[This is a review of Arrow season 3, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
When you stop to consider the many benefits that Felicity Smoak – due in large part to the charming, vibrant, and often very funny performance of Emily Bett Rickards – brings to the average episode of Arrow (and after last week, The Flash), it's a little surprising to think that the character hasn't been in the spotlight until now. 'The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak,' then, is something of a well-deserved character appreciation that deftly explores the hacking genius' semi-lawless background, while simultaneously giving the audience a glimpse into her personal life, thanks to the unexpected arrival of her mother, played by NYPD Blue veteran Charlotte Ross.
Amidst all the mother-daughter turmoil - and the ongoing crisis Starling City is experiencing thanks to a mysterious hacker using a program Felicity wrote five years prior - this welcome Felicity-centric episode becomes another strong effort by the writers of Arrow that also factors in a surprisingly effective throughline about the importance of family. Normally, such a thing might feel a little heavy-handed or too on the nose, considering the role of family over the first two seasons, but here it actually serves to strengthen the interplay between Felicity and her mother, Donna, and, certainly, the ongoing adjustments Oliver has been forced to make with regard to Thea. There's even a somewhat risky exploration of Laurel's angry recklessness in the wake of Sara's death that isn't altogether unsuccessful.
What the episode is far more successful at, however, is consistently striking the right tone. That says a lot about how much the series has matured to understand its characters and what it is they bring to any given scene - and, more to the point, what it is they need in order to bring a particular scene that special something. In that sense, the hour is essentially an expanded Felicity scene, one where the character's silly and playful essence – like, say, her inadvertent double entendres and endearing attempts to correct them – is asked to power an entire hour of television. Thankfully, the hour isn't an endless slog of risqué interpretations of dialogue, but rather a repurposing of that kind of energy – which is established early on, with an opening montage of training sequences that culminates with Felicity doing sit-ups in front of the TV on her living room floor.
From the opening, it's clear this is all about character, and the use of characters to enliven certain scenes is some of the best the show has done all season. Small things like Diggle and Oliver's conversation about little Sarah not being entirely welcome in the Arrow Cave, or Brandon Routh being paired with Rickards as a way to sell the awkward relationship she has with her mother, go a long way in making everything feel connected, coherent, and light. By the time Felicity reveals her dark secret – which includes full goth get-up, complete with jet-black hair and heavy eyeliner – setting the Arrow in motion against the hacker attacking the city, the episode has already convincingly illustrated how well it can manage shifting things away (however temporarily) from Oliver Queen and his struggles.
Felicity's backstory primarily concerns the "hacktivism" she and her then-boyfriend Cooper (Nolan Gerard Funk) were engaged in, which ultimately led to his being imprisoned for using the program she wrote to try and wipe out student debt. It is an incredibly compact version of a hero's origin story that works because the show has already built Felicity into a character who is easy to care about and doesn't necessarily generate any cause to question her heroism. Basically, the flashback is just filling in any gaps there may have been in her history, while offering Felicity the chance to atone for what she believes to be her biggest sin.
The story of Cooper and Felicity's dorm-room activism coming back to bite her is an interesting way of defining who she is now – keeping the theme of the episode in line with the season's underlying theme identity. But the addition of Felicity's mom and their somewhat fractured relationship also manages to reinforce the rapidly changing dynamic of Oliver and Thea. While Felicity and Donna healed their bond during Cooper's attack on Starling, Thea and Ollie came to an agreement about her use of Malcolm Merlyn's money, which superficially mended their differences and simultaneously widened the unspoken gulf of lies between them. But perhaps the biggest takeaway was Thea refusing to back down from her decision, despite her big brother's disapproval. Malcolm may influence her to a certain degree, but this is the first time Thea's shown some sense of agency, and the results are quite good.
In the end, 'The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak' balances character with plenty of flashy Arrow moments (the highlight of which may have been Roy's expression at taking out a thug's RPG with a miraculous shot) so well it almost completely obscures the fact that the episode is essentially just setting up what's to come. That's a neat trick for the series to have pulled off, making what is essentially table-setting look and feel more like a complete bottle episode. And the fact that Roy's nightmare of having killed Sara doesn’t completely overwhelm everything that came before it is proof of just how well things came together on this effort.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with 'Guilty' @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: