This Week In The Arrowverse: 11/26/2018 – 12/02/2018: “No Shipping The Inmates!”

Supergirl 4×07: “Rather the Fallen Angel”, Arrow 7×07: “The Slabside Redemption”, Legends of Tomorrow 4×06: “Tender Is the Nate”, and The Flash 5×07: “O Come, All Ye Thankful” reviews

I apologize if that header image is too spoilery, but I couldn’t resist the image/quote synchronicity.

But there’s more than just great loves reuniting this week! We’ve also got fireworks in the sky, James Taylor music, cyclones made of lightning, and human beings used as piñatas! All good fun!

 

Supergirl - Rather Fallen Angel

Supergirl 4×07: “Rather the Fallen Angel” review

This was a very talky episode of Supergirl.

By this, I don’t simply mean that there was a lot of talking in it, but that the talking was the whole point of the episode. There was a plot, yes, but rather than the dialogue serving to advance the plot, for most of the episode the plot was merely a thin pretext to facilitate the characters having dialogues with each other.

James begins the episode already kidnapped by the Sons of Liberty, and remains kidnapped until the climax. He makes one brief escape attempt, but otherwise his role in the episode is simply to have conversations with his captors about what he is and is not willing to compromise.

Kara and Manchester have the most plot heavy chunk of the episode, but their detective work is little more than Manchester leading Kara right to the clues they need without any hassle. Until the big twist in the third act, it’s just an excuse to have these two interact and contrast their different approaches to fighting the bad guys.

And to Lena goes the most plot-lite of the three storylines. Ostensibly, she’s performing the first human trial of her superpower formula on Subject 0331, but she doesn’t even get around to giving him the first injection until the episode is almost over. And almost immediately after that he dies off-screen. More than any of the others, this “plot” is only there so these two characters can have discussions about morality and who they are as people.

Now, this didn’t have to be a bad thing. Some of television’s finest hours have consisted of little more than two or three people having a long conversation: Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant”, The Twilight Zone’s “The Obsolete Man”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Conversations with Dead People”. But those were television programs renowned for their mastery of unique and engaging dialogue. While Supergirl has its strengths, dialogue is not one of ‘em.

Occasionally the show can manage some amusing banter and few good one-liners, but when the dialogue turns serious, or worse yet, tries to be profound, the best it can ever manage is “serviceable”, relying on the actors to do the heavy lifting to make the dramatic scenes work.

Supergirl is just too fond of having characters baldly state what their motivations are and what issues they’re dealing with. And not in the grand, theatrical style that a writer like Rod Serling might bring to a script. More like the writers know what they want to convey about the characters or the themes of the episode, and can’t think of any way to get that across other than to have the cast explicitly state those themes in the simplest possible terms.

That word, “simple”, is a big part of the problem, too. Especially when dealing with issues of morality (as this episode does), Supergirl only ever wants the simple answer. It may toy with good guys crossing a moral line, or bad guys having an understandable motivation, but in the end will always revert to simple and easily labeled good guys and bad guys. Even Manchester Black this week, the closest Supergirl has come to having a full-on antihero, conveniently slots himself into bad guy territory when he goes beyond using extreme violence against the Children of Liberty, and leads Kara to her likely death, all while explicitly stating his goal is only to assuage his own pain and anger, not any higher concern of justice. By episode’s end, Kara can say, “Manchester Black is bad”, and despite her own hemming-and-hawing, have the episode thoroughly back up this simplistic sentiment.

Between the dialogue’s refusal to engage in subtext, and the show’s clean-cut view of good and evil, an episode that’s little but characters having dialogues about good and evil was doomed to fail.

You can feel this failure most keenly in Lena’s storyline. It’s easy to imagine how, in a different show, with a stronger ear for dialogue and a more nuanced view of human failings, this could have been an amazing story, the kind that Emmy Awards are made for. Two strangers, brought together under unusual circumstances, the fate of one’s life and the other’s soul to be decided, the two gradually opening up to each other in ways they never could to friends or family.

But for such a story to work, the dialogue and performances must be absolutely top notch, to make us believe such a meaningful connection can be forged in such a short span of time, and to make the things they discuss feel worth so much attention. Supergirl is simply not up to that challenge.

It tries for pathos and deeper themes as both Lena and Subject 0331 express their own belief that they are bad people, undeserving of such a momentous undertaking. But because Supergirl doesn’t believe in anything other than “good guys” and “bad guys”, when Lena and 0331 recount their great sins, the reasons they believe themselves to be so awful, it comes across almost like humblebragging. They castigate themselves for things no reasonable person would ever blame them for, making you wonder, if these are the worst things they’ve ever done, what unimpeachable saints they must be.

And, because Supergirl is so laser-focused on clearly stating its themes, little of the dialogue that passes between Lena and 0331 is allowed to feel natural. When Lena shares her backstory, it doesn’t feel like she’s talking to another character in the scene; it feels like the lights should dim, a spotlight should be put on her, and she should turn to face the audience to deliver her dramatic monologue. And without a true master of hyper-stylized dialogue at the helm (which I’m certain describes no one in the Supergirl writers room), having characters engage in such frank discussions about their moral worth, the kind you’ll never hear anyone have in real life, makes believing in their emotional journey difficult to impossible.

(Adding to the problems: the actor playing 0331 just wasn’t very good. That was a surprise, since casting good actors in each role is one of the few things Supergirl is reliably awesome at. I suppose, when they know the character is only going to appear in the C-plot of a single episode, the casting department doesn’t feel like bringing in their A-game.)

You get a glimpse, just a glimpse, of what this story could have been in Lena’s closing scene. Recording the results of her first human trial, she reveals to the audience that Subject 0331 (or, as we’ve come to know him by now, Adam) died mere minutes after receiving his treatment. There are no other actors in the scene, and the nature of a research log demands that her words not openly address her emotions or the moral issues raised by these events. There’s only Katie McGrath’s performance, and the facts of what happened.

Through her face and the quaver in her voice, McGrath paints a picture of Lena’s feelings so beautifully, that adding dialogue addressing those feelings would only detract from the scene. And, just as telling, despite all the anguish evident in McGrath’s performance, Lena decides to continue with the human trials. She doesn’t walk us through her reasoning, or exposit on what her motivation is. We can see how these events have affected her, and through her actions, we can understand how she’s chosen to deal with it; we don’t need to be told.

That scene has beauty and emotional power to it unlike anything else in the episode, because the circumstances of the scene forced the writers to abandon their usual compulsion to tell instead of show. If the writers could bring some of that restraint to other scenes, then not only Lena’s storyline, and not only this episode, but Supergirl as a whole would be all the better for it.

Stray Observations:

  • Since I mentioned the rare acting slip-up made with Subject 0331, let me mention that David Harewood’s acting at the end of the episode was phenomenal.
  • For all the dialogue-heaviness of the episode, the ending action set piece was pretty cool. That the power dampeners, well, dampen Kara’s powers, but don’t completely turn them off like flipping a switch, makes for a much more exciting escape and rescue sequence.
  • James talks a lot about how acquiescing to Agent Liberty’s demands will hurt his reputation, but not about the effect it will have rallying more people to Agent Liberty’s cause. Whether that outweighs saving someone’s life in the here-and-now, that is a moral issue that could have merited some discussion.
  • One of Kara’s most endearing characteristics is not just that she loves food, but how disgustingly indiscriminating she can be with it. Latest evidence: a thrice-cooked turkey potpie.
  • Smart move on Lena’s part introducing herself as Dr. Kiernan. Any test subject who’d be cool with getting injected with a superpower serum by a scientist named Luthor is probably not the sort of person you wanna give superpowers to.

 

Arrow - Slabside Redemption (4)

Arrow 7×07: “The Slabside Redemption” review

Almost two years. If you add an extra couple weeks, it has been two whole years since Arrow last gave us an episode that was truly, unimpeachably, outstanding.

Two years ago, Season 5 of Arrow gave us the amazing back-to-back episodes “Invasion!” (the 100th episode, a beautiful, haunting love letter to the show’s history) and “What We Leave Behind” (the mid-season finale, with some of the best action the show has ever done, and a gut-wrenching ending that established the sheer manipulative evil of Prometheus). While the rest of Season 5 remained a good season of Arrow, there were no more episodes to rival those two, and there certainly weren’t any in Season 6, not even Arrow’s portion of the Earth-X crossover. Not until now.

It’s taken two years, but Arrow has finally reminded us, not just that it can be a good show, but that, on occasion, it can be a great one.

You can tell that, in crafting this episode, the people behind the show knew they were making something special. This isn’t just the latest installment in the ongoing saga of Arrow, one that happens to contain some major plot developments. They took Oliver’s release from prison and his (seemingly) final confrontation with Diaz, and made them an event.

The basic plot isn’t too remarkable. This type of story (half-Die Hard, half-The Warriors) is very much in Arrow’s wheelhouse. We all knew Oliver would get out of prison eventually, so seeing it happen here isn’t exactly a surprise. And Diaz has been made into such a joke of a Big Bad that, while seeing Oliver finally defeat him is satisfying, it’s hardly a reason to watch in its own right.

What elevates this story, what makes it not just the best episode of the last two years, but among the best episodes Arrow has ever produced, is just how much focus it is given.

There are no subplots to distract from the main story; while Turner and Stanley do have their own stuff going on, until the close of the episode, they only appear in scenes with Oliver, and only advance their stories in ways that help advance his. There are no flashforwards to Future!Roy and Future!William. There are no scenes set outside Slabside Penitentiary. And, other than two wordless cameos at the end, there are no appearances by anyone else in the main cast; only Oliver and Diaz, and the battle between them.

This sort of focus, telling a single story, in a single location, using such a small cast of characters, is unprecedented for Arrow. There are logistical reasons why such episodes are rare. The main cast gets paid for every episode of the season, whether they appear in all of them or not, so leaving most of them out of an episode is a waste of money. It also places a greater burden on the actors who do appear in the episode. There were only a handful of scenes this week that didn’t feature Stephen Amell, and he spends much of his screentime engaging in stunt work while covered in makeup to convey Oliver’s mounting injuries. And, given the trashing many of the Slabside sets got this week, it’s a good thing they didn’t have to clean them all up before filming the next episode on the docket.

So I can understand why creating such a focused and intense episode is not something Arrow can do on the regular. But that makes me all the more grateful that, for this episode, they went through that effort and expense to make this episode something special.

“The Slabside Redemption” wastes little time getting to the meat of the story. We begin on Oliver’s last day in prison, with the hassle and formalities of getting him released already taken care of. And not long after, we have Diaz arrive at the prison, having already arranged his own release. And after he makes his presence known to Oliver, he immediately seizes control of the prison to enact his final revenge.

The stakes are laid out. The setting of the game, and the players on the board, are made clear to us. And with those elements in place, the episode just goes, launching forward with undaunted intensity, and maintaining it for its entire runtime. We never cut away to break the tension; even when we go from a fight scene to a quieter moment, it’s always with a clear sense that the situation is getting more desperate, the clock ticking closer to doomsday. There’s nothing to distract us, no other story threads we need to keep in mind; just the story of Oliver and his Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

This intense focus doesn’t only make the episode a mounting powder keg of adrenaline, but it creates room for greater care to be put into all parts of the story.

Some of these are big moments. There are lovingly long fight scenes that take every advantage of Slabside’s geography, like the amazing single-take tracking shot that follows Oliver and Turner as they tear through inmates on two separate levels of the prison. There are repeated scenes of intense brutality against the guards, further driving home what’s at stake. There’s the reunion between Oliver and Felicity, played without words as they take in the sight of each other before rushing into an embrace.

But there are also smaller moments, more subtle moments, that add something extra to each scene. A shadow passing over Oliver’s face as he talks to Stanley. A closeup on Brick as he bleeds to death. A moment where Diaz stands between two doors, one to the outside and freedom, one to take him deeper into the prison, and chooses between.

These are moments you might not have gotten in a conventional episode of Arrow. There would be other plots to advance, other characters to service. Anything not strictly necessary to the story would need to be trimmed so that everything else could fit. But without those moments, “The Slabside Redemption” could not hope to be even half as powerful as it is, could not have such care and attention paid to making every scene the best version of itself.

This isn’t a season premiere or finale, or even a mid-season premiere or finale. It doesn’t commemorate a milestone. It’s not the last appearance of a beloved character. It doesn’t deliver shocking twists that will change everything forever. It’s simply the defeat of a villain most of us were ready to see gone, and the end to a status quo that we all knew couldn’t last much longer.

This didn’t have to be a special event, didn’t demand that so much extra effort be put in, from the actors to the writers to the directors to the stunt crew. But they did put in the effort, they did make it an event. And it was the best episode Arrow has had in long, long time.

Stray Observation:

  • Now, I’ve ranted against Diaz as much as anyone. I’ve always said he seemed like a one-episode villain that the writers decided, inexplicably, to make the Big Bad of a whole season (and part of the next). He’s in no way capable of handling such an important role, and I certainly don’t buy him as the most dangerous person Oliver’s ever fought. But if he’s a one-episode villain, then this one episode, where he throws everything he has into a self-destructive vendetta and almost scores the big win, is probably the best possible use of him.
  • Prison guard piñata is one of the most brutal things we’ve seen on Arrow for quite a while.
  • I’m not good at picking out when a character in a fight scene is being played by their actor and when it’s a stunt double (and I deliberately try to avoid noticing such things). But if Amell did even a fraction of the stunt work this episode, then he really went above and beyond.
  • Brick and Sampson are dead, but Diaz is presumably still alive (I was a little unclear on that, though; head-leaves-bloody-smear-against-wall has been used as a “He’s dead, Jim” cue on a lot of shows).
  • I’ve been informed that in the comics, Stanley Dover (a.k.a. The Star City Slayer) is an obscure Green Arrow villain. Ha, I’m just kidding; all Green Arrow villains are obscure!

 

Legends - Sara's Sexy Birthday Surprise

Legends of Tomorrow 4×06: “Tender Is the Nate” review

Sometimes, you just need to laugh.

Legends of Tomorrow knows this. It has never been, and likely never will be, a pure comedy. Action and drama are key parts of its DNA. But in “Tender Is the Nate”, it’s clear that comedy is king. There may be a battle with a minotaur, and there may be some bonding going on with the Heywood Boys and the Time Bureau Gals. But it’s clear that, with every turn the story takes, the first thought on the writers’ minds was, “What’s the funniest thing that could happen here?”

This devotion to comedy gives the episode a madcap pace. Characters and circumstances that could have filled a whole episode are done-and-gone in just one or two scenes: long enough for the joke to land, but cut short before the joke can grow stale.

Hunting a minotaur in the Parisian catacombs with Ernest Hemingway by your side? That’s such an amazing concept, you could make an entire movie out of the premise, building up the horror and suspense, the action, and a study of who Hemingway was as a person. Instead, the catacombs are just there for a scene of drunken idiots shooting guns in the dark, and the episode is uninterested in exploring Hemingway beyond taking some digs at his testosterone overdosed persona.

And since those ideas are dealt with so quickly, the episode must pack itself with even more ideas.

Hemingway only gets lightly sketched in as a character? Then triple down on the historical cameos by bringing Salvador Dali and Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald into the mix. And only keep those characters around long enough to make the easy, audience-pleasing jokes about them, then brush them aside, too.

The gang trying to hide Charlie from Nate, and then Charlie having to pretend to be Amaya? Could have easily been a recurring element throughout the episode. Instead, Nate finds out in the first ten minutes, just as everyone’s frantic efforts to hide the truth were starting to grate. And while they tease the idea of Charlie disguising her identity around Hank, that idea’s only there so we can see Charlie do a hilariously awful American accent. Once we’ve heard it, there’s no reason to keep that storyline going, so it’s dropped.

Now, the trapped-in-a-freezer plot at the Time Bureau jail? That does last for a good chunk of the episode, and doesn’t have much action, in the traditional sense, being just three people standing around talking. And had it been just Nora and Ava stuck in a cell together, it might have been a more sober storyline about two people discovering they’re not so different. But Legends of Tomorrow throws Mona in there, too, and whenever things are in danger of getting too heavy, she can instantly defuse things by trying to turn their time together into a party, or by turning what Nora and Ava consider to be tragic pasts into the coolest things she’s ever heard.

That the episode climaxes with Ray being stuck inside an envelope, and Hank singing a minotaur to sleep with “Sweet Baby James” (and the minotaur falling to the ground with the most comedic possible THUD!), is the perfect way to end such a wild hour of wackiness. Even Nate formally bidding his goodbye to the team (albeit in an I’ll-still-be-around sorta way), gets its sentimentality leavened by his enthusiasm for post-mission pizza parties and “Piñata Fridays”.

I know some viewers aren’t fond of how heavily Legends has come to focus on comedy. And there are others who, while happy with the comedy overall, think this particular episode rushed through too many promising scenarios just to get to the next gag. But I find comedy to be something Legends excels at, and comedy generally works best when the pace is as brisk as possible, the next joke landing before the laughter from the previous joke can even subside.

If I may use The Simpsons as an analogy (a reference I’m sure will be unfamiliar to most folks here at the Avocado), “Tender Is the Nate” is a bit like The Simpsons third season episode “Homer at the Bat”. Season 3 of The Simpsons was already a move from the first two seasons’ more grounded, occasionally somber attempts at a family sitcom, to a wilder, wackier, more joke-a-second cartoon. But it was “Homer at the Bat” that really solidified how, if The Simpsons almost completely abandoned emotional or grounded storytelling for an episode, and just focused on being a non-stop joke machine, delivering the most outlandish gags possible, it could be the absolute funniest show on TV. And that episode went over so well, that became the driving force of the show going forward, a period that many fans refer to as its “Golden Age”.

While no individual moment in “Tender Is the Nate” is as wacky as some of Legends’s highlights (killer unicorns, showtune loving aliens, Voltron Beebo), it commits to delivering one gag after another in a comedic barrage like no episode has before. And that the result is such a hilarious episode, such a fantastic piece of dumb goofy fun, I for one won’t be complaining if episodes like this one become the new norm.

Stray Observations:

  • While watching the Arrowverse shows, I’ll write down any lines I hear that sound funny or memorable enough that I might want to quote them in these reviews. For Legends this week, I wrote down so many, I can’t possibly quote them all here, or even choose the best ones, so here are a few quotes chosen at random: “I’m a grown ass superhero!” “Mine’s longer!” “Sounds like classic Legends hijinks to me.” “Assorted condiments. Assorted!” “And hopefully learn some life lessons along the way.”
  • So that workplace/birthday seduction scene . . . all I have to say is: Damn, Caity Lotz. Damn.
  • Okay, two things to say: Jes Macallan’s facial expressions throughout the whole thing are just pure gold.
  • While Mona was fun, there were a few times where her hyperactive nerdery crossed over from “adorkable” to “is there some medication you’re supposed to be on?”
  • This episode seemed to be saying something about how male bonding vs. female bonding. The ladies drink wine, eat sweets, talk about their feelings, and get giddy about opening a love letter. The dudes drink scotch, talk about bullfighting, compare each other’s firearms, and go out to kill somethin’. I’d swear it was intentional, except no characters actually comment on this, and I’m not sure any of the Arrowverse shows are capable of having a theme without stating it out loud.
  • Given how many Britishisms the writers cram into every single line of Constantine’s dialogue, it must have been satisfying for Matt Ryan to do the “I’m American: soccer, yardsticks, ranch dressing” bit.
  • This episode references Nate’s grandfather blowing up in space, within earshot of Hank. Should we assume that, at some point, Hank got filled in on everything that happened with his father traveling through time to protect the Spear of Destiny?
  • That cover of “Sweet Baby James” was as unexpected as it was beautiful.
  • There’s another way this episode being so overstuffed worked to its advantage. Constantine says Ray could walk right off the ship, and no one would notice he was gone. Ray proceeds to walk off the ship, talk to Ava and Mona for a bit, and then he just disappears from the episode. When he finally turns up, stuck inside the envelope delivered to Nora, many viewers (myself included) realized Constantine’s prediction had come true, and there’d been so much going on we hadn’t noticed Ray wasn’t around anymore. Though, that can’t feel good for Brandon Routh, I expect.

 

O Come, All Ye Thankful

The Flash 5×07: “O Come, All Ye Thankful” review

There’s not much to say about this episode of The Flash.

Last week was a pivotal moment for Caitlin Snow and her search for her father. Next week is the 100th episode extravaganza, and the week after that is the much-hyped “Elseworlds” crossover. This week? Pretty business as usual for Team Flash.

There’s a new evil meta in town, who’s single-minded in her pursuit of a specific goal, and exists less as a character and more as a set of powers that the heroes must think their way around (in classic Flash fashion, the answer is to run in circles really fast). We do get the return of Weather Wizard, but he’s not given much to do. And we’ve got the gang celebrating Thanksgiving, but while that leads to some nice humor with Sherloque killing the Thanksgiving mood, it doesn’t go much of anywhere.

The only two things of much note in this episode are Nora starting to resent Barry for always putting himself in danger, knowing it will eventually leave her without him, and us finally seeing the origin of Cicada. But neither is all that compelling.

Nora has legitimate reasons for feeling the way she does, but the way she expresses that makes her feel whiny and a bit bratty in a way she hasn’t till now. Despite her saying that there are other heroes who can pick up the slack if Barry retires, we know that ain’t gonna happen, and by episode’s end Barry will prove that the world needs the Flash and Nora will make her peace with it. It’s a necessary emotional journey for them to take, but it’s just not that interesting.

The same goes for Cicada’s origin story. Most of it’s already been revealed to us by now: the team had already figured out how he got his powers, and that his metahuman killing spree was to avenge that little coma girl. The only surprise is learning that he’s her uncle rather than her father.

Some of the scenes between the two of them are sweet, and serve to humanize his character, but . . . look, I get that it’s not fair to compare this villain origin to the one Agent Liberty got on Supergirl. They’re two different shows, and Agent Liberty got an entire episode devoted to his backstory, while Cicada just gets a B-plot this episode. But I guess Supergirl’s “Man of Steel” has spoiled me, because the bond we see develop between Orlin and his niece feels too rushed to deliver much emotional impact, and at times even lapses into unintentional comedy

The niece telling her uncle, “I hate you, and you hate you, too”? That is way too much emotional insight for a child her age. And that scene at the end where, minutes after the nurse tells him he should blame the metahumans for what happened to his niece, he’s grabbing the superpowered dagger and declaring, “Every . . . meta . . . will . . . DIE!!!” . . . it’s just too goofy for words, and not in the on-purpose way The Flash is normally good at.

Don’t get me wrong, there was a lotta fun stuff in this episode, but it’s mostly the same sort of fun stuff we get from The Flash week-in and week-out. An amusing diversion, but not a whole lot that merits discussion.

Stray Observations:

  • Danielle Panabaker got to steal the show this week, first with the “It’s a pie, it’s not supposed to be a piece of cake” joke (and her adorable post-joke facial expression), then later as Killer Frost delivering a wakeup call to the Thanksgiving sad sacks.
  • While mostly a one note villain, Weather Witch’s blithe attitude towards dropping a truck on her dad, and her “We’re all cool now” response to Team Flash, did at least make an impression. If we don’t get a real Weather Witch vs. Weather Wizard showdown at some point, I’m gonna feel cheated.
  • I’m surprised that not once this episode did Nora raise the obvious concern: if Barry sacrifices his life to save the city now, Nora will never be born, so maybe she should be taking all the big risks, so at least both of their lives aren’t on the line.
  • It’s interesting how The Flash and Legends handle the idea of a superhero quitting the fight. On The Flash, it’s unthinkable; Barry being a hero is so important to so many people that keeping it up is the only responsible thing to do. On Legends, no one worries about how history will survive without Nate, and him leaving to work a desk job is seen as him doing the responsible “adult thing”.
  • One thing I love about how this season is handling its villain is that, so far, the hunt for Cicada has not been dominating the heroes’ lives. There have been a couple episodes where he’s been the main focus, and other episodes where he’s important to the B-plots, but it’s not like with Savitar or Thawne where every episode had the heroes focused on how they’ll stop this new ultimate threat. Team Flash is allowed to focus their attention on things besides Cicada, to put him on the backburner so they can do fun, standalone stories. Heck, this week, they barely even mentioned Cicada until they got the big reveal about him at the end. If the show can keep this balance up, it could be the key to a much less monotonous season.

 

MVP of the Week: Oliver Queen

Arrow - Slabside Redemption (2)

He was pure, unadulterated badass this week.

Question of the Week: What’s your favorite villain origin story in the Arrowverse?