Arrow’s second season has been marked primarily by the series delivering on the promise of its first season. The show started out unevenly, alternating episodes that showcased the potential of the concept and characters with down installments that showed a series struggling to find its identity. That’s why it’s been such a delight to watch the series as the second season roared back onto the airwaves this past fall, filled with confidence after its strong first season finale, and promptly starting to show just how good a show it could be. All of which is to say I anticipated great things from Arrow as it returned from its mid-season hiatus and was ultimately disappointed to realize that the episode wasn’t a shining example of all that Arrow has managed to become this year. Instead, it was full of missteps that reminded me of the show’s problematic first season and just how far the series has come in its second year.
The episode picks up five weeks after the mid-season finale with Oliver seeking out info on Brother Blood from the various lowlifes of Starling City and getting nowhere. He’s frustrated and starts taking it out on Felicity when she returns from Central City, where she was looking after a comatose Barry Allen. This decision to showcase the core trio of the series at odds with one another undercuts one of the strongest aspects of the series almost immediately, as the chemistry between Oliver, Diggle, and Felicity is one of the Arrow’s greatest strengths. Which isn’t to imply that the series can’t get mileage out of the main characters being at odds with one another; indeed the series is quite good at doing this at times, but here Oliver’s outbursts seem petty since we’ve skipped over the five weeks of frustrations and disappointments that have led him to this point.
A conflicted, frustrated Oliver isn’t necessarily a problem for Arrow; indeed his struggles with his decision to stop killing have been some of the second season’s strongest moments, but “Blast Radius” never does much with the emotion, failing to hook it into much of anything on either a thematic or story level. The episode feints towards comparing the splintering group of crime fighters in the present day with Oliver’s splintering group of friends on the island in the aftermath of Shado’s death and Slade’s resurrection (thanks to the drug mirakuru), but it never does more than make the most basic of comparisons. Oliver’s haunted by what the drug did to Slade, clearly, but as the island story can’t move too quickly, we’re left seeing very little of the damage that was actually done to Slade and the pain it caused Oliver, instead having to settle for one moment where Slade almost kills Oliver and Slade slipping off in the middle of the night without informing Oliver and Sara.
Similarly the episode manages to bungle Roy’s struggles to deal with his growing awareness that something is very wrong, thanks to the mirakuru that Brother Blood injected him with. The show settles for the most basic of reactions as Roy grows surly, snaps at Thea, and then hides his fear, all while showcasing new super-human abilities in the form of rapid healing and a resistance to blunt force trauma. What’s more problematic though is that the episode treads this territory twice, once for Roy and once for Slade, rather than using one or the other to showcase what is occurring with both of the characters and informing the viewer of just how dangerous the drug is and just why Oliver is so scared of it being in the hands of his nemesis. The island has been much more effectively integrated with the rest of the show in the second season, thanks to cast members spilling in and out of the present and past and a storyline more closely tied to what occurred there, but this episode can’t find the proper balance between the island and the modern day, settling instead on essentially repeating story beats in both settings rather than using one to comment on the other.
And all of this is mashed up against a villain of the week who has barely any screen time or ability to distinguish himself as something other than a threat that needs dispatching. Sean Maher shows up as a man who goes by the alias Shrapnel on a right-wing extremist online forum and, fittingly, uses bombs and other explosives to make his point that the government is bad. The only characterization he gets are a few short lines of dialogue and a sequence where he doesn’t charge tax on a toy because he’d rather that the government doesn’t get some money. It’s an afterthought of a plot that doesn’t add much of anything, even as there are hints that the plot is attempting to compare Oliver’s past to his present through the lens of a villain who took Oliver’s original mission – to bring justice to the corrupt rich and powerful – to a dangerous extreme. It’s not that hard to hear Oliver’s, “You have failed this city” in Shrapnel’s speech about the dangers and cruelty of the politicians who were supposed to serve the people, but the episode never takes the comparison any further, unlike the show’s much more effective use of copycat vigilantes in the second season premiere. Those vigilantes held up the Arrow as an idol and took his mission to dangerous, murderous extremes, which was an effective way to dramatize Oliver’s decision to stop killing. But instead of drawing any sort of comparison here, Shrapnel pops up, causes some damage, and is then stopped. The plot ends up amounting to a few action sequences and exists primarily as a way to bring the Arrow and Sebastian Blood into one another’s orbit. There’s no nuance or deeper meaning, just danger to be averted, which has rarely been the case with this year’s opponents. The show has gotten very good at figuring out ways to utilize its villains to animate other conflicts and drama for the characters, but “Blast Radius” just has too much going on to properly integrate Shrapnel’s portion into everything else that is occurring.
More than anything else, “Blast Radius” kept reminding me just how far Arrow has come this year, as it kept failing at what the rest of the season has done so well. It’s frustrating to see an episode this uneventful and dull in the middle of a great season of television, but it’s hard for a series to nail things each and every week, so here’s hoping that this week’s dud of an episode is an aberration rather than a signal that Arrow is descending from the heights that it reached earlier this season.