There comes a time in just about any season of television where a show has to slow down for a bit and push its pieces around the board. Slowly edging forward conflicts and building to greater dramas that are set to unfold. These episodes can sometimes be tiring and sometimes enjoyable, but rarely are they riveting TV. It’s the equivalent of vegetables, something you know is essential and even something that you can develop a taste for, but rarely the part of a meal you’re incredibly excited about. It’s because the board rearranging episodes are never the center piece of a season, never filled with the conflicts or drama that you know are being built to, but merely the precursor to said conflicts. “Suicide Squad” is most certainly one of these episodes, and yet, it’s one of the most elegant and well executed versions of the form that I can think of. The episode manages to gracefully delve into the character conflicts that motivate both the coming fights and the series as a whole, while also delivering plenty of fun espionage to keep things chugging along despite there being little real forward momentum in the season long arc.
The key is that the majority of the episode is given over to Diggle’s storyline as he heads up a mission of Task Force X, better known to comic fans and members of the force as The Suicide Squad. An old sort of enemy, sort of friend of Diggle’s has given in to his baser side once more and has gotten his hands on a chemical weapon that A.R.G.U.S. wants taken out of play, and since Diggle has an in they bring him and his ex-wife/current girlfriend, Lyla on to take care of things. Of course it’s not that simple, as they have the help of recurring villains Deadshot, Black Tiger, and Shrapnel to round out their team and officially introduce The Suicide Squad into the ever growing Arrow universe. (Complete with a brief, and unspecified cameo from Harley Quinn.) The plotting isn’t groundbreaking, quickly establishing dangerous stakes with the toxin, setting up rules of conduct by dispatching a less than eager to help Shrapnel thanks to explosives embedded somewhere in his body, and playing things out to mildly anti-climactic, if still satisfying, ends as Waller showcases her willingness to play fast and loose with the lives of the members of the Suicide Squad, but it’s still strong material that manages to smartly dig into the themes and concerns that drive Arrow as a series while providing enough visceral excitement to keep viewers involved for the portions of the episodes that aren’t quite as unexpected.
Those themes are the usual batch of murky greys that make Arrow such an intriguing view into the world of super heroics. Taking heroes and mashing them up against villains to see just where the dividing line is, and just how easily that line can shift from one side to the other. Here, the character having most of the trouble with this distinction is Diggle, as he comes to grips with the fact that Deadshot may not be quite as horrible a person as he wanted to believe. Certainly Deadshot’s bad, but Lawton’s rationalizing his actions by sending all his profits to his daughter, a daughter he refuses to see as he fears his influence would only be detrimental to her. Contrasted with Amanda Waller, who is all too eager to use Deadshot’s embedded tracking chip as a homing device for a drone strike, Deadshot almost comes out looking like the honorable hero of the piece alongside Diggle. It’s not the thorniest of moral quandaries, but it’s a smart avenue of approach to the universe that only gets cleverer when it’s revealed that Oliver and Waller happen to have a deeper connection than anyone might have previously guessed. Oliver’s portion of the episode is more necessary plotting than revelatory character work, but when his story suddenly dovetails with Diggle’s at the end through the revelation that he and Waller have worked together in the past it provides a nice charge of excitement to carry things forward.
The main puzzle piece rearranging portion of the episode falls to Oliver’s plot, as he reels from the revelation that Slade is still alive and out for vengeance for Shado’s death. Smartly, the writers push this plot to the edges of the episode, allowing for the more action packed Suicide Squad material to drive things along and comment on Oliver’s attempts to push away those he cares about in an attempt to shield them from those that would do him harm. It’s standard super hero stuff, but it plays well thanks to Amell’s performance, one that’s just prickly enough to sting those around him while still exposing the pain that’s driven Oliver since he escaped the island. Really, these scenes exist to showcase Oliver’s terror at Slade’s return and ultimately get him to a place where he’s ready to fight back against Slade in a way that amounts to more than just desperately throwing himself, and only himself, towards a man who seemingly can’t be killed. It’s a transition that any viewer of the show knows is coming, if only because the bench of characters on this show is so deep that it would be insane to isolate the lead from every last one of them as the season builds to its climax.
Instead of heading down that path full force, and devoting the majority of an episode to Oliver’s crisis, writers Keto Shimizu and Bryan Q. Miller smartly relegate the material to a series of runners, utilizing Oliver’s scenes as punctuation to the real story of the week with Diggle. It’s a balance that’s nicely struck; delivering a complete, satisfying story alongside important character work that needs to take place for the season to progress without ever feeling like the pace of the season is slowing down. Luckily, the reason why Arrow is so capable of splitting its focus is that it has continuously and smartly built out the world it is playing it. Populating the series with an array of colorful, and exciting characters to return to when necessary and thus allowing the focus of the series to shift when it will best serve any given episode. Oliver’s portion of this week’s installment was necessary, but it most certainly wasn’t sturdy enough to support the weight of an entire hour worth of story. Recognizing this, the writers bounced it off a more complete tale featuring Diggle and an array of supporting characters in a kind of alternate reality version of Arrow where Diggle is the lead and Oliver a supporting character, even going so far as to allow the traditional flashbacks to illuminate Diggle’s past rather than Oliver’s. It’s not a mind bending episode, but it’s one of the best examples of a tried and true piece of television storytelling that I can think of, and that’s one of the surest signs of a TV series that’s at the height of its powers. Arrow’s finding ways to make even the most potentially tedious of episodes exciting, and when the vegetables are this tasty, I can only imagine how delicious the main course is going to be.