Of the countless twists and turns in “Dead to Rights” — the return of an old foe, a botched assassination, the revelation that someone long thought dead might not be — the biggest surprise was easily the development of Tommy and Malcolm Merlyn as characters.
Despite the best efforts of actor Colin Donnell, Tommy has never come across as anything more than Oliver Queen’s shallow childhood friend turned romantic rival, a spoiled rich kid who serves a reminder of our protagonist’s life before his experience on the island. It’s easy to imagine them six years earlier sauntering into nightclubs and restaurants, flaunting their wealth and charming one woman after another, but before this week’s episode it was far more difficult to understand what (beyond nostalgia for a simpler time) compels Ollie to maintain their friendship.
Factor in that the most interesting aspect of Tommy has been trying to figure out what incident will trigger his inevitable transformation into Arrow’s costumed nemesis, and it was tough to really care when his already strained relationship with his father fell apart, leading Tommy to be abruptly cut off from the family fortune. Similarly, Malcolm, as played gleefully by John Barrowman, has been depicted as a mustache-twirling stock villain, the eternally disappointed father and duplicitous head of a secret cabal set on the destruction of Starling City’s most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhood because … that’s what billionaire bad guys do?
But “Dead to Rights” changes all of that, finally pulling back the curtain on the father-son relationship and, in the process, transforming both into at least somewhat sympathetic figures while further complicating the friendship between Tommy and Oliver.
Written by Geoff Johns, whose comic-book stories so often focus on the father-son or mentor-protege dynamic, this week’s episode — for all of its intrigue, action and revelations — is at its heart about repairing and redefining Tommy’s relationship with the seemingly heartless Malcolm. That’s a daunting task to accomplish in 40-something minutes, particularly when you consider their interactions have been frustratingly one-note over the course of the season. We’ve been told that Tommy’s mother Rebecca was a good, caring woman, and that her murder drove a wedge between father and son, but there was never a convincing emotional underpinning to that backstory. It always seemed like a dry detail gleaned from a yellowed copy of Who’s Who in the DC Universe.
In this week’s episode, however, the feelings are there: regret, rage, grief, pride and, yes, even love — all brought to the surface by the presentation of a humanitarian award to the elder Merlyn, an event that provides China White her opportunity to pull the trigger on Moira Queen’s plot to rid herself, and Starling City, of Malcolm. As the old saying goes, there’s nothing like an assassination attempt to bring a family together.
“Dead to Rights” opens with The Hood quickly dispatching an assassin flown in by the Triad, setting Oliver on a path to unwittingly foil his mother’s plans throughout the episode. It’s a cruel irony that the primary obstacle to Moira freeing her current husband, avenging her first husband and saving the lives of thousands of people is her own son. But that’s what happens when you live a life built out of lies — something that applies almost equally to mother and son.
The assassin’s cell phone leads Oliver to a Chinese restaurant that serves as a front for the Triad where, over dinner, he and Tommy have their most genuine conversation to date. Torn by his father’s request to attend the award presentation, Tommy gives voice to the depth of the chasm between them, his anger raw as he recounts his abandonment in the two years following his mother’s death, and how he turned to Oliver’s family for comfort. It’s not exactly a revelation, but the information at last put into terms that resonate with the audience. It also provides another perspective on the Queen household, which can be difficult to imagine in happier times, before Moira and Robert became entangled in the Undertaking’s schemes, and before the shipwreck. Ollie, who has his own father issues, can only offer a fumbling, “Your dad is … your dad,” an argument that’s both lame and profound (and familiar to anyone who’s ever locked horns with his or her father).
That intensity of emotion carries over to the awards gala, where for the first time Malcolm’s facade begins to crack as he can barely contain the grief and the rage that lie just beneath the surface while recounting his wife’s murder at the hands of a mugger in the Glades. With that, we now have a window into his twisted motivations for wanting to “cleanse” Starling City. As Tommy looks on with a mixture of sorrow and pride, a steely Moira also briefly falters when she realizes he may witness his father’s death. If she has any reservations about her plot, she’s given no time to express them, as China White and her Triad soldiers appear dressed as waiters to set off the building’s alarm and drive the panicked crowd and, more importantly, Malcolm outside and into the line of fire of the assassin Deadshot, previously seen in the third episode “Lone Gunman.”
To Malcolm’s credit, his first thought isn’t of his ruined evening or even his own safety, but rather his son, whom he directs toward the panic room in his penthouse office. If Tommy believed he didn’t truly know his father before, that becomes clear when Malcolm effortlessly kills two Triad gunmen who stand in their way. While Oliver takes out other Triad and goes toe to toe with China White, the Merlyns reach the safety of the office, where Malcolm is prepared to answer Tommy’s questions by revealing his Dark Archer outfit — only to be cut short by poison-laced bullets from Deadshot’s sniper rifle.
A costumed Ollie arrives as Malcolm lays dying, and realizes the only way to convince Tommy to trust his advice to give his father an emergency blood transfusion is to reveal his true identity. Rattled by the assassination attempt and the realization that neither his father nor his best friend are what they appear, Tommy keeps Oliver’s secret, even when confronted by Detectives Lance and Hall. But outside his father’s hospital room, Tommy’s feelings of betrayal are obvious.
He isn’t the only Merlyn feeling deceived, though, as Malcolm realizes there’s a traitor in the Undertaking, and tasks Moira with finding out who it is. How long will she be able to feign an investigation before she sacrifices Frank Chen, who has a connection to the Triad, to save Walter and herself?
However, the secrets don’t end there, as Laurel Lance leaves for the hospital only to find her estranged mother Dinah (Alex Kingston of Doctor Who fame) standing at her door. And she brought her own bombshell: that Laurel’s sister Sara, long believed killed in the shipwreck that left Oliver stranded on the island, may be alive.
THIS WEEK’S DC COMICS CONNECTIONS
Guillermo Barerra: The assassin Oliver kills in the opening moments may be more familiar to DC Comics readers as Brutale, the expert knife-thrower/hired killer who fought Nightwing on numerous occasions.
The canary: We’re shown the photo in Laurel’s apartment of her father and young sister with a canary, which of course foreshadows not only the revelation about Sara but the arrival of their mother Dinah, who in comics was the original Black Canary.
Floyd Lawton: Presumed dead following the events of “Lone Gunman,” Deadshot went into retirement due to the loss of his right eye. He’s lured back into the business when China White offers him the trademark eye piece from the comics.
Bludhaven: When China pays Floyd a visit, we see the “Bludhaven Apt.” sign, a nod to Nightwing’s longtime stomping grounds. The city was previously mentioned in the fourth episode of Arrow.
Nanda Parbat: Malcolm tells Tommy that following his mother’s murder, he traveled to Nanda Parbat, which is a mystical city in the DC Universe — a sort of Shangri-La — connected not only to Deadman but to Judomaster and, in Justice League Dark, the Books of Magic.