Someone so blinded by their grief and rage almost kills the wrong man in a quest to avenge Sara Lance.
Oliver’s evolving “I am not a killer” moral code is tested but ultimately confirmed in contrast to a ruthless assassin even though we have seen Oliver (maybe) kill people without batting an eye in a very recent episode.
Oh, and it’s actually Thea being kidnapped which brings about this test of Oliver’s code.
It’s all happened before, and it all happened again in “The Magician,” an episode I watched while constantly thinking, “Didn’t we just see something like this?” If judged as an individual piece, this was a damn fine episode, but if judged as part of a larger whole I simply saw a show repeating itself while trusting that I would just embrace the campiness that is John Barrowman. Plus, I found myself assaulted with the show doubling down on storylines I’ve hated from day one: the fact that they still haven’t told Quentin that his daughter is dead (not to mention the long-suffering but little-seen mother), and the fact that Malcolm mother flippin’ Merlyn is still alive.
Full disclosure: I watched this episode immediately after watching my beloved Kansas City Royals foul out with the tying run on third base in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 of the World Series, gifting the series to the San Francisco Giants because someone can’t lay off “the high ones” ala A League of Their Own. So, yeah, I was not in a great mood.
Nyssa Checks In | Nyssa wasn’t around a whole lot last season, but Katrina Law gave her such an intriguing mixture of quiet dignity and general badass skill (remember how awesome it was when she broke Isabel Rochev’s neck?) that her inevitable return was much anticipated. It’s just too bad that it turned into a redo of conversations and moments both Sara and Laurel have already had with Oliver, Sara when trying to protect her family against The Huntress last season and Laurel while almost killing Komodo earlier this season. Heck, this isn’t even the first time Nyssa has kidnapped a family member to get at her intended target. That there would be some repetitious story beats is frankly to be expected from a show built around a character who no longer wants to kill anyone, but in this case it was all the more glaring since it was literally just two episodes ago that Laurel did to Komodo what Nyssa tried to do to Malcolm. Part of the problem here is my belief that “Who killed Sara Lance?” is going to be the big arc of the first half of this season. So, I never once believed for a second that Komodo was the killer nor did I think it was Malcolm. That has to do with a set of expectations I personally bring to the show. The show’s job, then, is to make me believe that the characters on the show would truly trust that the man they were going after was actually the killer.
Laurel was grieving and not thinking straight and circumstantial evidence was something she could cling to. I can buy that. Nyssa is a trained assassin who just lost the apparent love of her life. The fact that they had that one lovely moment of Nyssa breaking down into tears before Oliver snuck up on her in Sara’s safe house was enough to show us just how much pain she was in. Give her a target, and she will instinctively go into assassin-mode, even if the evidence doesn’t completely add up. So, I can buy that Nyssa would behave as she did, even after Malcolm declared his rather logical innocence. However, when I first said that killing Sara off could make for an interesting half-season long “Who killed Sara Lance?” mystery I didn’t anticipate the mystery would simply entail them finding suspects whom the emotionally compromised team member tries to kill before Oliver’s cooler head prevails. Find something different to do with this, Arrow. Also, Nyssa knows full well from last season that Oliver will not kill; she even mocked him for it, firing off her version of a zinger in the season finale, “Your reticence to do what is necessary is why your city burns.” I thought there’d be some reference to that at some point. There was not, unless I missed it.
John Barrowman | John Barrowman is one of the big reasons I first started watching Arrow. John Barrowman is not a great actor. Those two things shouldn’t really go together, but as a Doctor Who/Torchwood fan I’ve come to love John Barrowman while recognizing and generally enjoying his limited range and scenery-chewing. Moreover, I know people who’ve met Barrowman at conventions, describing him as quite possibly the nicest man they’ve ever met. However, none of that means that his overacting doesn’t get on my nerves from time to time. One particular soap opera-esque melodramatic head turn in a season 2 episode of Torchwood comes to mind. As Malcolm Merlyn, he was so perfectly contained during the majority of the first season that when his white hot rage and general, “Damn, that dude is crazy!” vibe erupted in the final episodes it was a joy to behold. Sure, it kind of stung that they killed him off in the finale, but you don’t really want him back because his story was over. Among genre show villains returned from the grave for every success story (Spike on Buffy/Angel) there are two or three “should have stayed dead” tales of woe (Sylar from Heroes, see this list I wrote about this topic elsewhere).
This is unfortunately an area which Arrow traffics in – unfortunate storylines you’re just kind of stuck with. If you didn’t think the motivation they provided for Slade Wilson’s villainous turn was sufficient you either just have to get over that or stop watching because that’ll pretty much undermine everything they do for the entire second half of the second season. If you thought bringing Sara Lance back from the dead cheapened so much of the first season and needlessly turned Oliver into an unreliable narrator, well, get over it because she was going to be a huge part of the season. If you wish Malcolm Merlyn had just stayed dead, well, get over it because Barrowman’s been upped to a series regular this season. Sometimes the show proves you wrong, as happened with my initial resistance to Sara last season. Sometimes, well, you just have to get over it if you want to keep enjoying the show.
If you can simply accept it as “it is what it is” situation then you’re free to simply enjoy what they’re doing with Malcolm, and take to various internet forums to discuss the big ethical debate of “The Magician”: Even though Malcolm didn’t kill Sara, should Oliver have killed him anyway considering his responsibility for so many deaths, including Tommy’s, during the “undertaking”? The show swiftly waves away any thought of trying to have Malcolm arrested, placing Oliver as the judge, jury, and executioner. As he did in the last season finale when he refused to kill Slade Wilson, Oliver’s moral code was again upheld, but the whole business of Oliver claiming Malcolm was now under his protection seemed utterly absurd because at no point in this episode did it actually seem like Nyssa was close to killing Malcolm. He always had the drop on her. Maybe I’m just quibbling over the wording, though, because Oliver probably really means, “Don’t go after my sister anymore – the sister I freely told you was Malcolm Merlyn’s daughter, thus putting her in danger. Hey, you kind of cornered me on that one, though.”
Thea Keeps on Hanging on | Arrow just isn’t Arrow if people aren’t keeping secrets from each other, at least according to various interviews with the producers. As such, we are a week into Oliver’s pledge of honesty to Thea, and the two are lying through their teeth, living in a land of half-truths. It’s a familiar dynamic, and maybe season 3 is too soon to have the last major remaining character not named Captain Lance find out Oliver is the Arrow. It is frustrating because sometimes it doesn’t really feel like progress, but it is probably exactly what would become of the children of Moira Queen. And the fact that Thea now harbors her own secrets is genuine progress. I was a bit surprised that after Thea’s summer-long training with Malcolm she didn’t offer up a fight to Nyssa, but that was a definite veteran vs. rookie situation. Plus, the way Thea argued with Nyssa while being hung upside down was an interesting indication of the new fire inside of her.
Meanwhile, In China… | They’re doing Godfather 2. There, Francis Ford Coppola made the brilliant move of using flashbacks to contrast the ascent of the father in the past and descent of the son in the present. Arrow is stealing from that playbook, except here we’re watching Oliver evolve into a hero in the present and devolve into a cold-blooded killer in the past. So, this week’s flashback gave us his first mission killing a man on Amanda Waller’s orders, acting as a counterpoint to his unwillingness to kill Malcolm Merlyn in the present. This is what Arrow’s flashbacks classically do: they make some thematic connection to the more pressing matters of the present without actually affecting anything. Last year tweaked that formula so that the events of the flashbacks directly informed what the big bad was doing in the present.
This stuff in Hong Kong may yet get to that this season, but in “The Magician” they were more concerned with providing the answer to the long forgotten season 1 mystery of who was really behind Fyers and what was her plan, i.e., “Did she really want to destabilize China’s economy?” We’d seen her legs at one point, but nothing more. Now, we know those legs belonged to Amanda Waller, and apparently every damn thing that went down on that island in season 1 was simply part of a plan Waller had to assassinate someone on a plane. I’d pretty much moved on from that storyline a long time ago, and it kind of sucks to think of Fyers, season 1’s second big bad behind Malcolm Merlyn, as being a puppet who didn’t realize he was being played. But sure. Fine. Okay. Whatever. Is it too late to simply drop the flashbacks from this show? Or to maybe do more episodes with absolutely zero flashbacks?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Not to repeat myself, but this was an episode I watched while constantly thinking, “Didn’t we just see something like this?” If judged as an individual piece, this was a fine episode, but if judged as part of a larger whole I simply saw a show going through a similar set of motions, and trusting that I would just embrace the campiness that is John Barrowman. That didn’t really happen for me.
NEXT WEEK – “The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak”
Quick question: Do we actually need some elaborate secret origin of Felicity Smoak? Part of her power is being the everywoman outsider who simply wondered into this vigilante world. Give us her back story, sure, but, and I realize how stupid this sounds, please don’t go too comic book-y with it. Her father better not end up being somehow improbably intricately connected to Oliver.
1. Marc Guggenheim and Wendy Mericle must have really wanted us to have a good time with this episode as their screenplay would have left us drunk or nicely buzzed should we have played a drinking game to the number of times someone, particularly Nyssa, said some variation of “My father” or how often Oliver asked Thea, “Are you okay?”
2. Arrow has unintentionally made me laugh before, but never harder than during this episode when Roy did that stupid parkour flip over the hood of an SUV only to be immediately put down with a tranquilizer dart. The whole entire sequence was smirk-inducing to me, but the sight of a plain-clothed Roy, clearly thinking, “I accept your challenge – behold my fancy ninja moves!”, getting pushed aside so quickly was hilarious.
3. All the other reviewers seem to be picking, “It’s illogical!” as the clear William Shatner awkward line reading moment of the night for John Barrowman. I actually kind of liked that moment. The one that got the loudest groan from me, maybe because it was just such a horrible line, was his cry of, “I did not kill your beloved!” to Nyssa during the final fight scene.
4. “I hate it here” – Oliver says that upon entering the apartment of his Hong Kong handler, who appears to be preparing a family meal of some kind in the kitchen. Part of me wanted that guy to honestly ask Oliver, “Is it…is it my cooking?”
5. “He has the right to avenge his daughter” – And in that moment I cheered for Nyssa, only to be instantly discouraged as she begrudgingly became an accomplice in everyone lying to Quentin about his dead daughter.
6. The way they left things felt like we will being see more of Nyssa and Laurel together, bonded by their grief over Sara.
7. Obvious ADR moment: When Nyssa is arrow’d to the wall and pleading with Oliver to kill Malcolm, she mentions that this bastard is responsible for Tommy’s death. We don’t hear it say it, simply hear it from her off-screen. It sounds like something they threw in to make sure we remembered that, not like something Nyssa would actually say unless I underestimate how much she knows about Tommy Merlyn.
8. Yay! We finally know who exactly owns and controls Verdant.
9. Oliver and Malcolm meeting in a crowded city square? Cool idea. Having all of the extras around them walking exactly the way people who’ve been choreographed to walk in straight lines would? Not the most ideal execution. Plus, I was just waiting for someone to glance over at Malcolm, stop, and pipe up, “Hey, you’re Malcolm Merlyn! Every person in Starling City knows your face! How could we not? You killed 500 people, you monster!”
AVClub.com – They gave it an A-, concluding, “After a few weeks spent beating up small-timers, Oliver gets to face off with not one but two equal adversaries tonight. If this result—a great episode that sets up both Ra’s al Ghul and Malcolm as serious long-term threats—is anything to go by, Arrow should be nothing but heavy hitters from here on out. I realize why that wouldn’t be possible, but still, what a damn fine episode.”
TV.com – “The Magician” also served to reinforce the fact that Arrow‘s structure steadily improved as more of its characters were let in on various secrets, from Oliver’s identity all the way down to some peripheral connection to the big seasonal plot.”
I’m done with my ramble. It’s your turn.