The first episode of Arrow to not directly have the finger-prints of the show’s creators on the screenplay – this time Moira Kirland (Dark Angel, Castle) and Lana Cho – it’s a sign that Arrow is beginning to stand on its own two, green feet.
These aren’t wobbling Bambi steps either, ‘An Innocent Man’ is perhaps Arrow‘s first truly great episode – a gripping noir that owes more to detective work and morally complex face-offs than it does to the overcooked personal drama that derailed the last couple of episodes. There’s little of the usual lip-pursing from Laurel (Katie Cassidy) as she attempts to prove that death row inmate Peter Declan (Lane Edwards) was framed for the murder of his wife by the sneering Jason Brodeur (24‘s TJ Ramini). Declan’s wife, an employee of Brodeur’s, attempted to blow the whistle on his company’s toxic dumping – just the sort of unscrupulous corporate raiding that made him one of the names on Oliver’s list of money-grabbing bad bastards. Laurel at first gets a bit Kristen Dunst’s MJ at the sight of Arrow, before the sheer bloody nature of what he does hits her right in the face and she backs that truck up. It’s a refreshing shift on the usual dynamic – here’s a love interest who has an equally love/hate-but-more-hate relationship with both the superhero and his secret identity.
The stuff about a man doing what a man gotta do was dealt with pretty heavily in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films – held quite core to the atmosphere and aesthetic of Arrow – but it’s only here that the show really begins to better its inspiration, flashing back to Oliver killing his first wild bird as not to starve on the island, and Diggle (David Ramsey) making a blunt distinction between fighting a war and being a cloaked murderer losing all touch with who he is. The spirit of Nolan may be hovering nearby like Obi-Wan’s Force ghost when the righteous speeches about how Starling City needs Arrow come out, but when people start pointing out how obviously sociopathic this is, and how it doesn’t matter how much good you do if you break the law and take lives to do it, even the supposed ‘realism’ of Nolan’s universe is suddenly outed as yet another escaped cartoon at its core.
Without any poorly deployed DC Universe cameos – because all episodes are written by SEO now – soaking up air time and giving it the air of Smallville with scowling, the plot itself is allowed to unfold unfettered by silly costumes. This micro-thriller’s overlapping agendas come to a boil with a staged prison riot (in Iron Heights, comic-book fans will be delighted to know, and there’s another mega-squee when Arrow growls “Either it’s time to tell me the truth or it’s time for the 10.15 to Bludhaven!”) to take out Declan and Laural. It may not be one of the most artful action scenes in the series in terms of bow-fu, but by far the most visually striking as inmates pound on the bars, bathed in blue/green light, and cops in riot gear charge down the halls.
There’s no shortage of jaw-dropping reveals either. Step-father Walter Steele (Colin Salmon) discovers that Oliver’s mother has spent serious money keeping some WTF?-scale ropey CGI in a warehouse, and she finally meets up with John Barrowman’s Well Dressed Man, revealing that Robert Queen’s list isn’t just any list, but “The List”. And then the single biggest development in the show since that luckless boat first went down comes crashing through the door of Queen Manor and flips the whole status quo over like a dining table in a bad magic trick.