Arrow: “The Recruits” Review
By Mitchell Sigal
Last week, Arrow spent most of its time resetting itself. Grounding it’s tone more in reality, and grit; restructuring the stakes that would drive the narrative of this season; and illuminating the struggle within Oliver. That struggle came down to two essential points: coping with the loss of his team, and reconciling his use of force with his morality. Tonight, the show – having set its targets and readied itself for what’s to come – shot out of the gate, building momentum as quickly as possible one week removed from mostly setting the stage.
This installment, aptly titled “The Recruits,” resolved the first of Oliver’s grave internal struggles inside the course of an hour. Last week, and at the start of this week, the show’s favorite word was “Team.” Thea telling Oliver he needs a Team, Oliver petulantly firing back that there is no Team, and that there won’t be any time soon. For everything Arrowdoes well, it fails to live up to one of the oldest storytelling precepts – show, don’t tell. As such, when Oliver is feeling something, the show will let you know. And what Oliver was feeling, for the first episode and a half of this season, is that Teams were a things of the past.
The flashbacks segments of “The Recruits” helped illustrate Olivers wariness toward “letting people in”, that most trite of trumped-up superhero problems. It’s revealed that during his initiation into Bratva, Oliver learned at least one gruesome lesson – you can’t trust anybody but yourself. The teaching of this lesson was an episode highlight – Oliver and other Bratva recruits are tasked with fighting through one or more people to ring a bell that is being guarded. Oliver quickly realizes that if they team up, he and the others will be able to ring the bell; once they do, and Oliver himself rings it, the other recruits are shot dead before him.
Oliver, stunned by the results of the test, is lectured by Anatoly, who says the others were shot because they hadn’t rung the bell and he had. Oliver contests, noting that they all helped ring it together. Anatoly’s retort is the earliest condemnation of Oliver’s motivation for leadership: He was the only one smart enough to find a way to ring the bell, and Bratva only wants the smartest – furthermore, Oliver had realized that he needed the others to help him achieve a goal and used them accordingly.
The idea that by leading a team which suits his purposes, Oliver is nakedly using his “followers” is one that deserves a deeper investigation. It’s not new for superheroes to struggle with accepting help – the primary foundation of heroism in their case is courage, and nothing in stories like this is more courageous than risking oneself to prevent harm to others.
But that’s the way it’s always framed – the heroes are either brave enough to fight their nemeses alone, or smart and well-adjusted enough to accept help. Rarely is it considered that using a team is exactly that – using a team. And that may come with a degree of passive manipulation. What Arrow is doing here is a smart investigation of that idea, and my hope is that this particular emotional framework being setup by the flashbacks isn’t glossed over.
In other Team news, Diggle is on a military mission in Chechnya, when he is betrayed by members of his squadron and framed for the murder of a fellow soldier. This is an intriguing plot line, but paired with the Bratva stories from Arrows past, it poses a question I don’t think the show necessarily wants posed: if all the ancillary characters in Oliver’s life are constantly espousing to him (and by proxy, us) the value of Team, how come some of the most compelling stories the show is telling seem to be proving that Anatoly was right – you can’t trust anyone.
Alas, for all the hemming and hawing about accepting help this season, Oliver realizes the error of his ways a little over halfway in to “The Recruits”.
After begrudgingly accepting the three (Wild Dog, Curtis, and Evelyn Sharp) into his stewardship at the beginning of the episode, Oliver’s training methods prove to be too infuriating and they more or less quit.
(Quick aside – they are training to be a superhero. Shouldn’t this be a really low passage rate type thing? As in – Navy Seal training is hard, but that’s pretty much the deal; if you aren’t superhuman, you don’t make it. Should they really get a second chance because their instructor is too emotionally withdrawn?)
Back to our regularly scheduled programming. Oliver takes too much and gives too little during training, so his recruits storm out. At the same time, Tobias Church – this seasons little big-bad – is meeting with an officer at Ameritek to buy heavy arms. Oliver, against the wishes of Thea (who all but screams “TEAM!!!” at him as he’s leaving), goes alone to break up the deal. He is overtaken physically by Church and facing imminent death, when he is saved by Ragman. Ragman is a mystery at that point, having only been seen on screen earlier in the episode attacking a different Ameritek officer.
The two have a palaver, and Oliver finds a kindred spirit in this Ragman, who saw father die to protect him and now seeks revenge. Oliver quickly convinces Ragman to team up and find justice the right way, and Ragman seemingly becomes recruit number four.
After, Oliver calls a meeting with his estranged recruits to apologize for his training methods (learned back in Bratva), and begin to build trust. He unmasks himself, and asks for some lenience as he gets used to caring for teammates once more. Of course, they agree, and here we are.
Finally, the episode ends with Church walking out of a club. He is swiftly and brutally attacked by Prometheus (the dark archer Big-Bad), who tells Church that The Green Arrow is his to kill. End of episode.
Tonight was rushed. I understand that these shows have a lot to cover, and a finite amount of time to do so. But here are some things that happened tonight: Oliver, seemingly broken beyond repair in the Team department – sees the light after what amounts to some light nagging (mostly by his female associates, for what it’s worth). That means that four new characters are hastily introduced, at this point less as characters and more as cannon fodder for Oliver’s baggage. Church is built as more of a threat, which means in less than week we go from meeting him to him trying to “buy enough weapons to take over a country.” And we still don’t really know what the guy wants. One of the four new characters has a backstory – his garb is radioactive and enhanced – that needs unpacking. The show continues to pile up the tension between Oliver and Felicity. Diggle is betrayed and framed. Prometheus is attacking other characters, only to tell them that they almost made a mistake. It’s a lot.
Which is fine. The pacing of Arrow isn’t necessarily a problem, and its narrative has always been and always will be driven by plot, rather than character. What stings is that the show does some really good things in the character arena, like the flashbacks and the genesis of Oliver’s confliction; but it undoes all that when it rushes through the resolution of those issues to serve the larger plot.
It’s understandable – shows have to serve many masters, and they can’t be everything to everyone. But for me, this show is at its best when it’s using the luxury afforded to it by its medium – movies have only two or three hours to dig into this stuff, but TV shows have far more screen time. Arrow should use some of that time to sit with its characters, beloved by such a large chunk of the audience, for a little while. The Tobias Churches and Prometheuses (Promethei?) of the world are great; but the show is called Arrow – episodes like “The Recruits” don’t tell us anything more about the character with his name on the show, and that’s a shame.
Verdict: While the episode was somewhat of a stepdown from last week’s strong opener, “The Recruits” still had a lot of good aspects. Despite that Oliver retreated to some old habits with his anger and bossiness, I give the episode props for letting Oliver get to that conclusion quickly that he can’t go with those methods. That was also the key theme that I really appreciated with the episode because it would have been frustrating to see Oliver, again, go back to old habits for a few episodes before getting that realization. At this point, I would have zero problems with James Bamford directing every episode as he did another solid job this week with an episode that dealt really well with characters learning from their past mistakes. Despite my hesitancy about the new team, I do want to see how they progressed and hopefully end with good results.