Saturday, 3 December 2016

Review - 'Arrow', S05E08 - 'Invasion!'

The eighth episode of the fifth season of Arrow finds itself in the unenviable position of having to fulfil two very different roles. Not only is it the second part of the epic Invasion! cross-over event, which sets all of the CW's DC characters up against an alien invasion, but it is also the 100th episode of Arrow – a significant milestone which practically demands some sort of retrospective celebration.

So, not only does the episode need to find ways to push forward that overarching plot-line, but it needs to do so while, also, finding way to honour the show's five year history. It would have to have felt like a tricky prospect for the writers, at the very least. Also, going in knowing about these dual roles, it would have to raise some concerns about how good a job this episode could actually do at balancing everything.

With the previous episode coming to an end with the sight of the core cast of Arrow (along with those members of the Legends of Tomorrow cast who we first met on Arrow) being abducted by the Dominators, we did, at least, have a genuinely exciting set-up. Isolated from their super-powered companions, Team Arrow were clearly going to be out of their depth – regardless of whatever it was they would ultimately face on the Dominators' ship.

Of course, what they faced is not quite what I expected – though, it is definitely something that feels very fitting. Finding themselves plugged into a 'Matrix'-style virtual reality environment – one which, essentially, seeks to give each everything that they could possibly want. It's an episode based around a plot-line that is actually fairly common in science fiction and fantasy – one in which the heroes are confronted by the life they might have had, if things had gone differently, and in which they must overcome the desire to choose it over the real world.

Here, for example, Oliver and Sara never went on that trip that saw them separated from their families for so long. Oliver, therefore, had no reason to return to the city and become a costumed vigilante – and, more importantly, the sequence of events which led to the tragic deaths of so many people he loved never came to pass. In this virtual reality, Oliver and Thea's parents are both still alive and well (giving Oliver a bit of a taste of what Barry had, when he created the 'Flashpoint' time-line) – and, Oliver is soon due to marry Laurel Lance, who is also alive and well.

For long time fans of Arrow it is, of course, the chance to see many returning cast members on-screen once more that will be the main draw, here. The episode definitely goes out of its way to make the most of that sense of nostalgia, too. There are some notable absence, of course (likely due to scheduling conflicts, for the actors) – but, those are are able to put in an appearance make the most of their screen-time. Katie Cassidy is able to share some great scenes with both Stephen Amell and Caity Lotz – while Susanna Thompson and Jamey Sheridan, returning to the roles of Moira and Robert Queen, are able to enjoy some truly emotional scenes with their children.

Honestly, based purely on the quality of the performances given, this would have to be one of the best episodes of Arrow that I have seen, for some time. I might even go as far as saying that it is quite possible the best episode that the series has ever put out.

Unfortunately, though, there are some cracks around the edges – most of which concerning the ways in which this episode is supposed to link back to the overarching cross-over. Outside of the 'Matrix', for example, we have Cisco teaming up with Oliver's squad of new recruits, as they attempt to find a way to access, and download, information from a piece of Dominator technology that Cisco was able to recover. It's an enjoyable enough sub-plot, filled with a variety of amusing little moments – but, overall, it only really served to take screen-time away from the much more interesting primary plot.

Because of the time spent on this sub-plot, for example, we don't really get to spend any time on Ray Palmer's and Diggle's respective experiences in this virtual environment. And, this is a definite shame – because the implications of Diggle being cast as the replacement Green Arrow, in this virtual world, offered some potentially interesting insights into his character. Did he sub-consciously choose to take on that role, for example? And, if so, why would Diggle choose to keep fighting, when everyone else seems content to set all of that aside?

It is definitely something I would have liked to have seen explored in a little more detail. Similarly, I would have appreciated it if Ray Palmer had received any attention, at all, in the episode – as, it began to feel as though his inclusion in the whole 'virtual world' plot-line was really more of an afterthought (perhaps, brought about when someone remembered that he had actually been introduced on Arrow, too). Beyond the fact that he was placed back with Felicity, as opposed to the fiance who was killed, off-camera, as a part of his original back-story, we really don't see much of what he experienced in Dominators virtual world.

Also, while it was fun to see so many previous villains return to the spot-light, as our heroes began to reject the Dominators virtual world, it did still feel as though their eventual escape was a little too easy. There were some genuinely emotional scenes as each was forced to reject the virtual environment, sure – but, in the end, the entire process of escaping from the Dominators virtual prison really amounted to little more than finding the (unlocked) door, and walking through it. Although, to be fair, the team's efforts to escape from the alien ship that they found themselves on proved to be much more exciting.

At this point, the only real concern I have is in how well the pieces are all going to fit, by the end. So far, the Invasion! cross-over event has consisted of two very entertaining episodes which, when I stop to think about it, don't actually seem to do very much to push forward a central narrative. With The Flash, we had a basic introduction to the threat – but, the episode was clearly more concerned with simply revelling in the idea of all of these characters being on-screen, at the same time. With Arrow, meanwhile, we have what is clearly intended to be a celebration of the 100 episode milestone – something which definitely deserves to be celebrated, certainly, though perhaps not at the expense of pushing forward that central story.

Putting these two episodes together, it begins to feel as though the cross-over event is placing a lot of emphasis on its third, and final, episode to carry much of the weight. After two episodes, we still haven't actually seen much of the Dominators, and we've learnt even less about them. We also haven't seen very much in the way of direct conflict between our heroes and the alien invaders.

That means that all of this is being saved for the Legends of Tomorrow episode – which, in turn, means that this final episode could turn out to be, either, a fantastic spectacle, or a disappointing anti-climax.

As far as this episode, in particular, is concerned, though – well, by the end it seemed fairly clear which of the episode's two goals the writer's chose to prioritise. As a continuation of the Invasion! cross-over, it may have been somewhat underwhelming – but, as a celebration of of the show's five-year history, it was fantastic.

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