Arrow 7×13: “Star City Slayer” and The Flash 5×14: “Cause and XS” reviews
This week in the Arrowverse, if you’re a fan of the children of superheroes getting some limelight, these are the episodes for you! If not . . . hey, we’ve got a Groundhog Day episode; those are always fun.
Arrow 7×13: “Star City Slayer” review
On a few occasions I’ve referred to The Flash as being a show about family. To a certain extent, that same description can apply to Arrow. But as with most things, its take on the subject has always been darker and more ambiguous than that of its sister series.
For most characters on Arrow, protecting or honoring their family is the key driving force in their life; it’s what’s led so many of them to become heroes. But again and again, the series has questioned whether such an obsession is truly healthy. John Diggle’s efforts, first to avenge, then to redeem his brother Andy brought little but pain to himself and those around him. Quentin Lance repeatedly fell into despair, obsession, and alcoholism as tragedy befell his daughters. Moira Queen let a desire to protect her children drive her to unconscionable actions. Thea Queen put undue faith in her parents, and spiraled hard when she discovered the sort of people they really were.
And Oliver Queen, more than anyone, has shown us time and again how devotion to family can lead to disaster. Of all his myriad character flaws, perhaps the most consistent and deeply ingrained has been his tendency to lose all sense of perspective where his family is concerned. In Season 1, he could have put a stop to the Undertaking long before buildings were crumbling and people were dying, had he only been willing to consider the possibility of his mother’s guilt. In Season 3, he was manipulated into first fighting and then joining the League of Assassins, because the villains knew there was nothing he would not do to protect his sister. In Season 4, he allowed his relationship with Felicity to crumble because, the instant he learned he had a son, that relationship became his priority. And in innumerable other instances, throughout the run of the show, Oliver’s fierce and instinctive desire to protect his family has proven to be his weakness.
This season has introduced a new familial complication for Oliver, in the form of his sister Emiko, and has taken a critical look back at Oliver’s father, the man who sent him down this path of violence. And through the flashforwards, it’s asked us to consider what sort of impact Oliver has left on his own son. That’s a question Oliver is forced to grapple with himself this episode, as every instinct he has tells him to keep his son close, that only he can protect William, even as the facts of their situation say otherwise.
At no point this episode does Oliver compare himself to Stanley Dover, or say that he’s learned something from hearing Stanley’s own obsessive rants about family. It would have felt too cheap, too manufactured had he done that. But the connection is still clear: in Stanley, we see a man so manically obsessed with protecting those he sees as “big brothers”, that he loses all sight of what those “brothers” actually want. He can kidnap them, kill the people they care about, bring their lives to ruin, and still believe he’s doing what’s best for them, so long as they’re both alive and together. From this, Oliver can see how his own desire to keep William in his life, to personally protect and care for his son, may not be what his son wants or needs. Sending William away, not to hide him from others (as he’s done before), but simply to give him some distance from Oliver, runs counter to every instinct Oliver has. That he can bring himself to do it, to accept it with something approaching dignity, is one of the more profound pieces of growth the character has had.
It would be easy to dismiss this plot point as simply a matter of convenience, a way to write William off the show once the writers began to get tired of their hero having a kid around. I have no doubt that was part of the motivation behind it. However, through the flashforwards, we begin to see a bigger picture painted by these events.
Because, as hard as sending William away was for Oliver, what we see of adult William seems to show it was the right call. Future William is wealthy, successful, and aside from referencing a failed romance, relatively angst-free, until a message from Felicity draws him back to this life once more. Meanwhile, we discover that Blackstar is another child of Oliver Queen. We don’t yet know whether Oliver was involved in raising her, but it seems clear she was not shielded from the vigilante life the way William was. And what we see of her is an angry, violent woman, living in abandoned ruins, embroiled in grandiose plans involving the destruction of the city.
The contrast between the two is sharp, and I can’t imagine it won’t be a recurring theme going forward, the two children of Oliver Queen, raised in such different circumstances, becoming such different people. In the present, this episode may be a way to remove William from the proceedings, but for the future, it promises more depth to his story, and the story of Mia Smoak, than we would have thought.
Arrow has long been a show about family, about the extremes it can drive us to, and the sacrifices it demands of us. Part of Oliver’s family may be gone, but in letting William go, he’s realized that there are other ways to care for one’s family than the way he’s always known. And through the flashforwards, we will see how the choices made about family today shape the heroes and villains of tomorrow.
- In addition to writing off William, this episode also wrote out Curtis. If my review treats this as an afterthought, well, that’s pretty much how the episode treated it, too. Curtis has felt a little disconnected from most of the main drama for a while now, so him leaving isn’t that big of a gamechanger. Still, his goodbye could’ve done with a little more oomph. At least let him and Rene actually say goodbye instead of just nod at each other.
- Did you remember that Helix Dynamics was a thing? ‘Cause I sure didn’t. Whatever happened to Felicity’s friend Alena, anyway?
- Between Curtis leaving and Dinah being put out of commission, the Reassembled Team Arrow from last episode sure didn’t last long.
- Between William, Zoe, John Diggle, Jr. and Mia Smoak, you might as well call the flashforwards Team Arrow: The Next Generation. I wonder if that’s the CW’s fallback plan if Stephen Amell decides not to renew his contract.
- The horror movie style of this episode was kinda interesting; it at least made the episode feel different from the norm.
- Since I knew that Stanley was based on a villain from the comics called the Star City Slayer, I was certain from the beginning that he was the villain of this episode. Given that, I wish they’d revealed his identity a lot sooner. Brendan Fletcher put in a good performance as Stanley, but since he only had one real scene to work with, he had to cram a lot of crazy exposition into not very much screen time. Would have liked to have seen more of him parceled out through the episode.
- The fight scene in the future bunker was pretty sweet. They even had Roy busting out some unnecessary parkour. Just like old times.
The Flash 5×14: “Cause and XS” review
In 1993, The X-Files made its debut, and created a new paradigm for sci-fi/fantasy storytelling on television, dividing itself into “Mythology Episodes” and “Monster-Of-The-Week Episodes”. Mythology episodes were all part of single, long-running story, each one drawing upon characters and events from previous mythology episodes, and advancing the story in ways that would affect all mythology episodes to come. By contrast, the monster-of-the-week episodes were just what they sound like: that week’s episode would introduce a brand new monster or other paranormal threat, Mulder & Scully would tangle with it for a bit, and by episode’s end that story would be completely wrapped up, with no impact on any episodes that came before or after.
It’s a model that worked well for The X-Files as it rose to become one of America’s most popular television series. It allowed the show the variety of a pseudo-anthology series, while still having an ongoing story that would keep fans guessing and eager to see what would happen next. Since then, numerous sci-fi and fantasy series used this mythology/monster-of-the-week format to tell their own stories.
However, The X-Files kept its mythology episodes and monster-of-the-week episodes very separate; rarely would the events of a mythology episode affect Mulder & Scully while they investigated a monster-of-the-week, nor would those monsters-of-the-week pop up during a mythology episode. In most series to follow The X-Files, the distinction between the two types of episodes is less clear cut.
Most often, this is the result of using the standalone, monster-of-the-week episodes to still advance the long-term storyline. Maybe the monster-of-the-week’s actions serve to aid the main bad guy’s plan in some way. Or maybe, while they’re dealing with a monster-of-the-week in the main plot, the heroes are also advancing an ongoing storyline in the B-plot. Or it could be as simple as what happens in the monster-of-the-week story has an effect on the characters and their relationships with each other, and that effect carries over into the episodes that follow.
This is how The Flash has usually handled its storytelling. Most episodes have Team Flash fighting some one-off or minor recurring villain, but will still devote plenty of time to long running storylines. Remember when we finally learned how the Reverse Flash first took the place of Harrison Wells, when Barry first began to suspect Dr. Wells’s true identity, and when we got our first reference to the Speed Force? All that happened in an episode that was primarily about stopping the Trickster from causing random havoc.
But in “Cause and XS”, we have the opposite of that. In X-Files terminology, this would be a mythology episode, since it has the heroes going head-to-head with the season’s overarching bad guy, while Barry is busy cooking up the secret formula needed to beat him. Yet in its structure, its style, and its place within the season’s story arc, it’s fundamentally a standalone, villain-of-the-week episode.
The premise is that Barry is going to be out of contact with the team for the next hour, leaving Nora as the speedster in residence. And on her watch, a villain kills a member of Team Flash, so Nora rewinds time, living the same hour over and over again until she can find a way to get everyone through it alive. That makes for a fun, high-concept episode, but one that doesn’t really have anything to do with the arc story.
There’s no reason the villain in question needed to be Cicada. His only role in the episode is to be a powerful bad guy looking to kill the Flash and his allies, which describes a lot of baddies on this show. You could easily rewrite this episode so that, instead of Cicada, we had some random supervillain looking to kill the Flash, and deducing that reporter Iris West had some connection to him. Heck, given how the plot revolves around Cicada using his dagger like a boomerang, this could have been the show’s chance to finally have a version of Captain Boomerang appear.
And aside from the metahuman cure development, which is here used simply as an excuse for Barry’s absence, nothing that happens in this episode progresses the Cicada story in any way; it’s just one more encounter between him and Team Flash that ends with everyone alive and nothing changed. Unless the writers have a major surprise planned, it seems unlikely that this rooftop battle is a necessary stepping stone in the overall Cicada story.
This episode is constructed exactly like a villain-of-the-week episode; it just happens to have the main bad guy of the season plugged into it.
There are some benefits to doing this. Since we already know who Cicada is, what he wants, and what his powers are, the episode can skip over a lot of the exposition that would be necessary if he were a new villain. However, using Cicada also brings some limitations to the story, chief among them being the need to keep him alive and on the loose for future episodes. As awesome as the episode’s climax was, it would have been even more satisfying if, in addition to saving everyone’s lives, Nora also defeated the bad guy. Seeing Cicada take off into the sky to kill some other day, it takes away some of the celebratory mood that scene was going for.
Also, speaking just for myself here, I’m kinda getting tired of Cicada at this point, so using him as the bad guy even when they don’t need to is frustrating.
Now, this was not a bad episode, not at all. It was a fun if not terribly original take on the time loop story, with a lot of good jokes and character work, and a very inventive climax. It just feels like making this episode part of the Cicada story held it back from its full potential.
- Cisco’s plotline . . . look, I’m just not into cringe comedy. During most of his dates with Kamilla, I was putting a hand over my eyes and waiting for it to be over.
- Obviously, this episode was written to give Grant Gustin some time off. But I’m kinda liking that we get these Barry-lite, Nora-centric episodes now and then. As I’ve talked about before, she’s got a lot of the charm of Season 1 Barry, but her insecurity about living up to her superhero mentor/idol (as is on display here) makes her feel distinct.
- I kinda love that Barry’s advice to Nora about slowing down is made literal in the climax, as she needs the rest of Team Flash to physically impede her, forcing her to go slower, so she only rewinds time a few seconds instead of a full hour.
- Also loved their solution to a “fixed point in time”. The hour always ends with someone getting stabbed by Cicada’s dagger? Make Cicada the one who gets stabbed by his dagger.
- Nora says she rewound the hour 52 times. Does that mean, by episode’s end, she’s gone 52 hours without sleep? Or can speedsters take, like, a five minute nap and wake up completely refreshed?
- Some folks are annoyed that it never occurred to Nora to just fill Team Flash in on what’s going on, but it made sense to me. She sees what’s happening as her failure, and doesn’t want to let everyone know she’s screwed up until she’s found a way to fix it. Plus, she’s a West. Keeping pointless and self-destructive secrets is what they do.
MVP of the Week: Nora West-Allen
Even if I did say “Dammit, Nora!” a couple times.
Question of the Week: Now that both Legends and The Flash have done Groundhog Day episodes, would you like to see Arrow and Supergirl follow suit?