This Week In The Arrowverse: 01/28/2019 – 02/03/2019: “Suicide Squa-”

Supergirl 4×11: “Blood Memory”, Arrow 7×11: “Past Sins”, and The Flash 5×12: “Memorabilia” reviews

This week marks a big milestone. If you add together every episode of Arrow, The Flash, Constantine, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, then this week’s Arrow is the 400th Episode of the Arrowverse!

This makes the Arrowverse one of the largest sci-fi/fantasy franchises on American television. It’s still got a ways to go before it catches up to long-running franchises Star Trek, Power Rangers, and the Hanna-Barbera Shared Universe, or to soap operas Passions and Dark Shadows. But this still puts its episode count ahead of the massive Stargate franchise, and the Arrowverse has even surpassed its own predecessor, the DC Animated Universe. For a franchise that’s been on the air less than seven years, that’s mighty impressive.

And you can expect that episode count to keep on growing, because this week the CW renewed all the Arrowverse shows for next season. If that Batwoman series gets picked up, then by this time next year, we might very well be celebrating five hundred episodes of the Arrowverse. Hell of a time to be a superhero fan, ain’t it?

Supergirl - Blood Memory

Supergirl 4×11: “Blood Memory” review

Last week I praised Supergirl for adding an uncharacteristic level of subtlety to its writing. Well, this week I have to praise it for fixing another of its chronic writing problems: the ham-fisted way it handles social and political commentary.

Addressing topical issues has always been part of Supergirl. Even before the first episode aired, the show’s marketing was stressing the feminist nature of a female-led superhero series. Since then, the show has delved into racism, gun control, homosexuality, immigration, and a host of other controversial topics, always with a message it wants to deliver, and always with its heart in the right place.

And always with the grace of a sledgehammer.

When Supergirl characters deal with a hot-button issue, it rarely feels like these are real people who have to grapple with these problems the same way you or I might. It’s always thunderingly transparent that the characters are addressing these issues because the writers want to address them, and the characters are just their mouthpieces for doing so. There are times I half-expect Melissa Benoist to turn to the camera and say, “Alright, class, today we’re going to learn a lesson about . . . (checks notes) . . . homophobia and the Hispanic experience. That’s two important subjects, so pay extra attention.”

When characters discuss real world issues, they’ll either use the same abstract terms you might hear in a freshman academic debate, or they’ll recite political memes straight off of Twitter, whether or not they make sense in context. Or, if it’s the first couple seasons, Cat Grant might launch into a bizarre rant on the subject, apropos of nothing. It never feels like a real, natural conversation.

And when characters have a profound, personal experience with being a refugee, or coming out of the closet, or suffering racism, it rarely feels specific to those characters. Instead, it’s clearly meant as an example of the broader immigrant/gay/minority/what-have-you experience, the sort of thing that might happen to anyone who belongs to those groups. Characters are used to tell stories about these experiences, rather than the experiences being used to tell stories about these characters.

This doesn’t always result in bad television. Some of Supergirl’s finest episodes have done all of these things. But it does result in stories that feel a bit less natural than you might like. The more aware you are that what you’re watching is the product of writers with a message, the harder it becomes to lose yourself in the reality of the story. Once you notice the strings holding up the rocket ship, it’s hard to pretend it’s not just a model.

That’s what makes this episode such a refreshing surprise.

Nia Nal is a transgender woman. Being a transgender woman is central to her story this episode. Yet it never feels like this episode is about being a transgender woman. This episode is about Nia Nal, and her story this week is too complicated, to specific to her as an individual, for such a broad and simplistic label to do it justice.

Tell someone the episode’s premise is “transgender person keeps a secret from her family”, they’re going to expect a very specific sort of story. But rather than go the predictable route, this episode draws upon the many stories that have been told about family legacies, about mystical powers possessed only by women, and about strife between siblings. It puts Nia into that sort of story, and allows her transgender identity to influence and inform how it plays out, creating a story unique to her.

In this episode, we’re shown how, despite their supportive attitude, Nia’s family still, on some level, thinks of her as a man rather than a woman, and how Nia herself has perhaps internalized this view. But this is not the end-all, be-all of the story. Rather, it’s used to explain why neither Nia nor her family expected her to gain their clan’s dreaming powers, which can only be inherited by women. It’s both an expression of the transgender experience, and a story of someone grappling with a family legacy they never wanted or expected, creating something far more distinct and interesting than either would have been on its own.

When Nia’s sister lashes out at her, saying “You’re not even a real woman”, it’s coming from a place of prejudice, yes. But it’s also coming from a place of envy and grief, as Maeve blames Nia (however irrationally) for stealing her destiny, and (with somewhat more justification) for not preventing their mother’s death. It’s unlikely that anyone, transgender or otherwise, has ever been through something exactly like that. Yet that complicated confluence of emotions, specific to these two characters and what they’ve been through this episode, feels more real and more devastating than if it had been designed to be as broadly archetypal as possible.

Now, I don’t want you to think this was an amazing episode of Supergirl. It’s solidly in the middle of the pack for the season so far. But going in expecting Supergirl’s usual blunt force approach to topical issues, I was ready to cringe my way through most of the runtime. That we instead got something more nuanced and naturalistic, it’s not only a surprising treat, but it shows that Supergirl is capable of handling these important issues without descending into ham-fisted speechifying. Given this season’s story arc is built around topical commentary, that’s an encouraging sign.

Stray Observations:

  • While the writing for Nia and her family was good this week, the plotting was a real mess. There’s the ever -changing distance between National City and Parthas (at the start of the episode, they’re far enough apart that Nia was planning to make the trip by plane; by episode’s end, the DEO makes the drive like they’re just going to the suburbs). There’s the way gamma rays released by Kara’s doppelganger in Kaznia just happen to travel around the globe and affect some pills in National City, and some Children of Liberty just happen to take those pills to Parthas the same day that Supergirl’s visiting. And then there’s the way Nia’s mother dies. Despite the dream foreshadowing, her death by spider-bite comes out of frickin’ nowhere, and it’s never explained if that was an incredibly poisonous spider, or if she’s deathly allergic to spider-bites, or what. (I was expecting the spider to have been planted by the Children of Liberty, but no one in the show seems to consider that possibility; though I suppose they could always retcon that in later if they want to give Nia a revenge storyline).
  • Seeing Brainy be the most obvious narc in the universe was funny, as you’d expect. But the way the other characters react to him, it seems like his frat bro act was supposed to be legitimately convincing, which . . . no.
  • You gotta wonder what the last decade plus of Alex’s life looks like in her head. What does she remember of fighting alongside Supergirl? Who does she think Kara’s real parents are? Will it ever strike her as odd that she can’t remember seeing her sister without her glasses on?
  • Kara makes a big point this episode about telling the truth, even if the people you tell it to will be upset at first, and reveals her secret identity to Nia. But Lena? Nah, we can’t tell Lena. That’s totally different. Because reasons.
  • So it seems like Lena’s superpower research isn’t exactly legal. What I’m unclear on is whether this is new information for James, and if it is, why he didn’t at least ask Lena a few questions about it before killing the story.

Arrow - Past Sins (2)

Arrow 7×11: “Past Sins” review

If you wanted to describe what Arrow’s about in two words, “Past Sins” would be a pretty good choice, behind only “Gritty Superhero” and “Warehouse Fights”.

Making up for the sins of the past (both his father’s sins as well as his own) is the reason Oliver became the Green Arrow, yet along the way he’s acquired more and more sins that need atoning for, creating a cycle without end. No matter how much he proves he’s become a better man, a hero who has literally saved the world multiple times, there’s always someone out there looking to make him suffer for the things he’s done.

Sam Hackett’s revenge plan is a few leagues shy of those cooked up by Deathstroke or Prometheus. Despite some nifty electrotechnics, he’s not a villain to inspire incredible dread or break our hero down piece-by-piece. But he represents something important for Oliver, a reminder that, as much as he tries to atone for his and his father’s sins, there are people out there hurt by them that he’s never even thought of before. And now that Oliver is unmasked and working in the public eye, he’s exposed himself to them in a way he never has before.

But this episode reaffirms that, for all its dangers, this new transparency is better than hiding sins in the shadows. By owning up to the truth of what happened on the life raft, he may not have convinced Hackett to abandon his vendetta, but he earned the respect of Emiko, another victim of Robert Queen that Oliver never knew of.

We see a variation of this with Laurel, now convinced an old victim (her first victim) from Earth-2 is hunting her down. While Laurel is unlikely to ever go public with the fact that she’s a criminal doppelganger, this story stresses the need to be honest with someone about what happened and what she’s going through. Had she kept her past sins to herself, she would have killed that man, wrecking the new life she’s built for herself, all to stop a threat that doesn’t exist. And if she hadn’t opened up to Felicity about why she first went down the path of violence, why she blamed herself for her father’s death, she never would have gotten to hear the words “It’s not your fault”.

It’s unlikely these characters will ever reach some final atonement for sins. So long as the series continues, new victims and new grievances will keep coming out of the woodwork, in whose eyes none of the good that they’re trying to do now will make a difference. But while that will never change, this episode at least proposes a healthier way of dealing with it, something beyond simply enduring attacks and fighting from the shadows.

Stray Observations:

  • Laurel and Felicity’s bromance continues to be an utter delight. The moment where Laurel realizes that Felicity called her up, not for another favor exchange, but simply to hang out, was the sweetest thing ever. These actors have been on the show for seven seasons, and we’re only just now seeing how great their chemistry is together.
  • Isn’t one of the police officers we see this episode Curtis’s boyfriend? It’s been forever and a day since he’s even been mentioned.
  • Sam Hackett being an electrical engineer, and therefore able to turn a whole police station into an electrified death trap, is exactly the right level of pulpy nonsense for Arrow. Not remotely realistic, but at least explained through a kind of science that actually exists, as opposed to, “Eh, dark matter can do anything.”
  • Thinking on it, though, why did Hackett need to hold a police station hostage just to get to Oliver? Can’t be that hard to find the guy’s home address.
  • The Suicide Squad Ghost Initiative breakout scene was exciting, though it got a little too obvious that we were only seeing characters’ backs to hide the stunt doubles.
  • So Curtis can just whip up a neural interface virtual reality program over the course of a commercial break? Silly, but I’ll allow it, because as John says, seeing Diaz get the smugness wiped off his face is just that satisfying.
  • The new Squad Initiative lineup is Ricardo Diaz, Cupid, China White, and “Spawn of Slade”. Eh, not the worst lineup. Any chance we can get King Shark in there?
  • I know it’s not remotely likely, but it would be amazing if the “Dante” that’s being hyped up turns out to be Neron from Legends of Tomorrow. Both are shadowy manipulators with control over top-level U.S. Defense/Intelligence departments, and you just know that when demons are asked to choose a codename, about a third of them choose “Dante” (the others go with either “Alistair” or “B.L. Zebub”).

The Flash - Memorabilia (2)

The Flash 5×12: “Memorabilia” review

Start of episode:

“We have an actual plan to stop Cicada.”

End of episode:

“We need to find another way to stop Cicada.”

I hate to repeat myself, but when reviewing a series that repeats itself so much, it’s kind of inevitable. Yet again, our heroes have come up with a plan to stop the season’s Big Bad. And yet again, it fails miserably, forcing them to try a different plan next week. And the week after that, and the week after that, till sometime in late May or early June this story arc finally gets put out of its misery.

That The Flash remains stuck in this pattern of drawn out storytelling is frustrating as all get out. But during this episode, I realized that maybe watching The Flash for the big “how will they stop the bad guy?” plot is the wrong approach. Because while most everything in this episode is part of Team Flash’s plan to stop Cicada, he’s not really the focus of the story. He doesn’t even appear outside of a few memory fragments, and far more attention is paid to our heroes’ relationships with each other than to the serial killer they’re ostensibly pursuing.

What Cicada is, in this episode at least, is a MacGuffin: an object introduced into the story so the characters have something to chase after and fight over, but which the audience isn’t expected to have any interest in. And if you go in with that mindset, not expecting the Cicada plot itself to be interesting, but merely a pretext for our heroes’ latest adventure, then “Memorabilia” is a damn fine episode.

The plot may have gone in a big circle, but the character moments shine bright. Seeing the whole gang ice skating, or Ralph taking Cisco to a bar, or the West-Allens playing Scrabble: these are the sort of cheerful, low-key friendship moments that have made these characters worth coming back to all these years. And when Nora, Iris, and Barry go on their Inception-style adventure, they may be doing it to stop Cicada, but the real reason it’s here is so Nora and Iris can finally confront the roots of their frosty relationship and overcome it.

Friendship, family, and saving the day through sappy personal growth: those have always been at the core of The Flash. A more interesting villain with a more dynamic plot would be greatly appreciated, sure. But as long as it gives us an excuse to watch these characters hang out together and work through their problems, maybe it’s okay to treat stopping the bad guy as more of a garnish to the whole thing.

Stray Observations:

  • This episode pulled out two pretty awesome twists. Grace being aware of her uncle’s actions and 100% behind everything he’s done as Cicada was a creepy-as-hell reveal, and subverts expectations of the bad-man-and-innocent-child dynamic. Then there’s the reveal that Nora and Grace’s memories are clouded by their own desires and preconceptions, which was a nice way of having the characters’ personal growth and their solution to the problem at hand flow together.
  • Seeing Ralph try to show Cisco a good time was really sweet. But that was totally a lesbian bar he took him to, right?
  • We got a lot more of excited, adorable Barry Allen this week. First at the ice rink, then when he goes gaga over the Flash Museum. Seeing him geek out over Flash merch reminds me why I like this guy.
  • While setting up the brain-linking machine, Caitlin says it should be perfectly safe “as long as Grace’s unusual brain damage doesn’t cause any unforeseen risks”. Which . . . has she never heard of jinxing something before?

 

MVP of the Week: Sherloque Wells

The Flash - Sherloque

While he may be named for Sherlock Holmes (and even has his own Watson Watsune), he’s proving to be more of a Hercule Poirot: a genius who uses his status as a “funny foreigner” to make people lower their guard while he uncovers their secrets. Seeing him play cat and mouse with Nora, laying a trap for her with his Inception machine, but not springing it fully just yet, adds an extra layer of intrigue to everything.

Question of the Week: What’s your favorite example of characters spending an episode inside someone’s mindscape or inside a virtual reality program?