Thursday, March 6, 2014

ARROW: "The Promise" and the Destruction of Becoming a Better Man

It's a thing of beauty when a story manages to be both infinitely clear and intriguingly mysterious at the same time.

Arrow's season 2 episode 15, "The Promise," accomplished just that.

As promised (wordplay intended), this episode served to be a definite game-changer. 

Finally, we see Oliver (Stephen Amell) transform into a full-fledged hero for the first time on the island(kinks and all). Plus, there's a new twist in his journey, in that his presence in the city he returned to save has now attracted an enemy poised to destroy it.

That twist comes with a whole host of unexpected layers that suggest the rest of this season will be spectacular.

And perhaps the most intriguing outcome of all is that we now know why Oliver is so internally conflicted...

It's because the qualities he's learned on the island that have made him a better man are primed to lead to his ultimate destruction.

And just how might that be, you ask?

Honesty Isn't Always the Best Policy

Before the island, honest was the last word one would use to describe Oliver Queen. 

A lie was that irresponsible playboy's best friend. But now, Oliver has grown, not only as a survivor and a hero, but as a responsible man with a conscience. 

This is a good thing, right?

Well, it hasn't turned out that way for Oliver. You see, were he still mentally and emotionally that careless, flippant rich kid, he could've lied to cover his guilt over the execution of Shado (Celina Jade) without blinking an eye.

He probably could've even killed off Ivo (Dylan Neal) to save himself (as Sara recommended) without flinching, either.

But he couldn't.

Even knowing that the lie (and the cold-blooded killing) would serve the greater good, Oliver couldn't overcome the good that had grown within his own character.

And this growth arced absolutely perfectly throughout the episode.

The Importance of the "Tell Momma" Moment

From the falterings during training to initiating the Mirakuru-burning decision -- overall, Oliver's transformation into The Hood for the first time on the island was expertly handled. 

But for me, the most important moment was when Oliver told Sara to tell Thea (Willa Holland) and his mother (Susanna Thompson) that he had changed for the better if he didn't survive the coming battle.

It's significant because, in this moment, Oliver experienced his first and only pure moment of triumph in what will be his eternal struggle -- the fight to be a good man. A better man than he has ever been before.

But in that moment, good & evil and right & wrong are black & white for Oliver.

Unfortunately for Oliver, right and wrong will never be that clear for him again. And all future moments of triumph will be tainted by self-doubt.

It's this eternal internal struggle that makes Arrow such compelling television.

Compelling, despite its heavy reliance on flashbacks (an issue that bothered me back in season 1 when the island action was often more intriguing than the present-day stuff). 

Luckily, they've found a way to make that work for them instead of against them...

A Dream Within A Memory (Structure Compliment)

As a rule, writers consider flashbacks to be taboo -- a lazy way to reveal a lot of expository backstory all at once. 

Also, in some past episodes, the excessive drama and action in the island sequences have dwarfed the present day story, making the show feel out of balance.

Although Arrow has been guilty of this (especially in season 1), the show does use flashbacks successfully for the most part. 


By treating both Oliver's Starling City storyline and Oliver's time on the island as active, intertwined plots. 

The past and the present unfolding together. 

The same character on two separate hero's journeys. 

True, the island journey could also be described as a leg of Oliver's overall journey. However, what's interesting is how well the show balances the fact that, while they are pieces of one journey, they are also mirror images of one another.

After all, the returning Oliver must conquer his inner demons and the dangers of Starling City in the same way he conquered the demons and dangers of the island.

While the island story isn't always perfectly integrated with the Starling City story, in this episode, it's remarkably well done.

In "The Promise," the show took this unconventional structure a step further by incorporating a dream sequence.

This could've been a total mess, but thankfully the Shado nightmare played perfectly.

And it played so well because it hooked us into Oliver's inner turmoil, which in turn connected us to the turmoil Oliver exhibited in the present-day house tour scenes.

Without that dream -- without knowing the depths of Oliver's guilt (that the dream exposed) -- Oliver's fear of Slade isn't as earthshaking. 


Because that guilt is a weakness. It casts doubt over Oliver, which makes the "right" thing to do difficult for him to see. 

And doubt in the face of an indestructible enemy like Slade is a dangerous thing. 

So Oliver (and by extension the audience) has reason to be afraid of what Slade is capable of. Because that dream makes us doubt whether or not Oliver will have the strength of character to defeat him.

As a result of this, the scenes in the house are connected to the action on the island. In fact, the tension of the house scenes is actually heightened.

Let's hope the show continues to weave these two stories together as well as they did tonight.

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