[This is a review of Arrow season 4, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
A sure-fire sign Arrow has recovered from the somber excesses of season 3 is the way in which the series manages the broadening of the DC TV Universe with the television equivalent of a wink and a nod. This is just the third episode of season 4 and already the series is tasked with getting at least two pieces for the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow series in place. That means spending a good chunk of time with Laurel and Thea in Nanda Parbat, as they negotiate with Malcolm Merlyn – a.k.a. Ra's al Ghul, a.k.a. "dad" – so that Caity Lotz' character on Legends isn't an emaciated corpse in a black corset.
It was a foregone conclusion that Sara would come back from the dead long before 'Restoration' aired, and Arrow wisely doesn't intend to use her resurrection as a means of generating dramatic tension. Instead, the series structures an airy episode primarily concerned with exploring and repairing various interpersonal relationships around its universe-building obligations. The result is a mostly buoyant hour of television that showcases its characters' reaction to the increasingly weird world they find themselves attempting to fight crime in.
There was some initial concern regarding the early introduction of Damien Darhk and his apparently magical abilities. Normally, the Big Bad hangs out in the background for a few episodes, before revealing himself and his true intentions. The season premiere played it a little bit different this time around. Not only did Darhk appear in the episode, he also confronted Oliver, giving Green Arrow and the audience an idea of what the heroes were up against this season. Under more conventional circumstances, this might have felt as though the writers' room was showing its hand too early, leaving many to wonder whether or not the drama of Damien Darhk's plan could effectively be stretched out over the course of the season.
It was obvious in the premiere, but it is even more obvious now, the purpose of Damien Darhk is twofold: he exists as the seemingly unstoppable antagonist for Oliver and the rest of Team Arrow, while also working as the foundation on which the conceit of the season is being built. In other words, Darhk and his magical abilities are the proof of concept for the mysticism and magic permeating the season's storyline. So, while, yes, it is odd that Darhk would send a meta-human assassin with celebrity-chef level tattoo work after Green Arrow, when he seems more than capable of getting the job done himself, the importance of the character to the overarching idea of the season helps to assuage this problem.
Besides, Neal McDonough's performance has been so delightfully psychotic – a nice blend of Quarels from Justified and Pvt. Reich from Ravenous – it's easy to see how the series could build an entire season just around Darhk menacing the people unlucky enough to work for him. There is also an interesting thread introduced regarding H.I.V.E. and the group's belief (at least according to Damien) that Darhk's abilities are nothing more than a cheap parlor trick. This is seemingly confirmed when Mina Fayad witnesses Darhk's hijacking of Double Down's hilarious yet deadly playing card, shortly before her death.
Here again, Arrow demonstrates the tonal shift of season 4, which includes the ability to run with its more ridiculous elements and laugh right along with everyone else. That quality is going to be increasingly important as the show takes its otherwise street-level heroes and digs deeper into the world of magic. And what better way to exhibit this knack for winking at itself, than by showing a guy who uses biological playing cards as weapons all the respect he deserves – which is: no respect at all. Let's face it; Double Down is basically one step removed from throwing scabs at people.
What's important in 'Restoration,' beyond Sara's rebirth and what appears to be Ray using Felicity's cell phone to remind her how great The Matrix was, is how the show responds to the material it is presenting to the audience. There's weighty stuff to be sure, but the episode never feels burdened by any of it, and that is a refreshing change of pace. Felicity placing Oliver and Diggle in a time out to resolve their issues is a perfect example of how such a potentially cumbersome moment is handled with a light touch. Diggle's anger toward Oliver was itself a nice change of pace, one that gave his character some necessary dimensionality, but Oliver wasn't the only one losing interest in trying to make amends. The two resolve their issues in a mostly perfunctory way, but the haste with which their friendship is restored is evened out by the promise of a less petulant Diggle moving forward.
Maybe the best demonstration of the shift in tone comes during the father-daughter bonding moments in Nanda Parbat, wherein Malcolm informs Thea the only way to soothe her bloodlust is to feed it. There is a sense that in season 3, Arrow might have played this revelation – and Malcolm's attempt to help his daughter by sacrificing his own men – as something truly significant and serious. Instead, the moment comes off as kind of silly, and perhaps deliberately so. It is a ridiculous situation for these characters to be in, and to a certain degree, the writers are allowing them to acknowledge it as such. It lets some air in and permits the scene (and the characters in it) a chance to breathe.
It is self-aware to a certain extent, but without undermining the drama of the situation. Malcolm, leader of a cult of assassins, would do anything to help the one thing in the world he seems to truly love, and his answer is to feed Thea's need to kill. It's weird and silly, but instead of being absurd, Arrow tries to make it fun. And for the most part, the show has succeeded in that lofty endeavor.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with 'Beyond Redemption' @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: