Arrow 7×12: “Emerald Archer” and The Flash 5×13: “Goldfaced” reviews
This week in the Arrowverse, Arrow celebrates its 150th episode, Sherloque Wells gets a new(ish) love interest, and . . . that’s about it. Supergirl was off this week, and Legends of Tomorrow remains on its interminably long hiatus.
So, less work for me! Booyah!
Arrow 7×12: “Emerald Archer” review
For a franchise with over 400 episodes to its name, the Arrowverse hasn’t done many gimmick episodes. There’s been a musical episode, a Groundhog Day episode, a time-stands-still episode, several flashback episodes, and a few villain-centric episodes, but that’s about it.
We rarely get episodes built around a unique gimmick, because episodes are rarely allowed to be just about themselves. An episode may have a “main” story that’s begun and resolved within the hour, but that usually comes saddled with three or four different subplots, most of which are designed as stepping stones in ongoing story arcs. So even if the writers go “What if we told a story set in someone’s dreams?” or “What if we showed what the heroes do when there’s not a crisis to deal with?”, they’re not going to build an entire episode around that concept, because that would leave them no room to do the legwork for other storylines.
That’s how we get “Emerald Archer”, Arrow’s 150th episode, and one that begins with a strong gimmick: an episode presented as an in-universe documentary about the characters.
It’s hardly an original premise. Dozens of television series have done it before; some, such as the original, British version of The Office, have been built entirely around it. But it remains an interesting concept, a way for a long running series to shake itself up and present its story, its characters, and its world in a different way. Sometimes that can mean the sobering realism of “The Interview” from M*A*S*H, or the comedic anachronism of “You Are There” from Xena: Warrior Princess, but however they chooses to play it, changing the format provides an opportunity to do something new.
“Emerald Archer” certainly isn’t unaware of the possibilities the mockumentary format presents. Most notably, it contains “talking head” segments from not just our current cast of characters, but from characters long departed. Since these segments are each less than a minute long, and don’t require any stunt work, established sets, or interactions with other characters, they can be filmed essentially anywhere at anytime. So actors who would normally not be available to travel to the Arrow sets and film a full episode can still be given a brief cameo. That’s how we get return appearances by Quentin Lance, Sara Lance, Thea Queen, Rory Regan, Barry Allen, and even Sin, who hasn’t been so much as mentioned since Season 3. It’s an ingenious way to commemorate a milestone episode without blowing the show’s budget.
The episode also sees some other potential in the documentary conceit, getting a few gags out of characters’ reactions to the camera crew, and filming an action scene entirely from the documentarians’ perspective. But while this format allows the episode to do things it normally couldn’t, it also brings some limitations. The characters obviously aren’t going to discuss their various secrets and personal issues as openly when they know there’s a camera watching, and there are certain scenes it would just not make sense for the documentary crew to be around to record.
But those limitations are part of what makes gimmick episodes so fun. If “Emerald Archer” had committed fully to its mockumentary format, then it wouldn’t have been able to hit all the same story beats as a regular episode. That would force it to tell a very different story from what we normally get, one that doesn’t give us all the scenes we’ve come to expect from an episode of Arrow, and that novelty would have made it special.
That’s not what we got, though, because “Emerald Archer” is not allowed to be just the story of what happens while a documentary crew follows Oliver around. It’s also where we get Oliver telling John about Emiko, and Emiko dropping a similar bombshell on Rene. It’s where William comes home from boarding school and, after some friction with Felicity, admits to getting expelled. It’s where Dinah outs herself to the mayor as Black Canary II. It’s where Team Arrow finally comes back together as a team and gets deputized by City Hall. And it probably had a few other major story points that I’m forgetting about.
Most of that stuff would be improbable, if not impossible, for the documentary crew to have perfect coverage of. But all that stuff has to happen for Arrow’s story arcs to advance; they’re necessary items on the season’s checklist. So instead of fully embracing the mockumentary gimmick, with all its potential and limitations, “Emerald Archer” only sticks to it for the first act, brings it back sporadically in the third act, and pretty much abandons it by episode’s end. The bulk of the episode is shot, written, and edited just like any other episode of Arrow, only with a camera crew standing on the margins.
It creates a frustrating sense of wasted potential, which is perhaps unfair to the episode. Had the documentary conceit been written out entirely, this would still be a darn good episode of Arrow. For a one-and-done bad guy, Chimera is unusually formidable and provides some fantastic fight scenes, and seeing Team Arrow all suited up and in the field together is an utter delight. And most of what we get from the documentary portions is cracking good stuff, from the nostalgic cameos, to the shaky cam view of a fight scene, to John’s reaction to seeing his Season 1 self on camera.
So when you take a good episode, and add a dash of something novel and also good on top, what you get is, in all honesty, a very good episode. But it’s hard to focus on that fact when the episode hints at how much better, or at least how much more distinct and interesting, it could have been.
It’s an episode that makes you wish Arrow, and the Arrowverse in general, were a little less serialized, and a little more free to experiment with episodes like this one.
- Maybe the balance of mockumentary footage to normal footage wouldn’t have felt so bad if the documentary-style stuff was more evenly spaced throughout the episode. Instead, it’s almost all in the first ten minutes, creating a false expectation for what the rest of the episode’s going to be.
- During the non-mockumentary segments, it seemed like the camera work was doing an unusual amount of smoothly gliding around the sets, to make itself look more distinct. Not a bad thing, just interesting.
- Barry was hands down the best cameo. You get the sense that, if anyone ever asked him straight-up, “Are you the Flash?”, his secret identity would collapse in an instant.
- That said, did I squeal a little when Thea showed up on screen? Yes, yes I did.
- How’d the documentary crew get in touch with Sara? She spends most of her time either in the past or in a swirling green void outside of time and space. Not sure how most cell phone plans handle that.
- With all the pro- and anti-vigilante arguments this episode, it’s a nice twist that the bad guy targeting vigilantes is on the pro-vigilante side. He’s just also a nutter who really likes collecting his heroes’ masks.
- Are Huntress and Ragman dead, do you think, or just stashed in a warehouse somewhere like Emiko was? And how did Chimera even beat Ragman, anyway?
- There was a time when Oliver firmly resisted any attempt to give people cool codenames. Now, not only does he just role with Curtis coining the name “Chimera”, but when discussing the New Green Arrow, he’s the one to go, “Oh, we need to come up with a better name immediately.” Our boy’s grown a lot in seven years.
- So, for those of you who didn’t watch or don’t remember Legends of Tomorrow Season 1, they did an episode called “Star City 2046”, showing a future version of Star City that had become (more of) an anarchic hellhole. One of the few people fighting for justice in that future? A new Green Arrow named Connor Hawke, who is revealed to actually be John Diggle, Jr. all grown up. Now, at the end of this episode, the flashforwards show Blackstar talking to a guy named Connor who, checking IMDB, is played by the same actor as Legends’s Connor Hawke. That is a deep cut callback, and creates some interesting possibilities for the flashforwards. But mostly, it reminds me that John Diggle, Jr. is one of the few TV superheroes whose character history is bizarrely convoluted enough to be right at home in the comics.
The Flash 5×13: “Goldfaced” review
For the third week in a row, we have an episode of The Flash that’s all about stopping Cicada.
Ralph & Barry are trying to get a weapon they can use against Cicada. Iris is trying to find out where Cicada is. Even Nora’s attempts to throw Sherloque off her scent are done, partly, so she can continue her secret plan to stop Cicada.
But where the last couple weeks this Cicada focus felt like The Flash retreading some very well-trodden ground, here it didn’t feel like an issue at all. The difference is that, while all the plots are in service of stopping Cicada, none of them are presented as being the silver bullet that will bring him down.
Whenever the heroes execute a plan to stop the Big Bad once and for all, and it’s not the season finale, the only possible outcome is failure. Seeing them fight the main villain yet again isn’t exciting, because you know it’s just going to end with everyone walking away and nothing resolved. But that’s not what happens here. Nothing the characters do this episode is meant, in and of itself, to be what finally stops Cicada, but merely steps they’re taking to get closer to that goal. As such, these plots don’t carry that sense of inescapable futility; the heroes can succeed or fail at their goals this episode without it wrecking or prematurely ending the season arc, making them feel much more alive and dynamic.
Also helping is that this episode shakes up the character pairings a bit. While we got plenty of Ralph & Barry partnering up last season, it’s our first time seeing those two get a plot together in Season 5. Nora & Sherloque have interacted before, but this is the first time a plot’s been built entirely around the season’s new characters. And Iris gets her own solo storyline, which is amazingly rare on this show. Seeing the characters bounce off each other in ways we’re not used to, or (in Iris’s case) handle a crisis without any superfriends for backup, makes the whole thing a lot more fun.
Add in a delightfully over-the-top bad guy, a giant laser tag battle, and an unexpected twist on the Council of Wells concept, and you’ve got yourself a mighty fine episode of The Flash. A tad inconsequential; if you were to skip this episode and just pay attention to the “Previously on The Flash” segments in the weeks ahead, you won’t miss anything crucial. But it’s a good mix of suspense, humor, and a little action. Altogether, a fun romp; not much more to say about it.
- Sherloque Wells always marries Renee Adler. As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I see what you did there.
- Even if Nora didn’t know about Sherloque owing them alimony, or them all being doppelgangers of each other, when trying to help Sherloque with his dating woes, she still says, without irony, “I have asked your ex-wives for help.” I’m about as inexperienced with romance as you can get, and even I know that can’t go well.
- Iris tries sneaking around Cicada’s house without any backup, or seemingly without even telling anyone what she was doing. It made for a tense B-plot, but that was very, very stupid.
- This is the third episode this season to reference Amunet Black, even though she remains MIA. While Goldface was fun, I really do miss her.
- When Barry was trying to tout himself as a big deal criminal called “the Chemist”, I definitely got the sense he was telling himself, “Alright, Barry, you’ve seen Breaking Bad. You can do this.”
MVP of the Week: Goldface
He may not be Amunet, but he’s still a blast.
Question of the Week: What other sorts of mockumentaries would you like to see in these shows?