Let’s talk about fan service for a bit. Sure, there are many different categorizations—everything from a fan-favorite female character showing a little skin to Thanos turning around and grinning during The Avengers stinger. In the world of comic book movies and TV shows, fan service is a tricky tightrope to walk. Play your cards right, and such moments organically play into the story and result in rewarding those in the know. Play your cards wrong, and you get X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a movie that tried to clumsily lump in as many beloved characters as possible and only resulted in alienating everyone.
So far in its run, Arrow has been mostly effective in its use of fan service-y moments. “Three Ghosts,” one of the series’ highlight episodes, ended with the origin story of the Flash. This worked because the show has been subtly building towards the moment, sneaking in references to a “particle accelerator” in what initially appeared to be little more than throwaway background lines. “Suicide Squad” accomplishes a similar task. The episode’s assembly of the Suicide Squad, a renowned gathering of mercenaries and criminals in the DC Universe, excels because the show’s writers have been setting the pieces in motion for some time. Each of the Squad’s members—Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, Shrapnel—have appeared in previous episodes, and their skills and personalities have been firmly established. Like the best crossover events in comics, half of the fun of watching this plotline unfold stems from seeing how the characters bump against each other.
The titular storyline begins when Diggle and his ex-wife-turned-current-lover Lyla are recruited by A.R.G.U.S.’s Amanda Waller to participate in a special task force. Their target is a former terrorist named Gholem Qadir, who Diggle saved from death back in his Afghanistan days. Since that time, the man had provided the government with valuable information and been given a clean slate. He has since positioned himself as a legit businessman. According to Waller, however, Qadir has been retaining a lethal nerve gas capable of mass destruction. What follows is an Oceans 11-type scenario in which the team must infiltrate Qadir’s circle and extract the nerve gas. It all culminates in a party (this is Arrow—there’s always a party) where Diggle and Lyla serve as guests while the others seek to find the chemical weapons in the house and remove it.
Considering the history between the two, most of the attention in this plotline is afforded to the tense relationship between Diggle and Deadshot, the man who killed his brother. While I was not initially impressed by Michael Rowe as Deadshot, he’s really grown into his character, displaying the kind of slick, yet mischievous energy that’s a long way from the dull iteration we saw back in season one’s “Lone Gunman.”
Ultimately, like last year’s “Keep Your Enemies Closer,” this is a Diggle-centric episode. As such, “Suicide Squad” represents yet another example of the Arrow writers experimenting with the show’s format. Like “The Promise,” which focused exclusively on the Oliver-Slade dynamic (both past and present), “Squad” benefits from a more narrow, focused POV. The episode is almost 80% Diggle, and David Ramsey once again proves that he can play center stage as well as he does background. Augmenting the story is the flashback structure, which excludes any Island activity in favor of telling us of Diggle’s past experiences in Afghanistan—specifically, his initial encounter with both Lyla and Qadir.
As a result of having to focus on Diggle and his connections, Michael Jai White’s Bronze Tiger is once again pushed more to the side. Sean Maher’s Shrapnel, meanwhile, is almost immediately knocked off when he attempts to use the mission to flee captivity. Demonstrating her ruthlessness, Waller takes Shrapnel’s ill-conceived escape as an opportunity to reveal that she’s implanted devices in each of the members’ heads. The message is clear—disobey and she will mess you up.
Waller’s underhanded tactics come full circle during the climatic party scene when Diggle discovers that she plans on bombing Qadir’s house to get rid of the nerve gas. That includes killing everyone in the general perimeter, Suicide Squad members and partygoers alike. What disturbs him all the more is that Lyla knew about this option the whole time and didn’t tell him. Daring to defy Waller’s plans, Diggle convinces the partygoers to scatter and even helps to save Deadshot and Bronze Tiger from becoming the expendables they were designed to be.
In the comics (and animated series), Waller has always been a character who frolics in the gray portion of the morality scale. She’s the kind of person who would protect the world but wouldn’t bat an eyelash at sacrificing half its population to do so. Team Arrow, of course, has also always navigated the thin line between justice and vigilantism, but, by introducing Waller and her crew, the show has given our team an extreme that they can fight against.
Despite the Diggle focus, the Oliver material is there, but it mostly centers on the emotional fall-out following the events of “The Promise.” Unable to sleep and plagued with a fear that Slade will strike at any moment, Oliver begins a frantic search to track Slade. Naturally, we can’t have such a confrontation until much later this season, so, plot-wise, it’s mostly treading water. That being said, it’s very atmospheric and well-written water treading, with Stephen Amell once again nailing the right balance between moody angst and poignant vulnerability. Between both the recent reappearance of Slade and his discovery about Moira’s lies about Thea, Oliver’s worldview has been sufficiently shaken in recent weeks, thus making the support of his surrogate Arrow family all the more important. If nothing else, this subplot demonstrates how—when the final hours of this season come around—Oliver will need his team more than ever.
In addition, the Oliver plotline also expertly sets the stage for the episode’s final bit of fan service. Oliver finally has a face-to-face with Waller and, in a nice twist, the two appear to know each other from the Island days. Unsurprisingly, she’s placed herself firmly on his shit list. “Who do you want to kill more than me?” Waller asks before revealing information on his number one “to-kill” item—Slade Wilson. It’s here that we have the episode’s great final button. Slade has been operating under the name “Deathstroke.” That’s right, the name “Deathstroke” has finally been uttered.
As a whole “Suicide Squad” highlights what Arrow does best—fun, yet pathos-heavy action, playful banter and giving great character beats to its ever-growing roster of colorful characters. It may not be as strong as “The Promise,” but few hours this season will ever be. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s nothing short of a season highlight.
Oh, and less we forget, Harley Quinn makes a brief vocal cameo in the A.R.G.U.S. prison cell scene. Remember what I said about good fan service and bad fan service? That is unequivocally in the “good” category.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.