"A.W.O.L." is the most frustrating kind of Arrow episode. After a perfectly take-it-or-leave-it hour of television, we're left with the potential for so much more. The larger plot points (a meaty Diggle story line, the return of Goth Felicity, and lots o' Lyla) hold great appeal, but, as executed, those arcs never quite deliver or satisfy.
Take, for example, Diggle's relationship with his brother, Andy, which is front and center in "A.W.O.L." We know that Diggle feels betrayed because Andy secretly operated as a war profiteer during their tour in Afghanistan. Diggle has spent a good portion of the last four episodes struggling with this revelation, returning time after time to the issue when visiting his brother, who's currently in the custody of Team Arrow. So dedicating this week's flashbacks to the moment when Andy decided to become a war profiteer feels both repetitive and underwhelming. It would've been much more interesting to see the Diggle brothers in some other context or time, if only to flesh out the bond (or lack thereof) between them.
At least we get a small glimpse of the bond between Diggle and Lyla. As they walk home from a date night, Dyla is approached by Alan Chang, an A.R.G.U.S. agent who used to work with Lyla. He has a message for A.R.G.U.S. chief Amanda Waller. Before Chang can say anything, a black van screeches onto the scene, and gunmen dressed head-to-toe in black start shooting. Diggle and Lyla do their best to stop the men, but it's no use. They kidnap Chang, and Diggle gets a bullet in the arm. (I love — and totally buy — that Lyla would be packing heat on date night.)
Chang's kidnapping leads Diggle and Lyla to a confrontation with Waller, who Lyla suspects had Chang working on an off-the-books mission. Waller denies any knowledge of a special operation, but when she goes to shake Lyla's hand good-bye, she slips her a flash drive. (Ha, a literal secret handshake!) The flash drive reveals that Chang and two other A.R.G.U.S. agents were investigating a corrupt U.S. Army special-forces unit called Shadowspire. Diggle knows Shadowspire; it's the group Andy worked for as a war profiteer.
So Diggle's story is less about Diggle than it is about Andy's connection with Shadowspire. This is thorny for a number of reasons: First, Arrow really doesn't need to further complicate the criminal landscape in Star City. There's already one organized criminal element that dresses in black and attacks people — H.I.V.E. and its "ghosts." (Indeed, it's difficult to discern any sartorial difference between a ghost and a member of Shadowspire, save for the latter's small red insignia.) Second, there hasn't been any buildup to Shadowspire until "A.W.O.L.," so the actors have to cram in a bunch of expository dialogue. David Paul Ramsey does his best with the material, but it's unsatisfying to listen to Diggle wax on about "freeports" and "commodities."
Felicity's story, by contrast, is far more personal. She's adjusting to her new life constrained in a wheelchair. Oliver is in full-on nurse mode, prepping her dinner and doling out pain medication. Felicity understandably wades into self-pity and doubt, telling Oliver that she's of no use to Team Arrow anymore. Oliver shuts her down with sweetness: "Your superpower is right there," he says, pointing to her brain. Still, that thoughtful sentiment isn't enough to convince her to join Team Arrow on a mission quite yet.
Left alone in the loft, Felicity pops a few extra pain pills and starts to hallucinate visions of the goth "hacktivist" Felicity from season three's "The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak." Goth Felicity proceeds to harass Felicity about her choice to play superhero. The hallucination scenes are pretty impressive, technically speaking, but ultimately fall a bit flat. It's through no fault of Emily Bett Rickards, who pulls off both versions impressively. (Orphan Black spin-off, anyone?) I'm just not quite sure what this adds to Felicity's story. Goth Felicity's taunts — mostly centered on Felicity's choice to give up her hacktivist identity to join the superhero world — felt random and directionless. "Do you have anything the least bit interesting to say to me besides those jabs you keep making?" Felicity asks Goth Felicity. I'm not sure she does.
Also, since when has Felicity doubted the superhero life? The fact that this identity-crisis plot is neatly tied up at the end of "A.W.O.L." only serves to show how this whole arc feels like Felicity filler. And there's really no excuse for Felicity filler, what with everything she has going on this season. (She's the CEO of a large corporation who just lost the use of her legs, damn it!) As much as I love Goth Felicity, it would have made more sense for Felicity to hallucinate visions of Darhk. Perhaps Arrow could have explored some kind of PTSD plot. Or, instead of a hallucination scene, how about a meaningful moment with her mother about her paralysis?
Meanwhile, Diggle brings Andy out of Team Arrow's jail cell and … into A.R.G.U.S.'s jail cell. (Somebody, please habeas corpus that man.) After Team Arrow finds Chang and the other missing agents dead, Waller wants to debrief Andy on Shadowspire. Andy tells Waller that Shadowspire is all about misdirection, so although Waller's intel indicates Shadowspire is after a shipment of rail guns, Andy guesses that there's some other end game.
Andy's right. The rail guns are a ruse for Shadowspire's actual plan: attacking A.R.G.U.S. A Shadowspire group, led by the Diggle brothers' former commander, Lieutenant Joiner, infiltrate A.R.G.U.S. headquarters and threaten to kill Waller if she doesn't give them the codes to Rubicon. (Rubi-whaaa? Introducing this doesn't make the stakes feel higher — just more convoluted!) Lyla tells Joiner that Waller would sooner let all of her staff die than give up the codes. Death threats are the only card Joiner has left to play, so he realizes that Waller is useless. He shoots her right in the forehead. R.I.P., Waller!
With Waller dead, the pressure's now on Lyla. Joiner demands that she locate the Rubicon access codes. Diggle watches the scene remotely from the A.R.G.U.S. prison cell, where he's watching over Andy. He pulls a Felicity, rewiring the television set to broadcast the feed to the Arrow lair. But he's running out of time, so Andy convinces Diggle to let him help, even though Diggle has to release him from the cell.
And then we reach the episode's big question: Once released, will Andy double-cross Diggle? All signs point to "yes" when Andy tells Joiner that Diggle is above in the ventilation system trying to save Lyla. Diggle is captured and held as ransom so Lyla will give up the codes.
Lyla looks at John lovingly and explains that Rubicon can never be released. Joiner threatens to put a bullet in Diggle's brain. Diggle looks at Lyla and asks her to give up the codes for him. Wait, what? Lyla was going to let them execute John right in front of her for the good of the people? And Diggle had to ask her to save his life? Ice-cold, Lyla! I think we've found our new A.R.G.U.S. head. But Lyla has trouble with the computers because a hallucination-free Felicity remotely blocks her access to the codes.
Moments before Joiner pulls the trigger on Diggle, Andy swoops in to knock the gun away — this is all part of Diggle's plan. Team Arrow shows up, and a brawl breaks out. The day is saved, and a Rubicon crisis (whatever that is) is avoided. Andy doesn't betray Diggle, so he's released from custody and comes over for pork roast at the Diggles' apartment.
Meanwhile, Oliver and Felicity share a nice quiet moment back at the loft. She breaks out an old photo of herself as Goth Felicity; she's finally ready to share that part of her past with Oliver. This intimate glimpse into their life as a couple is handled well — and not without a little humor, thankfully. When Felicity notes that the "old" Felicity would have released Rubicon as some sort of political statement, Oliver deadpans, "The old me would have snapped Joiner's neck."
Oliver then broaches the issue of Felicity's paralysis. He promises her that he doesn't want to live in denial, but that doesn't mean he's giving up hope. He points out that the out-of-this-world elements of their lives (people flying, people shrinking, people rising from the dead) lead him to believe that a cure is out there.
It's the kind of optimism Goth Felicity might have scoffed at. Luckily, that version of Felicity is long gone.
The big reveal in the Afghanistan flashbacks is that Joiner's boss, and the head of Shadowspire, is Reiter, who also appeared in season four's Lian Yu flashbacks. This probably would've been more shocking if I were invested in the Lian Yu flashbacks. But I'm not.
- Whatever my issues with the story, I thought all of the actors gave great performances.
- Good news: Felicity finally gets a code name, Overwatch. Bad news: Oliver will no longer sexy-whisper "Fe-li-city" over the comms.
- I can't help but think Oliver carrying Felicity down the stairs is a symbolic nod to him carrying her over the threshold later this season WHEN THEY GET BACK TOGETHER.
- Felicity, to Oliver: "I love how playing superhero is what we consider normal."
- I liked Lyla and Oliver's toast to Waller. I'll miss Cynthia Addai-Robinson's steely portrayal. At least she's still alive in the flashbacks.
- I really enjoyed Lyla in this episode. Let's hope she replaces Waller at A.R.G.U.S. — it'd bring her back into the vigilante plots.
- Felicity wanting Oliver to appreciate her speech at the lair.
- Diggle channeling Felicity to make her proud.
- Laurel finally learns a secret before others. Don't screw it up, Laurel!
- Felicity to Oliver, about holding Damien Darhk responsible for her injuries: "It's the fault of one man, and he has an on-the-nose extremely alliterative name."
MISSING THE MARK
- The biometrics twist of using Chang's eyeball to enter the secured A.R.G.U.S. premise. It went over my head on first viewing.
- The stunts were pretty uninspired. Plus, I'm getting a little tired of bullets and gunfire.
- Felicity going crazy while reading The Shining is a little too cute for my taste.
- I wish there had been one or two more zingers this episode. Not as funny as usual.
NUMBER OF SHIRTLESS STEPHEN AMELL SCENES: 0 (I'm in the grave, y'all.)
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