Suspension of disbelief is a difficult tightrope for superhero stories to walk (what the hell, the episode title is ‘Vertigo,’ I’m gonna go ahead and use height-based metaphors). As viewers, we expect to see something unbelievable. That’s why we watch in the first place. So we’ll believe a man can fly, or throw bat-shaped boomerangs, or fight people with a bow and arrow in the 21st century and not die two minutes in. But beyond those rules, we expect some measure of adherence to familiar patterns, be they laws of physics or normal human behavior. Unfortunately, this episode tumbled off that tightrope often, and with a straight face.
Picking up almost exactly where last week’s episode left off, Present Oliver is dealing with his sister’s use of the mysterious Vertigo drug and resultant DUI, and Past Oliver has been freshly captured by the island militia, which his mentor Yao Fei seems to have joined. For once, the two stories mirror each other fairly closely, as both involve infiltration. Present Oliver uses his Russian Mafia connections to get a line on Vertigo’s supplier, proving his bona fides by seemingly choking a rebellious underling. To Diggle’s considerable relief, though, he reveals that it’s a trick: some sort of pressure point in the neck that mimics death. Already, that tightrope’s a-wavering. (Interestingly, a different version of Green Arrow used that same trick on an episode of Justice League, but on himself and using a fancy gadget.)
We soon see how Past Oliver learned the trick: from Yao Fei himself, who uses it to fake Oliver’s death and toss him off a waterfall, out of the militia’s hands. It’s good to know he’s still on the side of the angels, sort of, but it’s still unclear what his or anyone’s goals are in the flashbacks. Or whether Deathstroke will ever get a line. Well, there’s still plenty of season to find out.
Present Oliver’s Russian pals, suitably impressed, set up a meeting that brings him face-to-manic-face with his newest enemy: a drug-dealing psycho nicknamed the Count.
Resembling nothing more than Kurt from Glee playing a Goth Willy Wonka, the Count brings a lot of overacting to a disappointingly half-baked idea. We never get a good idea of what Vertigo does, or why it’s any more dangerous to Starling City than, say, heroin. The Count uses it to torture an underling (man, underlings really took it on the chin this week) and enthuses about its ability to simulate excruciating pain when applied right to the nervous system, but that’s presumably not what people are buying it for. Is it addictive? Toxic? Who knows? It’s clear that the only reason Oliver is bothering with this case at all is very personal: he wants to get his sister off the hook.
What does the word “heroic” mean to you? Does it mean a rich man using his connections to get one of his relatives out of a DUI charge? If yes, then you are probably a member of the Bush family, and you loved the hell out of this episode. Yes, putting aside for the moment his vendetta against the powerful and corrupt, our beloved Arrow spends most of this episode wheeling and dealing to keep his sister out of a short jail term. He enlists Laurel in pressuring her dad to get Thea’s charges lessened. He argues Thea herself in and out of plea deals, her opinions on the matter apparently changing by the hour. And he lets slip that their dad was kind of a scumbag.
One way that Arrow is extremely realistic is in showing how people, especially families, keep having the same arguments over and over. Thea’s still mad at Moira for supposedly cheating on her dad and Walter, and Moira’s pissed at Oliver for letting the cat out of the bag, and Oliver’s pissed at both of them for obsessing over petty secrets and resentments when a family member’s been freaking kidnapped. Or maybe that’s just me. All of this is expressed as melodramatically as possible, and takes up far too much of ‘Vertigo.’ Eventually Thea is placated when Moira comes clean about Dad being an ass, or more specifically by the protective urge that led her to keep it secret in the first place. Except that completely sidesteps what she was upset about in the first place, which was Moira’s hanging around with Malcolm Merlyn. The tightrope wobbles again.
Where we finally fall off is during Oliver’s pursuit of the Count. The Bratva-brokered meeting is broken up by the cops, led by Detective Lance and a new character, Oliver’s old friend McKenna, now a detective. All he gets out of it is a chestful of Vertigo, a hangover, and a lead. Diggle suggests they have the Vertigo syringes analyzed, which means a trip to the only person they know who knows anything about science: Felicity.
Look, I will accept bows and arrows as modern-day weapons. I will accept judges that just toss out guilty pleas and cities filled entirely with runway models. But when you hand a vial of liquid over to a computer programmer and ask for a spectrographic analysis, and she agrees, my suspension of disbelief snaps like the Tacoma Narrows. (Oh, and line of the night: “It’s a liquid, so it must have water in it.” Yeah, great analysis there, Oliver. No wonder you guys assume Felicity knows All The Science.) And when she tells them that the salt in the mixture must have come from a specific part of the city… it’s just more than I can take. You know, it’s strange that I accept this kind of forensic hoop-te-doo from Batman, but at least there they go to the trouble of establishing that the hero knows something about chemistry. Not so much here.
So Oliver storms the Count’s hideout and jabs him with his own product, only to be interrupted again by the cops, who apparently have one kickass informant. Hopefully that will in itself be a plot point later on, and not just lazy plotting. For once the villain lives, albeit tripping balls and likely to come back crazier than ever. Fine by me.
The episode ends with my favorite scene, when Felicity finally calls Oliver on his bullshit. He couldn’t have gone on telling her obvious lies much longer without further stretching credulity, and it’s nice that the writers acknowledge that. Oddly, though, instead of following up by calling him the Hood to his face, she chooses to push the larger plot along: she has Walter’s copy of the List, and she knows it came from Moira. Well done, Arrow. What better way to end a dull plot than by teasing a more interesting one? Well played indeed.
Oh, and just to finish off the tightrope metaphor: Aaaaaaaaaaah! *thud*
Next week: Um, some bad guys, I guess. Honestly, I didn’t get much out of the teaser.