December 21, 2012 by Jason Seligson
The CW’s latest venture into super heroics—and breakout hit of the season—tells the story of DC Comics character Green Arrow. It’s hard to talk about ‘Arrow’ without first mentioning one of the shows that paved the way for its existence: The CW’s—formerly WB’s—long-running hit ‘Smallville.’ The show about the young Clark Kent who would become Superman ran for ten years and was known for—particularly in its later seasons—introducing lesser-known DC comics characters onto the small screen. In many cases, it was their first live-action appearance.
In October 2006, ‘Smallville’s’ sixth season welcomed none other than the Green Arrow/Oliver Queen himself, played by Justin Hartley. Hartley played a charming, self-deprecating verison of Queen–which despite some overlapping qualities (and a common island origin story), is vastly different than Amell’s portrayal. While there was speculation that Hartley’s character would have a spin-off, nothing ever came to pass; this was however, a huge gift for many fans who were delighted to have Hartley upgraded to a series regular starting in Smallville’s eighth season. Clearly eager to stay in the comic book realm, the CW pursued ‘Arrow’ shortly after ‘Smallville’ concluded its run in May 2011.
With a few notable updates and deviations, ‘Arrow’ doesn’t stray too far from previous incarnations of the Emerald Archer. The pilot introduces us to our hero, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) the son of wealthy business owners who was believed to be dead after a shipwreck that happened five years earlier. Before this incident however, Oliver’s life was complicated in other ways: he was the ultimate playboy—rich, and so self-obsessed that he’s cheating on his girlfriend with her sister. Not exactly hero material. But ‘Arrow’ is an origin story, and like most humble beginnings, watching how characters arrive at their ultimate destinies is just as important, if not more crucial than the end goal. Oliver Queen, for instance, becomes more sympathetic after his father’s yacht crashes and his story really begins. The tragic climax of the show’s first hour comes when Oliver and his father are stranded in a lifeboat together; his father tells him he must survive and avenge their family—right before putting a bullet in his head. Utterly alone, Oliver sees an island in the distance, where comic book fans (and now TV viewers) know he will spend the next five years of his life fighting to survive.
‘Arrow’ is now nine episodes into its freshman year, and finally seems to be settling in. Every episode of the show follows a somewhat predictable formula: Oliver takes down a criminal from his father’s list, followed by a flashback to the time he spent on The Island. After five years of being away, Oliver desperately wants to restore his hometown of “Starling City” (changed from “Star City” of DC Comics) to its former glory before it was ravaged by corruption. The flashback stories run parallel to the show’s present-day narrative and dictate a longer arc about the Green Arrow’s origins and the series’ overall mythology. The island itself is a metaphorical prison—a purgatory that only Oliver can survive; but it’s also a penitentiary for some of the world’s most dangerous criminals (through a voice-over, Oliver tells the audience that the name of the island is Mandarin for purgatory).
At the end of this first run of episodes, the Queen family—in all its wonderful dysfunction—is starting to click. For all her duplicity, Oliver’s mother, Moira, remains a mystery. While she seems genuinely glad to have her son back, her role in the sinking of their family yacht, the Queen’s Gambit, and subsequently, the death of her husband—remains ambiguous for now.
One of the most enjoyable relationships to watch has been Oliver and his sister, Thea (Willa Holland); nicknamed “Speedy,” Thea is an original character for the show, but is a nod to two different comic figures, each who have become Oliver’s sidekick). In the early episodes, their banter—while mildly enjoyable—has relied heavily on pop culture, to better illustrate Oliver’s detachment from the current world. One of the pair’s most touching scenes came in the show’s second episode, where Thea tells her brother that while it may have been hell for him on the island; it was hell where she was too. “I felt closer to you when you were dead,” she tells him, a grain of truth behind the iciness in her voice. Thea was profoundly affected by her brother’s alleged death; even if her drug habit seems a little forced, Oliver’s disappearance rattled her the most. There’s definitely an authentic quality to the way she views her brother’s metamorphosis after being on the island. These brief moments of sibling bonding have become the window through which the audience starts to see the Queens come together. With everything they’re up against, it seems they’ll need this kind of unity.
A few other characters round out ‘Arrow’s’ ensemble: Dinah Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), serves as Oliver’s primary love interest. Laurel is better known to comic book fans as her superhero alter-ego, Black Canary. The show has given no indication thus far that Laurel will turn into Black Canary, but one could imagine it happening in future seasons. Laurel’s father, Quentin, a Starling City detective, serves as a foil to both Oliver and his alter ego; Quentin Lance blames Oliver for the death of his daughter, and is adamant at catching the archery-happy vigilante known only at this point as “The Hood.” The fact that Lance so ardently detests anything and everything to do with Oliver makes for great (albeit somewhat repetitive) drama and scene work.
Then there’s Tommy Merlyn, (Colin Donnell) Oliver’s best friend and possible archrival, who, despite his own lingering feelings for Laurel, hasn’t strayed too far into villainy territory. In the seventh episode, “Muse of Fire,” Tommy is cut off by his enigmatic father, known only as “The Well-Dressed Man.” Without giving anything away, the show delivered a fantastic twist, suggesting that Malcolm Merlyn may have a far more integral role in this story than anyone first thought.
The show’s mid-season finale, titled “Year’s End,” left us with a couple of key cliffhangers. Among them: Moira’s deal the “Well Dressed Man”; Walter’s discovery of “the list,” and the identity of a major player from the comics. We also learn that Felicity Smoak, the savvy tech girl at Queen Consolidated is Jewish—okay, that last one was a joke, but the levity provided by the resident computer genius has been one of the show’s best uses of comic relief thus far. Oliver’s dismissal of the Green Arrow moniker seemed sudden, but here’s hoping he embraces his colorful namesake by season’s end.
Overall, ‘Arrow’ has had a strong—if not flawless start. There are assuredly weak spots, but a show like this takes time to solidify itself. ‘Arrow’ is going for gritty realism, but shouldn’t sacrifice good character development to achieve that end. In time, the show should work out its kinks, and the CW could very well have a hit on its hands that much like ‘Smallville’ and it’s now flagship program, ‘The Vampire Diaries’—lives up to the praise.