There are some obvious flaws with “Canaries.” Thankfully, a good portion of those flaws show up early and then fade away before too long. Most of the issues arise from story lines and scenes where Arrow fails to put a unique spin on a trope or story beat that we’ve seen too many times already. Arrow has always excelled at manipulating superhero stories so as to present a unique take on the material, which makes it more frustrating than usual to see some of the traditional, well-worn material take center stage here.
The most egregious of the early flaws is how the episode opens with a sequence that quickly reveals itself as taking place 48 hours before the actual start of the episode’s events. It’s lazy storytelling and even goes so far as to undermine the point when the episode catches up to that cold opening, killing the excitement that might have been generated from an unexpected guest appearance by Caity Lotz while also highlighting Laurel’s thematic journey in a way that is later proven unnecessary when scene after scene keeps hitting the same thematic beats. It’s a disappointing start that fails to invigorate the hacky structure that was only recently used in significantly more impressive fashion during this year’s mid-season finale.
Things continue shakily as Oliver’s return finds him butting heads with Laurel over her assuming Sara’s Black Canary role. Oliver’s distaste for Laurel’s desire to join the ranks of Starling City’s vigilantes has been mildly problematic all season, because while it is logical it also serves as an impediment to the natural forward progression of the series. Dinah Lance is the Black Canary of the comic source material that Arrow draws from, and while the show certainly isn’t overly faithful to that material, once Sara died it was only a matter of time before Laurel assumed her mantle and as such having Oliver forcibly set himself in opposition to this inevitable development became tiresome quickly; doubly so because his objections came off as condescendingly paternalistic early on in this episode.
Thankfully the episode ultimately does turn this fact back around on Oliver, allowing the rest of Team Arrow to take Oliver to task over his attempts to reassert himself as the sole voice and leader of the group. They’ve grown in his absence and no longer see him as the sole reason for their fight, and as such he is no longer in a position to single handedly decide the direction of the group. It’s satisfying to see Oliver’s frustrating behavior called out by other characters directly, and while it doesn’t make his earlier scenes with Laurel more compelling it does at least promise that there won’t be more of his plot blocking moves to come.
The episode also takes a big step forward by finally letting Thea in on Oliver’s big secret. One of the best things that Arrow realized early on was that it wasn’t really necessary to keep the majority of the cast in the dark in regards to Oliver’s true identity. The show always moved better when its characters were at least on equal footing in terms of knowledge, and cutting out the secret identity shenanigans that go hand in hand with the superhero genre so much of the time most definitely allows the series to avoid the lame excuses portion of events while also cutting through a lot of the meandering that comes when characters can’t be honest with each other for trite, repetitive reasons.
Even better, the show allows Thea to react to Oliver’s reveal in a mature, reasonable fashion. While Diggle cautions Oliver about his decision to let Thea in on his secret, claiming she’ll never forgive him, it winds up that Thea’s grateful to know her brother is a hero. Glad to learn that the obvious lies he’s told her in the past have been for the greater good rather than just the mark of a brother who doesn’t truly care for her. She’s understandably proud of Oliver and it’s a refreshing shift to see that represented rather than focusing on petty arguments that are bound to be forgotten sooner rather than later.
When “Canaries” works, and it does work more often than not, it’s making these kinds of smart decisions. Pushing forward in ways that are exciting and bode well for future events rather than wallowing in overused stalling tactics simply because it’s the nature of these kinds of stories. While Arrow may not always clear the high bar of constantly reimagining the basic tropes of superhero stories, it at least seems to recognize when it has failed to do so. “Canaries” is a solid piece of evidence for just this fact, because while it falters at times it seems to do so in service of extricating the series from some of the very flaws that its weaker moments represent. This isn’t the best episode of Arrow, but flaws and all it still highlights what this show excels at in its best moments which makes it difficult to be too upset with the things this hour of the series doesn’t get quite right.