Prison breaks in popular fiction tend to have a similar disposition as heist films or storylines. There’s an element of team building, high stakes, and always the promise of terrific tension. After all, what happens when things go wrong, as they inevitably will? That’s all part and parcel of what makes the subgenre great, the preexisting expectations of the audience, and the way in which the TV show or film in question manages them – or manages to subvert them. That’s of particular interest to Arrow this season, as the series is still wobbly, coming off two largely unsuccessful storylines, and as such, the idea of managing the audience’s expectations and (hopefully) subverting them in a positive way that demonstrates the show is back on track.
One way for the show to do that is to offer more focused episodes, rather than attempt to fit a number of different storylines into each hour. At this point in season 5, Arrow has done a little bit of both, cramming a Ragman intro and backstory into an hour that was intended to be about the birth of Team Arrow 2.0, and then later glossing over Mister Terrific’s debut as Oliver took on special guest star Cody Rhodes, aka Derek Sampson. Still, on the plus side, the latter example took place in an hour that was much more focused on a single task and a somewhat more streamlined narrative that moved more confidently from point A to point B – even if that middle point was a tad hazy.
The hope, then, was that ‘Penance’ will follow suit, and, perhaps, improve upon its episodic predecessor by remaining single-minded in its narrative pursuits. The episode certainly has enough storyline present to make that possible. After Oliver learned last week that Diggle had been remanded to a military prison by Lyla, he’s taken it upon himself to spring his old friend from the hoosegow – which only sort of makes sense given Lyla’s association with A.R.G.U.S. And while seeing a vigilante like the Green Arrow actively engage in a prison break from a military facility is a recipe wrought with conflict, the real kicker is Team Arrow’s reaction to the plan.
There are many reasons for Oliver not to do what he’s planning on doing – some of which are raised by Felicity and the rest of the new team. But Oliver’s insistence that he’s right and his decision is all that matters – it is called Team Arrow after all – is again what fuels the majority of the episode’s conflict. It’s a familiar scenario to be sure, Oliver’s self-righteousness has been on display from the series premiere, and it has been brought up time and again in season 5 already. So what does ‘Penance’ have to offer that is new with regard to Oliver’s incessant disregard for the team dynamic and his abnormally long learning curve with the new recruits?
It would seem that the division between leader and team members results in the new Team Arrow embarking on their first solo mission. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Felicity and Quentin Lance are on hand to help out, but for the most part it’s the new recruits versus Tobias Church and his well-funded crew. The outing works for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity to see how Wild Dog, Artemis, Mister Terrific, and Ragman function in a high-pressure situation without Oliver (yelling at them). The way in which the mission to save Adrian Chase and some cops rolls out, makes you wonder if the continued failures of Team Arrow – especially Wild Dog – has something to do with the presence of Green Arrow and his, well, let’s just say unique teaching methods.
Although Chase is rescued, the mission ends with Curtis being injured and Wild Dog captured and tortured by Church – it’s anything but a success. But the division between Team Arrow 2.0 and Oliver makes ‘Penance’ one of the more enjoyable and enjoyably focused hours Arrow has offered so far this season. It’s not always the case, but here, the split narratives actually complement one another, as the stakes remain high in both scenarios and they wind up complementing the other by underlining important character details that might otherwise be lost in the clash of personalities that is Oliver vs. the New Recruits. Here, Wild Dog’s insubordination comes across as selflessness, as his desire to take Tobias on one-on-one results in his capture, but also ensures Curtis and Artemis’s safety. Likewise, Oliver’s self-centeredness becomes an attribute, as he won’t listen to anyone – not even Diggle – tell him that breaking into a military facility to free an inmate is a bad idea.
These moments feel rare because the show too often oversells them. Case in point: Oliver and Ragman’s discussion about dads and vigilantism earlier this season. Instead of having a long conversation about the way both Oliver and Rene are self-centered and that’s not always a bad thing, ‘Penance’ demonstrates both via two propulsive plotlines that keep the hour moving at a nice clip. In terms of giving key characters (because, let’s face it, Rene is the most interesting new recruit) something to do and building parallel plots that are tangentially related but not entirely reliant on one another, this marks an early high point for the series in season 5.
And with Adrian Chase beginning to demonstrate more layers than have been seen before, Arrow is starting to get a handle on the season. It’s still too early to tell how Chase and Vigilante (unless the show throws in an unlikely twist and reveals him to be Prometheus) will factor into the season’s still-developing overarching narrative, but in the first five episodes, Arrow has something interesting brewing with regard to the influence of vigilantes in a city that needs them, but also only seems to get worse because of them. Hopefully, the series will be able to develop that idea and more as the season progresses.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with ‘Human Target’ @8pm on The CW.