Arrow #3.3: “Corto Maltese” Recap & Review Arrow #3.3: “Corto Maltese” Recap & Review
A chesspiece episode that moves parts into place for the season's big arcs, but takes some time to offer good character work for two... Arrow #3.3: “Corto Maltese” Recap & Review

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Summary: A chesspiece episode that moves parts into place for the season’s big arcs, but takes some time to offer good character work for two who needed it.

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

Recap

After another lead in Sara’s murder turns up a dead end, Oliver turns his attention to finding Thea and bringing her back. Felicity has tracked her to the South American island nation of Corto Maltese. Six months ago, Thea turned to Malcolm Merlyn to offer her training so that she couldn’t be used, hurt, or lied to again. Malcolm begins training her in a modified version of his own training, but when she doesn’t rise to the challenge, he stops going light on her.

In the present, Diggle mentions to Lyla that Oliver is going to Corto Maltese, and she asks him to guy to check on an A.R.G.U.S. station agent she hasn’t heard from. On Corto Maltese, both Oliver and Roy attempt to convince Thea to come back with them, to no avail. Oliver decides he’s going to tell her the whole truth about his life, but Diggle advises him against it. Instead, Oliver tells her the truth about Robert Queen’s death and how both of their parents sacrificed themselves to give them life. He tells her that she might not need him but he needs her in his life.

Diggle meets up with Shaw, the A.R.G.U.S. agent, and proves he knows Lyla by producing a security transcoder. Shaw explains that someone hacked into A.R.G.U.S. and stole sensitive information on cover identities and families of agents. Fearing for his family, Diggle agrees to help him. Shaw takes Diggle out to a buy that turns out fake. Shaw is the hacker and takes the transcoder from Diggle to crack the stolen information to sell at a real buy.

At the real buy, Oliver, Diggle, and Roy intercede. Oliver is able to recover the information as Diggle goes after Shaw. Shaw reveals he just wanted to break free of A.R.G.U.S. and Waller and asks Diggle to tell her that he killed him. Thea fights Malcolm to allow her to return to Starling. She’s skilled but he lets her win, saying he’ll see her soon. Thinking they failed, Oliver, Roy, and Diggle and surprised to see Thea join them for the flight.

In Starling City, Laurel confronts boxer Ted Grant over providing false information in a case she’s working. He says that he’s only there to help people with anger they can’t control, much like her. Later, Laurel attends an AA meeting and talks about her anger but can’t get into specifics once Quentin arrives. They listen to another member talk about the abuse she’s sustained from her boyfriend. Laurel talks to Quentin about looking into outstanding warrants the boyfriend has. Quentin tells her that for AA to work for them they can’t bring their legal work into meetings.

Laurel decides to take matters into her own hands, dons Sara’s leather jacket and a mask, and attacks the boyfriend. He overpowers her and beats her up, sending her to the hospital. Quentin visits her and employs her to stop and talk to him. She lies, promising that she won’t pursue this further. Laurel meets Oliver at the foundry upon his return and he’s very concerned. She asks for his help to train her and he denies her, saying Sara wouldn’t forgive him to do it. Needing an outlet, Laurel turns to Ted Grant to help her.

In the Arrowcave, Oliver chats with Roy over concerns he has about Thea. They’re interrupted by Nyssa al Ghul, aiming a bow at Oliver and asking where Sara is.

For a full recap of this episode, visit our handy episode guide.

Review

The third episode of the third season on the third day of the work week of the third full week of October … is a chesspiece episode. The term has just been coined. Let’s sit back and savor…

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Self-aggrandizement aside, a chesspiece episode is one in which the primary (and often, sole) goal is to move a number of plot elements into place to keep the big arcs going. The issue you regularly see with them is that they often feel apparent and obvious, more important than filler episodes or most bottle episodes that are there to bide time or tell a character story often out of context with main arcs, but not as elegant or involved as proper full episodes. Simply a perfunctory matter of moving chesspieces.

(Writers and showrunners are currently cringing and writhing in their skin over such a notion.)

Arrow, though, never seeks to waste your time, so even their chesspiece episodes entertain and offer a bit more. In this week’s case, it offers a fair bit more, a promoted or (appropriately) queened chesspiece ep, as it were and if you will.

What did the hour need to do? It had to fill in the last few months for Thea, as well as reintroduce Malcolm on the season. It had to get Thea back to Starling. It had to push the concept of Amanda Waller’s unrelenting deviousness, demands, and moral oscillation, both relevant in the present and to the past Hong Kong storyline. It had to present the stakes for Diggle, and push him further down the road to confrontation with Waller. And it had to give Laurel thought and direction toward her rage.

It surehandedly does all of these.

Not all of it is elegant — it’s just a bit too convenient that Lyla has a situation arising in Corto Maltese that John can attend to for her after hearing for the first time about Oliver going there — but what it adds to elevate is a decided boon to nearly every character involved in the hour. In that regard, the episode is deceptively more than the sum of its parts, but one can’t help feeling the actual bulk of the plot this week isn’t very astounding.

Perhaps the two characters that need the most “love” from the writers on the series, Thea and Laurel, both get fair helpings this time out. Thea has often been sidelined throughout the first two years of the series. Even when stories involve or center around her, they tend to end up servicing other characters more, primarily Oliver, Moira, and Roy. It’s hard to blame the writers as a show that’s dealing in far wider corners than family drama doesn’t leave much for a teenaged character to do. Thea hasn’t been irrelevant but has often felt superfluous, depriving Willa Holland of opportunity to really grow the character.

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Not that Holland has been slouching; in fact, quite the opposite. She’s managed to take what little is there and give Thea a measure of growth, allowing them the opportunity to finally break her out now. At some point, with nearly every other character in the show involved in the world of heroics and evils that Oliver now populates, Thea had to get indoctrinated or be gone. Tying her into the Merlyn family was a bit of a no-brainer in retrospect, and it offers not only an organic way to welcome John Barrowman’s Malcolm back to the series on a significant basis, but gives them a chance to explore family dynamics from within the scope of Oliver’s overarching story. Both parents sacrificing themselves leaves Oliver and Thea to fend for themselves together as family. With this added dark wrinkle, will we see that pitting them on opposite sides?

It has to be found interesting that Thea still sees herself in terms of Thea Queen vs. Thea Merlyn. It comes across less an uncertainty about who she is and what her place can be in the world than it does someone defining where her loyalties will eventually lie. We’re not quite sure what she ultimately thinks of her birth father, but he seems to have garnered her respect through their grueling training, which really has only just begun. She’s learned a fair bit in 5-6 months, but there’s still much ahead for her. The fact that Malcolm allows her to return to Starling City with Oliver but that neither father or daughter has called an end to their efforts speaks a lot. The painfully obvious bit with the coffee spill at the airport aside, it’s clear that Thea has already become transformed in this short but intense time with the Dark Archer.

As a curious aside, I’m intrigued by the role that water has played in both Oliver’s and Thea’s trainings. With Oliver, Shado had him train his patience, concentration, and muscle reflexes on the surface of a bowl of water. With Malcolm, it’s a lesson in pain vs. suffering while enduring boiling water being poured on the back of Thea’s hand. It’s subtle mirroring but with the slight funhouse bent twist to give it a darker edge. Laurel’s journey toward training also shares similarities to Oliver’s path. Very smart plotting on the part of the writers.

There’s not a lot of plot to Thea’s story this week; it’s basically seeing Oliver and deciding whether or not to return to Starling City. (Not to her former life, mind you.) Yet, they give enough for Holland to play with that Thea’s arc this season holds a lot of promise.

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Even more promise is given in Laurel’s arc this week. Each and every cast member was solid, but Katie Cassidy is the true standout. Last season, Laurel was at her best when driven by something. Her three-episode arc hunting down the Hood to start the season still really stands as somewhat of the highlight of what they’ve done with her character. There’s something innate in both character and actor that seems to respond best by having this kind of challenge, and whether or not killing off Sara was cheap or necessary, it’s had the intended effect.

Building off of last week’s desire for revenge, the unquenchable fire has turned her into a bulldog with her job, something boxer and coach Ted Grant can see fuming off of her. As the saying goes, when the student is ready the master or teacher will appear. I like that Grant was able to spark both the initial failed attempt by Laurel to put her anger to good use and that he’s there to train and hone that fire into usable skills. Not only does this follow the comics, but it’s a realistic outlet and resource for someone in Laurel’s position. She’s always been cordoned off as the “normal” amidst this wild array of characters. Undergoing this kind of training is a normal response that should yield extraordinary results.

One only hopes that they take a metered approach to Laurel’s training. In a show given to burning through plot, there’s no rationale toward unrealistically speeding Laurel through this process. We know Slade was able to work a bit of magic with Oliver in the initial short time they were together so that the raid on Fyers was even possible. Yet, they spent many months afterward, with Shado’s assistance, putting Oliver through his paces. And as already evidenced in his time in Hong Kong, his lack of skill is still very evident, two years into his trek through hell. Sara was the same. Picked up some skill while working for Ivo amongst the Amazo crew, learned more from Oliver and Slade, but gained the majority of her skill after years with the League. We know Laurel’s taken some form of combat training, likely for self-defense. She’s used a bit of this in the past. Yet, the ass-whooping by the degenerate boyfriend of her fellow AA member proved she’s far from capable. Let’s see her truly earn her forthcoming abilities.

I’m not one, in the least, to advocate or cheer for violence toward women in media (or real life, for that matter), but I was impressed with the viciousness of the attack and tangible results. The show didn’t want to pussyfoot around the dangers of anyone tossing on a mask and hitting the streets for vigilante justice, as well as the unbelievable cruelty of men towards others, particularly women. This established a baseline with Laurel and immediately established the hazards and risks. Thankfully, the d-bag got some comeuppance, whether it was Laurel or Captain Q who phoned in the tip on his outstanding warrants.

Frankly, it was a bit surprising to see Laurel actually in the hospital following her failed attack. Usually, shows will leave characters to bandage themselves up, but it was effective to see the wayward and vulnerable Laurel here. That moment with Quentin begging and pleading for his girl to stop this and talk to him was poignant, also heartbreaking because the face-forward lies, like what Oliver’s done, have now begun. Cassidy and Paul Blackthorne again did strong work to establish a familial relationship different from all the others on the show. It’s even more intense with the spectre of Sara’s death hanging over everything.

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That spectre informed Oliver’s reply to her when Laurel turns to him for help. Cassidy and Amell share a terrific scene when he explains that he can’t do what Laurel asks. He’s already got enough charges on his plate, but he also knows what the life is like. He knows what Sara went through, and he can’t, in good conscience, participate in that for her. It’s not just Oliver being bullheaded, but borne of true care for Laurel, something you can see the first moment he sees her battered face and knows what she’s going to say before the words even come out of her mouth. So, Laurel finds another outlet. Again, there’s a bit of convenience to her being introduced to Grant and offered the opportunity to train early in the episode only to take him up on it in the end, but it works well within the story.

As I ramble on and on here, I will note one final thing with Laurel. When Roy first catches sight of the Canary in the ravaged Glades last year and begins looking into her, he finds that she’s primarily going around town and defending women who had been or were being assaulted by men. There’s a long history of the character doing the same in the comics. That Laurel’s impulse, aside from making use of her rage over her sister’s death, is to pursue similar ends was very true to Black Canary. It’s a stirring, solid touch to the character’s origins.

What really made this chapter stand out as a chesspiece episode was the look of it. Similar to how they were able to more than reasonably pull off a narrative trip to Russia last year, whatever setting they were able to scout to fill in for Corto Maltese felt tropical. It didn’t hurt that they were dousing everyone in thin layers of water to sell the sweltering heat of an island. The look and tone, though, felt unlike anything else we’ve seen on the series yet, which provided a bit of a palate cleanser from the dark tension of the first two episodes.

It also provided a good backdrop for a B-plot that seemed to be more of the main plot of the episode at times. One wouldn’t be remiss in thinking this was a Diggle-centric hour, and our favorite “Freelancer” got a chance to shine in some brief moments. As did the rest of the guys of Team Arrow, in a nice action setpiece that allowed us to see them all work out of costume. Setting aside the silly coolness of the brief glimpses of Oliver assembling he and Roy bows, arrows, and quivers out of various things found in a hotel room, Oliver’s gunplay, takedown of five guys, and the swift briefcase to the throat were fun. Diggle takes the cake with his badass running down of Mark Shaw’s jeep.

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What you really had to enjoy, especially as a Diggle fan, were the moments with Lyla and baby Sara. There’s always been a soft side to Diggle that they lightly touched on with Carly in season one and hinted at in the too-brief encounters with Lyla last year. Having those moments not only strengthens Diggle’s character but also provides yet another dynamic to the series: a positive, happy relationship. It’s something we need to see more of, particularly as it was not so subtly hinted at a crossroads coming between Diggle and Amanda Waller over his family.

In the end, “Corto Maltese” has to actively and cogently move plot pieces and characters into place to carry through story arcs on the season other than Sara’s death and Oliver working for Waller in the past. It’s not heavy lifting plotwise unto itself, but the hour accomplishes its goals with a little panache. Thea and Laurel both get necessary character boosts, as well as the sparks of their own growth through story this year. Diggle gets to unleash his kickassery while allowing us some private time that makes him all the richer for it. And we get some sunny, sweating respite before launching headlong into the League wanting to know just what the hell happened with Sara. As chesspiece episodes go, it’s a good one.

Odds & Ends

  • How dorky and exciting was the opening chase with the Arrow hunting down the suspect through city traffic? This is now just a normal evening occurrence for the citizens of Starling. Had to chuckle at that thought.
  • Actually said out loud early in the episode that Oliver needed to lighten up when he was shooting all jokes down with a stern face. Almost immediately, he gives Roy a little business about not being able to fly with a bow and arrows and cracks a smile.
  • Mark Shaw didn’t work for A.R.G.U.S. in the comics, but was instead a public defense attorney who joined a group of vigilante crime fighters called the Manhunters. He turned out to be the only human in the group, as the others were the ancient android police force created by the Guardians of the Universe that went nuts and were eventually replaced by the Green Lantern Corps. Shaw being a lawyer and going by the masked identity Manhunter was something he shared with one Kate Spencer. On Arrow, Kate was, of course, the District Attorney who Laurel worked for and was eventually killed by one of the Mirakuru soldiers in Sebastian Blood’s office.

  • Speaking of Shaw, how in the world did he know that someone would show up with a security transcoder to allow his plan to work? It was another convenience that felt forced.
  • Corto Maltese was introduced as an island nation in Frank Miller’s seminal 1980s The Dark Knight Returns mini-series. It’s since played other prominent roles in the DCU, but perhaps is best known as the island Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale photographed a violent war on for Time magazine (credited on the cover as “Vicky Vale”) in Tim Burton’s Batman.
  • I’ve had my own flirtations with joining the legal system, but have to admit that I was unaware that District Attorneys and ADAs are actually issued badges, like the one Laurel is wearing when she first speaks with Ted Grant.
  • Coast City gets a couple of mentions this time out. Coast City is home to Green Lantern Hal Jordan.
  • I guess I misremembered, but I thought Milo Armitage had died in last season’s “Tremors.” Apparently not, as Shaw thought that was who he was meeting with.
  • The names of the A.R.G.U.S. agents exposed on-screen, other than Lyla, appear to be names of various Arrow crewmembers.
  • Laurel and Ted Grant are talking about a Tom Bronson when they first meet. Tom Bronson is Grant’s illegitimate son in the comics, who goes by his own costumed identity as Tomcat. Unlike Grant, Bronson actually is a were-cat.
  • How delicious was Malcolm waiting at the door with drawn bow for Oliver to open it?
  • The worker at the house referred to Thea as “Mia.” Thea’s, at least, partially based on the character of Mia Dearden in the comics. Mia was Green Arrow’s second Speedy after Roy went out on his own as Red Arrow/Arsenal. Moira Queen’s maiden name was Dearden, something she passed on to Thea as her middle name. Perhaps she was going by Mia Dearden on Corto Maltese. Or maybe Mia Merlyn.
  • They’ve done very little with Ray Palmer so far, making sure to include him but sort of peripherally. Still, this might be Brandon Routh’s most charming and funny role. His little caffeine tweaking sequence was amusing.
  • After everything, Felicity ends up with the office once owned by her bosses Walter Steele and Oliver Queen. (Oh yeah, and Moira Queen and Isabel Rochev and Slade Wilson, but we won’t count those.)
  • Felicity’s executive assistant, Gerry Conway, is named for the well-known comics writer who wrote the infamous “Death of Gwen Stacy” story in The Amazing Spider-Man comics, the first Marvel-DC crossover Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, co-created the characters Firestorm and the Punisher, and created one Felicity Smoak.
  • The phone scene with Felicity and Ray was golden, between their chemistry, timing, and the use of the phone calls from Diggle and Laurel. “Are we favor friends now? Are we friends?!” was meta and perfect.
  • Had to enjoy that Felicity was reading The Flash‘s Iris West’s website about “the Streak.” Good set-up for to make her way over to Central City next week.
  • What exactly is Ray up to? Is he planning to use Queen Consolidated’s Applied Sciences weaponry to defend his Star City from any future terrorist attacks?
  • Note that the drone plane diagram Ray pulled up was labelled “O.M.A.C.” In the comics, O.M.A.C. originally stood for “One-Man Army Corps,” a Jack Kirby created hero powered by a satellite. Later, the idea was retooled as “Observational Meta-human Activity Construct” and even later as “Omni Mind And Community,” a series of cybernetically enhanced humans powered and controlled by the Brother Eye satellite.
  • “I don’t know how to vacation like a normal person, Diggle.”
  • “Just Lyla’s baby daddy.”

A SECOND OPINION

by Derek B. Gayle

Rightfully, “Corto Maltese” isn’t as somber as the previous installment, amping up the fun to keep us from slogging through more direct depression and grief. Sara’s death is still on everyone’s minds, but it’s prompted people to do something about it, as it should.

For the core of Team Arrow, this means tracking down Thea, which allows the show to explore a rather different setting than normal. What results is a mostly Arrow-less hour, instead focusing on spy action and character. Oliver, Diggle, and Roy are recast as a ragtag group of rogues, summarized best by Oliver’s makeshift bows and arrows from a lamp and random things in his hotel room. Well-choreographed fight sequences are pretty much on the checklist for any given Arrow episode, but there’s yet to be a point when they’re not welcome or well-placed.

Diggle finally gets substantially more to do, after having been mostly sidelined in the first couple of episodes. Though “Corto Maltese” is hardly Diggle-centric, he owns the bulk of the action/spy plot, giving David Ramsey ample opportunities to show off his physique. It also hones in on his primary family-oriented role this season; now that every other character has a broken family of some sort, Diggle is the only one who has what they’re all fighting for. Plus, it’s always a joy to see Audrey Marie Anderson back as Lyla. And more importantly, Diggle learns that ARGUS and Amanda Waller might be worse than he thought, which will surely cause a schism between he and Lyla down the line.

This is an episode that noticeably features all the guys in the on the action. Felicity has some scenes that set-up where she’ll be with QC this year, which in turn leads to an ominous suggestion that Ray Palmer has evil plans. But aside from the usual quips, it’s mostly tablesetting for Felicity. The core women of this week’s focus are Thea and Laurel, who are battling their own demons in secret and on the sidelines. Oliver’s flashbacks are replaced with Thea’s last few months, and while they aren’t terribly complex or extensive, they give us a brief glimpse of the brutal training she’s received. Even in the short scenes, Willa Holland makes a subtle but clear change in how she portrays Thea’s confidence and demeanor. There’s a certain calmness and self-awareness Holland imbues in Thea post-training—obviously presented during the coffee spill bit, but more subtly shown in how she carries herself in general.

Laurel, on the other hand, is trying to deal with “a fire” inside her that Sara’s death lit. Keeping the murderer a mystery has proven to be an ingenious way to keep Laurel’s anger wild and unfocused; without someone to thrust her anger on, she needs to find a new way to tame it that isn’t the usual mood-depressant. Katie Cassidy really seems to be getting a better handle on the character with this turn of events, likely due to the specific and rather noble motivation we can all latch on to. Laurel fails miserably at being a vigilante, in brutally realistic fashion, as she should at this stage. But her newfound determination plays as a clever response to her problematic uselessness in the first couple of seasons, as she herself is angrily pushing back to make sure she does, actually, make a difference.

Both of these women turn away from the men they were close to, and are forced to turn to people that won’t hold out on them, or trusts that they don’t have to “protect them for their own good.” Thea goes back to Starling with her family, but it’s because Oliver claims to need her, not the other way around. And frankly, Oliver is slightly manipulative in that regard, even as moving as his speech about Robert’s death is, which means Thea is coming back on a shaky foundation. Laurel gets out-and-out turned down by Oliver in regards to training, and like her father, it’s solely out of fear that she’ll hurt herself because she’s not good enough. So, more to the point: both Thea and Laurel want to be treated like people, with the same potential that the three major hitters of Team Arrow tonight also have. Laurel turns to Ted Grant at the end, who has absolutely no stake in her feelings; Thea’s best training from Malcolm comes from when he specifically stops being her father and starts being her teacher. Perhaps these themes are a stretch, but it’s hard to think it’s unintentional when Laurel specifically goes after a man who committed domestic abuse on a woman.

While both Laurel and Thea have demons spawned from the way men have treated them, these stories are very much not the traditional “women scorned,” and that’s a highlight. Both are angry at the world at large and the circumstances that brought them here, though in vastly different ways. Thea’s sheer quantity of betrayals and deaths have caused her to cynically take everything wrong in the world personally, and wants to shield herself from the pain of such a screwed up existence. Laurel is nearly the opposite, with a very specific and personal moment of trauma causing her to recognize that everything is wrong in the world, and she needs to take action to keep herself sane after the realization. But it still leads both women to the same place: physicality.

This is a universe of superheroes, after all, and the rise of vigilantes and extraordinary warriors has made the idea of “fighting back” literally mean to fight back. As Arrow is wont to do, this is a clever spin on what’s essentially the backbone of superhero lore, but still one played purposefully straight. When everyone is constantly at war, the easiest way to contribute is to be a solider. It just seems that Laurel and Thea may be on different sides.

Matt Tucker Editor/Senior Writer/Reviewer

Matt Tucker is a stage and film actor, writer, Seattleite, comics nerd, sports fan, and aspiring person. Someday, he’ll be a real boy. He's an editor and senior writer for KSiteTV network (GreenArrowTV, DaredevilTV) and the sports blog Sonics Rising. He's also Movies/TV editor at SmarksOn. Follow him on Twitter at @MattBCTucker.

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