Synopsis of 4×13: With Thea’s life on the line, Oliver reluctantly agrees to work with Nyssa to take down Malcolm and give her control of the League of Assassins. His ego and body wounded, a disgraced Malcolm reveals a secret to Darhk.
Stan Lee is often credited with coining the term “the illusion of change” to describe the way comic book characters can often go through a series of seemingly dramatic status-quo changes, all the while retaining the option to bring back the original ideas and concepts readers have grown to love. Lee knew from early on in serialized comics’ history that despite hundreds of issues, change only needed to occur in inches to bring readers back month after month after month.
Of course, that became complicated as time went on. Peter David, one of a host of ‘80s Marvel writers to take Lee’s style and theories to heart, eventually said the true key to the illusion of change and where it can truly fail is when creators forget “fans don’t like to be treated as if they’re stupid.”
This week’s episode of Arrow, “Sins of the Father,” treats fans like they’re kinda stupid. In a desperate bid to save Thea, Oliver has to decide how to remove Malcolm from his place at the head of the League of Assassins in order to secure a cure to save his sister from Nyssa. Despite the larger plot, much of the episode wants to focus on the question of whether or not its characters are capable of true, lasting change. The problem with this is acknowledging how little the characters themselves have actually changed.
First the good. I genuinely enjoy Malcolm and Oliver’s dynamic at this point. Malcolm has kind of been written all over the place since the second season but his somewhat misguided passion for protecting his daughter has always been the touchstone of his character. However, his relationship with Oliver is more complicated. At its best, it focuses on the way two murderers hold a grudging, conflicted stalemate with one another, one both have to know will eventually crumble at some point.
“Sins of the Father” mostly focuses on the latter part of the pair’s dynamic and it works better because of it. It acknowledges that both Oliver and Malcolm are extremely violent, twisted individuals but allows them to come together for someone they care about, but sure enough, that ceasefire ends in a font of blood by episode’s end.
Nyssa’s the one who starts to get the most dynamic character shift in this episode, finally starting to resemble the character comics fans will recognize. Nyssa works best as an angry counterpoint to Ra’s al Ghul, unwilling to forgive her father’s many crimes across the centuries but still recognizing that the power he holds could be hers with the right actions. She’s a supremely dangerous, sinister character and for a brief time, was one of the Batman franchise’s very best auxiliary villains.
After waffling over whether she should be a lovesick killer, a cultish lapdog of her father, or the unwilling bride of Malcolm, the show’s finally settled on making her the sociopathic, conniving mastermind that was once so compelling. It’s actually interesting to see a genuinely twisted villain on Arrow, particularly one with concrete, clear goals and Nyssa mostly fulfills that with aplomb. I would love to see this version of the character take a more prominent role on the show, which is certainly not something I would have thought a year ago but it doesn’t seem like this is meant to be by episode’s end.
It’s interesting to see Nyssa change so much in an episode that seems to assert that personal change is virtually impossible. Diggle reminds Oliver how deadly Malcolm is and how willing he is to kill again to hold onto power. Oliver struggles with whether or not to return to his homicidal vigilante roots to bring down Malcolm and save Thea. Felicity’s mother reminds her of the Calculator’s history of using people and leaving only brokenness and hurt in his wake, even as he asserts his ability to change.
It’s a dynamic that often works well on TV but Arrow has had such a staid, slow pace to its characters growing that it ends up not working as well as it should. On a show like The Sopranos, that frequently questions whether Tony is willing or able to change, it’s a push-pull dynamic that powered years of fascination. Here, it just falls flat. I mean, sure, Oliver stopped killing but is he really a different character than who he was in the first season? Does he trust people more? Does he still treat himself as a martyr? Does he still underestimate and refuse to acknowledge his teammates or their desires and agency?
The other major issue with the episode at least partially focuses on the fact that so few actions in this show ever have consequences. This is an episode where a pack of ninja assassins wage war on the streets of a major metropolis, firing arrows into the bodies of civilians and no one even seems to bat an eye.
The world of Arrow only ever really makes sense until you start to examine it, but so much of the bizarre plot here just accentuates why it doesn’t work. It’s also part of why Nyssa’s final rejection of her father’s role at episode’s end doesn’t quite land either. Who is Nyssa without the League? I don’t know and I’m not sure the writers do either.
All things considered “Sins of the Father” at least feels more complete than the scattershot episode that comes before it, which is a minor improvement but it’s full of developments that feel like one-step-forward followed by two huge steps back.
The final moments that push Malcolm into a more actively antagonistic role and drawing tighter parallels between Darhk and Oliver’s focus on family are compelling but so much of this half of the season has already felt like little more than scene-setting. It’s time for Arrow to dramatically shake-up the status-quo or risk falling into the same old ruts of its characters.