Arrow Review: “The Undertaking” (Season 1, Episode 21)

Stephen Amell in Arrow

Well, that was…unexpected. Having spent half the season foreshadowing its endgame through hushed whispers of something called The Undertaking, you’d think the episode of Arrow actually called “The Undertaking” would see Malcolm’s cataclysmic scheme finally put into motion. By the end of the hour though, all we really get is a big fat cliffhanger, as a big rig hauling the mysteriously named Markov device into Starling City merely signals that, for real guys, the big event the whole season has been building towards is just around the corner. So while “The Undertaking” doesn’t really make good on what’s implied by the title, the bigger surprise is that it still manages to be one of Arrow’s best episodes to date.

Really, this week was more about developing a stronger definition for what The Undertaking is, and those responsible for concocting it. Letting the tension from last episode’s island ambush percolate for a little while longer, this week’s flashbacks dredge up older history than usual, starting from the last meeting the Tempest group had while Robert Queen was still alive. We learn that the purpose of the group hasn’t actually changed all the much since, as preventing crime in The Glades has always been their objective. Back then however, they tried keeping the peace using blackmail and extortion to fund more traditional security measures, until Malcolm broaches the idea of taking a more radical, lethal approach.

The flashbacks fill in some of the blanks that were vexing me a few weeks back, when it seemed like the mysteries of the conspiracy were threatening to swallow it whole. Robert’s involvement is a sort of penance for causing the accidental death of a corrupt councilman from the Glades, while Frank, the group’s Chinese connection, is in it to avenge the rape of his daughter. Most interestingly, is that Moira is initially kept out of the cabal, resulting in a really standout episode for Susanna Thompson, who gets to show us a more subdued version of Moira. It makes her modern day self more engaging, knowing that she spent the five years following her husband’s death having to quickly learn what it takes to swim the dangerous waters left in Malcolm’s wake.

And hooo boy, Malcolm. Robert’s right to think the man’s power comes from his God complex: it takes serious stones to make a case for district-genocide as though you were a deity with the right to smite those deemed unworthy. But the flashbacks nicely reveal a far more human facet to the mastermind behind all the madness. There’s a temptation to use a lost loved one as an excuse for supervillainy, but Malcolm’s tragic confession that he ignored the last, dying phone calls from his wife underscores that he was an asshole from the get-go -the death of his wife just gave him a reason to unleash his awfulness on a much wider audience.

The episode smartly avoids positioning Robert as openly repulsed by Malcolm, and instead suggests that the plan to destroy The Glades using natural disaster-inducing technology (courtesy Unidec Industries, first mentioned way back when) was his moral wakeup call. And a nice grace note sees Frank revealed as the one who betrays Robert (a betrayal eventually repaid, unknowingly, by Moira), arranging placement of the bomb that sinks the Queen’s Gambit. Frank’s motivations come from a place of self-preservation rather than fanaticism, as fear is the glue Malcolm uses to keep the Tempest group together following –and likely, prior to- Robert’s murder. Only a particularly unscrupulous man would toast the memory of a widow’s husband, half a breath after telling her he was responsible for widowing her in the first place -and that he’s capable of doing it again.

Things are different this time though, as Moira isn’t the only one looking out for her husband, (Walter being at risk in this case). The routine shakedown of a crooked accountant leads Oliver to the bank records of underground casino director/kidnapper Dominic Alonzo, who happened upon a big payday around the time Walter was kidnapped. As Oliver details the complexity of infiltrating Alonzo’s private hot spot, and how he can’t be the one to do it, two words ought to be flashing in your head: Felicity caper. Sure enough, our favorite cyber sleuth pulls a nice dress out of the closet, ditches the glasses, and engages card-counting vamp mode… while still being a delightful flibbertigibbet the whole time.

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