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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Arrow 2x5 - "League of Assassins"

"League of Assassins," the very best episode of Arrow yet produced, delivers what the title promised, the introduction of the fabled DC Comics sect of villains into the Arrow universe, but it turns out that's just the tip of the arrow. The episode title of two weeks ago, "Broken Dolls," would also have been an apt title for this episode, which delves deeply into the shattered psyches of the two young daughters of Officer Quentin Lance. "League of Assassins" is actually a sequel to "Broken Dolls" and solidifies what became evident in "Dolls": the secret weapon of Arrow is Paul Blackthorne's beleaguered policeman and loving father Quentin (who is still referred to as "Detective" by his friends, out of respect, and as a subtle nod to how in the comics, Ra's Al-Ghul always referred to Batman as "Detective.") Blackthorne and his two television daughters, Caity Lotz and Katie Cassidy, bring the Lance family drama center stage with gripping emotion and heartbreak. We get a Lance family reunion, though not every Lance is invited, and we learn both Lance sisters, Laurel and Sara, bear crippling issues regarding their own self-worth.

In many ways, Sara Lance had it even worse than Oliver Queen did during those five years they were missing from Starling City and presumed dead. We know that on board the Queen's Gambit, Sara was lying to her father about her whereabouts while making sexy time with Oliver when the weather started getting rough and the tiny ship was tossed. If not for her own will to survive, Sara would have been lost, as she was presumed to be, but we witness the Gambit sinking from Sara's perspective, her Kate Winslet-like survival floating on debris (she saw a yellow canary), and her rescue by the freighter ship Amazo. As callow as Oliver was when he was first shipwrecked, Sara was even more terrified and helpless, dragged into a metal cage by frightful, burly pirates, fearing death, rape, or God knows what. She's taken under the care of a man named Professor Anthony Ivo, who in DC Comics is a mad scientist genius who created the android Amazo, which had all of the powers of the Justice League. Seemingly kind at first, Ivo's face soon contorts to show he's kind of nuts, offering Sara the chance to help him "save the world." Those are just the first days of Sara's five year ordeal.

In present day, staying in the ornate luxury of an empty Stately Queen Manor, Sara remains traumatized by the things she did and bears ungodly amounts of guilt for. When a member of the League, Al-Owal, smashes through Stately Queen Manor and battles Oliver looking to retrieve Sara, there's really no more keeping the secrets Sara's held close to her bosom. Bottom line is: she is a murderer, and a member of the League of Assassins. (By his outfit, Oliver mistakes Al-Owal for a resurrected Malcolm Merlyn, revealing Merlyn was also an Assassin Leaguer.) Oliver really lets Sara in when he takes her to the Arrow Cave. Sara name drops Shado as the first person who wore Oliver's hood. (She never met Yao Fei, then.) Oliver is always at his best - and proudest - when showing off his cool ass crimefighting set up to the newest hot girl vigilante in town. Unlike Helena Bertinelli, Sara liked Felicity right away. "You're cute." Ooh, cue keyboards clacking away at Salicity fan fic. Even Diggle didn't violently object, like he did to the Huntress. After all, Sara Lance is family. (In a lot of ways, Caity Lotz as Canary is the perfected version of the idea of the damaged female vigilante introduced last season by Jessica De Gouw as the Huntress.) Oliver even momentarily forgot his no-killing rule when he declared the guy who attacked them at Queen Manor can "follow Malcolm Merlyn right into a grave."

When, thanks to Felicity, the Hood and the Canary are able to track Al-Owal to an abandoned warehouse, we learn just what they're up against in the League of Assassins: a million ninjas! Well, potentially. Here, only three. But still, three of the deadliest killers in the world, who mock Oliver's preference for arrows and more than have the ability to kill our heroes and everyone they hold dear. The League of Assassins is presented as the most dangerous enemies Starling City has ever faced, and we haven't even met their leader Ra's Al-Ghul yet. The League also comes with a terrific Middle Eastern inspired musical score by composer Blake Neely. After catching an arrow in mid-air, Al-Owal taunts Oliver, Sara, and the audience with tantalizing clues and DC Comics name drops that went over Oliver's head but send the nerds at home (yo!) into nerdgasmic convulsions:

Sara was taken to Nanda Parbat and trained as an assassin by the League!
Sara chose an Arabic name for herself, that translates to "Canary."
The "child of Ra's Al-Ghul" wants Sara back!
Sara is "the beloved," and the favorite!
Is Sara mired in some sort of power struggle between father and daughter? Al-Ghul Family Matters?

Al-Owal and the League lay down a pretty straightforward ultimatum: Sara goes back with them or her daddy and sister she's been stalking and have actually put in danger while stalking are dead meat. Team Arrow splits up to cover the Lances, with Felicity humorously not entirely thinking through why exactly she's asking Officer Lance to suddenly leave town. "I probably shouldn't have lead with 'League of Assassins'." It does sound ridiculous when said out loud to the uninitiated. Meanwhile, Oliver takes Laurel out for dinner and gives off all the wrong signals. No no, he doesn't want to be her boyfriend again, he just wants to protect her from a cult of killer ninjas who targeted her for death, but without actually telling her any of that. Poor girl's been through a lot lately.

Sara, who bears the same types of scars and scabs all over her body as Oliver does - being a superhero in Arrow's universe means a full body photoshop if they ever pose for a magazine - turns down Diggle's offer for a team up between Black Canary and Black Driver. (She actually threatened to put Black Driver down.) The look on Diggle's face was as dejected as my own. But Diggle didn't need to be part of what Sara really wanted, to come clean and face her father after six years to show she's alive. Honestly, God, what a moment between Sara and Quentin, and Caity Lotz and Paul Blackthorne as actors. Sara, jumpy and terrified, ready to pounce, blade in hand, at any sound made in the Chinese restaurant they took refuge in, still couldn't tell her dad all the details of what happened to her for six years. But Quentin is indeed a detective and he quickly pieced together that Sara is the mysterious woman in the mask beating up criminal in the Glades. "You know the Arrow," Quentin concludes, keeping Oliver's future crimefighting moniker within the Lance family.

Sara takes Quentin to the clocktower where the League is waiting for them, but Sara is no fool and learned her lessons well, the same lessons Ra's taught a young Bruce Wayne: "mind your surroundings." The clocktower is bobby trapped! Swallowing her fear, Sara engages the League in combat. The timely intervention of the Hood evened the odds and we thrill to one of Arrow's very best action sequences (and in Caity Lotz, we have a godsend actress who's also versed in dance and stunts, more than capable of holding up her share of the fighting.) But the best moment belongs to Quentin, mocked by one of the Assassins after losing his gun. "Who are you without your gun?" BLAM BLAM! "A guy with a spare!" Quentin Lance is fantastic.

The fight ends in a snap for Al-Owal, courtesy of Sara snapping his neck. The Hood didn't protest that but he did freak out when it looked like Sara would also make the last Assassin's head spin. Instead, she gave him a kick in the rear and let him bail with a parting message meant for Ra's Al-Ghul. In the end, Sara learned that despite her fears that what she became, what she did, and who she is now are irredeemable, she can be forgiven and her family wants her back. But she can't stay because her presence makes her father and sister a target, and Ra's Al-Ghul is certain to retaliate. Quentin brings the waterworks to the audience when he lets his daughter go again, promising to keep her secret from Laurel. "I don't know how you live like this," he says to the Arrow. Neither can Oliver, who finally, over a bottle of vodka (straight, no ice, no mixers), comes clean to his best friend Diggle that he was not always on the Island for those five years. He was, in fact, once a prisoner of Sara and Ivo on the Amazo!

As for the other broken doll in the Lance family, Laurel has the less glamorous (in writing, not in hair, makeup or wardrobe) role of carrying her own guilt and issues of her self-worth but without the benefit of being an asskicking superhero beating up DC Comics guest starring villains. It's easy to overlook Laurel, or even hate her, but there's a great complexity here, as she finally revealed to Oliver that has serious abandonment issues. In her mind, everyone runs from her, as fast as they can. (Dollars to donuts she'll fall for visiting guest star Barry Allen in three weeks and he'll end up running from her the fastest of all.) Poor Laurel has the toughest row to hoe on the show, and she's being kept in the dark about her sister being alive. Laurel was also the subject of angry glares from every member of the Queen family when she joined the prosecution in the case of The People of Starling City vs. Moira Queen. None of the Queens are grateful that she pushed for a deal to instead have Moira serve life in prison with possibility of parole, while her boss District Attorney Donner wants to seek the death penalty and hold Moira accountable for the 503 souls who died in the Undertaking. At best, Laurel can claim she's not an alcoholic like her father, but no one (maybe Sara watching from the window) sees her poppin' pills to make the pain go away. At least she's not cutting.

Finally, there's Moira, matriarch of the Queen family, who has more secrets she wants to stay buried, but Oliver learned his lessons from the Lance family drama and put family first. Thea, who has rapidly matured into adulthood since season one, also stands by their mom. Okay, no deal, Mr. Donner. The Queens will go to court and fight for Moira's freedom. Together. (Although Oliver will show up late from time to time. It's his thing.) In Arrow,  be it the Queens, the Lances, and soon (fingers crossed) the Al-Ghuls, family comes first. Family matters.

For the first time since his introduction, no Roy Harper this week. Unless you count "Blood Rush," the first of a series of shorts starring Roy and Felicity. And you should, because it's terrific.