The Evolution of ‘Arrow’ & Its Stunning Mid-Season Finale

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December 17, 2014 by Jason Seligson

Team Arrow is going to have to step up now that their leader has fallen…or has he?

By Jason Seligson

Back when it premiered in 2012, Arrow was off to a rocky start. Most new shows have these growing pains; Arrow was no different. While the show was trying to find its identity, the one thing that was crystal clear—and consistent—in those early episodes was the tone that the creative team was going for: gritty and grounded a la Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Executive Producers Andrew Kreisberg, Greg Berlanti, and Marc Guggenheim, stressed that this world, this Oliver Queen, would be darker than the version played by Justin Hartley on Smallville—and that Starling City would not see super powered beings any time soon.

Fans’ reactions to early episodes were mixed. The formula was visible, but it wasn’t necessarily bad. There were some standout episodes (“Dead to Rights,” “The Odyssey”) that came during the second half, but certain dynamics still weren’t clicking, even as the show raced toward its impressive finale. The biggest issue was with Oliver himself. Having a lead character that wasn’t remotely conflicted about murdering people (corrupt though they may be) made Oliver—and his crusade—difficult to connect to. But Arrow was smart. The writers/producers changed the game by killing Tommy Merlyn in the Season 1 finale. After losing his best friend, Oliver came back in Season 2 more determined than ever to be a hero for his city, not just some hooded vigilante. Oliver being a killer, the very thing that outraged fans in Season 1, became a core part of his struggle—Oliver started to form a moral code, and made a promise on behalf of his friend, not to kill again.

Arrow took its game to a whole new level in its second season. They came back—less with a vengeance—and more with a newfound confidence. The showrunners made bold story choices and introduced a bevy of DC characters, both villains (Brother Blood, Deathstroke) and heroes alike (Sara, the show’s first official version of the Black Canary, and Barry Allen, providing the launch pad for a spinoff, The Flash). Characters like Thea and Laurel, who had previously felt too out of place, became more integrated into their world, and the final four episodes, essentially packaged as one long movie, were among the show’s best. The death of Moira Queen, the return of Malcolm Merlyn, and an epic showdown between Slade and Oliver, with some assistance from the League of Assassins and the Suicide Squad were just a few of the events that brought Season 2 to a close. After a tremendous second season, Arrow had solidified itself as the best superhero show on TV. They had learned not to play things safe, and they’d deepened their mythology. They’d made us truly invest in their hero’s journey.

Arrow isn’t holding anything back these days. At times, it feels like the show is juggling  a crazy amount of story, which may be why the first half of Season 3 has lacked a little of the same cohesion that Season 2 had. The writers have introduced so many threads— the mystery of Sara’s death; Laurel’s training to ultimately become the next, or “true” Black Canary; Thea’s return, and more to the point, her new allegiance to her father, Malcolm Merlyn; the bourgeoning/fizzling/never-quite-happening Oliver/Felicity pairing, and finally, the introduction of Ray Palmer, who aside from taking over Queen Consolidated and taking a semi-creepy interest in Felicity, has remained a mystery. That’s a lot going on in only nine episodes. But it feels trivial to complain about a surplus of good story at this point. Nearly all of these beats have worked well, and some have just been slower burns than others. Season 3 has been mostly quite good so far, and I remain confident that with nearly twice as many episodes remaining as have aired, the creative team will find ways to weave each of the various story threads into satisfying conclusions.

The one aspect I haven’t been able to invest in this year as much as the past have been the flashbacks. Flashbacks have always been a part of Arrow’s DNA; we’ve been given glimpses to Oliver’s time on the island since the pilot. Many people complained about the pacing of these flashbacks in Season 1. I don’t think the show found out how to make the flashbacks quite work until Season 2. I’ve also never felt they were necessary to have in every episode—for instance, “The Brave in the Bold,” the second episode in Arrow’s crossover with The Flash, had so much going on that it didn’t really need any glimpses to Oliver’s past. Overall, Season 2’s flashbacks with Shado and Slade felt like they were building toward something that so far, the Hong Kong flashbacks haven’t. It wasn’t until the big crossover that I realized the show is trying to clearly delineate how and when Oliver—against his will—became a torturer. This isn’t a small development for his character, so it stands to reason it’s going to take some time to unravel; still, I hope the show makes the Hong Kong flashbacks more vital when the show returns. The flashbacks on Arrow always try to draw parallels to decisions Oliver has to make in the present, but at their best, these snapshots can serve to further the story physically and thematically. That said, it was great to see Maseo in present day in the mid-season finale, as a member of The League of Assassins.

With everything it endeavored to set up, Arrow had a lot of beats to hit on in its mid-season finale, and boy, it delivered. “The Climb” belongs at the top of any list touting the series’ best episodes.

The episode packed so much in. Thea, having been revealed as Sara’s killer, was a great twist. Although she has no memory of committing the murder (she was drugged by Malcolm, who continues to be Father of the Year), Thea’s been sidelined in the past, but after all of the tragedy she’s faced, coupled with still being in the dark about Oliver’s secret identity, she’s proven that she’s matured. She has some darkness in her, and with all of the training she received on Corto Maltese, there’s a lot of potential for her in the future. Everything involved in the final scene, which depicted the long-awaited fight between Ra’s Al Ghul was breathtaking. The final moments show Ra’s deliver the fatal blow, stabbing Oliver, and reciting some strange prayer, all before kicking him off a cliff, presumably to his death.

Shocking as that was, the episode was successful on so many emotional wavelengths too. Oliver’s reasoning for going after Ra’s is to save Thea; and before he leaves, he gets to say goodbye to Felicity. This season has dangled the Oliver/Felicity romance more than in the past, but what I’ve enjoyed most about that story is watching Oliver question whether he can have any semblance of a normal life after giving everything over to being The Arrow.

This season has been a bit scattered, but it’s had some great highlights too. I really enjoyed “The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak,” which gave us a very different look at our favorite blonde sidekick (not this one, this one). And “Guilty” gave us a moment comic book fans have been asking for years (boxing glove arrow, anyone?) So while it initially felt frustrating that the show threw yet another hero into Felicity’s already tangled love life, her “Why does this keep happening to me?” line was fantastic, as was Ray’s reveal of the A.T.O.M. suit – so I’m still very much on board with seeing where those two go.

When Arrow returns for the back half of Season 3, they’ve got one small problem to deal with. Oliver is dead. The show’s over. Just kidding. Naturally, Oliver – and the Arrow – have to come back; it’s just a matter of when—and how the show chooses to do so. It will surely be interesting to see how he’ll be affected by his inevitable resurrection (here’s just hoping it goes better than this one). Stephen Amell recently came out to remind fans that Arrow is an ensemble show. He and Executive Producer Marc Guggenheim have been trying to be cryptic about Oliver’s status. But in the absence of its leading man, I hope Arrow utilizes the spare screen time with the rest of its cast. There’s more story to be told with Thea, Roy, and even Laurel, all who haven’t gotten nearly enough screen time in this first half. Hopefully, the temporary lack of Oliver will allow the writers to acknowledge the subplots that have been simmering quietly and bring them into the foreground. Arrow has come a long way since it debuted. I’m anxiously waiting for what the show has in store next for these characters.

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