Batwoman 1×05: “Mine Is a Long and Sad Tale”, Supergirl 5×05: “Dangerous Liaisons”, The Flash 6×05: “Kiss Kiss Breach Breach”, and Arrow 8×04: “Present Tense” reviews
This week in the Arrowverse, mysteries abound.
Why is Alice the way she is? Who killed Cisco’s ex-girlfriend? How did Future Team Arrow wind up in the present? Who is Rip Roar?
Okay, maybe that last one’s not as strong as the others, but three outta four ain’t bad.
Batwoman 1×05: “Mine Is a Long and Sad Tale” review
I’m repeating, not just myself, but most other reviewers when I say that Alice is by far the best part of Batwoman. But until now she’s been able to function as more-or-less a pure villain: alternating between frightening menace and high camp, often managing both at once to magical effect. Kate may be eager to see the good in her sister, but aside from a couple quick glimpses, the show has kept any sympathetic or human qualities in Alice buried, focusing instead on the joyous mayhem she brings to Gotham.
That couldn’t last, of course. Alice isn’t like the Joker, who exists purely to be a foil for the hero, and whose origins and human qualities are not necessary for the story (despite what a recent blockbuster would have you believe). We’ve already seen glimpses of Alice (then Beth) as a child, with no indication she was a Lewis Carroll-obsessed murder-freak back then. And given her position as Kate’s sister and Jacob’s daughter, someone they care about deeply, whose human side they have a profound interest in reaching, it would be utterly disappointing if there ended up being nothing more to Alice than “super evil cray-cray”.
So in “Mine Is a Long and Sad Tale”, we finally start learning how Beth became Alice. We don’t get all the answers; there’s still obviously a lot that happened to take her from a captive in the Carpenters’ house to the leader of a supervillain gang. But here we get to see how her psychosis began.
This could easily have gone very, very wrong. “Childhood trauma turns you crazy, and going crazy turns you violent and evil” is a well-worn and deeply problematic trope, one that can be offensive both to trauma survivors and people with mental illness. And even aside from that, given that Alice’s stated motive has been wanting revenge on her father for giving up looking for her (despite him being given ample reason to believe she was dead), exploring her origins risked making the basis for this season’s conflict seem unbelievably petty.
But damn! This episode didn’t only avoid those pitfalls, it built up something darkly haunting, almost profound, to take their place.
“When your life unfolds into a nightmare, you pray your dreams will take you elsewhere.” That’s how Alice says she coped with the horrors of her imprisonment. She held out hope that, despite reason, despite the odds, a miracle out of her dreams would save her. She believed, she had to believe, that her family would know to keep looking for her, that when they stood in the same house as her, only a thin wooden door separating them, they’d just know she was there. That the bond between them would be something real and mystical, something transcending science, that would let them know where she was and come save her.
She pinned her hopes on that fantasy, and reality trampled it underfoot. While Kate has always had an irrational hope of finding Beth alive, their father has not. In the pilot episode, he said that the Crows, and by extension himself, “represent order”. He was speaking there, not just of law and order, but of an ordered and logical world, one that has no place for celestial twin connections or beliefs that ignore the facts. When presented with evidence that Beth is dead, he accepts it. When given a plausible reason not to search the Carpenters’ house, he accepts that, too. And when that evidence is called into question, he maintains, “Only way to settle this is to catch Alice, run her DNA, and let science tell us the truth.”
But Alice doesn’t want a world where her family only saves her because science and reason say they should. With this episode, we see that Alice’s vendetta is not simply against her father, but against the reality he represents. She has suffered in a world that obeys natural laws, that follows reason and order over the wild dreams of a scared young girl, and she wants to tear that world down.
She embraced Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because it presented her with a fantasy world, one that runs on nonsense rather than logic, where the impossible is real and the plausible almost never occurs. Only in such a world could she escape the horrors of her captivity, and now that she’s free, she wants to bring that world’s madness and senselessness to life, to supplant and destroy the rational world that abandoned her.
It’s harrowing, gripping, chilling, and, yes, long and sad tale. There’s much still to be told about how Alice became the way she is, but in laying the groundwork of her psychology, and establishing the demented philosophy that guides her actions, this episode is a piece of pure brilliance.
- I talked all about Alice up above, but I do want to salute how much fun a drunk Mary bothering Luke at work was. Comparing this first season of Batwoman to the first season of Arrow is hardly original, but it feels almost like Mary is the best parts of Season 1 Thea and Season 1 Laurel, with all the stuff that didn’t work about them tossed in the garbage.
- Luke has a model T-rex sitting on his Batcave workstation. I have to assume that’s a reference to the full-size model T-rex traditionally seen in the comics’ version of the Batcave.
- “There was a breakout at Arkham.” Both confirmation that we’re officially caught up with the Elseworlds crossover, and the start of what will, in all likelihood, become a running gag.
- Dodgson claims to have joined the Wonderland Gang as an effort at social reform and addressing the inequality inherent in the Crows’ system. It’d be easier buy his good intentions if he didn’t follow someone who openly gloats about “my evil plan”.
Supergirl 5×05: “Dangerous Liaisons” review
This should be a more exciting episode than it is.
We’re talking about Supergirl and friends fighting a vast, nefarious conspiracy, one that employs a squad of superpowered assassins, and is using a laser weapon to melt the polar ice caps and release a world devastating flood. This is the sort of epic, outlandish supervillainy Supergirl normally saves for the season finales. Yet “Dangerous Liaisons” is oddly uninterested in doing much that’s fun or exciting with its premise.
Take our newest villain, Rip Roar. They establish him as having a couple of Doctor Octopus-style robotic tentacles, yet never make use of them in any interesting ways. When he fights Supergirl, he swings those robo-arms at her a couple times, she dodges, and that’s it. You could take out the robot tentacles and make him just some dude stealing a laser gun, and nothing would change. Heck, at the end of the episode, J’onn handcuffs him just like he would a normal criminal, and the fact that he’s still got a pair of uncuffed robot arms isn’t even addressed!
As for the cataclysmic flood, the resolution to that is almost insultingly lackluster. J’onn and Kara sealing the geyser has some theoretically impressive visual spectacle, but it’s the sort of thing we’ve seen done on The Flash umpteen-billion times (where any problem can be solved by running around it in circles really fast), so it doesn’t have quite the impact that should.
And the killer tidal wave heading towards the Pacific Coast? Nia shoots some of her dream energy at it and . . . it disappears. No further explanation is given for how her powers could do that. No effort is made to make it seem like a difficult or risky move on her part. The episode simply needs the tidal wave to go away, so it has the character with the most vaguely defined powers dispose of it. With a literal wave of the hand.
This episode’s heart just isn’t in the big superhero action spectacle. It’s a lot more interested in being a mystery thriller, which would be fine, except it’s a poorly constructed mystery thriller.
The biggest shortcoming is how nothing comes of Obsidian North’s collective dream launch. We’re told that there must be some connection between it and the supervillain plot taking place. Its commercials and startup are all given an ominous feel. A big clock, counting down to the product’s launch, is treated like the countdown to doomsday. The episode has us geared up to see how the collective dream and the giant flood will work together for one masterful evil plan.
Then it turns out the dream tech is just a red herring. Now, red herrings can be useful plot devices, provided they’re used to distract us from something equally interesting that will be unveiled in the climax. But there’s no such reveal here. The collective dream setup comes to nothing, and we’re given nothing else about the villains’ plan to replace it. Thinking that the flood and the dream technology were related made it seem like a really complex scheme was taking place; having the two be unrelated makes both less interesting.
The other major problem is how this mystery treats its suspects. Or suspect, I should say, because no one besides Andrea Rojas is ever presented as a potential mastermind for these villainous goings on. A mystery with only one suspect would be problem enough, but it gets worse because we’re never given a clear foundation for why we should suspect Andrea. Besides some vague rumors of her family maybe being up to something sinister, and the fact that her fiancé was (seemingly) killed by Rip Roar, nothing is done to establish a connection between her and the villains. William just keeps insisting there is one, and the episode refuses to provide us with anyone else to focus our suspicions on.
What’s extremely frustrating is how no on ever discusses motive. Oh, at the end of the episode, our heroes decide Andrea couldn’t have been behind the flood, because it would have wiped out her family’s business and left her broke. But no one ever asks why Andrea, or why anyone, would want to cause a worldwide flood that kills billion in the first place. Surely it can’t be about money. Even if recreating Noah’s Flood somehow earned you fat stacks of cash, that’s not going to do much good if the governments backing that currency collapse in the ensuing chaos.
In the end, what we have is an episode that squanders its superhero action potential to focus on being a mystery, but with no real grasp on how mysteries work. With only one suspect, who’s never given a motive for the crime, or anything concrete to make them suspicious, and with the investigation into them leading nowhere . . . it just ends up a frustrating, unsatisfying mess.
- There is one, and only one part of the mystery aspect I liked: Kara is hilariously bad at pretending to get coffee as cover for a discreet conversation. She pours about half a container of sugar into her cup, then leaves it sitting on the counter as she follows William. It’s a nice bit of understated comedy.
- Lena and Malefic’s sub-plot was much more interesting, though I was kinda thrown by his ability to briefly incept Eve. Given that she’s already being controlled by an artificial intelligence, how does that work?
- When Rip Roar asks Leviathan Lady what she wants him to do next, she says, “Do what Lex Luthor failed to do: change the world.” Then she just walks away. Like, that line sounds ominous and everything, but maybe give your henchman some more concrete directions. It would be hilarious is this whole melt-the-icecaps/flood-the-world plan was just something Rip Roar came up with from trying to suss out his boss’s vague instructions, and afterwards Leviathan Lady was like, “Wow, okay, I need to start explaining myself more clearly.”
- Andrea sitting on a giant “IMAGINE” is both incredibly cheesy, and yet also feels exactly like the kind of rollout this sort of technology would get (at least, if the average tech CEO was as photogenic as Andrea Rojas).
- We still haven’t seen the assassin who can detach most, but not all, of his fingers. That guy’s gotta show up at some point, right?
The Flash 6×05: “Kiss Kiss Breach Breach” review
It’s an old complaint of mind, one I’ve made about most of the Arrowverse shows, but it bears repeating here: I wish more episodes would focus on just one story.
Almost always, whatever the main story of an episode might be, there will be at least two side stories going on, used to advance some of the season’s many ongoing storylines. This isn’t an inherently bad way to structure an episode; often, it works wonderfully. But there are episodes that suffer because the main story needed more time and attention than this scattershot approach allows. “Kiss Kiss Breach Breach” is one of those.
The Cisco story here is an interesting break from the norm. With Barry and Iris on vacation, Cisco takes over as lead character, and gets tangled up in a mix of noir mystery and psycho-thriller. The moody lighting, full of shadows and dull yellows & oranges, really sells that we’ve stepped into a different sort of genre from typical Flash episodes. There’s still a fair bit of the funny lines, earnest pep talks, and ridiculous science that The Flash is known for, but the overall vibe and structure of the story is a bleak, ominous mystery where nothing and no one can be trusted.
Most everything we got from this story was good, but as a mystery tale with many false leads, and a hero doubting his own sanity? It felt like the plot needed to get just a bit twistier, and Cisco’s “breach psychosis” symptoms needed to last just a bit longer. The B-plots where Ralph & Frost/Caitlin go looking for Ramsey, and where Joe & Nash get trapped in a tunnel? They’re fine enough, but they contribute so little, both to this episode and to the season’s overarching plot, I can’t help wishing they were excised, and their screentime used to bolster the more interesting tale at the episode’s core.
That’s my usual reason for wishing an episode had focused on a single story. But there’s another reason why this episode, specifically, was hurt from having two extra plots stapled on.
The Flash has never been subtle about its messages. If it wants to impart a moral, or some life philosophy, or an insight about a character, it will have someone in the episode explicitly state that message in the clearest possible terms. On its own, that’s not so bad; often, it can be part of the show’s charm. And, in theory, it’s not a bad idea to unite an episode’s various plotlines around a central theme; a lot of terrific television has been made using that technique. But when you combine these approaches together, you get “Kiss Kiss Breach Breach”: an episode that, in its eagerness to stress the importance of having faith in people, uses the word “faith” so often you’ll think you’re at a church revival.
If it were just Cisco being told to have faith in himself, and being told that Cynthia had faith in him, all this faith talk would be tolerable. But Ralph and Frost also keep talking about faith, and the Joe & Nash Hour is almost nothing but Joe saying he has faith in his team, and Nash saying he has faith in no one, back and forth, back and forth. And they all keep using the same word, “faith”, over and over and over and frickin’ over again!
It is just annoying how repetitious this is. Like, if you’re gonna repeat the same message so many times, at least crack open a thesaurus, find a different word that means the same thing as “faith”, instead of repeating it I-don’t-even-know how many times. Do not make a drinking game out of how many times someone says “faith” in this episode; you will need a stomach pump.
I don’t wanna come down too hard on this episode. As I said, the Cisco plot was really quite good. But the flaws holding this back from being a truly remarkable episode are so glaring, and so distracting, it’s hard not to focus on them.
- To stress the importance of having faith in people, Joe tells Nash how, after his wife left him, his whole neighborhood came over to help out him and his daughter. That’s sweet, but he really should have continued with, “Then I lied to my daughter and told her that her mother was dead, and kept that lie going for the next twenty years. So, y’know, having faith in others doesn’t always work out.”
- Breacher says “You murdered my daughter!” with the same tone and inflection other people might use to say “Hey, that’s really mean, man!”
- Cisco builds a computer program to simulate Barry Allen’s decision making skills. Barry Allen’s decision making skills! And no one, not once in the episode, seems aware of the fundamental flaw in this concept.
- Seriously, all the faith talk this episode, I kept thinking back to this exchange from Legends of Tomorrow:
Sara: You can do this. I have faith in you.
Arrow 8×04: “Present Tense” review
For the first time this season, we have what feels like a conventional episode of Arrow. We’re no longer trotting around the globe or the multiverse. Our heroes are back on their old stomping grounds, with familiar sets like the bunker, the Star City Police Department, and Oliver & Felicity’s apartment. And it’s not just the Oliver & Diggle show anymore; the extended Team Arrow cast is back in play, with Dinah, Rene, and even Curtis sliding comfortably into their old roles. And the plot they’re dealing with is a very familiar one, not only because it homages the Siege from Season 2, but because it’s the sort of plot Arrow has done about a zillion times by now. For the first time since the season began, it feels like we’re back to Arrow doing its usual routine.
Except for the kids from the future popping up.
The plot, setting, and cast composition of “Present Tense” are as familiar and conventional as possible, so it can focus completely on this one, new, groundbreaking element. The sort of element it’s hard to imagine Arrow pulling out in anything other than this, it’s final, let’s-do-whatever-the-eff-we-want season.
For a while now, Arrow has had an eye turned towards the idea of legacy, exploring what sort of world our heroes are creating for those who come after them. It’s a theme that’s become increasingly important as more of them have become parents. Now Team Arrow gets to meet their legacies, face to face, and the news ain’t all rosy.
Rene is over-the-moon to find out he becomes mayor. He’s less thrilled to learn he’s a crooked mayor, and that his daughter got killed trying to fix the mess he had a part in making.
Dinah learns she creates a badass group called the Canaries, but also learns they couldn’t stop Star City from becoming an awful place (or staying an awful place, depending on how you look at it).
John is told he’s going to adopt another son, who becomes a hero just like him. But that doesn’t really make up for being told his biological son becomes a criminal mastermind.
And then there’s Oliver. He’s known for a while now that he wouldn’t be able to raise his children, but it still stings seeing the evidence of that in the flesh. Learning that Mia and William didn’t get the chance to grow up together, and that his city has continued to suffer? That’s just salt in the wound.
Our heroes are tempted to reject this future entirely. Why carry out the same old mission, in the same old way, if these are the results? But whatever reason the Monitor may have had for sending the future kids back in time, the writers didn’t bring them back merely to warn Team Arrow of problems ahead. They were brought back so that, here in the final stretch, our heroes can see how all the work they’ve done has had an effect on the future, and not all of it for ill.
They can work to fix the places where the future’s gone wrong, without abandoning the good. Rene can still run for local office, but now with an eye towards building a Star City where his daughter won’t have to die. Dinah can still build her Canary Network, and strive to make it more effective than the one we’ve seen. And even though adopting Connor is supposedly what started J.J. on the path to villainy, our John Diggle still comes to see Connor as his son, and isn’t going to give up on him, even as he tries to change J.J.’s future.
And despite the bad news they bear, when Oliver, knowing his time is short, gets to meet his children, to see how they’ve grown up? He cherishes every minute of it. The scenes between him and William are sheer joy. Their relationship can now have the comfort and mutual appreciation it could never attain during William’s turbulent childhood, and Oliver is unbelievably proud to see that a son of his has led such an amazing life.
His interactions with Mia are pricklier, partly because they’ve had no relationship prior to this, partly because she’s still shook from Zoe’s death, and partly because . . . she’s Mia. Prickly is her default state. But as they come to realize that they both know a fair bit about loss, guilt, and anger, you can see a connection between them grow. If William is everything Oliver could have hoped for his children, Mia is a warts-and-all reflection of her father. But through that bond, this episode hints that Oliver can help her deal with those problems better than he managed with no one to guide him.
Having our characters confront all this stuff so directly, getting a clear message of what their future legacy will be, is yet another high point in this final stretch of Arrow. Freed from the confines of giving us conventional stories (except when it wants to), this season can go, “What better way to discuss these characters’ futures then to bring in their time traveling off-spring?” It makes for a wild, remarkable, and moving hour of television, as each episode has been this season. With four down and only six more to go, can the streak continue?
- From the sound of things, it seems like no one on Team Arrow told their kids that time travel was a thing. Makes you wonder what else they’ve left out about some of their wilder adventures and acquaintances.
- Love the way Oliver verbally stumbles after hearing about his kids standing in front of his tombstone. While he’s been very accepting of his imminent death so far, you can tell that made it just a little bit more real for him.
- It may be a different universe’s Laurel, but she’s won yet another person over to the Cult of French Fries in Milkshakes! Long may it reign!
- Oliver is planning to replicate a wave of universe destroying anti-matter so he can kill a god. Please tell me that weapon will be conveniently arrow-shaped.
- When Lyla finds out about future J.J., I hope the exchange goes something like this:
Lyla: I’m just saying, this never would have happened if we’d had a girl.
John: … Dammit, Barry.
MVP of the Week: William Clayton.
If we get that Green Arrow and the Canaries spinoff, I hope he sticks around as their requisite tech support/comic relief sidekick.
Question of the Week: Who’s your favorite relative-of-the-main-hero character?