Synopsis of 4×12: Thea’s homicidal rage returns and the effects of the Lazarus Pit begin to fade. Roy Harper returns to Star City after being press-ganged by a hacker known as the Calculator. Felicity’s role at Palmer Technology is questioned. Nyssa prepares for revenge against Malcolm. Hijinks ensue all around.

Rating: ?????

Arrow’s greatest weakness has always been a tonal one. It wants to be serious, full of dark streets and darker themes, borrowing the style of popular Batman comics more than anything, but the show’s always worked best at it’s silliest, most over the top and most self-aware. The crossovers with Flash are generally the strongest of the season, the appearance of Constantine earlier in the season was a strong start, silly self-aware villains like Cupid and Deadshot make the most impact and Season 2’s overarching plot of Deathstroke leading an army of super soldiers through Star City felt like the show finally embracing it’s campiest, most over-the-top strengths.

The problem is that this tone has been missing for the last year and a half, with an endless procession of some of the show’s darkest plots ad most self-serious stories. A lot of that is coming to a head in “Unchained,” which is full of references to the too serious-by-half League of Assassins subplots, Thea’s homicidal urges and the often confused, rarely particularly believable motivations of Roy Harper.


That dour, thoroughly unironic and steadfastly joyless tone goes right to the villain as well. “Unchained” brings The Calculator into the show’s universe, a character that exceedingly few fans really have any affection for. While he’s been around since the mid-‘70s, the Calculator is primarily known for his roles in “Identity Crisis” and “Infinite Crisis,” two of DC’s worst comics of all time and the textbook examples of event-era excess and the company’s mid-2000s obsession with adding uncharacteristically explicit violence and sexual content into their books.

Theoretically, the Calculator is meant to be a morally bankrupt equivalent to Oracle, which makes him a potentially compelling nemesis for the thematically similar Felicity and the episode clearly tries to tap into that but for fuck’s sake, we’ve been down this road so many times.

Calculator here is exactly like Brother Eye before him and has an awful lot of similarities to Anarky as far as his commitment to purposeless chaos goes. It’s just unoriginal. At this point, this show has found a lot of ways to challenge Felicity rather than Oliver and they’ve all vastly just fallen along the lines of vaguely intelligent hackers on some sort of mission and at this point, it’s played out with little here to differentiate it. Even a last minute reveal isn’t enough to make him anything more than another also-ran villain on a show positively loaded with them.

That same-feeling of been-there-done-that applies just as much to the rest of the plot here. Nyssa’s encounter with Tatsuo, who’s fully embraced her destiny as Katana, is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing and the flashbacks to Oliver being tortured and hallucinating and encounter with Shado is a lot of attempts to add unearned pathos to the least necessary part of the show. 


I’ve long been an advocate of just cutting out the time-jumping structure from the Arrow formula but, more than ever, this season’s subplot is really running on fumes. It’s getting to the point where past Oliver feels more competent and morally black than the vigilante he is in the first season and it’s beginning to seem more and more distracting than enhancing to the show.

I think there’s a way to make the flashbacks work, potentially by focusing them less on Oliver’s past then on that of the supporting cast but so few of them have a backstory that can be mined in the same way. There’s not an easy answer to the problem but it’s a question that increasingly feels like it needs to be addressed.

The most compelling thing here is the first full introduction of Ruvé Adams, the wife of Damian Darhk, who seems to know far more than she’s letting on. There aren’t a lot of clues as to her identity or her motives here but there’s one logical guess as to where things are going.

The most likely option seems to point to her as an incarnation of Queen Bee, a longstanding DC super villain who often has some sort of a connection to H.I.V.E., usually as its chief operator or de facto leader. It may be a little too pat and simple but it would be compelling to see a woman as the season’s big bad, especially one with Darhk as her right hand man.


“Unchained” offers little that Arrow viewers haven’t seen before and better other than a handful of incremental advances to the season’s omni-story and those are all less than compelling. This show has always worked best with a little bit of goofiness, a little charm, and self-awareness, but as this season has worn on, it’s leaned so heavily on the overwhelmingly bleak tone of the first season to its own detriment.

It desperately needs the spark of camp and knowing scenery-chewing that’s making Legends of Tomorrow so charming and consistently makes The Flash a heartfelt embrace of Silver Age goofiness. As the season crawls towards an end, that dearth of levity is only going to become more and more detrimental. If “Unchained” is a sign of things to come, it seems likely this could be the most divisive season of Arrow yet.

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