Arrow Season 4, Episode 12 “Unchained”
Written by Speed Weed & Beth Schwartz
Directed by Kevin Fair
Airs Wednesdays at 8pm ET on The CW
After stumbling through the first act of its fourth season, Arrow‘s found itself rather quickly in the last two weeks – considering how Darhk’s absence has allowed the show’s return to smaller, more character-focused stories (at least in present-day Starling City). Like last week’s “A.W.O.L.”, “Unchained” mostly avoids the pratfalls of its Big Bad stories and Island 3.0 flashbacks, clearing plenty of space to dig into the many people crowding up the Arrow world. Surprisingly, an episode with no less than six notable guest stars turns out to be one of the season’s most rewarding; bucking typical trend with such happenings, “Unchained” doesn’t feel like Arrow is biting off more than it can chew, confidently delivering a number of compelling stories that don’t just illuminate the journey of Oliver Queen. Instead, it delivers a story where characters take their agency back from Green Arrow a bit; if anything, this allows Arrow as a whole to breathe and find its footing with each of its main characters again.
Of course, the highlight of it all is bringing Roy back into the mix for a minute; Arsenal’s brief return to Star City finally allows Arrow to deal with a long-hanging story thread, and does so by directly tying it into Oliver’s current struggles. As Arrow pushes further into the themes of responsibility and trust, Oliver Queen is faced with tougher and tougher decisions about the team members around him; most importantly how he can’t control their lives with his decisions, accepting both the moral responsibility for the result of their actions, and then acting as moral arbitrator when they act against his wishes. Everyone on a team plays a role, but its the team’s self-recognition of those goals and the trust in others to accomplish it, regardless of potential consequences; and the longer Oliver rejects that notion, the more he’s going to suffer under the weight of his own personal expectations.
He may be fighting to save a city, but he can’t control it, even if he becomes mayor: with nefarious forces and the evolution of the world constantly reshaping what Star City is, Oliver’s never going to be able to keep everyone alive, or make sure everyone’s happy and safe in a way he finds satisfying. As a person who has accepted his role as a ‘hero’, it can be hard to let go of those instincts with the people closest to him; and that dichotomy, drawn out in recent episodes with Thea’s relapse and Felicity’s injury, has only exacerbated that dissonance within Oliver. How can he feel like the protector he wants to, if he can’t protect those he loves? After the deaths of his father, Shado, his mother, Sara, Tommy, and all the others he’s lost, you’d think this was a message he’d have figured out already; but this is where the distinction between Arrow and Green Arrow becomes so much clearer, revealing itself to be something of meaning for the series, rather than just another excuse for a fresh costume design and team hideout/operating base.
Let’s be honest, Arrow was kind of a dickhead; Green Arrow is definitively a man of the people, one willing to hear advice, compromise, and fight against his own instincts to define people’s paths for them. Naturally, this makes the arcs of other characters more tactile; characters like Felicity and Roy are placed in charge of their own actions, and the results of those decisions are situations Oliver can’t deal with. One man can only handle so much; and without realizing it, Oliver’s built up a support team that can not only help him, but alleviate his own focus on their struggles. Seeing Felicity nail her presentation of the power cell comes hand-in-hand with images of Thea in a coma for a good reason: just as their successes are their own, their failures and shortcomings are their own, and Oliver has to step aside and allow them to control their own lives and actions, no matter what the cost may be.
Ultimately, the central plot of “Unchained” is pretty perfunctory, until it’s revealed the Calculator is Felicity’s father; for a minute there, he was headed towards Bug Eyed-Bandit territory from The Flash‘s first season, where a flashy guest star sits in a chair and fights Felicity through computers. Granted, Arrow can make those moments a lot more compelling than The Flash does (staring at computer screens on The Flash is a direct flight to Exposition City), and Felicity’s back and forth with the Calculator – particularly when she calls out his lame code name – gives a bit of spice to otherwise tepid moments.
Where the real meat of “Unchained” is found, of course, is in Oliver, Roy, and the other characters in Star City; the Nanda Parbat stuff, of course, is naturally less compelling, a weird reason to bring back Tatsu (she just sits in the woods, protecting a flower/some weird Japanese object?) and have Nyssa be melodramatic about Oliver killing Malcolm. Anytime the words “Lazarus Pit” get mentioned, I suppose I just immediately tap out for a second, but this material, along with Oliver crying in a prison cell after seeing visions of Shado, really doesn’t offer a whole lot of weight to the proceedings, which is rightly dominated by Oliver’s continued quest to allow the people around him to live their own lives, and face their own consequences. And with that thoroughline, it feels like Arrow is finding its footing again (just in time for Parkour Man to return, no less); there is hope yet the dreaded Gravestone Moment could actually work, if this is the path Arrow continues to lead down.
- This week’s Death Potential Index: no sight of Quentin, so naturally his lead shrinks against Thea, because she’s put in such dire straits this week. I feel like Felicity’s outside shot is eliminated now that’s she found her agency as a character again; right now, those two seem to be the only legitimate candidates.
- Arsenal’s parkour returns, and it is as lame as the pun I used in the title of this review.
- Thea and Roy confess their love for each other, which is kind of sweet, and also kind of goofy, considering she’s dating Oliver’s campaign manager.
- League-fighting technology is apparently a legitimate underground industry.
- Malcolm just chilling in a half-zip sweater is a hilarious image, and I’m not exactly sure why.
- At one point, Diggle shoots a guy twice in his kevlar, and he drops like a ton of bricks. Huh?
- Nobody saw that girl delivering a pepper and thought hmm, that’s not actually a “meal”?