“The Man Under the Hood” starts out strong, showcasing Team Arrow demolishing a research division of Queen Consolidated with copious amounts of C4 to prevent Isabelle and Slade from utilizing the research to further their nefarious plans. It sets the tone and theme for the episode, asking just what Oliver the man has to sacrifice to remain the heroic Arrow. It’s all summed up nicely by Quentin Lance late in the episode as he silences Laurel just before she is able to inform him of the identity of the Arrow. Quentin no longer wants to know, if he did he wouldn’t be able to deny the sacrifices that the Arrow has to make and wouldn’t be able to see him solely as a selfless paragon as good, he would have to recognize the deeply broken man losing every happiness he might have in service of others. In other words, he would see the Oliver we see, and wouldn’t be able to keep expecting him to do what needs to be done because the cost would be too high.
It’s a point that this episode makes nicely, and it’s exactly the kind of episode required as the series continues to move towards the final hours of this season. One that further explores the thematic repercussions of the season while slowly shifting things towards the final confrontation that the viewer knows is soon to come. The spine of the episode continues to follow Oliver and the rest of the team desperately trying to get ahead of Slade’s relentless campaign against them, and Oliver still seems mostly helpless against Slade, misinterpreting his actions and failing to keep up with Deathstroke when it matters most. Oliver is largely unable to either stop Slade physically, being trounced at Star Labs and even in his own base of operations, and similarly incapable of undoing the damage done by Slade exposing secrets to Thea and Laurel. Laurel starts an investigation to prove that Oliver is the Arrow and Thea is utterly uninterested in reconciling with her family after discovering that they’ve kept the secret of her true parentage from her.
And yet, while the heroes still mostly fail in this week’s episode, the failure isn’t quite as absolute as the previous installment’s low points. The episode even goes as far as to offer glimmers of hope amidst the darkness. Most prominent among those small rays of light is Laurel’s plot, which begins with her following Slade’s revelation that Oliver is the Arrow all the way to realizing that her sister is also the Black Canary who fights by the Arrow’s side once she catches a glimpse of Sara’s scars, scars that uncannily resemble Oliver’s. And yet, just as she seems ready to condemn Oliver for her secrets, Quentin, as mentioned previously, convinces her that the secrets the Arrow lives with are punishment enough. It’s one of the few moments where Slade’s manipulations truly seem to fail. Slade counted on the revelation to drive a further wedge between Oliver and Laurel, destabilizing Oliver and making his battle all that much more painful. Instead Oliver’s kindness and selflessness wins the day rather than the revenge and cruelty that drives the antagonists.
It’s a smartly handled bit of subtlety that suggests exactly how and why Oliver and team will win the day even as the episode still withholds just about any kind of concrete success. Even the most uplifting portion of the episode, Laurel’s reconciliation with Oliver’s secret, isn’t obvious to anyone except for Laurel and the viewer, manifesting outwardly solely as a show of affection and love for Oliver in a moment when he needs it most. Oliver has lost and failed in much; his relationship with Thea seems beyond repair, his attempt to mentor Roy fell apart and led to the young man being used as a human blood bag to manufacture new mirakuru enhanced soldiers for Slade, and even coming up with a plan means admitting past failures as Oliver notes that rather than using a cure Ivo invented for the super soldiers he opted to kill Slade, a vengeful action that achieved nothing as Slade has returned to wreak havoc and chaos on Oliver’s life.
“The Man Under the Hood” isn’t a perfect episode of TV, Isabelle’s motivations are frustratingly simplistic and disappointing as she’s revealed to be nothing more than a jilted mistress of Oliver’s father. And just when it seems like Arrow understands that the explanation is weak and that Oliver’s mother has once again lied to him Isabel contradicts Moira’s story by claiming that she isn’t just some forlorn ex-lover of his father, but rather the true soul mate of Robert Queen, a development that makes her character seem even more pathetic and embarrassing, nothing more than another poorly drawn woman seeking vengeance due to a man’s mistreatment. Isabel at least gets a few exciting bits of physical action in, and winds up both being shot and then saved from death thanks to Slade’s abundance of mirakuru, but it’s sad to see the show settle for such a pedestrian motivation to a character who seemed much more complicated than the psychotic ex-mistress she was revealed as.
That one poor piece of plotting doesn’t override the rest of the episode though, this is a well plotted, deftly handled progression of the season’s arc that knows how to move things forward just far enough while still holding back the truly explosive fireworks for the finale that is to come in just a few short weeks. The episode smartly leverages the history of the series, the skeleton key from earlier in the season, the greater DC Universe, the nods to the insane Arthur Light, and the thematic material that drives the series, Oliver’s self-sacrificial turn from broken man to heroic figure, while providing a ripping action yarn punctuated by beautifully photographed sequences of fisticuffs. Arrow’s not a perfect series, and it still has its missteps here and there, but those missteps are almost always overshadowed by just how much the series seems to get effortlessly right, and “The Man Under the Hood” is just one more example of just how much Arrow can get right.