Arrow #1.21 “The Undertaking” Recap & Review Arrow #1.21 “The Undertaking” Recap & Review
Derek B. Gayle reviews the May 1 episode of CW's Arrow. Arrow #1.21 “The Undertaking” Recap & Review


The UndertakingSummary: 
Hey, remember that Walter guy? His kidnapping is back in the spotlight, and the search for Queens’ surrogate father prompts the backstory of the original Queen patriarch, in a revealing episode rife with set-up for the finale.

If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!

Recap

In flashbacks, Malcolm Merlyn proposes “The Undertaking” to a group of other powerful people in Starling City—including Robert Queen and Frank Chen—which would level the Glades to start anew, the place where Malcolm lost his wife and Robert lost his “soul” when he murdered someone. Moira convinces Robert to not go through with it, and concocts a plan to take his boat to China to and buy out the Glades before Malcolm can get to them, but Malcolm and Frank plant a bomb on the boat to stop him. In the present, Felicity gets a lead on Walter thanks to the corrupt head of a casino. Felicity goes into the field as bait, where they get news that Walter is dead. When Moira confronts Malcolm about this news, he confirms that he’s alive—and Oliver learns that she and Malcolm were working together all along. Oliver and Felicity finally rescue Walter, but Oliver is now aware of who his true enemies are.

Read an in-depth recap on our handy episode guide!

Review

These kinds of “set-up for the finale” episodes are often hard to pull off. Sometimes character development and creative storytelling has to be put on the backburner in favor of plot-moving, all to make sure things are ready to go for the season’s final bow. Arrow‘s season-long pacing has always been a bit hard to pin down, with the building of Oliver’s team, character returns and secret reveals often feeling like plot points that should be reserved for future seasons. But at the same time, stories like Walter’s abduction or Moira’s part in the big mystery had presumed “big” moments thrown out, only to have the story slow down to a snail’s pace while other things happened around them. Whether or not all of this will still click upon season-long rewatch is up in the air, but “The Undertaking” indicates that it will. Pieces are being moved, but enough planning has gone on in the past 20 episodes that they don’t need to be forced into position.

Walter Steele’s abduction had faded into the background during this back half of the season, but with “The Undertaking,” that major plot point is finally brought back to see its resolution. While the show might have benefited from little teases or mentions of Walter in these last few weeks (I’d honestly forgotten that Felicity only joined Oliver to find Walter), the fact that he the characters haven’t talked about him much was at least acknowledged. Using the Life Insurance company’s hounding was a clever way to bring him back up without making it seem contrived. But even still, it does seem like there has been a lot of stalling between “Year’s End” and now, even in spite of how much better the show has gotten during that time. It’s a necessary evil when there are so many plots (both past and present) going on at once, and this episode benefits by turning its focus to only two specific sides: Walter’s return and The Undertaking’s origin.

The flashbacks don’t reveal so much as piece together what we already know into a clearer picture. Despite how fast the show has developed many of the vigilante stories, the actual Undertaking mystery has been noticeably slow and low-key; little answers would pop up along the way without their own big reveals. Though we still don’t know the whole story, it’s hardly a letdown to fully understand that this is a plot to destroy the whole 24-square-block Glades by way of a lookalike natural disaster. It’s not the most unique plot to grace the screen by a long shot, but it’s been slowly and carefully laid out throughout the season, and therefore doesn’t feel like something reserved for a “shocking” reveal since we were invited to figure it out on our own. The idea that so many people would get behind something as horrible as The Undertaking is admittedly far-fetched—when Watchmen had a similar climax, it was at the hand of one misguided person—but as a backdrop for an explosive endgame, it certainly keeps the stakes high.

But what really makes this flashback more than just a way to recap the season’s puzzle is the beardified Robert Queen. At this point, Robert has been an enigmatic force hovering over the story—from all-knowing father to big ugly cheater—but capturing the many facets of such an unseen character that’s been developed more post-mortem than onscreen would surely be a challenge. Luckily, Jamey Sheridan was up to the task. A standout this week, Sheridan brings a lot of weight to the oft-mentioned but seldom seen father Queen, presenting a deeply misguided man with a damaged psyche. What works is that Robert is presented as foil to Malcolm, though the show is smart to not be too overt about this. Robert has his doubts about The Undertaking, but the reason he ultimately decides to fight against it is because of his wife. Malcolm’s damage is because of the loss of his wife, meaning there’s nothing that could hold him back. Malcolm’s chilling story about his wife’s death, and the nightmare of her tearful messages, is a wonderfully dark and haunting origin story for him. John Barrowman sells Malcolm’s absolute cynicism and belief, and Barrowman’s own smooth-talking ability makes him a believable leader who could evoke enough sympathy to get people on his side, no matter how awful his side may be. And the wife that caused all this is a major light spot in the episode, too. Susanna Thompson is wonderful this week as Moira, who often steals the scenes she’s. Thompson had a big range of emotions to play, from distraught over Walter, to distressed over Robert’s potential villainy, to youthfully naive when he left on the boat, and performed it all adeptly. Now that everything is boiling up for Moira, the potential for her being axed at the end of the season is getting more and more likely, and if that’s the case, Thompson will be a huge loss for the show.

The Oliver/Laurel material in the flashback falls flat, however. It’s clear that this was supposed to parallel Oliver’s present day declaration of love for Laurel, but it’s quite boring. For one, the present day storyline it parallels isn’t that great; it’s understandable since they’ve been touted as this epic love all season, but there simply isn’t enough on-screen backing or chemistry to justify it. All we’ve really had to go on about Oliver and Laurel “belonging” together has been other characters saying it and knowledge of their comic book counterparts, but it’s not enough. It’s disappointing, because I (and probably all Arrow/Canary fans) want it to work, but it just hasn’t been. In the flashbacks, not much goes on that we don’t already know. Katie Cassidy is plenty of fun as the younger, unscarred Laurel, though it’s a little unnerving that she seems more natural here than in her baggage-heavy adult form. But while Amell is really good as hardened present day Oliver and in-over-his-head island Oliver, he doesn’t quite sell slacker douchebag Oliver. He’s not bad, but he gives this variation of Oliver so little depth and likability that it rings false. There’s a tinge of character material in that Oliver made his choice to cheat on Laurel out of fear of taking the next step with her, but it’s such a tired beat that it doesn’t hit the mark.

Amell did manage to earn himself points back in the present day storyline, though. He made a handful of subtle choices throughout that informed Oliver’s continually growing heart, particularly his look of utter devastation at seeing Walter in the cell. Another nice moment was his reaction to Malcolm approaching him in the hallway at the end, where you could see Oliver completely seething with disgust. Amell played off of Emily Bett Rickards’ always-enjoyable performance, too, as Felicity got her first taste of field duty since “Dodger.” The increased presence of Felicity is an indication of the kind of fun we ought to have with the character next season. The “It feels good to have you inside of me” line, for example, is juvenile joke to throw in, but Rickards has enough charm in her delivery that it’s welcome (though hopefully won’t be overused.) Diggle, meanwhile, was mostly an afterthought. But the importance of his departure to Oliver is nicely addressed, even if their fissure is too brief and its presumed repair is somewhat anticlimactic. Any moment we see the typically over-confident Oliver admit his faults and treat his friends like friends is a good moment to have, though. And I liked the brief moment Felicity and Diggle had; the two share a specific kind of camaraderie that’s quite enjoyable to watch.

The UndertakingOliver’s revelation about his mother’s and best friend’s father’s connections, of course, is an unexpected highlight of the episode. Admittedly, the way Oliver hasn’t mentioned much about the revelations he already had about his mother reeks of stalling, but much like the Walter storyline, the stronger episodes that came out of putting that plot point on the backburner makes it a bit more forgivable. Oliver’s apology to Diggle at the end of the episode indicates that his anger isn’t just because of who’s involved, but also the guilt and frustration with himself that he already knew, but chose to ignore it. Now that he’s finally gotten himself out of denial, we’re sure to see Oliver have to confront his own psyche and oft-faulty decision-making in these final two episodes, in what should be an interesting psychological struggle.

The present-day story is straightfoward here, but gets done what it needs to get done, deftly shifting all the pieces towards the finale in natural ways. But what makes this episode a standout is that, even amongst the spectacular casino-shootout, the fun of Oliver and Felicity in the field, and some good emotional moments from the Queen family, the flashbacks keep the episode afloat. In spite of what happens, the structure of the present story is completely run-of-the-mill. Interspersing a very revealing and character-heavy origin story—with more thematic ties to the present than we normally see in the island flashbacks—is what makes “The Undertaking” something unique in the season, and creates an exciting dose of thought-provoking material in what would normally be all set-up.

Odds & Ends

  • The episode guide lists all the subtle DC Comics references the show has become so good at throwing out. It’s kind of ridiculous.
  • Though I’m sure no one anywhere bought that Walter was dead, the visceral, painful reactions Susanna Thompson and Willa Holland had were well-played.
  • Not-so-coincidentally, present day Oliver seems to have mysteriously shed most of his stubble in the same episode that we meet his clean-shaven pre-island self. It was probably unavoidable give the shooting schedule, but worth an observation. And no matter what it will never be as bad as Mohinder’s magically size-changing stubble in Heroes‘ “Five Years Gone.”
  • I have to admit, Oliver’s parachute (or should I say Arrowchute….eh?) was a little silly. But the show did well to make the potentially terrible CGI short and sweet, only sticking to his landing.
  • Had it been revealed before that Frank Chen put the bomb on the boat? I was surprised by that, considering how sympathetic he’d been before, but I also wonder if that had been revealed already (and if present day-Moira knew.)
  • “Oliver’s religiously against admitting that he’s wrong.” THANK YOU, Felicity. Finally, someone said it.
  • “One man alone can’t save this city, Robert. We both know that.”

A SECOND OPINION

by Matt Tucker
And now we know just what is “the Undertaking.” Gentrification on an extreme scale. Heartbroken over his wife’s murder, sick to death of the crime and decrepitude, Malcolm Merlyn wants to wipe the Glades off the map and start it anew.

In a compelling twist that follows along the concept of good people doing evil things, the “Tempest” Group turns out to be a number of concerned wealthy people who just want to do right by their city. In doing so, they are led down a path by a warped Malcolm, who is revealed to be a complex and fragile man in tremendous work by John Barrowman. It’s the epitome of a man shaped by circumstances who feels he is doing the right thing, even if his moral compass has been sent into frenetic spin.

There is more to the story, to be sure. The revelation of what this large-scale event is — devices that will cause earthquakes to ravage and level the Glades, effectively turning it into a “No Man’s Land” to be reborn — actually slightly anticlimactic. However, enough hints have been dropped about Malcolm’s connections to something larger, as well as how everything ties into Oliver’s experience on the island, that this is really just the first part of something broader. Fully expect to see more revelations during the final two episodes of the season, let alone as the series moves beyond that.

In some regards, though the mix worked, it would’ve been good to have spent more time in the past featured here. Opportunities to allow us to get to know Robert Queen more would be a good thing, as well as helping to shade in Oliver’s emotional history. Here, it’s revealed that the reason he was sneaking around with Sara is because of his fear of things moving ahead with Laurel, which is somewhat echoed in his stance of not giving into his emotions over Laurel in the present day. That’s some fairly heady psychological stuff that’s somewhat casually tossed off here. Robert, as well, is revealed to be quite different than we thought in regards to his involvement with Tempest, as is Moira for that matter. This flashback, though it would seem to be rather expected, is actually quite the eye-opener in relation to the season-long arc. It would’ve been nice to spent even more time with it.

Meanwhile, in the present, revelation is exactly what Oliver goes through with his mother and Malcolm. It’s a superb development that they were able to bring some resolution to the Walter situation, and to do so before the finale without leaving it as a further cliffhanger. Amell nails the tear in Ollie’s soul over this, and that moment where he has to make nice with the family while knowing his mother’s involvement was solid. As was the confrontation moment with Malcolm that foreshadows events to come. Setting these aspects up now again speaks to the overall spectacular job of plotting the show has done on the season. These are things you’d expect to see in the opening acts of the finale and we’ve still got two whole episodes to go.

It feels a bit too pat that Oliver’s and Diggle’s friction was resolved as quickly and efficiently as it was, another example of the quick turn of events in plotting that we’ve all now become accustomed to with the show. Though one can fully expect residual effects to play a part as we near the execution of the Undertaking. Still, Felicity’s maneuvering to get the two back together was welcome action for Team Arrow and led to a beautiful scene between Emily Bett Rickards and David Ramsay. Rickards was also great throughout Felicity’s little undercover operation, though she kind of gave up a bit too early with the casino boss.

A good pace; touching moments between characters; revelations; an intriguing flashback premise; a fantasticly choreographed and scored fight sequence when Oliver raids the Bludhaven tenement to get Walter; Oliver parachuting into the tenement scene in the first place; and shout-outs to DC stalwarts Ted Kord (Blue Beetle), Ray Palmer (the Atom), and Jean Loring (Ray’s love interest). For set-up and background for the finale, this “Undertaking” was a fine episode.

Derek B. Gayle

Derek B. Gayle is a Virginia native with a BS in English, Journalism and Film from Randolph-Macon College. In addition to being an avid Power Rangers and genre TV fanatic, he also currently co-produces, writes and performs in local theatre, and critically reviews old kids' cartoons. You can check out his portfolio here.

shares