For better or for worse, “Broken Dolls” marks the closest Arrow has come in tone and plotting to its predecessor, Smallville. The very concept of The Dollmaker—a nefarious villain who abducts beautiful woman, injects them with chemicals and crafts life-size dolls from their corpses—feels like something ripped from Smallville’s extensive rogues gallery. What’s more, as with Smallville’s later seasons, the episode also serves as a proverbial treasure chest of DC Universe Easter eggs.
While fans have long been anticipating Slade Wilson’s official conversion into the villainous Deathstroke (the injuries he sustains in the Island flashback scenes seem to point heavily to this), and though the introduction of Black Canary—or some iteration of her—felt like a given, few could have predicted the bombshell dropped near the episode’s end: the quasi-Black Canary is somehow connected to Ra’s al Ghul, a main adversary of Batman and one of the most celebrated villains in the whole DC universe. Also, as pointed out in a recent, hilarious Key and Peele sketch, he was played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins.
This namedrop further cements Arrow’s status as a smaller-scale Batman story. Sure, the elements have always been there—just as they are in the comics—but countless images from tonight’s episode so effectively recall the Christopher Nolan films, from Arrow and Quentin’s clandestine, Batman-Lieutenant Gordon-esque meeting on a rooftop to Arrow’s method of painfully interrogating leads without killing them. (One keeps expecting Diggle to suddenly transform into Michael Caine.)
How you feel about this direction might very well determine how you feel about this episode. I’m suitably intrigued, and “Broken Dolls” makes for an overall solid entry, albeit with a few rough spots along the way. Right off the bat, the deus ex machina intervention that is Black Canary rescuing Arrow from last episode’s cliffhanger borders on the anticlimactic. Moreover, how exactly Arrow is able to function after a strategically placed sonic boom incapacitates the police forces is a tad suspect. (Does his hood just have excellent sound-blocking capabilities?)
That being said, the Dollmaker elements help create a suspenseful and sufficiently creepy main storyline while also effortlessly bringing a previously sidelined Quentin Lance back into the fold. Also, the revelation that Moira Queen, now facing the death penalty for her roll in the Glades demolition, has kept further secrets from her children sets up some great season-long mystery arcs. Even the flashback bits, which find the island being bombarded with missiles and Oliver and Slade being taken prisoner aboard a battleship, present an exciting tangential story (even if we know Oliver is destined to escape and get back to the island).
Then there’s the rest of the episode. While I complimented the show last week on its instances of sharp, economical writing, “Broken Dolls” demonstrates that there’s a thin line between simplistic and downright clunky. This especially applies to Laurel’s arc. Poor Katie Cassidy often finds herself saddled with the least interesting storylines and here is no different. The entire hour involves her arguing with her Quentin, who claims her pursuit of Arrow stems from a sense of guilt regarding Tommy Merlyn’s death. Following her ordeal at the hands of the Dollmaker, Laurel finally breaks down and—in the most ham-fisted way possible—reveals that she considers herself chiefly responsible for Tommy’s fate since she was too stubborn to leave her building during the lead-up to the quake. It’s an understandable sentiment but with the way the show executes it, Laurel seems as though she is just now coming to this realization, which comes across less like emotional repression and more like absent-mindedness.
Although perhaps not the most consistently great hour the series has produced, “Broken Dolls” still stands head-and-shoulders above some of season one’s lesser fare and introduces intriguing plot turns that could very well set up an dynamite season.
But seriously, if anyone mentions a Lazarus Pool in the next few episodes, the inner geek in me will be jumping in excitement.