I didn’t take any notes while watching “Birds of Prey”. Not to say I’m a prolific transcriber of material when I’m watching TV, but generally when I’m watching something I intend to write about later on, at least one or two thoughts will make their way onto the page. I don’t usually consult the notes too much, if at all, while writing, but I generally find taking them to be a good way to focus on salient moments in an episode of television and a nice way to start building a route into the episode for discussion. All of which is to say that “Birds of Prey” isn’t a particularly remarkable episode of Arrow. It’s a far cry from bad, in fact it’s a largely enjoyable hour of television, but it never finds something notable or new to do. It primarily contents itself with playing out conflicts we’ve seen before, pushing the overall story ahead incrementally, and doling out a few action sequences to keep things lively.
All of which sounds worse than it really is. Arrow’s been on enough of a roll this season that it’s clear it knows what it does well and how to execute on those strengths. The action sequences alone in tonight’s episode do a good job of pointing this out as they’re consistently lively, in particular Helena tossing Sara out of a window does a great job of highlighting just how strong of a visual sense this show has as the camera follows her down the side of the building in a wonderfully smooth crane shot as she slows her descent just enough to avoid serious injury. Everyone involved knows how to pull one of these sequences off and has been doing so for quite some time now. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the stunt team and cinematographers continue to find cool ways to show off, but it’s still gratifying to see action handled this well on TV.
Unlike the action though, the thematic work of this episode isn’t handled quite as effectively, playing off some of the series’ key themes without finding new ways to illuminate them. The episode uses the returning Helena and her morally gray Huntress alter ego to try to dig into the moral swamp that Oliver and Sara are trying to pull themselves out of. The problem though is that the episode never finds a unique note to play, settling instead for continually pointing out that Oliver and Sara would like to leave their murderous ways behind them but that it’s hard for them to do so. It’s one of the key thematic and story concerns of the series, which also means it’s not a concept that the audience needs underlined too heavily as it is dealt with frequently, but the episode does little else than underline that the characters have to make the hard choice to avoid slipping back into old habits, and that gets tiresome after a while. It’s material we’ve seen before, and there just isn’t enough new content to justify returning to it.
It also doesn’t help that the episode feels under-plotted, as Helena’s plan to finally kill her father manages to be both over- and under-planned. She’s smart enough to know that her father’s trial is likely just a ploy to lure her out, but she’s overly hesitant to take decisive action despite having hoards of backup and contingency plans, because if she did the episode would come up short on the running time. Helena somehow manages to enlist a huge number of lackeys in her quest to murder her father, and the details of who these people are or their reasons for helping her are never explained. They’re simply bodies to pose a threat to the heroes and are forgotten about once Helena forces Oliver and Sara to bring her father to her by holding Laurel hostage. It’s a sloppy plot that never makes much sense on a functional level, even as it manages to provide enough spots for punching and super heroics to keep it ticking along.
And really, that’s what makes this episode hold together, even when it’s nowhere near as good as it might have been. The episode may be half-baked, but all involved still know the strengths of this show and they’re able to play to them. Those strengths can be as elaborate as a fancy, high-flying stunt, or as simple as an elegant pan from Felicity to Diggle as David Ramsey gives a remarkably funny nod of concurrence after Felicity urges Sara to go beat the crap out of Helena. The small touches keep things together even as the episode itself fails to deliver much in the way of new or truly intriguing material. “Birds of Prey” won’t stand with the best episodes of Arrow, but it’s nowhere near a total misfire, just an average episode of television that doesn’t let you down, thanks to the elements that make this series capable of so much better when they’re not wasted on an under-developed core.