Arrow – Season 8 Episode 6
Arrow delivers its take on a time loop as a test from The Monitor with the surprise return of an old friend to complicate the situation further.
I still remember the days when Arrow was a grounded street level superhero show where you would never expect to see a time loop episode play out. Those days were a long time ago but it’s great to think about how much this show has changed and only improved in quality as a result. We’re now at the point where a time loop episode feels entirely plausible and it’s something the characters are able to take in their stride.
A time loop episode has a number of mandatory tropes that have to be covered in order to convey that time is repeating. These include repeated dialogue that the person stuck in the loop can skip through thanks to their prior knowledge, small events that can be avoided or altered and the constant tedium of explaining what’s going on to those who need to know. This episode has all of these but doesn’t overload the narrative with them to the point that they become distracting. The focus is on Oliver and how the time loop is impacting him rather than the events of the loop itself.
Once time begins repeating itself Oliver accepts it pretty quickly and sees it as a punishment from The Monitor for attempting to defy him. He immediately sets about finding a way to solve the puzzle and allow time to progress. This is where the returning Quentin Lance comes in. The entire scenario is set up to reset upon his death so it seems that Oliver needs to find a way to save Quentin in order to restore time to its normal progression. Quentin’s return is the latest throwback to bygone days in the victory lap that is the final season of Arrow. It’s a sentimental approach that is well earned by this point but none of it is done in a way that is distracting because it all feels like a well thought out plan.
Quentin was a character I really liked and his absence left a hole that has never really been filled. His relationships with Oliver, both Laurels and various other characters were distinct and well developed. He was flawed but commanded respect from those around him and made for a perfect fit for the shifting morality of Arrow as the seasons went on. The Monitor has staged his return in a slightly altered reality where he never died and continued his career as Mayor of Star City. Since Oliver doesn’t remember this reality he’s completely at odds with it and has to figure out why Quentin is back and what it means for him. Paul Blackthorne slots naturally back into his old role and has many powerful scenes throughout the episode. His interactions are basically confined to Oliver and Laurel because they had the closest connection to him of the current cast and are both aware of the time loop. Basically it’s a celebration of the past where Oliver, Laurel and Quentin were a large part of a small cast and the show very much centred around how those relationships functioned.
At first, Quentin’s return is seen as an opportunity as all that needs to be done to keep him among the living is find a way to save his life from the horde of mercenaries that have been hired to kill him. Once again it’s a familiar trope in a time loop situation where the character stuck in it simply has to use their knowledge to create the best possible version of events in order to allow them to progress. That’s not the point of this one as The Monitor set it up to teach the lesson that sometimes things are inevitable no matter what steps are taken to prevent them. A more appropriate title for this episode may have been “Kobayashi Maru” as the purpose of that test is the same. For those unfamiliar with the Star Trek franchise; the Kobayashi Maru is a test that cadets interested in command can take that prepares them for the prospect of a no win scenario. During the test the cadet’s ship encounters a distress call from a disabled freighter that results in them facing insurmountable odds with the end result being the destruction of the ship and the death of everyone under their command. It’s a test of character to see how the cadet fares when facing death and is programmed to adapt to any solution they might find.
Oliver’s experience in this episode plays out a lot like that as no matter what he does there is always a contingency in place that counters whatever action he takes. Defusing the first bomb results in a sniper killing Quentin, there is a secondary bomb, there are always more assassins coming after him and so on. No matter what Oliver does he is completely unable to save Quentin’s life because there will always be other obstacles. The point is for Oliver to realise that Quentin’s death isn’t something he could have prevented and to accept that fact. Grief is something that has been portrayed in a variety of ways across the Arrowverse shows and this makes for another strong example. It’s something that people struggle with for a long time but eventually the cycle has to be broken in order to move on with your life. At some point the loss has to be accepted and a new reality has to settle in. Oliver has learned this lesson repeatedly but he has never been in the situation whereby he had a chance to undo a loss that he had suffered so it’s easy to see why he would have to learn it. The time loop makes for an excellent metaphor for the grieving process as the cycle eventually has to be broken in order to move on. It’s not something that comes naturally every time a loss is experienced which supports the notion that Oliver is re-learning a lesson.
The Monitor’s motivations remain confusing and I’m left wondering if they will add up when the dust settles on Crisis. Oliver’s inability to save Quentin lets him realise that he can’t change his own fate either because of the agreement he made. His death can’t be prevented no matter what he does. Lyla explains that The Monitor staged the scenario because he knows that Oliver needs to see something for himself before he will accept it. Oliver’s conversation with Lyla raises more questions than answers about what The Monitor has him doing but he is assured that everything has a purpose that Oliver isn’t are of at this point. Whether it will make sense once that purpose is revealed is unknown but Lyla is asking Oliver -and the audience- to have faith that there’s a plan at work here building to something that will make it all feel necessary. Oliver asks why his children have been involved and the only response is a cryptic “time is a gift” which could mean many things. It’s possible that it’s part of another lesson that Oliver needs to learn that will inform a crucial moment during Crisis or perhaps it’s a gift from The Monitor to Oliver to allow him to achieve closure on his decision to leave by allowing him to have relationships with his children before his inevitable death. It all seems overly cryptic at this late stage as I would have expected to have a few more answers by now rather than presenting more questions. Some of it feels unnecessary though I concede it might all be worth it.
There is evidence to support the argument that The Monitor brought the children back in time as a gift for Oliver because he makes a point of stranding Laurel in the time loop as well. Laurel has the opportunity to say goodbye to the dying Quentin and achieve the closure that she didn’t get when he died. It’s a really touching moment that calls back to the complex relationship that existed between these two characters. Quentin always had faith in this version of Laurel even though he knew that she wasn’t actually his daughter. To him the fact that she was a duplicate from another universe made no difference because he believed she had the capacity for good within her. Laurel wavered frequently on her journey towards uncovering that potential but his consistent faith in her became an important motivator for her to become a better person. She gets the opportunity to tell him how much he means to her and thank her for inspiring her to be a better person as well as see how well thought of she is in the eyes of Quentin. It’s a heartbreaking scene with excellent performances from Katie Cassidy and Paul Blackthorne. This has been a great season for Katie Cassidy playing this version of Laurel and this episode is an excellent showcase for her range as we get a taste of every facet she can bring to the character.
Another great Quentin scene is when he realises that there’s no way to save him and that the point of the exercise is to accept that. He talks about making peace with his own mortality and accepts his fate heroically while pointing out to Oliver that he has to do the same. Stephen Amell is stunning in this moment with the denial evident on his face as Oliver struggles to hold it together. He actively rejects learning this lesson because he feels that there’s nothing he can’t overcome because of the time he has to figure out ways to win and the skills he has. Quentin is more realistic and encourages Oliver to do the same. Accepting the grim reality of a hopeless situation is classic Quentin and having him accept that his time has come is incredibly moving. Paul Blackthorne brings real nobility to his performance in that moment. Their next conversation in the final iteration of the loop where Oliver has accepted it and thanks Quentin for everything while saying goodbye for what probably amounts to the final time is another heartbreaking moment that offers excellent closure on this relationship. All hats must be tipped to the actors who infuse these moments with so much emotion.
There’s another really nice touch when Oliver begins the final iteration of the loop. Every time it begins he wakes up, the time displaced kids all come in and then he rushes out because he wants to have as much time as possible to solve the problem. The final time is different because he’s heard Quentin talk about accepting his fate and Laurel talk about saying goodbye to someone she loved. It encourages Oliver to tell them that he considers the opportunity to get to know all of them to be a gift. Oliver takes the time to let them know how proud he is of them and that he knows they’ll be fine when he’s gone. Basically he’s learned the value of taking a moment to spend with loved ones no matter how fleeting it is because those moments are finite and it’s getting towards him having to accept that his time is up. It’s truly powerful stuff delivered perfectly by Stephen Amell.
An excellent episode that delivers a strong take on the time loop concept with powerful emotional performances and an important lesson learned by Oliver with the help of a beloved returning character. It’s notable that this episode introduces many of the common time loop tropes but sidesteps them early on in favour of meaningful character driven moments. The return of Quentin for this episode is very welcome as his death left a massive hole in the show that will never be filled so it’s great to see him again. Quentin’s death is what resets the time loop with Oliver assuming that finding a way to save him will break the loop and allow the flow of time to continue with Quentin safe and sound. The actual point is for Oliver to learn the lesson that some things are inevitable and accept that his time will soon be up. Dealing with loss is nothing new for Oliver but he has never been in the position where he has the opportunity to undo a personal loss so it’s understandable that he would need to learn this again. The escalation of the situation with the introduction of new factors every time Oliver finds a way to counter the things he learns about in each loop sells the hopelessness of the situation really well and the scene where Quentin accepts that his time is up is really heartbreaking thanks to the performances. Oliver eventually accepting it and discussing The Monitor’s intentions with Lyla sheds very little light on what The Monitor’s plan and motivations are though there is evidence that he brought the children back in time as a gift to Oliver to give him closure on those relationships. I would have expected more information on what The Monitor has planned by this point as I’m not convinced it will all fall into place by the end.
Laurel’s role in the evidence backs up the possibility that The Monitor is giving people opportunities for closure as a gift to them. The scene where she tearfully says goodbye to Quentin and tells him that he was the one who inspired her to try to be a better person was beautifully handled by Paul Blackthorne and Katie Cassidy. She gets the chance to thank him and say goodbye which is important to her because she didn’t have that before. After that she is able to escape the loop because she has nothing more to gain from the scenario where Oliver takes that little bit longer. This episode is a great showcase for Katie Cassidy’s range as we get to see multiple facets of Laurel depending on the context of the scene. It’s also an excellent showcase for Stephen Amell who entirely delivers in every scene he has. A great example is the scene he shares with the time displaced kids where he takes a moment to appreciate the brief time he has with them and tell them what they mean to him. Quentin reminds him of the importance of this and Oliver is able to thank him as well as say goodbye in a similarly moving scene. In essence the time loop is an excellent metaphor for grief as the episode is about finding a way to accept what has happened and move on no matter how difficult it may be. Even though the lesson has been learned in the past doesn’t mean it come naturally the next time it happens. It’s truly powerful stuff delivered by a very talented cast.
- powerful performances from Stephen Amell, Katie Cassidy and Paul Blackthorne
- the abundance of heartbreaking moments
- quickly pushing aside the common time loop tropes
- the time loop acting as a strong metaphor for grief and how difficult acceptance is
- very little clarity on The Monitor’s plan and motivations at this late stage
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