to join the showdown on Lian Yu: Slade Wilson! We knew this was coming, thanks to the indefatigable publicity machine that promises to reveal everything that happens on the show before the fact, but it was still a thrill to see Manu Bennett strap on the eyepatch again as the villain who still arguably stands as the best the show has ever offered. The return of Slade is the final piece in what promises to be a showdown that spans the entire five years of the show – it’s cool to see the way in which the final fight is set to be much bigger than Chase or Oliver, pitting their diametrically opposed approaches against each other to determine whether Oliver is a figure of inspiration and therefore a hero, or a villain who spreads fear and violence. And, hey, it’s a bonus that the final showdown this year is a wholly personal one taking place on an isolated island, with only Oliver’s friends and his quest at stake as opposed to Star City being under attack once more. Season five has managed to break out of the repetitive cycles of Arrow’s creative slump in so many ways, but it’s still good to see it strike out a different path after the disaster of last year’s confused sub-Bond movie routine with the nuclear bombs and the street brawl.
Missing is a solid rather than spectacular episode, dutifully and efficiently putting the building blocks in place for the conclusiveness of next week’s season finale which looks to close the book on this particular section of Arrow’s history and pivot into something entirely new. The show feels so much more inspired than it was last year, engaging with interesting themes and challenging Oliver’s character in a way that feels substantial and invites us to take perspectives outside of the lead characters, so even if the execution is sometimes lacking, such as the confused specifics of Oliver’s dilemma this episode, it remains rewarding drama with a renewed confidence in itself. Last year, Arrow was stumbling into a season finale on the back of a haphazard and rushed effort to set up a ludicrously overblown villainous plot. This year, it’s heading into the final episode with a clear plan and a thrilling premise. Whether the season finale delivers or not, that’s something worth celebrating.