Wednesday, November 30, 2016

REVIEW: 'Arrow' - Oliver, Diggle, Thea, Sara and Ray are Trapped in an Alternate Reality in 'Invasion!'

The CW's Arrow - Episode 5.08 "Invasion!"

Oliver wakes up to a life where he never got on The Queen's Gambit. Robert and Moira Queen are alive and well. Laurel is his loving fiancée and their wedding is imminent. Everything seems perfect, but Oliver starts to notice small imperfections that make him question his new reality. Felicity and the recruits take on a new threat with help from the Flash and Supergirl.

Arrow is the show that started it all. It was the first DC Comics show on The CW. And now, there are four of them. They cover four nights of the week for the network. They have brought strength and stability to the schedule. It's all because of Arrow. It's fitting that the 100th episode of the series also happens to be the Arrow portion of the epic four show crossover event. This universe started in a very grounded and realistic way. And now, it features meta-humans and aliens. Arrow is still very grounded in this regard. It's still about hand-to-hand combat action and vigilante justice. But it works in the grand scheme of things as well. It's fantastical to watch characters like Oliver and Diggle in a world filled with superpowers. Aliens are the next step on the crazy evolution of these shows. An alien invasion has literally descended upon this world. The heroes from all four shows need to band together to fight them. That's a fantastical premise for this crossover. It raises the stakes and the scope considerably. But the creative teams were able to pull it off in last night's episode of The Flash. Arrow now picks up the story while also making sure it plays as an episode of Arrow.

The creative teams found a great way to make this premise work in a show that really isn't about superpowers or alien existence. The Dominators have kidnapped five heroes - Oliver, Diggle, Thea, Sara and Ray. It was a huge cliffhanger from last night's episode. It was also clear that the aliens took the characters with key connections to Arrow. This episode opens with all five of them trapped in a new reality. They are in stasis aboard the alien ship. The Dominators have proven to have some great technology that they can use at the expense of humans. First, it was mind control. And now, it's the ability to create entire realities. It's a way to trap these heroes while also gaining intel about their friends and their plans. The aliens tap into the subconscious minds of the heroes. They create a world all of them would enjoy living in. It's a story that the creative team has already used before on The Flash and Supergirl with "Flashpoint" and "For the Girl Who Has Everything." And yet, that doesn't lesson the power the overall story has. It's also a great way to bring back all the characters who have died over the course of the series so far.

"Invasion!" works as an immense payoff to all of those loyal viewers who have been watching since the very first season. This is an episode of Arrow first and foremost. Yes, the threat from the Dominators is still present. But the majority of the running time is spent on this new reality Oliver and company find themselves trapped in. When the hour breaks away from that, it focuses on Felicity and the rest of the Arrow recruits trying to find their friends. They get an assist from the Flash and Supergirl. But it's largely up to Felicity, Cisco and Curtis to find a way to crack the alien technology and learn where their friends are being held. It's a necessary plot that leads to an epic rescue in the end. However, it never takes away from the strong main story going on in the new reality for Oliver. He is no longer the Green Arrow. He and his father never got on The Queen's Gambit. So his family is still alive and he is happy. He's going to take over for his father as CEO of Queen Consolidated while he's also about to marry Laurel. Thea is happy to be with her parents again while Sara loves having her sister alive. Meanwhile, Ray is engaged to Felicity while Diggle is working as the Green Arrow and he hasn't killed his brother. It's a happy reality for all of them. But it's not real as they soon find out.

This episode works so much better than The Flash portion of the crossover because it largely focuses on the main plot with the aliens. It's not busy setting up new stories for the season's ongoing plot. There isn't a mention of Vigilante or Prometheus. Artemis doesn't show up either so the audience isn't too distracted by her apparent betrayal. It's just a simple plot where the heroes abducted by aliens are living out a different reality while the team on Earth tries to bring them back home. There's actually very little use of both the Flash and Supergirl too. Of course, they still appear and get to fight a bad guy because it's the big crossover. They are the title characters of the various shows after all. But it's still fundamentally about Oliver and company choosing to break free from this false reality. It's a struggle typical of this kind of story. This world is so great to live in. It would be nice if they didn't have to go back to their regular and depressing lives. Thea makes such a compelling case in saying that the world has the Flash and Supergirl to protect it from meta-human and alien threats. The world is changing and Team Arrow just isn't equipped to handle these changing threats. She wants to stay and Oliver doesn't force her to leave. Of course in the end, the team does need to stand together to battle their way out.

That climatic battle sequence is so fantastic as well. The Dominators are pulling from the team's most violent memories to present them as threats they have to defeat before being able to leave. So that means the team faces off with Malcolm Merlyn, Damian Darhk and Deathstroke. It's disappointing that it's just Deathstroke and not Slade Wilson. Apparently, Manu Bennett was one of the few regulars who wasn't able to return for this milestone episode. That list also includes Colin Donnell and Colton Haynes. But the show found a way to honor all of their characters as well. This is a show that remembers its past and the importance all of these characters had for the team. It's important that Sara is the one fighting Damien. She's doing so to avenge her sister's death. It's important that Thea is fighting Malcolm. She has always struggled with being his daughter and his weird way of showing love. It's important that Oliver is fighting Deathstroke. It's also thrilling when the battle ends with Oliver once again shooting an arrow into his eye. This episode may have such a fantastical premise but this action sequence has the stakes of a normal episode of Arrow. And yet, they are even higher and more personal because it rewards the viewer who has been watching for the past 100 episodes.

Of course, Oliver and the team do find a way out of this fake world. It's actually quite easy too. They just need to find the portal in the building that doesn't actually belong there. They need to put their memories together and know the world they are fighting to get back to. And then, they have to find a way off of an alien spaceship. That's so far out of the realm of normalcy for Arrow. The team is in space and have to steal an escape pod. They hope that someone will be able to fly the thing. Their escape also reveals just how strong the Dominators really are. Only a few of them have landed on Earth so far. The majority are still up in space. But so many launch their ships to attack the stolen one. After that, they are prepared to turn their ultimate weapon against the entire planet. It's a huge cliffhanger tease at the end of the episode. Oliver, Diggle, Thea, Sara and Ray are saved by the crew aboard the Waverider. That's the only way they can be rescued from space. Felicity, Cisco and Curtis know where they are. They just can't get to them. It's up to the Legends to save the team. Plus, the Waverider has the technology to know what's coming next with the Dominators. So, the stakes are wonderfully raised for the epic final confrontation bound to happen tomorrow night on Legends of Tomorrow.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Invasion!" was directed by James Bamford with story by Greg Berlanti and teleplay by Marc Guggenheim & Wendy Mericle.
  • Diggle has been an important member of the team for a long time. He has even put on the Arrow costume from time to time. But it was also nice to see him actually suit up that way and serve as the hero protecting Star City while also being the one brooding about the weight of his actions from both the past and the present.
  • Even in an alternate world, Felicity is working with the Green Arrow. So apparently, some things are consistent no matter what. However in this world, it looks like people don't randomly just show up in the secret lair.
  • Oliver & Laurel and Felicity & Ray were played as romantic couplings for awhile. They are important details from the life of the show. And yet, they were never the best romances for any of them. 
  • Rene complaining about people with powers and alien existence only to then be immediately grateful when the Flash and Supergirl save him in battle was just too perfunctory of a moment. With Oliver gone, it seems Rene stepped up to be the brooding and too serious vigilante.
  • When Oliver is ready to leave the fake world behind, he sees visions of all the people he has lost along the way - as well as Felicity. Seriously though, why is Felicity included in that moment? Yes, she has given him many motivational speeches and helped him become the hero he is today. But that moment felt like a way to honor all the characters who have died or left along the way - Moira, Robert, Tommy, Laurel and Roy.
  • With Oliver and the team choosing to leave this happy reality behind, perhaps they will be more content with the lives they have now and not get so hung up on the mistakes of the past. Though that may be difficult for Sara as she'll be facing off with Damien Darhk a lot on Legends of Tomorrow.