There were a lot of things to like (and some to not like) about “The Undertaking,” but I’ve got a really simple question: Does the presence of Walter Steele determine this show’s success?
Seriously. It’s not that Colin Salmon gives a very solid performance (though he does) or that the Walter character ever really receives that much screen time (he doesn’t). It’s that the presence of Walter indicates a certain focus that ‘Arrow’ utterly lacks most of the time.
Early this season, when ‘Arrow’ was consistently knocking it out of the park with fun and fascinating episodes, Walter played small but important roles in plots, until he was thrust into a central role in the “Walter is abducted by Tommy Merlyn” story. Those episodes were great, but then Walter, being abducted and all, disappeared. And ‘Arrow’ tanked. Like, immediately. Suddenly the show wasn’t as concerned with what had been its central narrative – the incessantly-repeated “what’s wrong with Starling City” – and more concerned with love triangles, bad monologues, and Oliver being a douchebag who makes terrible decisions.
Part of this, of course, is due to the network schedule. There are simply too many episodes to move any single story along continually, so there have to be breaks. But what ‘Arrow’ did with its break was almost universally terrible, and the remnants of that were still present in “The Undertaking.” The Oliver/Laurel/Tommy love triangle is hands-down the worst thing on the show, which is saying something considering that until this week, we spent no less than 10 minutes each episode on interminable island flashbacks that made me want to gauge my eyes out. Thea and Roy doesn’t even feel like a C-Story; it feels more like an R or maybe a U-story, entirely disconnected from the central action. And like her husband, Moira Queen doesn’t appear nearly enough, though when she does she tends to be acting irrationally.
But for the most part, “The Undertaking” got it right. Getting rid of the island flashbacks was a major step, and while they were replaced by flashbacks to shortly before the island (which I lovingly dubbed “Downton Arrow” on Twitter), that proved to be a much more fertile period of time for revealing character details. In particular, seeing Oliver be so, so dishonest and awful gives some into why he is the way he is now. Don’t get me wrong, it would still be much more compelling for the show to be centered around someone who is NOT an incompetent douchebag, but this at least provided perspective.
And, perhaps most importantly, the series got back to being fun! Other than the love triangle garbage, “The Undertaking” felt like those early episodes: quick, breezy, action-packed. The story was well-paced and had easily-identifiable stakes. Felicity was put to good use, and we even got a reprise of Hot Felicity for a few minutes (she is always hot, of course, but “Hot Felicity” is a separate character entirely). Oliver behaved more or less like a hero who was worth rooting for, and Walter was brought back into the fold.
A very good episode all-around, certainly the best of 2013 for ‘Arrow.’ Here’s hoping the remaining two hours of ‘Arrow’ continue the trend.