[This is a review of Arrow season 3, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
If last week's Arrow went easy on the action, to better focus the story on the emotional impact of Sara's passing, then 'Corto Maltese' practically tucks the Arrow into a bus locker on its way out of town. And the results tend to demonstrate the continuing maturation of the series.
As with season 2, Arrow has proven it can move away from a comfortable formula and tell a story within the parameters of that shift. This season, the creators have already discussed at great length that the overarching theme was going to be one of identity – primarily that of Oliver's ability or inability to balance being the Arrow with maintaining a presence as Oliver Queen. And in the wake of Slade's disassembling of Ollie's life, the non-hooded extension of the character may just prove to be the most interesting.
What is surprising, then, is how, in three episodes, the writers have managed to spread that theme out across (what's left of) the supporting cast, to examine how living in an Arrow-filled world has changed or is in the process of changing who they are and how they think about themselves.
For all intents and purposes, 'Corto Maltese' is a fairly straightforward episode. In fact, it's reminiscent of last season's 'Keep Your Enemies Closer', in that Team Arrow goes international. This time, however, although Diggle is once again breaking out his passport to run an errand for A.R.G.U.S., the primary focus is to reunite Oliver with Thea, who's been spending time with Malcolm Merlyn learning that "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional."
The training of Thea Queen doesn't just turn her into someone who can handle herself in a street fight. If someone happens to spill a hot beverage on her hand (sure, that coffee was hot, but was it McDonald's hot?), it brings back a familiar wrinkle in the character and deepens it in an unexpected way that's still in keeping with what the series is trying to do on a thematic level. That's not to say transforming Thea into someone who's not afraid to go toe-to-toe with Malcolm Merlyn (even if she knows he's going easy on her on account of, you know, being her father) is particularly deep, but it gives the character something to focus on that develops her suffering into action, rather that a lazy depiction of her wallowing in it.
Whereas old Thea might have turned to drugs or alcohol to cope with what she's been through (like learning about her family's predisposition towards keeping secrets), the new Thea's desire to steel herself against the pain of such betrayals reads like an organic and earned progression of her development. And the episode handles that transition in subtle ways that balance nicely against her sword fighting skills; primarily, by demonstrating Thea's acceptance of Oliver tracking her down and her willingness to have an actual conversation with him.
Although Ollie doesn't disclose anything that might dramatically impact their relationship – he's not taking his little sister to the archery range or anything – he does succeed in striking an emotional chord with his confession about Robert Queen's willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of his children. As far as crafting reasons for Thea to return to Starling City, it's sort of written into the show's DNA. It also manages to be convincing without relying on action or histrionics, and the interplay between Amell and Holland demonstrates the growth of the series and its willingness to pursue a more thematically mature storyline that is accented with moments of action.
For the most part, the idea of taking a character's suffering and turning it into action has also been Laurel's arc in these three episodes. In a way, it makes sense for Arrow to do a twofer with Thea and Laurel, considering the characters' on-screen histories has followed a similar track of turning to drugs or alcohol in a time of crisis. In a way, that narcotic or booze-filled nadir is not too dissimilar from where Oliver started out – in the flashbacks anyway. Both (or all three) characters are essentially trading one form of addiction for another, but given Laurel's recent bout with alcohol abuse and her time spent in AA meetings with her father, the concept is far more resonant because it's still so fresh.
Like Oliver (and to a certain extent, Roy and Diggle), Thea and Laurel are in process of finding how they can channel their anger into action. While Arrow runs the risk of creating too many characters running around with too similar motivations, for now its an intriguing avenue to explore – and not just because it introduces Ted Grant (J.R. Ramirez) as the person who will likely fashion Laurel's emotions into a weapon, after Oliver refuses.
Although the A.R.G.U.S. stuff was largely inconsequential – serving primarily to fill the action quotient for the episode – and Roy's development has stalled in perfunctory sidekick mode for the moment, getting (most of) Team Arrow out of Starling City worked to shake off the last of the hiatus cobwebs, get Thea back in the mix, and take the next logical step forward in the wake of Sara's death. Having Nyssa al Ghul show up at the end gives plenty of fuel for the season to press ahead and cast a wider net in exploring the ramifications of Sara's death.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with 'The Magician' @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: