On Helena Bertinelli’s introduction on ARROW

One of the reasons, maybe the main reason, I started watching Arrow was the announcement that Helena Bertinelli (Huntress) would be added as a character. I am not particularly a fan of, or even knowledgable about, Oliver Queen and Green Arrow, but Huntress is one of my favorite pre-New 52 DC characters. Her inclusion in the cast of characters for Arrow was what finally enticed me to give the series a try even after some already pretty good press.

I am particularly a fan of Helena/Huntress as written by Gail Simone on her first Birds of Prey run, but also identify the character with Greg Rucka’s Cry for Blood and Ivory Madison’s Year One. To me, what makes Helena Bertinelli interesting is her mafia family roots and her struggle to grow beyond them. Those roots mean that she often has different, more severe, ideas about justice and the uses of violence than some of the other ‘heroes’ around her, but her struggle to be more than just part of the mafia world leaves her open to other ways of seeing and to alternate moral codes, even as she may not be fully willing or able to entirely change what she does.

In terms of appearance, my preference is for the Year One character design by Cliff Richards on pencils, with a trio of inkers, Art Thibert, Norm Rapmund, and Rebecca Buchman, and Jason Wright doing colors. This design gives the character a sleek and athletic look, as if she is actually prepared for a fight. On the other end is the Ed Benes drawn version (Alex Lei and Rob Lea on inks) which dominates Simone’s Birds of Prey and makes the character look more like she’s dressed for a fetish club and less like she’s ready for taking down thugs. Richards’ look follows Rick Burchett’s design for Blood, but improves upon it with streamlining, making the costume, especially the belt and cape, look less weighty, and more fluid.

Year One

Year One

Birds of Prey (Simone & Benes)

Birds of Prey (Simone & Benes)

Cry for Blood

Cry for Blood

So, how did the character’s entry on Arrow come across? Here’s my assessment of the good and the not so good.

The good.

Given the timing of her introduction on the show, it would have been easy to reduce Helena to having been inspired by “The Hood”, or even a copycat, but writers Andrew Kreisberg, Geoff Johns, and Marc Guggenheim (“Muse of Fire”) and Beth Schwartz and Kreisberg (“Vendetta”) make clear that Helena has her own reasons for having a “list” and enacting “justice”. Furthermore, she not only deflects Oliver’s attempts to tell her that she’s wrong even while he insists on his own rightness, she challenges him on the hairs he wants to split. Later, when she agrees to follow his lead, she do so on her own terms (thus, the crossbow). Their eventual falling out seems consistent with the idea that Helena is from the mafia, but not of it, in the sense that she wants to tear down her family’s operations as much as she wants simple vengeance. Helena’s backstory here tracks, in the broad outline at least, with Cry of Blood and Year One.

The romantic hookup between Helena and Oliver was perhaps predictable, but the spark between the characters comes from a weird place of anger, violence, and self-hate because of their families, and not from Helena swooning in the face of tall, handsome, and broody. She is likely right when she tells Ollie not to make too much of the one night. His insistence on trying to form a partnership is an interesting gender twist on the trope of good hearted women trying to fix darker hearted men in these kinds of hero stories. Typically, it would be the female character who plays the domesticating role, but in “Vendetta” it is Ollie trying to “tame” Helena.

The look adopted for the character on the show seems more inspired by Year One than either Cry for Blood or Birds of Prey, at least in terms of the color palette and sleekness. I like the touch of turning the cape into a coat. This choice works well as an adaptation for live action, as well as feeling something that would work last minute better than a cape. So, nice work to Colleen Atwood, who is credited as the series’ costume designer.

Arrow

Arrow

The not so good.

There wasn’t any aspect of Helena Bertinelli’s debut on Arrow that I would describe as bad or objectionable, but there are a few points that did not come across as well as those noted above.

Jessica De Gouw’s performance is uneven. For most of “Muse of Fire” I think that Matt Wilson’s description of her on Comics Alliance as, “a little dead-eyed and cold”, is fair. Certainly, in our house, A was ranting about how emotionally thin the character seemed. I think she turns that around by “Vendetta” and it seems as if the actor and her directors, David Grossman and Kenneth Fink, likely wanted to give her room to burn between the two episodes (Alasdair Wilkins at AV Club has a similar observation about the emotional transformation between the two episodes).

One minor point that I could not help thinking about was where and how a mafia princess learns how to fight like Helena does. Year One and Cry for Blood both develop this backstory, but on Arrow I guess we are just supposed to take for granted that she prepped herself for her vendetta. The series is about Oliver, not Helena, so I understand not going into this detail, but, still, if the show survives for multiple seasons with Helena as a recurring character, I wouldn’t mind seeing a deeper treatment of her background.

On iO9, Esther Inglis-Arkell, makes the case that, “There is one hurdle in this episode of Arrow. If you vault it, you will have a ton of fun with ‘Vendetta,’ where the show’s various couples enact Natural Born KillersSpy vs Spy, andThe Gift of the Magi respectively … That idea is that Helena is somehow immoral and unacceptable, compared to Ollie”.

This is what the discussion between Anne-Marie and I revolved around after “Vendetta”, with Anne-Marie making the same argument as Inglis-Arkell, that the episode wants us to think that Ollie is in the right and Helena in the wrong. I did, and still sort of, hold onto the thought that Helena’s challenges to Oliver are given merit, too, and that you can still see him as deluded. On other hand, seen in the context of his relationship with, Digg, which has been focused on nudging Oliver away from the single-minded, and narrowly defined, pursuit of making right what his father did wrong, I am almost persuaded that this episode was meant to be a final turning of the corner for “The Hood”, which would suggest that, yes, we are supposed to be worried for Helena and supportive of Oliver. As Wilkins puts it at the AV Club:

We were headed this way for a while, but I’m ready to call it: Arrow is officially a superhero now. A vigilante is allowed to let the ends justify the means, to leave a trail of the corpses on the path to what he calls justice. Even in the beginning, Oliver was never quite as grim as that, but his final actions tonight still feel a million miles from the Oliver who once killed a man in cold blood to protect his secret.

While it’s certainly a nice bonus that Oliver’s actions lead the police to Frank and his incriminating laptop, he heads to that mansion out for neither justice nor vengeance. He’s simply there to save Helena, at first her soul and then her life. He succeeds in the latter and seemingly fails in the former, but he still saves her from an irreversible mistake. In a way, being a true superhero isn’t simply about serving the greater good or helping the cops catch criminals. Sometimes, it’s about putting everything on the line just to save one person, whatever the odds.

So far the series has been slow to move into longer form storytelling beyond certain plot threads involving, particularly, Moira, and I am interested to see how “Muse of Fire” and “Vendetta” continue to resonate now that Helena has exited the frame. Like Oliver, I assume we’ll be seeing her again, but if we are to take seriously the idea that he is changing, and that part of why he is changing is because he saw some kind of dark side to what he does reflected in Helena, then whether she is part of the story or no, he should be, for example, more willing to use his power and resources to fight against crime and injustice outside the scope of “the list”. The other alternative is a reset back to Ollie only wanting to take down the names given to him by his father and Digg working to get him to think more broadly than that.

Whatever happens next, I think the show’s creators did right by Helena Bertinelli, featuring her not only in a well executed pair of episodes, but making the second part, “Vendetta”, the best installment of the series so far.