Friday, 6 November 2015

Review - 'Arrow', S04E05 - 'Haunted'

It would probably be fair to say that, for a certain type of fan, this episode may have been the most highly anticipated of the season. It was, after all, intended to be the episode in which John Constantine is officially brought in to the unique take on the DC universe being developed by these CW shows. Regardless of what fans may have thought of Constantine, the cancelled series in which Matt Ryan first played the character, the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that they loved Ryan's performance - and that he was, basically, perfect for the role. So, as strange as it must have seemed to have a character from a cancelled show brought back for a surprise cross-over with another (at the time, entirely unrelated) series, fans of Matt Ryan as John Constantine were, naturally, thrilled.

But, of course, with Constantine's appearance in this episode being pure fan-service, there is still the matter of how his appearance would come across to those who aren't familiar with Constantine, or the character's long comic-book history. To them, after all, John Constantine would just seem to appear out of nowhere. So, the issue of exactly how good a job the episode actually does of presenting the character to the audience does feel important.

Personally, while I do feel that there were better ways he could have been introduced, what they settled on was still perfectly adequate. Ever since Oliver first revealed, earlier in the season, that he has already had first-hand experience with the supernatural, it has seemed fairly clear that revealing the details of Oliver's first encounter with magic was going to be the true focus of this season's 'flash-back' story-line. But, so far, Oliver's mission on Lian Yu has been simply to infiltrate what had seemed to be a fairly mundane drug trafficking operation - so, there was really no way of knowing when the current 'flash-back' story would get around to that.

Having John Constantine be the one to introduce Oliver to the supernatural, when he suddenly turned up as a hostage on Lian Yu, definitely seemed to come out of nowhere - yet, it also seemed oddly fitting. And, his presence of Lian Yu also marked a fairly significant turning point for the Lian Yu story-line, with the suggestion that here is more going on there than Oliver is aware of. Constantine, it turns out, was on the island as a part of his mission to recover powerful, and dangerous, magical artifacts - and, with his knowledge of Lian Yu, Oliver was the perfect person to help him find what he was looking for. Yeah this sudden revelation that there is magic on Lian Yu is going to take the story in future episodes is still unknown, of course - but, it definitely adds an interesting new element.

Of course, while John Constantine makes his presence felt throughout the episode, it is also important to remember that they story actually isn't about him. With much of Constantine's screen-time spent on Lian Yu, the 'present day' story-line is left to concern itself with the consequences of Sara Lance's escape at the end of the previous episode. Still left near feral by her experience with the Lazarus Pit, Sara is now driven by an overwhelming compulsion to hunt down the one who killed her - targeting women who bear a resemblance to Thea, at first, before focusing her efforts on Thea, herself.

While Sara's body was restored by the Lazarus Pit, it turns out that her soul wasn't - which is the reason she is so much worse off than Thea. Of course, it turns out that Oliver happens to know someone who might be able to help with that - someone who also happens to owe him a favour. Which brings us to John Constantine's introduction into the present day story-line. Constantine just so happens to know a spell that might allow them to recover Sara Lance's soul - though, it does require a potentially dangerous trip to the spirit-world to reclaim it.

I do have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with this whole sequence, though. John, Oliver, and Laurel taking a trip into the spirit world to rescue Sara should have been a much grander, and more profound, moment than what we saw. Not just because of the importance placed on restoring Sara, either - but, also, because it is the most overt display of magic we have seen, so far. Sure, the Lazarus Pit was introduced last season, and Damian Darhk has already had reason to display his own abilities - but, these are, arguably, much more subtle forms of magic than a literal trip into the spirit world to rescue a lost soul. Given it's important, both within the context of the show and in the broader thematic sense, it would have made sense to have this sequence take up much more of the episode than the 5-10 minutes toward the end that we were given. As it was, it just felt like a bit of a wasted opportunity to me.

Also, while I do have to admit that Oliver's previously unexplored knowledge of magic still feels a bit contrived, especially when it leads to Oliver knowing exactly who to turn to for help here, I suppose I'm willing to let it slide. Matt Ryan was as great in the role of John Constantine here as he ever was on his own, sadly cancelled, show - and, the easy rapport he had with the rest of the cast, particularly Stephen Amell's Olver (in both the past and the present) felt entirely natural. Best of all, though, the episode ending with the clear indication that John Constantine could potentially, make a return appearance some time in the future - which is something I would like to see.

As a side-note, though, having both Diggle and Captain Lance standing off to the side and looking confused as Constantine prepares his magic was a nice touch. As a police officer and an ex-soldier, neither is entirely comfortable with the increasingly outlandish world of meta-humans and the supernatural that they now find themselves in - and, it's definitely great to see that acknowledged, even if only in small ways. There's even a amusing little meta-comedy touch to the whole scene, if you remember that Paul Blackthorne once played the wizard/private investigator, Harry Dresden, in a television adaptation of The Dresden Files - a show which, much like Constantine, was also unfortunately short-lived.

While the true focus of the episode was on restoring Sara's soul (and, of course, on the blatant fan-service of allowing Matt Ryan to return to the role of John Constantine), the episode also found room for developments on other plot-lines. Captain Lance's awkward position as a mole secretly working with 'Team Arrow' against Damian Darhk was brought into focus, when Darhk sent him on a secret mission to erase some important information. This, in turn, led to further developments for Diggle, as he was finally able to learn why Darhk's HIVE organisation may have had his brother killed years ago. Also, Felicity, still working alongside Curtis Holt (Echo Kellum), learns that Ray Palmer might actually still be alive - a plot-point which seems intended to become important on the next episode. Each of these plot-points was interesting, in its own right - but, I can't quite shake the feeling that they felt a little out of place in an episode that would have benefited from a greater focus on its main story.

The episode also gave more focus to Laurel, as it explored her reaction to the results of her efforts to bring her sister back. I'll admit that I've gone back and forth, a fair bit, on my feelings toward Laurel over the past few episodes. It feels as though it is much too easy to fall into the trap of dismissing unlikable character traits as a result of bad writing, rather than honest writing - and, with Laurel's stubborn behaviour over the past few episodes pushing her more and more toward being unlikable, that seems to be what was happening for some viewers. At the moment, I have settled on believing that Laurel is simply acting how the writers honestly believe she would act, regardless of how that comes across to the audience. After all, there is no rule says the audience has to always approve of the actions and behaviour of the characters. So, while I still have issues with Laurel, I'm not going to hold it as a mark against the show, as a whole.

This was clearly a very important episode for Arrow. The episode clearly benefited from the inclusion of Matt Ryan as John Constantine - though, the decision to not make the entire episode all about Constantine was also a wise one. Instead, he was used as a catalyst to move along season's over-arching plot - which was probably the best use they could have made of the character. Regarding those plot-points, too, this is likely to be the first point since the second season in which the 'flash-back' story-line promises to be as interesting as the 'present day' one. Both promise new developments that will, hopefully, pay off in interesting ways in the future - and, I am looking forward to seeing how that plays out.

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