Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Arrow 4x11 "A.W.O.L." (Without Intent to Desert)

Original Airdate: January 27, 2016

What happens when you need to leave?

There are times when this happens in any circumstance in life, from the smallest (finding the right time to leave a party) to the largest (realizing when to leave a relationship). Usually when you leave, you don't return. Your choice to turn away is often a choice to turn your back. But there are certain times in life where you don't need a clean break — you just need a break,period. These are the times when you need to be reminded of who you are in order to return to familiar situations.

I often talk about Dan Harmon's story circle. It's something I think is really genius (I won't discuss my feelings about the man behind it, so never fear), and useful when it comes to thinking about good stories and good storytelling. In this circle, after a character has gotten what they wanted and paid a hefty price for it, they "return to their familiar situation, having changed." The things that propel these characters, often times, are desire and hope. They leave a situation and then return to it, having changed because of what they experienced. We see this pretty clearly in this week's episode titled "A.W.O.L." in the characters of Diggle (Andy, mainly, and John a bit) and Felicity.

Dig's still dealing with the fact that his brother betrayed him. He is oscillating between believing his brother can be redeemed and finding him to be too far gone. And Felicity is having an identity crisis of her own now that she's paralyzed. Her pain and uncertainty manifest itself — quite brilliantly, I must say — in the form of goth!Felicity. Before we dive into those character complexities though, let me talk about one important element of this episode: the title. As someone who writes for a living and as a hobby, I find the nature of titles to be really important. I had to look up what "A.W.O.L." really meant, because even though I know what the acronym stands for, I felt like there was something else important about it that I was missing.

I knew what the letters stood for. I knew that they meant someone was absent without official leave. But I didn't know this last and most important part of the definition: "... without intent to desert." And that is the part we will focus on throughout the episode.


Now that I've gotten the Britney Spears song stuck in your head, I want to take a few minutes and talk about Felicity Smoak. The reason that I love Felicity — and I suspect the reason many of you do, too — is because she's a hero in her own right. She's never needed a mask. She's never needed to put on a suit or engage in hand-to-hand combat. She's never had to wield a weapon. And yet, as Oliver asserted last week, Felicity is stronger than any and everyone. It's not because she is perfect. It is not because she is a person who never encounters suffering. It is the way that Felicity handles her tragedies that make her a hero. It's not the amount of pain you face that determines who you become and whether or not you become more open or bitter. It's the way in which you handle your difficult circumstances that shapes who you are as a person. And no doubt, Felicity has had her fair share of struggles.

Though I have qualms with how Arrow has written (and still does) write its women, the one thing that I can say for sure is that the writers are unashamed in the awareness of what makes their characters tick, what drives and motivates them, and what they do in crises. So when Felicity is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, the way that she faces this new hurdle in her life should come as no surprise to anyone who's watched even an episode of the show. There was no doubt that she would learn to accept her new normal with the same strength of character and wit and heart that has made her such a fan favorite. Thea and Laurel and Lyla handle tragedy differently. Laurel gets angry, often irrationally so. Thea shuts everyone out and wallows. Lyla becomes evasive and relies on herself to do everything. But the way that Felicity has always handled tragedy is simple: with a stubborn optimism and grit and fight.

Are we used to seeing Felicity wallow? Have we ever seen her lament her life and circumstances to the point where she is useless to the people around her? Have we ever seen her completely give up without a fight? No. Felicity Smoak is a hero because of the way she handles the things in life that don't come easy. She refuses to let them crush her. She refuses to let Oliver treat her in any way that is a fraction less than how she deserves. She refused to let Diggle and Oliver tear one another apart. She refused to let Laurel see herself as unloved. She refused to let Diggle, Lyla, Thea, and baby Sara endure the loss of Oliver to the League alone.

Felicity faces her new limitations just like that — as limitations. And limitations have never stopped Felicity. They didn't stop her when she was the daughter of a man who abandoned her. They didn't stop her when she lost Cooper. They didn't stop her when she was at MIT. They didn't stop her when she got hired at Queen Consolidated. They didn't stop her when she discovered Thea's true parentage. They didn't stop her when Oliver was being cruel or dismissive. They didn't stop her when she became the CEO of Palmer Technologies.

Did we really think that a wheelchair would be the thing that does Felicity Smoak in? In the iconic words of Cher Horowitz: "As if."


... But that's not to say that being paralyzed temporarily (like Arrow will keep her that way, since I doubt in that flash-forward she was meant to be paralyzed) is something that is easy. And she begins to realize that throughout the course of this episode. 

Like learning to adjust to pushing herself around in a wheelchair, life post-paralyzation is quite rough on Felicity Smoak emotionally. We learn that Felicity refuses to return to the field. She's not ready, but Oliver is convinced that all she needs is a few moments at the computer to realize who she is and what her purpose is in life and on the team. Oliver — for all of his faults — is actually pretty great in this episode. He plays the loving and caring fiance, he gives Felicity space and lets her come to him, and he allows her to make her own choices on her own terms. But he's still there, quietly supporting and uplifting her and — at the episode's end — refusing to give up on something that seems impossible because of how much impossibility he has seen in life already.

I think that we often forget that some of the things the world considers to be great strengths can often be great weaknesses. Felicity's independence and her stubbornness are some of the things we, the audience, and Oliver and the rest of the team love most about her. But Felicity's desire to go rogue and isolate herself stems from her goth days — her Cooper days, really — and that desire creeps back up throughout "A.W.O.L." The Arrow writers brilliantly constructed this dichotomy visually for us, by having a slowly crumbling Felicity in the present converse (and argue) with her past self. It's a nice homage, in part, to what happened to Oliver whilst on vertigo in "The Calm." Felicity has to battle herself now. And honestly? Combating your own voice is often a million times harder than combating anyone else's.

Felicity is afraid of returning to the field. More than that, though, she's lost her confidence and her direction since her return from the hospital. She's lost her sense of self. And that's why goth!Felicity resurfaces when she does. The last time that Felicity had a major crisis of identity, she ditched her black hair and her heavy make-up and her "hacking for justice," and she turned herself into a blonde, fashionably-dressed IT girl. It's understandable, then, that this Felicity Smoak — the one we see in "A.W.O.L." is facing the same crisis. Because Felicity is shaken. Who is she now that she cannot walk? And what does she have of value to add?

The most heartbreaking thing about this episode, really, is a particular scene in which Felicity — while hallucinating — is bombarded with two different voices: that of Oliver and that of her own self. Why is this so poignant? Because Oliver is telling Felicity what she needs to hear, and goth!Felicity is telling her what she really believes to be true. And Felicity — OUR Felicity — does not know who to listen to. Is she useless now? Is she going to recover from her paralyzation? Is she the woman with the dyed hair? Or is she the woman who wears black and lashes out?

Who is Felicity Smoak?

She doesn't know. Not in the middle of the episode, anyway. So she snaps. Because she feels guilty and helpless and is pitying herself. She feels loved and yet also completely alone. She feels hopeful but also totally helpless. And as these voices war in her head, it seems like Felicity might not be able to pull herself up. And yet... she does. By the end of the episode, she returns back to the Arrow cave, and she confronts Oliver about how she acted. And she tells him that she is a hero. And that so is he. Then, she proceeds to tell him that they will all stop Damien Darhk — not out of fear or vengeance or guilt or retribution. They will stop him because they are heroes. And that is just what heroes do.

In spite of being back in the Arrow cave and making the intentional decision to push away everything within her that wants to run and lock herself away and do things without help from anyone else — in spite of the schmoopy speech to Oliver (who begins to cry because he's just so proud of Felicity and considers himself lucky to love her), Felicity doesn't stop battling her demons once she returns to work. She actively shoos goth!Felicity away. At the end of the episode, she burns a photo of her past. Because battling your demons is not an easy process, nor is it a one-time deal. It takes commitment and it takes fighting sometimes moment to moment.

Though Felicity was gone, she never intended to desert her team. She returned, as only a hero can.


Okay, I'm going to admit something to you. Lean in, won't you? I... admittedly have always felt like Diggle is the weakest link of the Oliver/Felicity/Diggle triangle (or the OTA, as the kids on the Internet call them). But I really loved this episode because it allowed a storyline to progress that has been a little hamster wheel-y the past few episodes: that of the relationship between Andy and John Diggle. 

We get flashbacks of the two at war together (praise the Lord that 99.9% of this episode's flashbacks had nothing to do with Lian-Yu or past!Oliver or that annoying chick on the island), which show Andy Diggle trying to turn his life around and John being the super protective brother figure (not much has changed, of course). The plot isn't important enough to really dwell on, but just know that there are bad guys from the military that Andy used to work with who make an appearance in the present-day and end up holding up A.R.G.U.S. for some codes because why not, right?

The important stuff in this episode is not the plot but the character development. It's no secret that Andy and Dig have a complex relationship. Up until recently, Dig refused to see his brother as someone to be saved. He couldn't see his brother through rose (or hope) tinged glasses. But in this episode, Dig begins to learn to trust his brother again — he sees shades in Andy that he has not seen in a long time, and he's finally able to look at the young man and see someone in desperate need of a big brother to trust and care about him, rather than a jail warden to berate him.

Andy's heroics in this episode don't negate the things he did while a Ghost or the things he did before even that. Dig knows that. And the worst part is that Andy knows it. He turned his back on his family. He deserted them and he betrayed them, and he broke Dig's heart in the process. Andy also broke Dig's trust, and that is something not easily earned. But what I think really works to Arrow's advantage in this episode is the fact that both Diggles are military — that means that they need to trust and rely on one another through plots and plans.

... And they do. One Dig realizes that the only way he's going to rescue Lyla (who was held captive, by the way) is by trusting Andy, he does. He goes into battle right alongside his brother and it was the right decision. Soldiers protect their own, and Andy proved to Dig that though he may have done some horrible things, that is not who he is. At his core, Andy Diggle is a soldier and a brother and will protect those he loves.

It's not an easy road back once you've walked away from someone or something. No one said it would be. But the one thing that can help you find your way again? Love. Because as cheesy and cliched as it is, love is the beacon that brings the lost home.

Observations & favorite moments:
  • MVP of this episode is, without question, Emily Bett Rickards. Just the fact that she played two separate versions of one character in this episode is enough to warrant that MVP status. But she managed to convey Felicity's journey so believably and tangibly that I felt like I was in the room with her the entire time. Rickards has never had to over-sell Felicity's emotions. The subtle gestures, facial expressions, and quiet lines always are more powerful than any big dramatic monologue could be. The speech that Felicity delivered to Oliver was absolutely perfect and so gently delivered that it made me coo. But the best moment by far was the warring voices inside of her head and the moment Felicity snapped. You could feel that tension subtly bubbling and building throughout most of the episode and it was so well-executed by Rickards. Brava, lady. Brava.
  • Grave Predictions: We didn't get any flash-forwards or indicators of who might be in the grave this episode, so I will continue predicting Mama Smoak.
  • As 110% sold as I am on Oliver/Felicity in this episode, I still cannot watch a scene without a voice in my head yelling: "HE HAS A CHILD HE IS HIDING FROM YOU." So there's that.
  • "You think being cute is going to distract me?"
  • I absolutely, positively love that Lyla Michaels returned this episode. She's often one of the most under-utilized females on Arrow, but I think she's so compelling. She's military and intelligent and complex and also such an amazing wife and mother and sage wisdom-giver to the team. More of Lyla, please.
  • (Also, her haircut was adorable.)
  • We almost made it through an entire episode without a flashback related to Lian-Yu. And then the show had to ruin it at the very last second by integrating one. We could've had it aaaaaaaaaallllllll, rolling in the deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
  • That eye stuff was gross.
  • "You saw the world as something to be fixed. I only saw it as broken."
  • Oliver and Laurel had a conversation that I loved! (Guys, I loved Laurel this episode. You know it's a good one when that happens.) Laurel managed to talk some sense into Oliver, reminding him that he plays the blame game so much that it's predictable, and that he needs to take pressure off of himself for how Felicity handles her new normal.
  • "Felicity makes her own choices, you know. That's probably one of the reasons you love her so much." And then Laurel said that to Oliver and I was totally sold.
  • "We are going to stop him because its what we do. It's who we are." <3
  • Felicity officially has a code name: Overwatch. It's cute! "I was gonna go with Oracle, but it's taken," Oliver says. I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, SHOW.
  • "Just trying to make you proud, Felicity." "You did." This may have been cuter than most of the Oliver/Felicity moments, just saying.
  • "Thanks for always being on my side." "No place I'd rather be." Okay, brb. Puking rainbows because of how cheesy and cute that is.
Did you all enjoy "A.W.O.L."? Hit up the comments below and let me know your thoughts!


  1. What a fascinating episode. I really enjoyed the focus on the Diggles and Felicity.

    I thought Andy's pessimistic nature (always seeing the world as broken and looking for a way to survive) was a great way of showing why he would be susceptible to HIVE. He still has a long way to go but it was nice to see the brother relationship explored and their flashbacks were a welcome break from Island stuff. I actually liked how they tied Andy's flashbacks together with Oliver's island crap. It seemed somewhat elegant and I'm kinda hoping that Oliver and Andy are closely connected in a way that neither knew about. I mean the drug connection has always been there with the baddies on the island growing drugs as a cover for something else. It could be an interesting thread to pull on although I'm not getting my hopes up. All of Oliver's flashbacks have been irritating this year. Constantine was one bright spot and I'm hoping there can be others.

    Felicity's scenes were wonderful and I totally second the MVP for EBR. She did great work and I hope they show her anger and frustration peeking out at times while showing how strong and kickass she is at the same time. I know EBR can handle that balance. (When Oliver brought up all the supernatural stuff they've seen I immediately thought that it might be a way to make the occult stuff on the island relevant or at least a way to bring the lovely Matt Ryan back as Constantine. Will Darhk's connection to occult powers affect Felicity's condition? Could Oliver's search for a way to heal Felicity connect to Darhk's use of occult powers and his promise to his wife of a "new beginning"? If Oliver and Damian can parallel more I would love it and then we could see how they diverge when faced with similar choices. It all boils down to choices.)

    When Felicity said she wanted to keep her past as her past I thought that she might have to struggle with that again (ie father). Interesting arc for her especially since she had that speech about not fighting out of guilt or anger or revenge this week right after we saw her full of vengeance in the flash forward last week. Makes you wonder what crap she is going to go through.

    It was great to see what tech knowledge Dig has picked up from working closely with Felicity for three years. Their moments always make me smile.

    I was perversely looking forward to Oliver seeing a pic or something of flashback!Felicity and I loved seeing his reaction to it. hehe

    This week seemed like a bright spot after last week and now I'm just waiting for things to get worse for all our characters.

  2. Ooh, two other things about that last conversation between Felicity and Oliver.

    I loved how matter of fact Oliver was about how his old self would have just snapped Joiner's neck. Accurate much?

    Then Oliver goes and talks about denial not being "healthy or productive"? He's talking about mental health now and he's right and if there's anything that shows some growth in Oliver that was it. Cause I believe he has grown and I'm really hoping he shows that even when his lies hit the fan. Cause they will poison moments like this one for Felicity (just as it does for you) but I'm hoping Oliver will understand that and do what he can with dealing with those consequences.

  3. Somehow I keep forgetting about Oliver´s son... but while reading this post the idea comes back to me (it doesn´t matter, for some reason by next episode I´m oblivious to it again). It´s one of the worst moments of the show for me, the fact that the boy exists and what it implies, and the fact that Oliver didn´t say a thing about it to Felicity...

    About the grave.... My guess is Donna or Diggle, they are the only ones that meet all the things happening: Felicity and Oliver broken up and planing on killing someone, Barry coming to the cemetery, late, but coming, and sad, but not broken... But in today´s episode I noticed Lyla having a bigger belly, like she was pregnant, so... maybe she can be the one in the grave too... we´ll see.

    Anyway, in all I liked this episode more than the last one, but this season hasn´t had a WOW episode for me yet (as was 3x09), and I keep waiting for it.

    PS. I also love Lyla´s haircut!! :)