Supergirl 4×04: “Ahimsa”, Arrow 7×04: “Level Two”, and Legends of Tomorrow 4×03: “Dancing Queen” reviews
This week in the Arrowverse, the Atom becomes a punk rocker, Supergirl becomes a Sentai hero, and the Green Arrow becomes a psychologically broken shell of a man. Fun times all around!
Supergirl 4×04: “Ahimsa” review
Television scripts always have to make compromises with reality. Budgets and deadlines limit what can be achieved. Content must fit the network’s standards and practices. The story must be told in a very narrow time frame, with commercial breaks inserted at appropriate intervals. And, of course, they must work around the availability of actors.
When Season 4 of Supergirl began filming, Melissa Benoist was still busy performing in a play, forcing the writers to come up with a pair of episodes that could be filmed without their lead actor, except for a couple short scenes added in post-production. That’s a considerable obstacle, but last week the Supergirl writers rose to the challenge, delivering a format breaking episode that used Kara’s absence to dive into the villain’s backstory with unprecedented depth.
This week, though? The seams are starting to show.
Kara being confined to protective suit and prohibited from fighting because the air has turned toxic to her: that story could be interesting. Exploring how Kara copes with such restrictive confinement, being unable to help people the way she used to, and with no guarantee that this condition will be temporary. Except doing that would require Melissa Benoist to provide even more voiceover and inside-the-helmet footage to be spliced in later, which runs counter to what this episode was designed to do. So while Kara should be deeply affected by what’s going on, she’s mostly shoved into the background outside of a couple big fight scenes. And with the atmosphere de-irradiated by episode’s end, freeing Kara from her protective suit, this whole interlude feels a tad pointless, existing only to work around behind-the-scenes difficulties, rather than serving any dramatic purpose.
Now, with Kara taking a backseat, the supporting cast come into greater prominence, which could also provide a unique and satisfying story. But the results are . . . mixed.
Lena and Brainy fare the best here. While they don’t get much screentime, and what little they do get is mostly their usual smart-people-coming-up-with-high-tech-solutions stuff, the scene where Brainy has a mini-breakdown over his inability to help Kara, and Lena gives him a crash course in how humans (or, humans like her, anyway) compartmentalize their emotions is very well done. It gives us a clear picture of who these two characters are, how they’re handling this current crisis, and how they help each other through it, without ever feeling like they’re just summarizing their character arcs for the benefit of the audience.
It’s that last part where J’onn and Alex’s storylines this episode fall short. Alex struggling with the responsibilities of command, and J’onn trying to square the anger he feels with his new path of pacifism: those are interesting angles for the characters. And the actors absolutely sell every scene they’re in. But I’ve talked before about how Supergirl is not interested in subtlety, and that doesn’t just apply to its political metaphors.
It’s not enough to have the characters go through these struggles; they need to explicitly state what they’re struggling with, in multiple different conversations, and receive very specific advice on how to get over it. We hear J’onn say how he’s dealing with his anger far more than we actually see that anger come out in his actions, and Alex’s responsibility issues aren’t much better. Their storylines this week have so much telling, and so little showing, that they just can’t be as satisfying as they need to be.
Still, they’re better than James’s storyline, because this week sees the return of Guardian. The episode shows James feeling powerless to help while his friend is in need, and paints his decision to suit up as Guardian as the action of a hero bravely doing what needs to be done, risking his own incarceration just as Kara risks her life and Alex risks her career. Except, as is always the issue with Guardian, the series has never established James’s alter-ego as truly necessary.
The big battle he risks everything to join? It’s a battle that Supergirl, and the DEO, and the police were already fighting. Guardian’s involvement can’t help but feel superfluous, especially when we only get one scene of him in action, running down some mooks with his motorcycle. Nia even tells James, as Winn once did in seasons past, that the work he does running CatCo is important, that he can use his position to help people and improve the world without putting on a costume and personally punching evil in the face. But James blithely ignores that, damns the consequences, and risks everything to become Guardian again. The episode is telling us this is becomes James is a true hero, but instead reinforces the idea that Guardian is less about helping people and more about James wanting to feel relevant when all his friends are off being action heroes.
Overall, while it was not an awful episode of Supergirl, “Ahimsa” marks a sad return to mediocrity after an opening stretch of episodes that did such great work rejuvenating the series.
- While fighting aliens in the police station, it got real distracting that the DEO agents were using nothing but hand-to-hand combat. Did they stick to the “no more guns” thing, but forgot about the new, non-lethal weaponry they were supposed to replace it with?
- Given that Fiona was apparently killed in the season premiere, her turning up alive here, being controlled through an unexplained mechanism involving Parasite, only to die again . . . it feels messy.
- We’re introduced to new character Manchester Black. The actor brings loads of charisma to the role, but his part’s hampered by the same clearly-outline-everything-you’re-going-through problem that J’onn and Alex had.
- Brainy continues to be the comic highlight of the show. Him being concerned for the nanobots’ feelings, and proclaiming “These are tears of logic!”, were easily the best parts of the episode.
- I know I asked for an Otisberg reference, but the one we got really didn’t make much sense in context.
- Like Big Belly Burger before it, Beebo merchandise extends across universes. Praise him!
Arrow 7×04: “Level Two” review
For a while now, Arrow has been making stabs at revisiting or recreating the tone and iconic moments of its first season. Season 5 began with Oliver escaping from a chair and breaking his captor’s neck just like he did in the pilot, and saw return appearances from Lian Yu, the List, and the sordid past of Robert Queen. In Season 6, we got a whole episode devoted to Oliver going back to his original Hood costume and the more ruthless, solo approach to crimefighting he had with it. Now, in Season 7, we return to elements of Season 1, but this time interrogating them more harshly than the show has in the past.
Oliver began his hero’s journey to honor his father’s last wishes, even though we were told and shown that his father was not the sort of honorable man who necessarily deserves such a legacy. And in carrying out his father’s wishes, Oliver became a vigilante who flouted the law and inflicted terrible violence on people, making torture a regular part of his arsenal.
The series has always acknowledged the troubling aspects of this background, but has generally come down pretty solidly on Oliver being, by and large, a force for good. And, to be fair, future episodes will likely cement that interpretation of events, too. But for this episode, the arguments against vigilantism, torture, and the questionable legacy of Robert Queen are treated with a lot more validity than they normally receive.
Oliver getting information from criminals by threatening their lives or stabbing them in the leg is so common throughout the series, it barely raises any eyebrows. But when Felicity considers doing the same thing to track down Diaz, it’s treated as a sign that she’s going too far. Laurel can torture the Silencer, but only because her conscience is already damaged goods, and even she wishes she’d never gone down the path of doing such things. And, of course, torture proves ineffective, and it’s only by thinking outside the bounds of brutality-is-the-answer that can get them a win.
We’ve also seen Oliver come into conflict with the police many times before, and while the show has always recognized that they have a point in not wanting a violent vigilante on the streets, the conflict has always been framed with our sympathy primarily on Oliver. But now, with a new Green Arrow meting out justice, a Green Arrow whose name, face, and motives remain a mystery, the perspective of the conflict has shifted. Instead of the cops’ anti-vigilante stance being thrown in to create problems for our vigilante hero, the vigilante’s presence creates problems for our heroes who are trying to help the city through legal channels.
Rene does start supporting the New Green Arrow pretty quickly, and by episode’s end even Dinah is making some concessions to him. Still, the position that vigilantes hurt the work of the police, who must struggle to regain their credibility in the face of a more dashing and dynamic symbol of justice, is given greater weight than it usually has in the past.
And, of course, we come to the inciting incident. The moment on the life raft when Robert Queen asked Oliver to right his wrongs, before shooting himself in the head. It’s been a long while since Oliver’s main goal was honoring his father’s wishes, yet everything he’s done, everything he’s become, has in one way or another grown from that moment. That this moment occurs immediately after Robert shot another man to improve Oliver’s chances of survival has always been part of the show’s canon, but has rarely been brought up. The only witness to what happened was Oliver, who has many reasons for wanting to ignore his father’s flaws. But under the ministrations of Level Two’s brutal psychologist, Oliver is forced into confronting the implications behind this.
His father was not a good man. Even before the life raft, Robert Queen had failed his family and his city in many ways. That the Queen’s Gambit sank at all is the result of Robert having joined Malcolm Merlyn’s diabolical plans for the Glades. The only hope Robert saw for redemption was to pass the burden of righting his wrongs on to his son. And because of Robert’s choices, Oliver spent five years in hell, forged into a savage killer, and has had to spend the last six years slowly regaining his humanity.
Now Oliver is a father himself, and is forced to imagine himself on that life raft again, not as a son accepting a last gift from his father, but as a father faced with passing on such a toxic gift to his son. And in that moment, he realizes that he would never place such a burden on William, doom him to such misery and damnation, just to correct his own mistakes. He comes to believe that the man he’s become since landing on Lian Yu should have never been made to exist.
As I said, future episodes will undoubtedly walk back some of these critiques of the show’s core premise. The man forcing Oliver to revisit his past is clearly a villain, after all. But Arrow has always been a show that’s paired its superhero adventure with a skeptical eye towards whether any of its characters deserve to call themselves a hero. To question the very foundations of the Green Arrow is not new for this series, but to focus on that aspect so strongly does mean that, even here in its seventh season, Arrow is still finding fresh takes on its original themes, and is all the stronger for it.
- The flashforwards are back, and are painting an interesting portrait of the future (possibly drawing inspiration from Star City 2046 that we saw in Legends of Tomorrow’s first season). It’s also noteworthy that, until the hosen’s tracker brought him back into this crazy life, William appears to have been living the life Oliver wished him to have: he doesn’t know how to fight or fire a bow, and isn’t even a good liar, much less a hardened vigilante.
- Felicity and Original Laurel were never all that close; even as late as Season 3, Felicity had a memorably funny moment where she wondered whether they actually counted as friends. So it’s surprising just how wonderful Felicity and New Evil-ish Laurel are together. They’ve got that buddy cop constantly-sniping-but-grudgingly-respecting-each-other thing going on.
- See the way Dinah and Rene disagree so strongly with each other, to the point where Dinah puts Rene under arrest, but both are allowed to make valid points, and both are able to acknowledge the other is making valid points? That’s what the Old Team Arrow vs. New Team Arrow split last season needed more of.
- If all of Level Two is just prisoners turned into brainwashed zombies, then it doesn’t seem like there are many possibilities for “the Demon” other than the good doctor here. And he’s a suitably sinister presence this episode, masking his mind games with faux-concern, that the moniker seems apt.
Legends of Tomorrow 4×03: “Dancing Queen” review
Legends of Tomorrow has always had a fair bit of sitcom in its DNA. Even the first season, which took itself more seriously, still had the setup of a bunch of people from different walks of life, not only forced to work together, but forced to be roommates with each other, with the friction between them causing at least half of their problems. Now, with Legends fully embracing its own absurdity, we get “Dancing Queen”, an episode that would only need a few tweaks (and shortened runtime) to feel right at home in the long tradition of fantasy/sci-fi sitcoms, from Bewitched to Red Dwarf to The Good Place.
Ray infiltrating The Smell is a classic sitcom staple: a character tries to fit in with a social clique they’re laughably unsuited for. Nate’s Time Bureau subplot is a straight up workplace comedy, with even the fantastical element taking the form of a desk plant turning homicidal, and office supplies used as weapons. And even Constantine’s attempt to prevent his own birth, rather than a dark quest played for high drama, comes off more like a bad idea he had after a pint too many, and devolves into slapstick farce.
It’s all hilarious, well written and brilliantly performed. If Legends wanted to, it could transition into a pure comedy, and it would still be a darn good watch. But while Legends fans (myself included) like to tout its off-the-wall antics and irreverent humor as what makes it so great, like the best sitcoms out there, it also has each episode say something meaningful about its characters, who they are, what they believe in, and where they’re going in their lives. It may not be as flashy as killer plant monsters, or the Queen of England mooning her subjects, but that attention to character is a key part of the alchemy that makes Legends as good as it is.
Ray trying to pass himself off as punk initially seems like a premise created purely for laughs. Of the Legends left aboard the Waverider, not only is he the only one who can’t plausibly fit in with the punk scene, but the very idea seems antithetical to his wholesome, goodnatured, boy scout Eagle scout personality, so of course he’s the one left cozying up to The Smell. But the episode digs deeper, looking at what it means to be a punk, and how well that term applies to each of the Legends.
We’ve had three seasons of the Legends defying logic, causing mayhem, and flipping off authority, so we’re inclined to agree with Sara when she says that everyone on the ship (minus Ray) is a punk. Before leaving the Time Bureau, she even refers to the Waverider crew as “the cool kids”. But we soon begin tearing apart that assumption, seeing how the Legends, in refusing to consider any options for Charlie beyond “send her to Hell”, are letting “the system” control them. They’ve been told that all the fugitives are dangerous monsters, that they have an obligation to put these monsters back in their cage, and aren’t interested in hearing anything that might change that worldview. Now fully deputized agents of the Time Bureau, the Legends have forgotten that authority still needs questioning even when they are the authority.
We see it among The Smell, too, who are ready to go all “punk police” on Ray once they discover he performed in a disco band. Only Ray and Charlie refuse to get hung up on categorizing people. They remind their teammates that they all come from different backgrounds, and have all done things worth regretting, so they shouldn’t be so quick to judge others for the same thing. By treating everyone he meets with earnest empathy, accepting them for who they are as a person rather than stuffing them into a labelled box, Ray Palmer proves to be the most punk Legend of all.
And all that meaningful character exploration came packaged in a story about giving Corgis mohawks to save the British monarchy. God, I love this silly little show.
- “Rage. That’s what they call me, on account of all my various rages . . . against the machine.”
- I don’t know what I love more about John’s abortive attempt at temporal suicide: that, rather than the Grandfather Paradox, Zari refers to it as the “Ball Kick Paradox”; that the paradox doesn’t simply prevent John from kicking his dad’s nards, but teleports him flat on his ass to boot; or that, given Zari’s reaction, she’s obviously seen someone try this exact thing before (my money’s on Mick).
- Zari not doing the end-of-mission friendship talk with John, because they both agree that’d be lame, but still making sure he has a picture of him and his mom together? That is just sweet as pie.
- Charlie is a very fun and interesting character. It’s kinda strange to spend a new main character’s introductory episode with her played by a different actress than she will be the rest of the season, but it kinda works. We’ve seen both Arrow and The Flash replace dead or departed characters with parallel universe doppelgangers so that the actor can stay on the show, and when I heard Maisie Richardson Sellers would be playing someone other than Amaya this season, I figured we’d either get a repeat of that, or we’d meet Amaya’s identical great-great-granddaughter or something. But a shapeshifter who just happens to get her powers neutered while in Amaya’s disco form? That’s the sort of irreverent shenanigans I’ve come to love from Legends.
- It’s unclear what Charlie’s role on the show will be going forward. The Legends might recruit her to the team, or she might end up becoming a recurring antagonist this season (maybe teaming up with fellow fugitive Nora Darhk). I hope she gets her shapeshifting powers back at some point, at least in a limited form, ‘cause there are a lot of fun possibilities there it’d be a shame not to take advantage of. Do you suppose she was able to talk to the other magical beings while they were in that other-dimensional prison together? If so, she might be the most knowledgeable person around when it comes to the other fugitives, which could be interesting.
- I’ve loved Mick and Ray being friends ever since the first season, so the moment at the end when Mick thanks Ray for not letting them become cops, that was just what I needed. Heatwave/Haircut bromance for life!
- There were a lotta little pieces of physical acting this episode that made scenes extra amusing. Sara patting Mick on the back after going over the mission. Zari leaning on the back of her bar seat as she explains the Ball Kick Paradox. Mick stabbing his finger straight down to cut off Ray’s comms. Little touches like that show you what a talented cast this show has racked up.
- So far, every episode this season has had someone tell Nate to just “take the win”. I’m not sure if this is a coincidence, a motif they’re building, or just a phrase that’s become popular in the writers room.
- “Oh, we dare to defy.” I see what ya did there.
MVP of the Week: Rage Palmer.
More punk than you.
Question of the Week: What’s your favorite example of an Arrowverse actor playing a different character from their usual? Could be ‘cause of a shapeshifter, a parallel universe, a body swap, or a simulacrum of them created for a musical themed dreamscape, whatever.