[This is a review of Arrow season 4, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
The arrival of John Constantine on Arrow is a somewhat tricky thing to pin down. Is it a crossover or a guest appearance? Or is the inclusion of another character from DC’s television stable more akin to what has been developing in the margins all season long, and has gradually come to be a significant driving force of the overall narrative. That is to say, is Constantine‘s appearance here just a one-off sort of thing the audience shouldn’t read too much into, or is it the spark of something new, like the pointed focus on bringing Sara back to life and now the acknowledgement that Ray Palmer is still alive?
On one hand, ‘Haunted,’ the much-ballyhooed Constantine episode, is a success simply because the writers find it so easy to integrate the character into the plot, which is about as easy as flipping a switch. Team Arrow has a problem of the supernatural kind, when Sara escapes the admittedly less-than-sisterly accommodations Laurel provided after bringing her now-living body back from Nanda Parbat, and once Oliver is made aware of it and her homicidal tendencies, he knows exactly who to call. And just like that, John Constantine is on the scene, taking Laurel and Oliver to another plane in order to pull Sara’s soul out of an astral hot tub before it gets all pruny.
It works, but only in the sense that it gets the actual job done of resolving Sara’s back-from-the-dead rage issues. Constantine, though he’s given a guest spot in Oliver’s flashback on the island, as well as in present-day Star City, is little more than a fan service-y plot device, which puts him about on par with Sara for the hour. It’s great for fans to see the character make the jump from NBC to The CW, and the fact that the character gets to make that jump from a dead show to one that is very much alive, to facilitate what is ostensibly a resurrection story, makes it extra fitting. But with Oliver’s mayoral campaign shifting into high gear, Lance and Diggle finding out the truth about Diggle’s brother, and Damien Darhk lurking in the background, Constantine is less the focal point of the hour than he is an obvious means to an end.
Throughout the hour, it never feels like Arrow has a handle on Constantine or is interested in acquiring one – he’s just a temporary fixture. It’s a lot like when the Harlem Globetrotters would appear on Scooby Doo, or when Bigfoot did battle with The Six Million Dollar Man. These were events that aspired to be little more than events. There’s nothing wrong with events per se, but past attempts have proven Arrow can do them better. And while Constantine’s appearance actually resolves an ongoing storyline issue, it’s not Arrow’s storyline that’s being considered, but rather that of Legends of Tomorrow. Constantine doesn’t even offer Oliver advice on Damien Darhk beyond telling him to get out of town – though that tattoo he transferred onto Oliver’s abdomen will likely come in handy.
Despite the ripples of the character’s actions, it feels like there are just too many degrees of separation between the various threads going on, and one event in particular should have been too big to be overshadowed by Parker Young managing Oliver’s campaign, and yet it is. Sara will be sticking around for a while, that much the audience knows. And because of that, there will be plenty of time to explore the emotional and psychological impact of what happened to her. ‘Haunted’ doesn’t necessarily need to go into any of that right now, but given the extreme emotions demonstrated by Capt. Lance and, to a certain degree, Laurel, the episode needed a more significant moment between the reunited Lance family, one that went beyond a hug and to simply have the characters tell everyone else, “Oh, Sara’s taking a nap,” when they asked about how she’s doing.
It all comes back to the idea of what the episode’s goals are, and how much effort is put forth in making those goals a part of the actual story and not just a function of its plot. Because there is so much plot to service, one character in particular is given short shrift in terms of the nature of his on-screen appearance. In every moment spent with Matt Ryan the viewer is not only made acutely aware that Constantine is on Arrow, they are also made acutely aware how aware Arrow is that it has Constantine on. That sort of awareness can produce terrific moments, like the peacock feather – which was a nice jab at the character’s former network – but those moments don’t do much to sustain a story, much less demonstrate the stakes of Constantine’s existence in this world. Furthermore, such meta-allusions to the television industry, funny and perhaps appropriate (or cynical) as they are in this case, only served to accentuate how clearly the seams were showing in nearly every scene in which Ryan appeared.
Although greater focus on Constantine and Sara would have been preferred, ‘Haunted’ did manage to progress several important plots and underline a character issue that needed some attention. Again, this week, Oliver is afforded the chance to sit in his glass house and throw stones. This time it’s at Laurel and Thea for their part in lying to him about “spa weekend” really meaning booking a flight to Nanda Parbat to resurrect Sara. But this time, Laurel calls him on his BS and, surprisingly, Oliver takes note – not just with Laurel but also with Thea. This character adjustment, the idea that Oliver understands he no longer has a self-righteous leg to stand on, underlines how important the shifting power dynamic in Team Arrow is. Oliver may still be calling most of the shots, but now he has to deal with it whenever someone decides they’d rather not listen to him.
Arrow manages to treat Oliver’s step toward emotional maturity and the story’s push toward “unity” as the episode’s central idea. It is a little clunky, considering that’s his campaign platform (which, if he’s running unopposed, are the stakes really that high?), but it mostly works given the emphasis placed on healing Team Arrow’s old wounds, and how many characters successfully return from the dead – or from dead TV shows.
Arrow returns next Wednesday with ‘Lost Souls’ @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: