This Week In The Arrowverse: 04/02/2018 – 04/08/2018: “Insane Is What We Do Best”

Legends of Tomorrow 3×17: “Guest Starring John Noble”, Black Lightning 1×11: “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion”, and Arrow 6×17: “Brothers in Arms” reviews

The end of the season draws near, but we still have three shows to talk about this week, and only a week or two till The Flash and Supergirl come back, so let’s get to it!

Arrow - Brothers In Arms

Arrow 6×17: “Brothers in Arms” review

Is it too soon to do a post-mortem on Arrow Season 6?

There are six episodes left, over a quarter of the season. That’s enough time for them to pull out some surprises and turn things around. But as things stand now, it seems all but certain that Season 6 will be the worst season of Arrow to date, and watching this episode, I was finally able to put my finger on why.

There is a very promising idea at the heart of “Brothers in Arms”. Since the earliest days of Team Arrow, John Diggle’s role has been to second guess Oliver, to point out the flaws in his often myopic judgement, and try to guide him down a more sensible path. But despite voicing his misgivings, John has rarely outright defied Oliver’s leadership. Aside from the time Oliver went “Imma join the League of Assassins”, John has always followed Oliver’s direction despite his better judgement.

But things are different now. For a few glorious weeks, John Diggle was no longer the sidekick to the Green Arrow, he was the Green Arrow. Team Arrow was his team, followed his leadership. Doing what he felt was right no longer depended on convincing an incredibly stubborn man to see things his way. It makes perfect sense that John would balk at going from that back to being the angel on Oliver’s shoulder. And when John decides to take a stand against Oliver, all it takes is a few poorly chosen words to escalate the confrontation to a series of personal attacks, and eventually a bare knuckle brawl between two best friends.

It’s a powerful scene, and it made me wonder why this falling out between teammates worked so much better than the earlier rift that created New Team Arrow. Then I realized that my ability to enjoy the scene had almost nothing to do with any of the groundwork laid for it this season. Stephen Amell and David Ramsey are such good actors, and their characters have such a long and tumultuous history together, it was easy to view their rapidly escalating fight as the result of long-buried grievances finally bubbling to the surface.

But whenever John referenced things that happened this season for why he no longer wants to follow Oliver, it fell flat. The show hasn’t established Oliver’s decision making as particularly bad this year, or that dividing his time between his son, his team, and his job as mayor is causing any major problems like John claimed. Meanwhile, all of Oliver’s counterarguments, citing the problems caused by John hiding his injury and turning to drugs to solve it, are so strong and well-supported, they blow John’s arguments out of the water. If I had only watched this season of Arrow, and couldn’t draw on memories of past seasons where Oliver legitimately screwed up royal, then the fight between John and Oliver would be just as one-sided and frustrating as the fight with New Team Arrow, because the show just hasn’t done the work this year to set up this moment.

And that’s core problem with Season 6. There are lots of great moments, or at least great ideas for moments, peppered throughout the season, but the show seems to have lost any sense of how to build up to these moments, or to build from these moments in a satisfying way. The rifts that have formed in Team Arrow are the most obvious case of this, but you can see other examples in this very episode.

Like Curtis’s new proto-boyfriend finding out he’s Mister Terrific. The staging of that scene is great, a very neat way to do the secret identity reveal. But we only met Nick last episode, and have learned almost nothing about him. That moment can’t possibly have the impact it’s supposed to, because we’ve been given no reason to care about Nick or his relationship with Curtis.

Laurel betraying Team Arrow and her pseudo-father to Diaz should also have had some emotional weight to it, but the show has done so little work building trust or an emotional bond between her and the good guys, there’s no impact from seeing that bond broken. Conversely, when Black Siren revealed herself to the public, claiming to be the Earth-1 Laurel back from the grave, that was a genuinely great moment, promising all sorts of unique complications going forward. Yet this episode we see that our new Laurel has just been lounging around Quentin’s apartment this whole time, not making use of her public identity in any way. They created a great setup, but aren’t giving us any payoff from it, and the payoff we are getting hasn’t had any setup!

As for Diaz himself, no setup and no payoff really describes his character to a T right now. You can see how, in theory, his character could be a great twist, a flunky who reveals himself to secretly be the mastermind behind everything. Tons of characters this episode talk about how much control Diaz has over the city, how he’s “already won”, how Oliver has never faced anyone like him before, but no foundation has been laid to support any of that.

In past seasons, the Big Bads have had a moment that clearly shows why they are such a threat. Malcolm Merlyn and Ra’s al Ghul each handed Oliver his ass in a one-on-one fight. Slade Wilson took a stroll through the Queen mansion while Oliver could do nothing against him. Damien Darhk routinely stopped the heroes in their tracks with a simple wave of his hand, and paralyzed Felicity for good measure. Even Prometheus, who was less of a physical threat, showed off his mastery of manipulation by getting Oliver to kill Billy Malone.

What is Diaz’s moment? I suppose it’s when he killed Cayden James and revealed that he doctored the video that set his plot into motion, but that just doesn’t cut it. He’s demonstrated his skills at altering video and bribing public officials, but not the sort of cunning or physical power to make him a worthy opponent for Team Arrow.

Nor is there an indication this Diaz plot is building to something great. He lacks any sort of personal connection to the main characters that would make this conflict meaningful, nor do his plans seem to involve anything apocalyptic enough to ramp up the stakes. It seems like all he wants is to be a very powerful crime boss, but crime bosses are a dime a dozen on Arrow. Ricardo Diaz, at this point, really does feel like an ordinary villain-of-the-week who has, for some inexplicable reason, been thrust into the role of main bad guy, and all the characters are required to act like he somehow deserves that distinction.

I don’t know what’s happened in the Arrow writers room this year, if some key talent left, if their organization has been a mess, or if everyone’s just been off their game. But whatever the problem is, whatever has completely wrecked their ability to build a satisfying story around their list of plot points, they need to get on top of it, stat.

Black Lightning - Crucify (2)

Black Lightning 1×11: “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion” review

I normally hate when people criticize an episode for being “filler”. Just because an episode doesn’t advance a larger story arc doesn’t mean it can’t be a highly enjoyable and meaningful hour of television.

Yet, watching “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion”, I could never shake the sense that nothing that was happening onscreen really mattered. Jefferson’s freedom, his reputation, and even his life were put on the line, but knowing that all that would be resolved by episode’s end, I had a hard time finding reasons to care.

You might be wondering how I could be so certain, not just that Jefferson would live (that’s kind of a no brainer), but that he would be completely exonerated of the trumped up charges brought against them. Well, that has to do with how this episode began, and with how the previous episode ended.

At the end of “Sins of the Father: The Book of Redemption”, it looked like the entire Pierce family was going into hiding. Jefferson had been abducted by ASA agents because they knew about his and Gambi’s relationship. He had a gun put to his head, was shown how they tortured Gambi, and when he escaped with Gambi, they left two dead agents behind. Even if the ASA didn’t suspect Jefferson was Black Lightning, he’s still a witness to their illegal activities in Freeland, and by far their best lead on finding their rogue agent. The Pierces realized this made all of them targets for the ASA, and they moved into a safe house to hide from them.

Yet, this episode, Jefferson goes right back to work, standing in front of Garfield High and greeting students so openly he might as well be carrying a sign that says, “PLEASE ABDUCT ME, GOVERNMENT AGENTS”. When this scene came up, I thought for sure it had to be a flashback. No other explanation made sense. What kind of man-on-the-run moves into a safe house so the government won’t know where to find him, then shows up for his regular job at a government building and expects not to get nabbed?

Even worse, Jennifer and Anissa show up to school, too! And the only indication that they’re at all worried for their safety is a general warning from Jefferson that Anissa should look after Jennifer and “touch base” with him between classes. These are not the actions of people trying to hide from a murderous government conspiracy!

That’s when it dawned on me that Black Lightning, at least at this point in its development, is not willing to sacrifice its characters’ everyday lives. In many ways, that’s admirable. Jefferson’s role as an inspiring principal and pillar of the community, and the Pierce family’s ordinary struggles and relationships, have kept the show grounded and given added emotional weight to its superheroics. The series would definitely lose something if these characters no longer had jobs and lives that connected them to the wider world of Freeland.

But if the show is so committed to maintaining this normalcy that even plot developments which should disrupt it don’t, then any story built around a threat to this normalcy loses much of its suspense. If the Pierces didn’t go into hiding or even change their daily routine after last week’s episode, then there was no way this episode was going to end with Jefferson either stuck in prison or on the run from the law. Clearing his name by episode’s end was the only option.

That didn’t have to be a bad thing. Even if the final outcome is inevitable, seeing how the characters react to it in the moment could still have made for fine drama. But no one’s reactions here are surprising or complicated. Jefferson bears the indignities with heroic stoicism, Jennifer freaks out and cries, and Anissa brims with righteous fury and sets to work fixing things. That doesn’t tell us anything about the characters we didn’t already know.

A lot of time is spent on the humiliation and mistreatment Jefferson endures during his arrest, and these scenes are very wonderfully shot to capture how dehumanizing the experience can be. But it’s not such a horrible experience that I believe it left much of a mark on Jefferson, not when he seems to have only been in jail for one night. And nobody who knows Jefferson believes for one second that he’s guilty, so there’s no exploration of shattered trust or tarnished reputation, either.

All we’re really left with, then, is how our heroes are going to get out of this scrape. The methods used are pretty simple: blackmail one guy into ratting out all the other crooked cops behind the arrest, and have Black Lightning be seen in public while Jefferson is locked up. I’ll admit, though, it was nice seeing Henderson get to be the hero for once. And even though it was completely staged, watching Thunder and “Black Lightning” chase a van down the street while the crowds cheered them on made me want to pump my fist in the air.

It just doesn’t seem like quite enough to hang a whole episode on. I was hoping that, to make the hologram Black Lightning look like the real thing, Jennifer would have to learn how to control her powers and provide real lightning bolts when the hologram shoots his fake ones. That would have been a great way to tie this story into a character’s ongoing development and make it all feel meaningful, but they didn’t do it.

I feel like I’m being more harsh on this episode than it deserves. It was mostly entertaining throughout, and had a couple scenes that were executed very well. I think, if this plot had been done earlier in the year, I’d have been much more forgiving towards it. But as I mentioned last week, we’re closing in on the end of the season, and there are a whole host of dangling plot threads in need of resolution. To spend a whole hour on a conflict introduced and resolved this episode, taking us right back to where we started without moving anything forward . . .

Yeah, I’ll say it. It felt like filler.

Legends - John Noble

Legends of Tomorrow 3×17: “Guest Starring John Noble” review

I called last week’s Legends of Tomorrow too overstuffed for its own good. Well, I guess this week proves that it’s not how much you stuff into an episode, but what you stuff it with, ‘cause “Guest Starring John Noble” is packed to the brim with crazy ideas and wild plot developments, and is an absolute delight.

The key difference is that while this episode piles on the over-the-top superheroics (Gorilla Grodd attacking Barack Obama and being defeated by a shrink ray is just the opening act), its emotional storytelling is allowed to build slowly and naturally from what’s come before.

We’ve seen this season that, as much he’s otherwise evil-for-evil’s sake, Damien Darhk’s love for his daughter is genuine, and that he’s come to regret what his deal with Mallus has done to her. His decision to turn on Mallus and aid the Legends in order to save Nora comes from a very understandable place, but unlike Kuasa last week, we’re not supposed to believe Damien has become a genuine hero by episode’s end. He may claim to be a “changed man”, but no one in the show or in the audience is buying that line. The episode knows not to push itself that far, and mines quality drama from Damien’s paternal love without needing to cram in a redemption arc.

And while last week Ava had to discover her true identity as a clone and make a certain level of peace with it at breakneck speed, here she’s allowed to stew for a while in what these revelations mean. And when a new unsettling revelation is added to the mix, that she’s not even the first Ava clone Rip recruited, but the latest in a long line of replacement Avas, there is no peace to be made. You wouldn’t expect someone to recover from a bombshell like that so quickly, and Ava is not forced to here. She’ll undoubtedly get some closure on it in next week’s finale, but for now her emotions and sense of self are still in tumult, and that’s as it should be.

Then, of course, we have Amaya’s story, which pays off a plotline established way back in Season 2, that she must one day return to her own time and her own village, knowing she will live to see it destroyed and her people murdered. This has been a weight on Amaya for so long, her decision to finally say “Screw history!” and save her village comes packed with emotional power, and for such a dark story to end on a moment of such triumph makes for a wonderful payoff. And while the story touches on what all this means for the romance between Nate and Amaya, the final resolution to that is still to come.

Everything this episode does that depends on character development and emotional connection is allowed to progress naturally without feeling rushed. Instead, all the frantic pacing is given to the episode’s goofier, action-oriented elements: demonic transformations, battles with psychic gorillas, getting life advice from a future president, and, of course, meeting John Noble.

The idea that, in order to manipulate Nora, Ray needs to shrink down, fly into her ear, and pretend to be Mallus speaking to her, is already pretty silly. But what sets Legends of Tomorrow apart from the other Arrowverse shows, or any other superhero show out there, is that they don’t try to justify this silliness with a voice modulator that makes Ray sound like Mallus. No, they double down on how ridiculous it is by having the Legends notice that Mallus sounds exactly like Denethor from the Lord of the Rings movies. Which, of course he does, because they’re played by the same actor. So Ray travels back to 1990’s New Zealand and gets John Noble, the actor who voices Mallus, to read some lines that Ray will record and use to impersonate Mallus.

I almost couldn’t believe that was happening as I watched it. It’s such an audacious move, and it is what makes Legends my favorite Arrowverse show hands down. That we can have all those solid emotional beats I mentioned earlier as well as this insane meta-fictional twist, plus a talking gorilla in a jar? This is truly the best time in the world to be a superhero fan.

 

Stray Observations:

  • I’m not sure what commentary on current events, if any, is meant by having Oliver fire the people investigating his criminal activities and getting obstruction of justice charges brought against him.
  • Are Diaz and Laurel going to get high together off of Vertigo, or is there something more important in that vial?
  • I had a lot of negative stuff to say about Arrow this week, but I will admit, the fight scenes are still top notch. John and Oliver’s brawl in the Arrow cave was very real and brutal, and them fighting as a duo in the Vertigo lab was full of great moments
  • Black Lightning also had a fantastic superhero tag-team fight. Whenever Jefferson and Anissa are in the field together, they’re pure awesomeness.
  • Here’s how you know Gambi is a trained spy. The Pierces went back to their regular jobs without taking any measures to hide from the ASA, while Gambi has continued to work out of the basement of his tailor shop, but he put a “We’re Closed” sign up in the window. Genius!
  • On Legends, Mallus was extra creepy while possessing Nora. Slithering back and forth like a snake, putting way too much pleasure into the word “flesh”, just real great stuff.
  • Damien Darhk, summing up what makes Legends so great: “Is that a joke plan or a real plan?”
  • I know a lot of people thought it was too cheesy and didn’t make much sense, but screw it, I laughed hard at “Make America Grodd Again!”
  • Maise Richardson Sellers’s old age makeup, though? Yeah, that was rough.
  • I’m also not sure how to feel about Mallus’s true form. One the one hand, it’s kinda hokey. On the other hand, it’s kinda the good kind of hokey (if you listen to the AfterBuzz TV aftershow for Legends, they describe it as basically a heavy metal album cover demon come to life). On the other other hand, just being a large CGI monster isn’t too intimidating when we saw the Legends beat down another large CGI monster this very episode.
  • The fight with Grodd was pretty awesome, though. The effects work on him seems to get better every time he shows up.

 

MVP of the Week: Damien Darhk.

Legends - John Noble (Damien)

Neal McDonough has always been a blast as Damien the moustache twirling villain who delights in his own evil, but here he brings genuine pathos to the role. The scene where he says goodbye to Nora, knowing he might never see her again, and has to act like it doesn’t bother him . . . I got all misty eyed.

 

Question of the Week: Since all the Arrowverse shows have been renewed for another season, who would you like to see be the villain of next season’s big crossover?