Arrow: “Penance” Review
By Mitchell Sigal
“Penance” is a by-the-numbers episode of Arrow, which is to say not unexciting but also not necessarily consequential. Even the show’s big cliff hanger – that Wild Dog has been taken by Tobias Church – will likely be resolved within the first half hour of next week’s episode, given the pace at which the show has been working this season. With less fireworks than last week, and a more contained, measurable plot, “Penance” was a pleasurable but restrained offering after three weeks of quick work by Arrow.
The episode with opens with the new Arrow Team on another night run, chasing a thug associated with Church. They act valiantly and capably, until Mr. Terrific is overpowered, and eventually rescued by Oliver. This sets up an Arrow-Team heavy episode, which we will cover shortly.
After the mission, Ragman quits the team, citing Felicity’s bombshell from last week (that she was responsible for the tragedy that took his father’s life). This is a prime example of what I think Arrow does not always do well – as I’ll get to, Ragman’s abstinence from Team Arrow lasts approximately thirty minutes of screen time. The show so often throws these head-fake diversions, easy methods of illustrating conflict that are almost universally inconsequential. To be clear, Ragman should obviously feel conflicted working alongside Felicity, just as Felicity’s guilt is a feeling worth exploring. There just has to be another way without a character cheaply disengaging, especially when anybody who has watched Arrow knows with certainty that they will be back. So, Ragman comes back.
On the legal side of crime fighting, the Anti-Crime Unit is building a case against Church, per Oliver’s instruction. This storyline eventually merges with Team Arrow’s, after Church mounts an assault on the Unit in the episode’s last fifteen minutes.
Before that, though, is the story line that exists at the center of “Penance” – the rescue of Diggle from prison. Oliver, in spite of Felicity’s disapproval, makes a plan with Lyla to extract Diggle. The sequence to do so smartly focused on Oliver’s skills as a stealth tactician, rather than relying totally on fireworks and fisticuffs. The result is a tense proceeding, in which Oliver not only has to rescue Diggle, but convince Diggle that he needs to be rescued in the first place.
That last part – Diggle’s desire to serve his time – grounds the theme of tonight’s episode.
“Penance” certainly deals with guilt, and punishment. Diggle is swimming in guilt over events past, and feels that his sentence is appropriate, even if the sentence itself is based on a falsehood. Felicity tries to overcome her own regret by convincing Ragman to rejoin Team Arrow. One level deeper though, the episode is framing a smart debate about the power characters should have over their own fate, and specifically how Oliver relates to that power (or lack thereof).
Diggle believes firmly that he belongs in that prison cell, for reasons beyond the farce that placed him there to begin with. Oliver, being a friend to Diggle and a brother-in-arms, disagrees – and acts accordingly, removing any agency that Diggle has over his own situation. Ragman, similarly, acts (however fleetingly) on his own feelings by leaving Team Arrow. Oliver convinces Felicity to change Ragman’s mind. And, interestingly, when Team Arrow is debating Felicity at the episode’s climax – about whether they should be able to confront Church at the Anti-Crime-Unit without Oliver’s assistance – its Ragman who punctuates his dramatic return with a rhetorical question: “Shouldn’t that be up to us?” The “That” in Ragman’s question is the choice to face death. The failure of this team’s infrastructure aside (I have thoughts there), the question relates to Diggle, and Ragman when he wanted to quit. Why does every choice fall on the shoulders of Oliver? Shouldn’t every character choose the terms on which they face their own guilt, or their own mortality?
The answer, of course, is that Oliver is the showstopper, a bona fide superstar, and Team Arrow’s leader. That last point, though, is again undermined when Felicity relents and allows the young crime fighters to pursue Church. Predictably, they fare poorly. Mr. Terrific is knifed in the back, and Wild Dog is left behind to fight Church, which also goes poorly. Wild Dog is left behind, and captured by Church, who vows to break him and leave him for the Green Arrow to find.
I said I wouldn’t write about the TEAM this week, but it’s worth mentioning that Oliver has some blind spots as a leader. The New Arrow Team consistently ignores direction, acts petulant, acts irresponsibly, endangers missions, and pouts when reprimanded. Now, obviously Arrow is framing this new group as a work-in-progress, which is to be expected. But there isn’t much point grappling for three weeks about the formation of a new team, if the coaching isn’t there. Right now, it isn’t. Church has been a step ahead of Oliver and Company at every turn, seeing two or three turns ahead in the Chess match. Now, with Wild Dog in his possession, it will be interesting to see Oliver confront the reality that this new team is not immune from the same fate that set upon the old team.
In the flashback portion of “Penance”, a prison setting matches the events of the episode’s present. Oliver is undergoing his last initiation step into Bratva, by posing as a drunk to be arrested, and killing a man in holding. It’s a sharp contrast to the prison sequence of the present, as Oliver successfully sweeps Diggle away through the sewer and into an aircraft. These flashbacks always feel a touch too convenient – at this point, it seems like Oliver’s life is truly a flat circle – but there is no denying their efficacy. For a show that constantly relies on clunky exposition, seeing what makes Oliver tick is a refreshing storytelling tool.
The episode ends with Felicity, distraught over losing Wild Dog, being comforted by Ragman, who assures her that she did the best when faced with an impossible choice. Setting aside that the choice was not impossible (how about just, “no, you can’t go fight a losing battle, stay here until the actual hero comes back, okay fine, I’ll call him and ask”), this is the type of cheesy learning moment that is a necessarily evil in Arrow.
Notes about Oliver’s coaching aside, “Penance” was a compelling and entertaining hour of Arrow. It was mostly housekeeping – Diggle had to get out somehow, and Felicity and Ragman had to make amends – but it was a good way for the show to build on the breakneck first few episodes of the season, and set up the big conflicts that are coming.