While Arrow has, to some extent, narrowed its focus in the early going of its third season, “Corto Maltese” is a reminder of just how big a world the show has created. The episode sends most of Team Arrow off to the island of Corto Maltese as they track down Thea and attempt to bring her back to Starling City. While they’re there Diggle also tries to locate a member of A.R.G.U.S. for Lyla, who is worried about him because he hasn’t checked in with his superiors. The episode also takes time to show us Felicity settling into her new job at the Ray Palmer run Queen Consolidated, and also chronicles the early steps of Laurel attempting to fill the role of Black Canary now that her sister is dead.
It’s a huge amount of plot for just 45 minutes of screen time, and “Corto Maltese” struggles to make it all fit together. It falls apart as more and more plot piles up, diluting the episode. The opening, showing us the early moments of Thea’s journey with her father, Malcolm Merlyn, six months ago is material that the show has held back so far. It initially looks like much of this episode is going to be tasked with displaying exactly how Thea transformed into the competent combatant we saw at the end of last week’s episode. Instead we get just a couple glimpses of her time with her father, and they don’t dig particularly deep into the intriguing past that we’ve skipped over. It’s frustrating, because seeing Thea transform into a warrior while also warming to her true father could have been powerful and exciting material, but if we’re going to end up seeing that part of the story it’s not something we’re getting just yet.
Almost every plotline in this episode was potential A-story material, and yet each is mashed together, desperately fighting for the precious few minutes the show has to allocate. Diggle tags along on the trip to see Thea at the behest of Lyla, and his plot seems like a pretty obvious way to inject some action beats into the episode and not much else. The entire story is relegated to just a few scenes, and that robs it of just about any subtlety or impact. Lyla’s agent, Shaw, betrays Diggle and A.R.G.U.S. almost immediately after the team has caught up with him, and then he disappears until the final scenes of the episode, presumably because Arrow feels compelled to have some sort of action sequences to close things off. There are a few feints in the plot towards a larger thematic relevance, in particular when Shaw claims that his betrayal was fueled by the horrible things Amanda Waller has forced him to do as an agent of A.R.G.U.S., but since we never have a chance to get to know Shaw or see what Waller has turned him into, the attempt to inject meaning and a tragic air to the story falls flat.
Laurel’s part of the episode features a similar problem, as she floats through a few scenes meant to underscore the hurt that Sara’s death has caused her while attempting to sell the fact that Laurel now feels compelled to assume the mantle of Black Canary. What we get here is mostly just Laurel being haughty to Ted Grant, the owner of a boxing gym who goes by the alias Wildcat, over an open case, and then later deciding to try to beat up the abusive boyfriend of a fellow AA member. There just isn’t enough material here to sell Laurel’s decision, and that lack of specificity makes it hard to empathize with what she’s going through. Mostly it just looks like Laurel being her consistently problematic self, making rash decisions and having no idea how to follow through or deal with the reality of the situation facing her.
The only parts of the episode that unreservedly work are Oliver and Roy’s reunions with Thea. Willa Holland hasn’t been present at all this season, but “Corto Maltese” is a reminder of just how strong of a character she built Thea Queen into over the course of the second season and the scenes she shares with Stephen Amell and Colton Haynes are uniformly engaging and emotionally affecting. All of these actors share some fantastic chemistry, whether it’s the romantically charged conversation between Roy and Thea or the sibling love that shines through when Oliver finally starts to open up to Thea about exactly what happened to him in the five years on the island.
These scenes get at the core of the characters and their relationships, and they do so neatly and succinctly by playing off what’s been built before. Too much of “Corto Maltese” attempts to set up new plots and story directions with too little time devoted to the material. It leaves things feeling hollow, and while the episode as a whole tries to work in the direction of a unifying theme related to the importance and power of family, the fact that only one of its storylines actually manages to satisfyingly plug into this theme leaves the whole affair feeling weightless. There are moments where “Corto Maltese” comes alive, but most of the episode lacks enough punch or focus to get across the emotions and import of what it is portraying. It’s disappointing to see Arrow stumble like this in the early going of a season, but it’s hard to see just about any show pulling this many plots together to satisfying effect, so hopefully now that some of the tougher set up work is out of the way “Corto Maltese” ends up being more of an aberration than an indicator of what we’ll be seeing as season 3 progresses.