If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
Team Arrow investigates a series of explosions, which are linked to Mark Sheffer, an anti-government terrorist going by the nickname Shrapnel. Arrow discovers Shrapnel’s next target is Sebastian Blood’s “Unity Rally” and tries to talk the alderman out of hosting it, but he refuses. Diggle and Felicity take to the field when Oliver is trapped, and they take out Shrapnel together. Meanwhile Felicity returns from visiting Barry in Central City—Barry was placed in a coma after being struck by lightning—and Oliver isn’t happy with Felicity’s absence. After much bickering, Oliver apologizes, citing his dependency on the team coupled with the resurgence of the Mirakuru. Thea witnesses Roy use his super strength at the rally and questions him, but doesn’t get answers. Laurel learns that Sebastian Blood grew up with Cyrus Gold and investigates Blood, discovering that he killed his father and falsely forced his mother into a mental institution. Arrow, on the other hand, declares Blood an ally for his altruism.
An in-depth recap with trivia will be posted shortly in our handy episode guide!
“Blast Radius”, the show’s return from a long-awaited winter hiatus, is a significant deceleration from the wild momentum and story torn through in the first half of the season. There are definitely parallels to last season’s “Burned” in a structural sense; that episode also had the return from a game-changing winter hiatus feature a one-off villain and a simple plot. Firefly was a better villain in that scenario, though, presenting a complex backstory and decent parallel to Oliver’s psyche at the time, while Sean Maher’s Shrapnel is a mostly irrelevant detour.
Maher is another case of Arrow casting a charismatic genre actor in the role of a psychotic loon, but it falls more on the David Anders end of good casting squandered by flat characterization. Maher brings charisma to Shrapnel, but the entire plot and character is markedly weak, not to mention easily disposed. Great as this show has been with bringing established long-term villains, the more short-term ones have all failed consistently and in the same ways, aside from Count Vertigo or perhaps Mr. Blank…neither of which survived their last outings. Maher is fun enough to warrant a return appearance, but his anti-government ideals aren’t as frightening or intriguing to today’s audience as they might have been years ago, at least on their own and in such broad strokes. He’ll need something better as a hook if he’s to return, rather than being a more proactive and less noble Ron Swanson with a love for explosives.
That said, “Blast Radius” is still much more successful than “Burned” was in the broader sense, thanks instead to the strength of the already-established threads it travels on. The episode as a whole is clearly meant to be more effective in the long haul, with its strongest moments relying on what will come as a result, not necessarily what’s unfolding. Laurel’s revelation about Sebastian Blood’s mother, for example, isn’t all that shocking, but the juxtaposition of her discovery with Arrow declaring Blood an ally is presented as a dramatic turning point. It’s exciting because of what it will lead to, even if we all knew that Blood was a psycho from the first moment. You could argue that every episode of this show pulls that off thanks to its slam-bang approach to storytelling, but “Blast Radius” is made of these types of stepping stone moments. Arrow, Blood and Laurel have been positioned in their respective places. Quentin knows about Laurel’s investigation. Thea has discovered Roy’s powers. Oliver and Felicity come to blows about their tension. Even Barry in a coma is a wheel-spinning stepping stone to the Flash spin-off. Nothing really concludes here outside of the brief and underwhelming Shrapnel plot, so much like “The Scientist”, it’s hard to pass a fair a judgement on how well this episode works without its follow-up.
The success of the episode relies quite a bit on Kevin Alejandro’s generally underplayed Sebastian Blood, and how quietly he’s come on board as this season’s primary villain. He’s been effectively presented as someone very terrifying, but without us ever actually seeing him do much of anything. That’s not a criticism, though; it’s a testament to Alejandro’s ability to be both profoundly scary in his skull mask scenes and charismatic in his public scenes, without changing much of his performance. There isn’t a whole lot of duality with him, so his friendly can be frightening and vice versa depending on who’s paying attention. His publicity stunt in this episode is a bit muddled, admittedly, with what appears to have been a Batman Gambit, knowing Shrapnel would attack, Arrow would save the day, and it would make everyone including Arrow trust him. But even then, the nefarious power play only happens because of his actions as an altruistic and determined “nice guy.” That ambiguousness and inability for anyone to nail down what Blood is thinking is what’s made him slowly creep in as a scary villain, and it’s surprising how well it’s worked. Again, Blood hasn’t done much directly, but it doesn’t at all seem out of character to learn he orphaned himself and effectively drove his mother insane. Malcolm Merlyn was fierce in battle and could dish out some scary rage at times, but Blood is creepy on a less tangible level.
Laurel’s place in all this is improving, even if her reason for being suspicious of Blood in the first place isn’t much beyond “woman’s intuition,” or whatever. The basis for how Laurel snuck into the main story arc is just kinda thrown in—the Cyrus Gold connection is the catalyst for her investigation, but she obviously thought something was off before then—but it’s also a smart place for the character to be. Laurel knows something no one else knows, and she’s instantly more relevant to the show than she’s been in quite some time. The show also deserves credit for not going through the tired “female protagonist finds out her nice boyfriend is evil.” It’s subverted pretty well, actually, with Laurel explicitly having little-to-no interest in the guy outside of figuring out if he’s evil or not. Katie Cassidy isn’t much better or worse than she’s been this season, but she’s instantly more fun to watch when she’s playing a Laurel that isn’t intruding on the story. She’s got the advantage, she’s being proactive, and it’s refreshing to see her actively moving along the plot by her own demands. That is, until this pill-popping stuff comes to a head…
In fact, Laurel’s place is more taken by Felicity this week, with a subplot that’s more than a little tedious. Aside from some overly indulgent moments here and there, the Felicity/Oliver relationship has been handled rather delicately thus far (or at least, not as pandering as it could be.) This week features a Felicity and Oliver at each other’s throats for no real reason, and as great as their banter normally is, it’s not terribly fun this time around. It’s not entirely nonsensical; the end of the episode justifies it, with a combination of Oliver’s confused feelings about Felicity and his revelation of how dependent he’s become on his team. But the bait-and-switch to make it appear that it’s jealousy over Barry makes them come off rather petty, especially when it results in Felicity tossing insults at Oliver when he’s standing helpless in the middle of an explosive trap. It’s not a bad thing to see the team fraying around the edges, especially given Oliver’s obvious freak-outs regarding the Mirakuru. But like last season’s all-too-brief team split, the cracks haven’t been believable enough to justify the attitudes. That said, Stephen Amell does nice work differentiating his confused frustrations now from his general coldness in the first season. Oliver might still come off as a big dick in this episode, but Amell still plays all of it significantly warmer and softer than he would have a year ago.
Roy’s subplot is fairly standard “superhero discovering his powers” fare that we’ve all seen before. However, letting Thea in on Roy’s secret so soon is a surprising direction, especially exciting considering the proto-Teen Titans group Thea, Roy and Sin make. The island flashbacks are also fairly standard, with Ivo continuing to be super evil, Oliver continuing to feel guilty and Slade continuing to be angry. That said, Manu Bennett is clearly having fun portraying Slade’s massive bouts of rage, and gets some wider emotional material than he’s had in quite a while. The moment with him giving Oliver Yao Fei’s hood, thus conceding that Shado chose Oliver, is an important one for him, all-the-more piercing considering the tragic circumstances. That Oliver is so close to being truthful to Slade is a testament to his honorable character, too, even if Sara talks him out of it.
As per usual with Arrow, there’s a whole lot going on at once. So even though this isn’t the most engaging or even explosive (no pun intended) episode of the season, its early season one-esque villain doesn’t drag it down to early season one quality. All these parts make for a fairly entertaining episode overall, but one that will certainly benefit in the long term if this season’s threads succeed. Its stepping stone quality makes it inevitable that it won’t break out as the best of the season, but it’s certainly not the most boring, either.
Odds & Ends
- The entire motorcycle sequence is exceptionally well done, even for this show. Oliver jumping off the bike and riding it on its side during an explosion–and then getting right back on–is a cool stunt, in particular.
- You cast Sean Maher in a show that also features Summer Glau in a recurring role, and they don’t appear together at all?!
- Diggle is out in the field again! And then he gets shot. Oh well, better than nothing.
- Now that Oliver has the domino mask, it seems like he’s less wary of people seeing his face under the hood. When he’s rescuing people from the first explosion, for example, he doesn’t do as much of his head tilting when people run right up to him. It’s a nice detail, as is his reference to it as “a gift from a friend.”
- Diggle trying to pull off Felicity’s hacking: “Hey man, this is not my thing!”
- “You talk a lot about being an orphan, but you don’t talk about your parents.” What an awkward and clunky way for Laurel to transition that conversation.