Batwoman 1×08: “A Mad Tea-Party”, Supergirl 5×08: “The Wrath of Rama Khan”, The Flash 6×08: “The Last Temptation of Barry Allen, Part 2”, and Arrow 8×07: “Purgatory” reviews
This week in the Arrowverse, a lot of very important stuff happened. Characters died, trust was broken, limbs were lost. No way next week is gonna top this one. Nope, nothing at all on the horizon that Arrowverse fans should be excited about.
I’m sure that red sky is just sunspots.
Batwoman 1×08: “A Mad Tea-Party” review
Every TV show has its own style, and its own rules for how its reality works. Even the Arrowverse shows, which are all set in the same universe, show us their reality through different lenses.
Arrow has its gritty, grimy, pseudo-realistic take: fight scenes tend to emphasize the sheer physical effort and damage involved, the lighting favors either “washed out” or “heavily shadowed”, clothing (even for nominal superheroes/villains) looks like something real people would actually wear, etc. The Flash and Supergirl have a Silver-Age-comic-book meets USA-network-procedural style, with Supergirl leaning more into unironic cheese, while The Flash leans more into vaguely sitcommy energy (complete with comedy music stings). Meanwhile, Legends of Tomorrow dives headfirst into very sitcommy energy, mixed with the style of whatever pop culture it’s riffing on that week.
For a while now, I’ve pegged Batwoman as having a dark-and-gritty take on superheroes similar to Arrow. But as I watched “A Mad Tea-Party”, I became aware of a different sensibility at work. There are scenes in this episode which, while undoubtedly dark, are far from gritty. Instead they’re crafted with a sort of grand, theatrical style, forgoing naturalism in favor of artfully staged set pieces.
Take the moment when Kate goes to Alice’s hideout. We see Alice amid a bunch of boxes and paraphernalia, all stacked in the middle of middle of a cavernous and otherwise empty warehouse. Kate walks towards Alice across the empty space, and despite clearly knowing Kate is there, Alice doesn’t for a moment stop manically throwing outfits into the air. Then, after the sisters talk for a bit, and its time for Alice to remind Kate not to feel too safe in a supervillain’s lair, her minions appear: all silent, all wearing expressionless white rabbit masks, and coming seemingly out of nowhere just to drive this point home.
Or take when Catherine is forced to read that confession. She’s threatened into it, not with terse demands, but with a jaunty, joking message, complete with emojis, that remains nonetheless sinister as it scrolls silently across the teleprompter. And when Catherine reaches the end of the confession, only then does her poisoning start to take, and blood falls from her nose onto the damning words she was forced to say. And only then does she see Alice, standing at the doorway in all her finery, seemingly posing so that Catherine, and only Catherine, would see her at precisely this moment.
These scenes are not staged with an eye towards realism. They make use of a heightened reality, where imagery can be used to convey the mood or deeper meaning of a scene, that wouldn’t be possible if the scenes played out in a more naturalistic manner.
You might be saying, “Those scenes were just Alice being Alice.” But now that I’ve noticed how those scenes were constructed, I’m beginning to see the same principle at work throughout the series.
The Executioner, despite being a normal guy driven to villainy, was still decked out in a creepy Medieval executioner’s outfit, complete with headsman’s axe, and turned his killing spree into an elaborate, symbolic spectacle. The man who kidnapped Beth as a child is made to look and sound like the creepiest possible caricature of a 1950’s TV dad. And even in the pilot: Kate’s first attack on the Wonderland Gang (as herself) may have been done in the gritty style you might see on Arrow or Daredevil, but when she comes back for Round Two (now as Batwoman) suddenly she’s become this unseen figure in the shadows, removing henchmen one by one even as they fail to get a glimpse at her.
This approach to visual storytelling, favoring expressionism over more a more realistic presentation, is peppered through Batwoman, and is a key part of why so many of these episodes (and “A Mad Tea-Party” in particular) have worked as well as they have. The looming dread as Alice’s plans go into motion, and the sorrow as they reach success, would not be felt nearly as hard without these theatrical flourishes. They’re an important part of Batwoman, but not a part many reviewers talk about. Likely because, since it’s such a heavily visual component of the show, conveying it in words can be difficult (and, yes, that is me making an excuse for the poor quality of this review up until now).
So while there are many things in this episode worth talking about (all the messed up family dynamics on display; the seismic shifts in the status quo; the continued suffering of our dear, sweet, angelic Mary), for this review, I decided to spend a few hundred words making sure this show’s stylistic choices and heightened reality got their due.
- Unlike White Canary’s bo-staff, Batwoman’s apparently does not split in two. Kate’s just been breaking it in half every time she goes into battle and having Luke fix it later. That is hilarious, and a good reminder that this superhero/sidekick thing they’ve got going on is still the startup phase.
- I’ve made no secret that Alice and Mary are my two favorite characters on the show, so when they’re pitted against each other here, man am I left conflicted. When Alice calls Mary a “vapid, human run-on sentence of a daughter”, I laughed, then felt really bad for laughing at poor Mary.
- Kate figures out that “Jacob” is Mouse early on. While part of that’s due to knowing her dad so well, I like that the show’s been having Kate reach deductive conclusions like this a lot. The guy whose shoes she’s filling is supposed to be “The World’s Greatest Detective”, after all, so it’s good to see her not letting down that part of the Bat-mantle, either.
- But the most brilliant detective may be Tyler. He’s correctly deduced that he’s the bland third wheel in a love triangle, and his best hope of survival is to remove himself now, with minimal fuss, before the writers can get around to killing him off.
- I know I’ve said this before, but until the people of Gotham learn, I’ll have to keep repeating it: STOP THROWING GALAS!!! THEY ARE CATNIP FOR SUPERVILLAINS!
Supergirl 5×08: “The Wrath of Rama Khan” review
Depending on what goes down during Crisis on Infinite Earths, there may be a reason Supergirl has had its plot unfold this way. But even if it’s required by the dictates of the crossover, that still doesn’t make it good plotting.
There have been three main plotlines running through this season: Malefic’s vendetta against J’onn, Lena’s plans to mind control the world into non-violence, and Leviathan’s shadowy agenda. It’s difficult to peg any one of them as the main plot; the importance of each, and the amount of screentime devoted to them, seems roughly equal. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.
Except now it’s the mid-season finale (not counting the crossover), which is traditionally where the main plot of the season kicks into high gear, with raised stakes, shocking revelations, and some form of mini-climax. But rather than choosing one of its three plotlines to be the focus of the mid-season spectacular, Supergirl continues to split its focus three ways, to underwhelming results.
This isn’t such a problem for the Malefic plot. Preceding episodes have integrated his story into Lena’s story, thus allowing a single event (Malefic using his powers against Myriad) to serve as the culmination of Malefic’s redemption and as the foiling of Lena’s schemes (for the time being).
No, the problem comes from Leviathan, who despite some tangential connection to Lena via Andrea, are off in their own, completely unrelated plot. At the same time Lena’s launching her plan to control humanity, Leviathan bruiser Rama Khan is launching his own plan to wipe out humanity, and our heroes have to divide their time between the two.
In theory, you can see how that might make for an exciting episode. Two worldwide catastrophes are more dangerous than one, and make the good guys’ job that much harder. But in practice, it leaves these plots feeling underdeveloped. Each is trying to achieve a grand, epic climax, but since each only gets half the episode’s screentime to work with, that’s easier said than done.
We’ve been told that Rama Khan is this incredibly powerful being who has caused the world’s greatest calamities, and is now going to trigger a supervolcano that will wipe humanity off the map. Yet he comes up with this plan, puts it into motion, sees it thwarted, and is killed off, all in such a short span of time, that he can’t build up any more menace or personality than your average villain-of-the-week. Heck, the world wrecking tidal wave from a few episodes back felt like a bigger threat than this, and that was defeated by Nia waving her arms at it.
The Lena plot suffers the opposite problem. It’s not rushed; it moves at a perfectly decent pace . . . provided it had the whole episode to work with. Since it’s only got half the episode, by the end it feels like not quite enough has happened here. We get a lot Lena and the heroes trying to out-tech each other, some nice character work from Lena’s relationship with Eve, and Alex making a difficult decision, but there’s not enough room to expand on the story’s emotional stakes.
Consider that the climax of this story is Alex choosing to risk failure rather than kill Lena, yet we never see Alex and Lena interact. This should be a powerful story where desire to redeem a friend conflicts with a duty to protect the world, but because Kara’s too busy with the Rama Khan plot to be a part of that, and since there’s no time to establish how Lena and Alex feel about each other, the plot ends up as more of an ethical abstraction than anything with emotional punch.
I’m imagining a different version of these last couple episodes, where Leviathan remained a shadowy force in the background, like they had been up until now, and the close to this part of the season was all about Lena and Team Supergirl finally coming to blows. Then, when the show came back in January, and Lena’s plot had fallen onto the backburner for a bit, that’s when Leviathan could come to the forefront as our main villains. Trying to bring both Lena and Leviathan to the forefront, independently and simultaneously, does neither of them any favors.
Only thing that might justify how they did things is that Leviathan will end up either playing a role in or being profoundly affected by the crossover (they’re sworn to protect the Earth, after all, and next week’s episode is gonna put infinite Earths in danger). But for that, we’ll have to wait and see.
- Alex was the designated rational and levelheaded character this week, pointing out all of Lena’s hypocrisy, and prioritizing protecting the world over giving her a second chance. Which, of course, means she’s there to be proven wrong. She says, “We have to start thinking with our heads, not with our hearts”, and I’m like, “When has that EVER been the case on this show!?”
- So I guess it’s fair to say the writers forgot that Eve (and, by extension, Hope) has the power to make multiple copies of herself? ‘Cause that would have solved the need-to-send-Hope-into-danger dilemma nicely.
- Now that the secret’s out of the bag, Lena addresses Kara only as Supergirl. Shows how she’s come to see “Kara Danvers, mild mannered reporter and your new best friend” as just an act Supergirl put on so she could get Lena’s assistance.
- Lex Luthor is back, and he’s as snippy and full of himself as ever! That is fantastic Although, if Barry and Oliver find out the Monitor can just bring people back to life, while they’ve been spending the last few months worrying about their impending deaths . . . they are gonna be pissed.
The Flash 6×08: “The Last Temptation of Barry Allen, Part 2” review
“The Last Temptation of Barry Allen, Part 2” almost had to be a letdown.
Part 1 was the best episode of The Flash since God-I-don’t-even-know-when. It gave us terrific insight into Barry’s character, coupled with inventive, disturbing, and heartbreaking imagery. And, despite a couple subplots, it was allowed to focus primarily on Barry’s personal journey, only needing to advance the plot slightly.
So even if Part 2 was still an otherwise corking good episode of The Flash, it would still probably fall short of the high bar set by Part 1. Especially since this episode needs to wrap up the entire Ramsey story and put a bow on it before Crisis arrives, meaning it needs to favor plot over character.
But even with those challenges, Part 2 still didn’t have to be this much of a letdown.
Part 2 wants to be an action/horror piece, with Team Flash trying to survive as Ramsey’s zombies, including “Dark Flash”, swarm across the city. Trouble is, the episode can’t follow through on the harrowing stakes that would make this story exciting.
Unlike traditional zombies, the people Ramsey infects are still alive, innocent victims who can and will be cured by episode’s end. As such, we’re not going to see Team Flash headshooting zombies or grappling with severed zombie limbs or anything like that, ‘cause they don’t want any blood on their hands once the big Undo button gets pressed. That deprives us of the sort of carnage you expect out of zombie action pieces, leaving most of the fight scenes underwhelming.
And as for the horror aspect, c’mon, we know no one’s getting killed by zombies this week. It’s possible some main characters might die in next week’s Crisis, but not before then. And without any minor characters around whose safety could be in jeopardy, the zombies just aren’t scary.
But even with those constraints, Part 2 goes out of its way to defang what tension it has. It’s not just that no one dies, but no one even gets infected. It could have got some good mileage out of members of Team Flash being taken over by Ramsey’s blood, one by one, throughout the episode, till by the end there are only one or two of them left, facing increasingly desperate odds. That could have made things exciting, but nope, doesn’t happen here.
They even put up a giant forcefield around Star Labs, ensuring us that anyone inside the building is perfectly safe (at least until the final act). And despite all the build up around “Dark Flash”, he barely does anything this episode; all the potential in seeing Team Flash struggling to fight their dearest friend turned deadliest foe is squandered.
Would I be coming down so hard on this episode if it wasn’t the second part of a story that began so beautifully last week? Probably not. But still, Team Flash vs. Zombies should have been way more exciting than this.
- One part of the zombie action formula they got right? Bloodwork turning into a full-on Resident Evil monster at the end.
- Iris and Cisco’s debate about whether to potentially kill Barry, with Cisco pointing out that they’re about to lose him anyway, was powerful in the moment . . . but doesn’t really make sense. Presumably, if they kill Barry now, then he won’t be able to do whatever he’s supposed to do to stop Crisis, which means everyone would die.
- Cecile’s “zombie detector” ability ended up not being useful at all. Even when it gave advance warning that a zombie was ahead, she still peeked around the corner to see it with her own eyes, making her empath powers utterly pointless.
- Barry claims that infecting Ramsey was his plan all along. Is he telling the truth? Or did someone else on Team Flash speculate that was Barry’s plan, and he was like, “. . . sure, let’s go with that”?
Arrow 8×07: “Purgatory” review
Ignore the ghosts.
I know that’s hard. They shot down our heroes’ plane, after all. They’re who Team Arrow spends the climax punching and shooting. They include Yao Fei, Edward Fyers, and Billy frickin’ Wintergreen, some deep cut callbacks even in a season already full of deep cut callbacks. And the fact that we have random energy spikes causing the dead to come back to life on Lian Yu, with zero explanation? In a season less wild and give-no-f***s as this one, that’d be an absolutely insane plot device to include on Arrow.
But they’re not what this episode is about. They provide the necessary action scenes and mounting tension, and Yao Fei’s return allows a little reflection on how Oliver has changed since his story began, but ultimately, they’re a distraction. Because this is the very last episode before Crisis on Infinite Earths. This is the last moment these characters will have with each other before a cosmic catastrophe comes to claim Oliver’s life and bring this story to an end.
The real purpose of this episode, then, is simply to let these people say goodbye to each other. A bunch of off-screen manipulation by Lyla has brought all of our main characters to the same location, and despite their repeated efforts to split up, get mad at each other, or refuse to accept the coming end, each of them has to make their peace with the others.
Thus the strength of this episode lies, not in its story, or in its action, but in how well each of these goodbyes works.
Some are quick, and almost don’t count as goodbyes: Dinah and Rene, somewhat jokingly, shut down Oliver’s attempt at a goodbye speech (“Pass. Do not accept.”), while Connor and Lyla, rather than saying goodbye, are actually meeting for the first time. These act as the episode’s lighthearted, jokey moments, leavening a story that’s otherwise pretty full up with sorrow.
Others happen so quick, driven by urgent necessity, that no proper goodbye is possible: Yao Fei telling Oliver to go while he holds off Fyers and his men; Lyla accepting the Monitor’s plan for her, walking away through a portal as John can only watch. These goodbyes, through their abruptness, serve as a source of tension, create a fear that other characters may not have a chance to make their goodbyes.
Then, there are the tearjerkers.
Oliver and William get a heart-to-heart and a hug that puts to bed any guilt or resentment left over from William’s childhood, and lets these two be a happy family for one beautiful moment. Oliver and John get to be honest about how terrified they are of facing what’s ahead without each other, the brotherhood between them the one stable rock since the series began. And Oliver and Mia, each trying so hard to put their anger aside and appreciate how much they’ve been given, is easily the heartrending standout of the whole bunch.
Watching this episode, it’s hard to shake the knowledge that you’re not just watching these characters say goodbye to each other, but watching actors who have worked so closely together for so many years do so as well. The final act is nothing but them packing up their things, walking through now deserted sets, and telling each other how much their time together has meant to them. By the end, the writing barely tries to hide this double meaning, with Mia (and newcomer to the show, Katherine McNamara) telling Oliver (and star of the show, Stephen Amell), “Thank you for letting me be a part of your story, even if it was only for a little while.” And Oliver/Amell (sensing plans for a Mia-centric spinoff), assures her, “Something tells me you’re gonna create your own stories.”
That added poignance, knowing some of the regrets and fond remembrances on display are real, amplifies the whole experience. Had this episode been done at any other time, a time when Arrow’s end was not so near at hand, it might have felt lackluster, with an outrageous plot that doesn’t really do much, and some bits of character conflict that feel extraneous. But it is happening now. Arrow’s end is at hand. And with the characters, the actors, and the fans all having to process that end, some time to say goodbye is exactly what we need.
- Do you suppose they brought Roy back for the final season just because they realized, “Shoot, we forgot to have him lose an arm”?
- Lyla has officially become Harbinger, with a cool new costume! And a possible loss of her old identity and personality. So it evens out, I guess.
- 3rd Funniest Moment of the Episode: “God, I hate this island!”
- 2nd Funniest Moment of the Episode: “Someone needs to protect William.” “Gee, thanks . . . That’s fair.”
- The Funniest Moment of the Episode: “For a very long time, I’ve hated this place. I think about all the people that it took from me . . . it would just make me so angry.” “But you’re not now?” “Still a little bit angry.”
MVP of the Week: Mary Hamilton
“I know this isn’t important to you, but it’s important to me, okay? So why can’t it be important to you that it’s important to me?”
SOMEONE HUG THIS WOMAN!!!
Question of the Week: Have you all heard that a Crisis is coming?