As eager as many fans were for the return of Helena Bertinelli, the daughter of a mobster bent on avenging her fiancé’s murder, the character they saw in this week’s episode of Arrow wasn’t the one they remember from three months ago.
Oh, sure, she’s reintroduced in a stripper outfit that evokes one of the more revealing costumes worn by DC Comics’ Huntress – is that intended as commentary on the depictions superheroines? – but this Helena bears little resemblance to either her comic-book counterpart or the emotionally wounded vigilante from “Muse of Fire” and “Vendetta.” John Diggle refers to her as Oliver’s “psycho ex-girlfriend,” but that’s more than just a barb – unfortunately, it’s the extent of her characterization in “The Huntress Returns.”
Although I was never convinced by actress Jessica De Gouw’s performance, Helena came across as a somewhat-interesting, and almost-sympathetic, figure: She gathered evidence on her father, crime boss Frank Bertinelli, to turn over to the FBI, actions blamed on her fiancé, who was killed in retribution for his perceived betrayal. And so Helena turned vigilante, killing her father’s business associates in a bid to destroy his criminal empire. That, naturally, brought her into conflict with the Hood, who viewed her as both a romantic interest and a pet project. For all of his own father issues and murky morality when it comes to killing criminals, Ollie thought he could “fix” Helena, or at least show her a better way. Boy, was he wrong.
Mere weeks (or maybe months, it’s difficult to tell) after her failed attempt to kill her father, Helena storms back into Starling City determined to find Frank before he can disappear into federal witness protection. She interrogates, and then executes, his attorney at a strip bar, bringing her to the attention of the police and, of course, of Oliver and Diggle. Helena isn’t difficult to find, however, showing up at Queen Mansion to share a laugh with Thea before pressing Ollie for his assistance. And just in case he had any doubts that Helena will stop at nothing in her quest for revenge, she makes it clear she’s willing to use Oliver’s family as leverage.
Helena wastes little time following through with the threat, using the opening of Oliver’s nightclub Verdant (get it, “green”?) to get to Tommy, who earlier was dismissing his friend’s fumbling explanation that he kept his identity secret to protect those closest to him. With Tommy’s life (or at least arm), and the lives of the club's patrons, at stake, Ollie agrees to help Helena find and stop the van transporting her father to a safehouse.
At this point, the “secret” lair beneath Verdant has become Grand Central Station, with Tommy, Helena and then Felicity Smoak coming and going as they please – OK, the latter was ordered out when she offered to hack the FBI computer system, something that puts her in the Huntress’ crosshairs. (A couple of asides: 1. How does Ollie disguise the entrance from the club to the lair beneath from his employees? It’s not the office, and it’s not liquor closet, so what is that Mysterious Always-Locked Door? 2. The club scenes, never a strong point with television series, were pretty credible, thanks in part to the cameo by Steve Aoki as the opening-night DJ. The only real shortcoming was that the shots required more extras; if Verdant couldn’t draw a larger crowd for its grand opening, the club may be in trouble.)
Prying Frank Bertinelli from federal custody proves even more difficult than one might imagine, as not only are there two prisoner-transport vans – a decoy our vigilantes were already aware of, hence the need for two motorcycle-driving pursuers – but one is a trap cleverly set by Starling City police to snare Helena and, they hope, the Hood. Why the city police are running the show rather than the U.S. Marshals Service or FBI isn’t clear, but I’m guessing it’s because having Helena in federal custody wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as seeing her apprehended and questioned by detectives Quentin Lance and McKenna Hall.
Make no mistake, her interrogation is the most dramatic and enjoyable scene in the episode, as Helena toys with the two detectives – and the audience – by answering Det. Lance’s question about the Hood’s identity with “Oliver Queen,” only to turn the taunting response into a warning to Det. Hall that her boyfriend uses the people around him. In case you hadn’t heard, she’s a psycho ex-girlfriend.
Still, Ollie swoops in to rescue Helena, for no other reason than to preserve his secret (although we’re expected to believe he still has feelings for her). Perhaps he hasn’t shed that selfish rich-boy persona entirely, as here he’s willing to put the safety of his family and friends, not to mention law-enforcement officers, in jeopardy to either help a not-so-old flame or to help himself. In either case, it’s not particularly “heroic,” making the events that follow entirely his fault.
But before we get to the fallout, let’s dispatch with the subplots, the most interesting of which involves Thea and her purse-snatcher Roy Harper. Much like her brother, Thea seems determined to “fix” people, and so when she again crosses paths with Roy on the way to work, she offers to help him get a job at Verdant (something that neither he nor the audience is sure is a good idea). When he doesn’t show up, she returns to his home in the Glades, where she'srebuffed by Roy and then accosted by a couple of knife-wielding thugs – only to rescued by the parkour-like stylings of the red hoodie-wearing petty criminal. Alas, Roy is stabbed in the process and rushed to the hospital by Thea, who kisses him to take his mind off the enormous needle being injected into his arm. The other present-day storyline centers on tensions in the Lance family as Laurel attempts to convince her father to at least look at the evidence from his estranged wife that Sara may have survived the accident that left Ollie stranded for five years (all we’re shown is a tourist photo of a woman who might be Sara, because, y’know, tourists snap shots of random people all the time). Honestly, that second thread feels like something manufactured to give Laurel something to do; it's pretty feeble.
And then there are the brief flashbacks to the island as Ollie and Slade disable Eddie Fyers’ missile launcher by removing the circuit board only to offer to return it in exchange for a way off Lian Yu. The term “glacial pace” may be an understatement.
But back to Starling City, where Helena rejects Oliver’s offer of a plane ticket to Rome and a new identity (surprise!) and instead pays a visit to Felicity, whom she forces to crack the FBI database to discover the FBI safehouse where Frank Bertinelli is being held. She quickly dispatches the numerous agents – and by “dispatches” we mean “shoots them in the chest with bolts from her crossbow” – before again being stopped short of her goal by Ollie. Their ensuing fight, in which Helena realizes Ollie is actually willing to kill her, is interrupted by McKenna Hall, who for some reason was privy to the “secret” location of the not-so-safehouse (man, that Justice Department inquiry is going to be a barn-burner). At gunpoint, the Hood lays down his bow, providing Helena with the opening to shoot McKenna with a shotgun before disappearing into the night.
McKenna survives but tearfully breaks off her relationship with Ollie so she can move to Coast City for the year of physical therapy required to recover from her injuries. Tommy, who earlier stressed that he wasn’t upset that his best friend lied to him but rather that his best friend is a murderer – hey, it’s an important distinction – now pops up to reveal a change of heart, and an understanding of the pressures posed by Ollie’s dual identity. It’s an abrupt about-face that seems to tie up, too neatly and too quickly, the potentially fascinating thread of what an angry and dejected Tommy might do with his knowledge of Oliver’s secret. What could have been an intriguing source of tension, something always lurking at the edges of their relationship, suddenly becomes a matter of (sigh) one more person who knows the Hood’s identity.
That serves to underscore the overriding problem with “The Huntress Returns”: Everything is done for the convenience of the larger story, presumably to clear the stage for the final episodes of the season. Helena reappears, far too soon, transformed into a virtually unrecognizable one-dimensional spirit of vengeance. Perhaps if the producers had held her in reserve a while longer – she was gone for seven episodes – or revealed her numerous frustrated attempts to kill her father, the changes might have been more believable. But instead of the clever, charming and manipulative woman we were introduced to in November and December, we’re greeted by, well … Ollie’s psycho ex-girlfriend.
In addition, she oh-so-helpfully illustrates to Tommy what Oliver was trying to say about protecting the people he cares about and, most disappointingly, dispatches with McKenna Hall, whose duties as a detective had further complicated Ollie’s dual life. Everything is left wrapped up in tidy bow as we rocket toward the May 15 finale -- except for Ollie, who's all tied up in knots.