TV shows don’t need to be good at everything. They need to be good at what they aim to do. (All of the arrow puns intended.) Tonight’s episode of Arrow, “Underneath,” was good at what Arrow aims to be: an action-oriented melodrama with some light angsting about morality and some great one-liners.
After two seasons in which Arrow was largely bad at what it was trying to do, I still can’t quite believe our TV luck that this show has gotten competent again. It’s like getting an old friend back that you had kind of, sort of given up on. I’m not sure how long the reunion will last, but I am going to enjoy it while it does.
“Underneath” was a bottle episode — an episode of television that tends to take place on one set and that utilizes a relatively few amount of actors. If this is what a bottle episode of Arrow looks like, then maybe they should make every episode in a bottle. (I kid! But, maybe, like, at least a few per season.) The limits force the show to focus its storytelling in a way that it isn’t always so great at doing when given a wider scope. By keeping the plot focus on the problem of getting Oliver and Felicity out of the lair and keeping the character focus on the relationship between Oliver and Felicity, “Underneath” tied its action/plot to its theme/character development in some cathartically cohesive ways.
For another example of what a bottle episode of Arrow looks like, rewatch Season 2’s “The Promise,” which sees a returned Slade Wilson getting a tense tour of the Queen mansion in the present-day, while Oliver, Slade, and Sara prepare to take the Amazo from Ivo. Like “Underneath,” “The Promise” centered most of its action around one location in each timeline. In the present: the Queen mansion. In the past: the freighter. It is one of the best episodes of Arrow ever, and proof that this show can do great things when it imposes limits on itself and its storytelling.
It’s no coincidence that one of the best episodes of Season 5 was one that eschewed the five-year flashbacks in favor of staying a little bit closer to home. As Felicity and Oliver fought to survive and redefine their relationship in the present-day, we see them attempting to rekindle their romance 11 months prior. It’s a relatively quiet story, one that sees them sharing a flirty dinner, having bunker sex, and then Felicity leaving.
Frankly, I think it was kind of a dick move that Felicity slept with Oliver without outlining that she wasn’t interested in getting back together, but it did lead to an honest moment in which Felicity told Oliver she wasn’t ready to trust him again yet, and Oliver told Felicity that he would wait for her. (Not sure how Susan Williams plays into this, but whatever.) Also: However you feel about the events of the flashbacks, the salmon ladder scene was objectively the sweetest scene ever.
In the present-day, Oliver and Felicity worked together (and, sometimes, not) to try to escape the lair after Chase set off an EMP that shut down all electronics and basically turned the headquarters into a death trap. (But… for real. They need to do some serious re-designing.) This wasn’t a very original set-up, and the contrived drama of the situation went on a twist too long. (The fact that Oliver kept almost-dying and then waking up to physically carry Felicity from location to location was a little too ridiculous even for this show).
The unoriginality of the plot was countered by the solid emotional drama of the episode. The conversations that Felicity and Oliver have about the lack of trust and support in their relationship were not only a carry-over from last week’s episode, but a long, long time coming. I’m not sure if I follow the logic that because Felicity understands why Oliver doesn’t trust her, she’s OK with him not trusting her, but emotional logic has never been Arrow’s strongpoint, so this might be as good as it gets. If Oliver finds out he has anther secret child, he should tell Felicity. Just saying. That has nothing to do with his self-doubt around his mission and the realization that he likes killing a little bit too much. That’s just Relationships 101 and a pretty low bar to reach.
Much like the resolution of the Felicity/Oliver drama, I wasn’t completely sold on the emotional logic of the Diggle/Lyla stuff, either. As nice as it was to see these two get a plot line, Lyla sharing the secrets of ARGUS with Diggle a) seems like a huge security breach and b) isn’t the same thing as her not making morally-questionable decisions altogether. Lyla made the argument that Diggle supports Oliver when he makes bad decisions so he should support her when she makes bad decisions, while Felicity made the similar argument that she supports Oliver when he makes bad decisions so he should support her when she makes bad decisions.
I felt like I was watching some kind of shared common delusion. Instead of everyone taking a step back and thinking, “Maybe we shouldn’t support Oliver when he makes bad decisions,” they made some sort of weird group pact that everyone should support everyone else, no matter how bad their decisions are. That’s not trust; that’s a cult. You can trust and support someone without agreeing with all of their decisions. And I would argue that the healthiest relationships include a degree of honest criticism.
All in all, I really liked this episode, I just needed to get that off my chest. Let’s not use all of the times Team Arrow has foolhardily supported Oliver’s harebrained ideas as a model moving forward, OK, team? OK.
In the end, the gang (including Lyla) worked together to rescue Oliver and Felicity from their own lair, narrowly escaping getting blown up, dropped from a great height (well, Oliver did fall onto an irresponsibly exposed bolt), being asphyxiated by methane gas, and death by feels. The action drama was bolstered by some pretty solid banter on the part of Team Arrow and a truly nerve-wracking rescue involving Original Team Arrow forming a hanging human chain held together only by love, and Diggle and Oliver’s massive muscles. (It was like a 50/50 split).
The episode ended with Chase catching up to William — I mean Matthew! — in his not-so-secret location. Oh, this guy is good. His ability to research and filter through information must have been what made him such a good lawyer. He’s skills really are wasted as a supervillain.
Rating ★★★★ Very good
— Oh my god, Diggle does not fit on a couch. Maybe they should get an air mattress for those nights when Diggle and Lyla are estranged? Or maybe Lyla should just sleep on the couch? No, it’s not really fair, but that couch only fit one of Diggle’s biceps.
— “Neither of us have a job that fits the conventional definition of morality.” Lyla makes some good points about how evil Team Arrow is sometimes. Which, again, probably means they should both look at their life decisions…
— “This sounds like the best choice right now.” “Besides the one I just gave you.” The Olicity banter in this episode was so on-point.
— Curtis is apparently Olicity’s #1 shipper. But really. (Although you know if Thea wasn’t always away at conferences, she’d be in on this plan, too.)
— “Curtis, next time you pick up your own Chinese food.” It’s actually kind of surprising/sweet that Oliver agreed to pick up Curtis’ Chinese food at all.
— “I swear those two are going to make the cutest couple one day.” — Dinah, on Rene and Curtis. Oh my gosh, could this actually happening? Because I have been shipping these two since Day Two, more or less.
— “One of the pipes is damaged, I just hope it’s not the highly flammable, poison gas pipe…” — Felicity, delivering exactly the kind of hokey action movie line that this episode of Arrow could totally get away with.
— Real talk: I’m still not convinced that Felicity made a bad decision with Helix. Like, everyone’s making such a big deal about Felicity going over to the bad side, but ARGUS was holding that hacker prisoner in a box, blindfolded and bound for literally no reason other than that he is dangerous. Freeing him seemed like the heroic thing to do.
— “Careful, don’t breathe. Well…. Breathe, but don’t inhale.” — Felicity
— I love that duct tape is actually the thing that could have saved the day, if only Felicity and Oliver had a little more of it. Duct tape: the true superhero of the universe.
— Curtis: “Ow, ow, ow.“
Diggle: “I’m gonna need you to stop making that noise.”
— “Are you still Felicity Smoak? … Your math is always right.” — Oliver
— Oliver: “Everybody knows a chin-up.”
— “I don’t flourish well.” Felicity, aka all of us probably, trying to do the salmon ladder.
— Oliver: “It’s another dead end.”
Felicity: “Please stop using that term.”
— Curtis measures time in seasons of The Bachelor. Pass it on.
— “I think the wound re-clotted.” — Oliver, suddenly coming back to life. I feel like this is not how potentially fatal injuries work?
— “Anyone would have admitted to being a tap-dancing killer after that.” — Felicity, trying to talk some sense into Oliver about the revelations he came to during his week-long torture session with Chase. Seriously, what does Oliver do without Felicity to talk these things through?
— Diggle: “Hey, you guy’s alright?”
Felicity: “No, not really.”
— “I’ve always appreciated you doing the salmon ladder, but never as much as in this moment.” — Felicity, as Oliver carries her up a ladder on his manly back.
— “See, ARGUS isn’t always used for evil.” — Lyla, reciting what I’m guessing is probably ARGUS’ corporate motto.
— Lyla [to Felicity]: “Actually, he asked to see you.”
Curtis: “Ooooooh. What? You were all thinking it.”