After eleven episodes that have ranged from phenomenal to forgettable, “Arrow” concluded the Danny Brickwell trilogy on Wednesday night. Following two disjointed installments that valiantly tried to compensate for the lead actor’s absence, “Uprising” was eagerly awaited by fans yearning for a return to format. Some were even so desperate for the “Arrow” of seasons past that the handling of this particular plot didn’t matter as long as Oliver was home by the end.
Those fans were the lucky ones.
After being abandoned by the authorities of Starling City, civilians take up arms with Team Arrow as they try to free the Glades from the control of Brick and his cronies. Meanwhile, Oliver deems himself recovered enough from his stab wound to travel back to Starling. The two arcs converge via Malcolm Merlyn, who tries to ally himself with a dubious Team Arrow to exact revenge on Brick.
In a way, “Uprising” was a very interesting episode. Not with regard to story; the plot was mostly unremarkable with aspects more reminiscent of a paint-by-numbers retread than any sort of groundbreaking approach. Nevertheless, there were a few character beats hidden within the contrivances that are well worth a rewind. So, here is a look at what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to happen next after “Uprising.”
What Worked: One of the biggest complaints about Season 3 has been the escalation of lies to Quentin Lance regarding the death of his daughter. Any sympathies for Laurel’s position – and Team Arrow’s complicity – have long since dissolved, and the ten episodes since the first fabrication have tarnished all of the characters involved.
Well, Quentin still doesn’t know, but progress has been made. Thanks to the timely reappearance of Sara’s surrogate little sister Sin, he now knows that the woman posing as the Canary is not actually Sara. If Quentin’s easy (and hilarious) deduction of Roy Harper as Arsenal is anything to go by, the deception may not last much longer.
Secret-keeping aside, Team Arrow and Laurel were more or less on point in “Uprising.” The bizarre rapidity of Laurel’s ascent into the role of Canary was tempered by removing her from the spotlight, and that she and Roy together struggled to keep a lid on the chaos made it somewhat easier to suspend belief. “Uprising” proved that as long as Black Canary is kept as Supporting Canary, Laurel’s vigilante metamorphosis might not be as hard to swallow as many viewers feared.
As much as Katie Cassidy and Colton Haynes scurrying around underfoot with David Ramsey flexing his muscles in the foreground highlighted the impracticality of benching Diggle, the goings-on in the foundry provided some of the greatest material of “Uprising.” The foursome actually functioned as an Arrow-less Team Arrow, and the idea of carrying on the quest effectively without Oliver felt feasible for the first time. Roy wasn’t trying to ride the Arrow’s big boy motorcycle. Digg wasn’t trying to fit into the Arrow suit. Laurel wasn’t trying to wield Sara’s staff. Felicity wasn’t wallowing. They were on their way to being okay without Oliver.
Fortunately, the troubles of Arrowing without the Arrow were rendered pleasantly moot by the end of “Uprising” as Oliver made his triumphant return to Starling City. Even in the middle of a melee that pitted civilian against street soldier, it wasn’t until an arrow suddenly whizzed out of nowhere to impale one of Brick’s goons that tension began to build. The soundtrack picked up. Laurel uttered his name in shock. Roy looked at the green fletching and grinned. The Arrow was back.
The relief of Oliver’s return to Starling is largely due to the efforts of star Stephen Amell. The very hint of his presence in the climax of “Uprising” ratcheted up a sense of excitement that has been lacking since the midseason premiere. Oliver didn’t even need to appear on screen in the melee to improve the sequence. His very proximity raised the stakes of the entire episode, demonstrating yet again Amell’s ability to own a scene without any gurning or theatrics. The man has a screen presence that cannot be taught, and never has it been more clear that he carries the show on his delightfully broad shoulders than in the Danny Brickwell trilogy.
Amell wasn’t the only one to turn in a stellar performance. Emily Bett Rickards imbued an underlying bitterness to the majority of her scenes, creating a Felicity Smoak that had never before appeared on screen and yet still felt perfectly natural. Felicity carried on with the mission, snapped out a few clever quips, and managed a few fabulous wardrobe changes even as she continued to mourn. The disgusted disdain as she refused to stand and grant even an empty courtesy to a monster of a man was satisfying to the extreme, and it came as a surprise that Malcolm Merlyn failed to spontaneously combust after prolonged exposure to her death glare. Felicity’s steadfast belief that Merlyn should not be trusted or dealt with in any friendly capacity was a bright spot of consistency in an otherwise muddled episode, and her refusal to compromise that belief even when faced with the big sad puppy eyes of Oliver Queen was a testament to her own distinct brand of heroism.
Speaking of which…
Everything about the reunion and confrontation of Oliver and Felicity was exactly what the narrative needed. Sure, the hug could have lingered a bit longer, and the alley wall was as good as any for someone to be thrown up against in an impassioned embrace that would ultimately result in much tasteful lovemaking, but the layered nature of their story that has made them so heartbreakingly compelling demanded more of them than a makeout session with Roy and Digg high-fiving in the background. Oliver couldn’t just slide down the bannister and sweep her off her feet. Felicity couldn’t just succumb to the vapors and swoon into his arms. It had to be so ugly and so painful and so honest that the depth of their feelings for each other – no matter how they are expressed – could not be called into question. Oliver helplessly dangling another maybe as Felicity tearfully withdraws her own was awful and amazing and so gorgeous that the contrivances occupying much of the rest of the episode felt entirely absent. Oliver was being a dummy, and Felicity was reacting without an emotional buffer, but the obstacle between them is real. That will make all of the difference in the execution of their relationship in the rest of the season.
What Didn’t: While Oliver’s reunion with Felicity was given its due, the shoddy pacing of the episode shortchanged the others. The entire scene of Team Arrow reuniting in the foundry was so casual that Oliver may as well have been returning from a day trip to Central City rather than the grave. Diggle and Roy had spent an entire episode floundering in the field after Oliver’s presumed death; emotionally consistent reactions to his resurrection should not have been sacrificed for the sake of cramming in as much plot as possible in 42 minutes.
Unfortunately, the men of Team Arrow fell victim to contrivance as well as poor pacing. The same Roy who spent half of his time on screen last week threatening Malcolm Merlyn was somehow so swayed into sympathy for him that he voted for an alliance, and even the awesomeness of Diggle’s rejection of Malcolm was overshadowed by the fact that he was once again sidelined for the sake of Arsenal and Canary. Brick’s dominion over the Glades was really an all-hands-on-deck situation for Team Arrow, and Diggle absolutely deserved to be in the thick of the action of “Uprising.”
To the episode’s very slight credit, Diggle did play a prominent role in the final melee between the civilians of the Glades and Brick’s army of goons. As the melee was a massive exercise in nonsensical absurdity, however, Digg might have been better off sitting it out. Brick’s burly criminal enforcers were armed to the teeth with firearms pilfered on screen from the abandoned police station; save for Digg’s machine gun and Roy’s bow, the untrained civilians were armed with blunt objects. Brick and Co. could have easily mowed down the entire citizens brigade before any of them even got close. Seriously, the bad guys deserved to win in “Uprising.” Even with the miraculously healed Arrow’s unexpected appearance to turn the tide, the civilian death toll should have been massive.
Of course, that death toll would have been lower if the episode had treated the people of the Glades like actual people rather than the “Arrow” equivalent of redshirts. Despite the hostile takeover of their section of the city by a murderous madmen, everybody in the Glades seemed to just…go about their business. Thea even went to Verdant, for heaven’s sakes! There’s no evidence that Brick had laid siege to the Glades; people should have been evacuating in droves as the National Guard poured in.
Now, on the subject of evacuation: any readers who are unconditional fans of Malcolm Merlyn may want to skip the next three paragraphs. For readers who are fans of logical plot progression rather than unearned redemption…well, keep on reading.
Malcolm Merlyn took over flashback duty in “Uprising” as producers attempted to maneuver his character into continued relevance with so much retroactive continuity and contrivance that the entire arc exudes desperation. The episode tried to present Malcolm as the victim of an accursed fate over which he had no control. Damn that universe conspiring against him in his star-crossed quest for peace, love, and joy!
Except no, that’s not what happened to him. What happened is that Malcolm abandoned his 8-year old child when he was needed most. Malcolm sabotaged the Queen’s Gambit, killing Robert Queen and sending Oliver and Sara into their own personal hells. He orchestrated the Undertaking that destroyed an entire section of the city and caused the deaths of 503 people, including his own son. He slipped the daughter who trusted him the herbal equivalent of Rohypnol to compel her to murder a friend and force her brother into a suicide mission against Ra’s al Ghul. These were not crimes of passion or mistakes made in the heat of a moment; Malcolm Merlyn is canonically a psychotic mass murderer and terrorist whose only actions that even approach altruism occur due to inherent self-interest. He can pull quarters out of the ears of every ragamuffin that crosses his path and lament his poor Rebecca until he is hoarse in the throat, but attempts to redeem him will never amount to more than missteps that seem designed for the sake of keeping John Barrowman on the show.
Worst of all, the attempts to sell Malcolm’s redemption to the audience via Oliver’s acceptance ruin the hero far more than bolster the villain. Felicity was not wrong in her final accusations at Oliver. Malcolm Merlyn is the only reason why Ra’s al Ghul is a threat to Oliver or Thea; for Oliver to overlook all of Malcolm’s terrible crimes – including Tommy’s death, Sara’s murder, and Thea’s corruption – to be trained by him is contrary to everything established about his character. The show has failed to impress the threat of Ra’s al Ghul upon the audience as much as it has portrayed Malcolm as a monster, and seeing Oliver shake the hand of the mass-murdering Magician does not get him off to a great start for the second half of the season.
What Needs To Happen Next: “Uprising” wasn’t the greatest episode of “Arrow,” but there were enough wrinkles to the plot that the rest of the season has plenty of great potential. Quentin’s clue about the Canary is among the most promising; the show now needs to follow up and allow him to seize some agency and figure out the truth.
Also in need of agency is Thea Queen. Oliver allowing her to live under Malcolm’s thumb without knowing that he was – and possibly still is – drugging her is unconscionable, and “Arrow” must open the communication channels between the Queen siblings if their relationship is to remain at all palatable. Oliver needs to tell her some of the truth.
If he gets the time, anyway.
Taking into account the attention that this season has been granting to Laurel becoming Canary, Ray becoming the Atom, and even Roy coming into his own as Arsenal, Oliver as Arrow has fallen by the wayside. With his abilities and crucible marginalized in order to allow the newbies to catch up to him, “Arrow” nowadays feels more like a launching point for possible spinoffs than the story of Oliver’s growth from Hood into Green Arrow. With “Uprising” seeing his return to Starling and the main action, hopefully “Arrow” will return focus to the protagonist.
In addition to re-fleshing out the hero, “Arrow” needs to strike a balance between showing and telling with regard to the villains. Ra’s al Ghul needs to be shown doing despicable acts of violence in order for Oliver’s agreement to side with Malcolm seem at all sensible, and Malcolm needs to be the bad guy that was established over the first two and a half seasons. Malcolm was a great bad guy. Let him be a bad guy.
Oh, and somebody really needs to teach Laurel the meaning of “secret identity.” Unmasking Wildcat in the middle of the street was bad enough; openly saying Oliver’s name while gazing at a green arrow is worse. She could at least check for onlookers first.