“The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak” isn’t necessarily the best hour of Arrow, in fact it’s a pretty decent representation of the ways that the show can rely on too obvious plotting in its villain-of-the-week installments. Yet it still contains an emotional core that packs a punch, alongside a few nice plot flourishes that keep things moving despite the overly obvious structure of the plot as a whole. It’s readily apparent that Cooper is behind the Brother Eye attacks throughout the episode, despite Felicity’s insistence that he died while in prison, if only because there are no other plausible suspects once Team Arrow confirms that Felicity’s other college roommate, Myron, isn’t behind things. Most of the episode’s A-plot is just waiting for the inevitable reveal that Cooper is behind everything.
Despite the episode’s mildly rote plotting, there’s still a particularly strong bit of emotional work as we delve into Felicity’s backstory, via both flashbacks to her time in college and conversations between Felicity and her mother, Donna. The college sequences aren’t exactly revelatory, and build to a conclusion that’s a little too pat in transitioning Felicity from jet-black goth hair and matching attitude to the Felicity we know today, but the sequences with Felicity and Donna are pretty uniformly strong. Both in that we see just how easily a rift could form between the two as their personalities are so very different while still suggesting just enough of the ways that mother and daughter are connected. Donna’s bubbly, overly excited approach to most every situation is recognizable in Felicity’s bubbly tendency to overshare and blabber whenever she gets put off guard, or really, in just about any situation.
The highlight of the episode comes when Donna opens up to Felicity about how little of herself she recognizes in her daughter, instead seeing only the traits and tendencies that her father passed on. Donna’s been terrified that her daughter, like her father before her will break away and leave her behind for good, and Donna’s left believing that this moment has already occurred, with Felicity desperate to distance herself from her mother. It’s a gut punch of a scene, mostly because it’s hard not to feel like Donna’s right, Felicity’s been brushing her mother off all episode and it seems to be primarily because of just how different she is from the woman who raised her.
What this episode does right though is fold Felicity and Donna’s plot directly into the A-story, as it suddenly comes out that Donna didn’t just come to Starling City of her own volition, but due to Cooper’s manipulations. Cooper needs Felicity to complete his plans and he intends to use Donna as leverage to make sure that Felicity helps out. Donna’s such a big enough presence, and an enjoyably funny one at that, as well as an offsetting force for Felicity that it wouldn’t be essential to have her tied directly into the main plot. Felicity’s on edge all episode just because her mother’s around, which would usually be a more than sufficient reason to include the character in the episode, so when things suddenly turn violent and both Felicity and Donna are kidnapped it gives the episode a nice, unexpected jolt heading into the final confrontation.
Obviously Cooper ends up being beaten, thanks to both Felicity’s quick thinking and Ray Palmer’s thoughtful gift of a smart watch earlier in the episode. What sets the finale apart from being just a foregone conclusion though is Felicity’s role in it, while Cooper predictably takes her hostage to try and save himself from Oliver’s arrows, it’s not Ollie who stops him, but Felicity. She quickly turns the tables on Cooper, disarming him and knocking him out with the stolen pistol.
It’s a scene that ties back to the opening of the episode, which features just about every cast member sparring in one way or another. Until, at the very end, we cut to Felicity doing crunches. It’s played as a joke, Thea’s just asked Malcolm Merlyn what normal people do with their mornings, but the joke belies the shift that has occurred for Felicity. Her relationship with Oliver, and her newfound calling as a crime fighter has made her into something new, awoken unknown strength in her, and while her workouts may not be as violently strenuous as those of her allies, she’s not a wilting flower capable solely of mental acrobatics. And in the end she credits that inner-strength to her strong, fierce mother, who has always stood by her.
It’s not a new story, but it’s still one that Arrow tells well, and while it doesn’t quite manage to make the story of Cooper and the Brother Eye organization striking the emotional side of things holds everything together. Felicity’s family and her history are worth exploring, just like the stories and lives of every character on Arrow. So long as that holds true Arrow should be able to find ways to invest pathos and excitement into even the most rote of plots.