There’s a moment in Arrow’s third season finale where Captain Lance sarcastically quips, “The city’s under attack? It must be May.” If it had come at the end of a better season it would have gone over as a fun bit of meta humor, the show mocking its tendency to have the bad guys attempt to destroy the city in the season finale. Unfortunately, it came at the end of Arrow’s weakest season. As a result, it felt like a tired joke from a show which was more or less spinning its wheels. They were going through the familiar motions, and they seemed to know it. The spark was gone.
In the months since then, Arrow producers Marc Guggeinheim and Wendy Mericle have repeatedly promised a back to basics approach for season 4, with Guggenheim at one point accurately summarizing season 3 as unfortunately descending into “an orgy of plot twists.” However, we’ve heard the “this time it’ll be different” rhetoric from them before. For example, before each season they always say that they’ve really cracked a way for the flashbacks to work, but before long we’re back to cruelly mocking Stephen Amell’s unfortunate flashback wigs. So we can be forgiven for doubting Guggenheim and Mericle. In fact, the hostility toward season 3 is still hot enough that when I watched the season 4 premiere (“Green Arrow”) I noticed the following joke pop up Twitter during the “Previously On…” segment:
Then a strange thing happened: “Green Arrow” started out strong and pretty much stayed that way. Guggeinheim wasn’t lying about his plans to change things up, using the time jump in-between seasons to push things forward. Oliver is not only content and happy to be living in the burbs with Felicity, who has some controlling interest in Ray Palmer’s company. He’s actually planning to propose. Back in the now-renamed Star City, Team Diggle has its own new Arrow Cave, and Thea is a full member of the team, helping them battle a group of super solders known as “ghosts.” However, they are out-manned and outgunned, and seemingly before the first act break the city’s mayor and district attorney are killed and Captain Lance barely escapes an assassination attempt in the middle of police headquarters. Moreover, it’s all the work of the season’s big bad, Damien Darhk, Ra’s al Guhl’s former BFF.
Make no mistake about it – this is season finale-level shit, and “Green Arrow” wastes no time getting to it. Yet it’s all just set-up for Oliver’s inevitable “Just when I think I’m out they pull me back in” moment. It took the proverbial end of the world to suck Oliver back into the life, and by the end of “Green Arrow” I believed what the producers had been saying – Arrow season 4 instantly feels like a different and much better show, especially since Neil McDonough is killing it as Damien Darhk.
How exactly does this seem like a better show now? Well…
-At long last, Oliver and Felicity can just be a couple. This is likely a tough pill to swallow for those who prefer these characters as friends, but at least their conscientious coupling frees the show up to do something different with them. No more endlessly dragging them through increasingly unpleasant and repetitive will-they-won’t-they machinations. No more constant cry face for Emily Bett Rickards. Now, when Oliver goes on about darkness or whatever main pain he wants go give into Felicity is around to slap him out of it in the most adorable way possible.
-There’s finally some breathing room to explore the side effects Thea feels from the Lazarus Pit, although her “restate things we already know” dialogue could use some work.
-Laurel is full-on Black Canary and an unquestioned member of the team at this point, minus any unfortunate wig, and while it might seem cheesy for a kid at a train station to marvel at how strong she is we have to remember that some young kids do watch this show. That scene floored my nephew.
-Diggle has trust issues to work out with Oliver, but he’s a much more active member in the field. Plus, the glimpse into his home life with Lyla and Sara was very encouraging. It’s genuinely refreshing to see that Diggle is in a healthy relationship with Lyla, and Oliver is in a mostly healthy relationship with Felicity.
-For a change, it’s everyone else who seems to be lying to Oliver, with Felicity working with Team Diggle behind his back this whole time, Thea not letting on how violent the Lazarus Pit has made her and Diggle keeping his information about HIVE to himself. Refreshingly, Oliver and Felicity work through her lie after an open and honest conversation because they seem to be in a loving, adult relationship.
-Even if the flashbacks still feel unnecessary, they at least caught us totally off guard by taking Oliver straight out of Green Lantern’s hometown and dropping him back on the island. Plus, Amanda Waller’s back. At the very least, she’s always good in her scenes.
The real game-changer, though, is the 6 month flash-forward at the end. We see Oliver mournfully standing over a grave and promising Barry Allen, i.e., the only other person present, that after this he’ll finally have to kill Damien Darhk for good. It’s like Arrow’s version of the various How I Met Your Mother flash-forwards placing Ted at someone’s wedding at some point in the future. We know where we’re going now, but we haven’t seen the full invitation yet.
In fact, Guggenheim and Mericle apparently don’t necessarily know whose grave Oliver was standing over, although they do know that whoever they end up killing off will stay dead (no Lazarus Pit this time). That not only restores some actual stakes to the show; it gives the rest of the season an air of tragedy. We are being set up for Oliver’s triumphant birth as the bonafide hero Green Arrow as opposed to cold-blooded vigilante Arrow, and all of his consternation about it is offset by the guiding hand of love that Felicity has brought into is life. However, we know that he royally screws up and someone ends up dead, and the smiling, slightly higher-pitched version of Oliver we saw in “Green Arrow” will at some point transition back to the stern killer of old.
That, my friends, is damn intriguing. Who dies and how? Who is being written off the show? I have my theories, which you can read about elsewhere on the site (spoiler: My money’s on Quentin). Either way, well played, Arrow. Well played.
Yet I can’t help myself from still wanting to tease this show. In fact, all of the live tweets during the premiere did that for me:
This is a massive cheat. Maybe there will be more to it in coming episodes, but the show worked so hard last season to establish that Oliver could never be the Arrow again. Now, he goes away for 6 months, and several days after he returns to town a mysterious video from some new hero proclaiming himself to be the Green Arrow overtakes the airwaves. A name change and slight costume change shouldn’t be enough to solve the seemingly insurmountable barriers they built up between Oliver and vigilante life last season. Captain Lance is clearly giving him a pass, but surely people in the city will put two and two together. At the very least they could just look at the video and say, “Oh, that’s clearly Oliver Queen under that hood.”
However, maybe the name/costume change is as good as an answer as they were ever going to be able to provide because at some point Oliver has to go back to being the crime-fighting, costumed vigilante or else there is no Arrow.
The bigger sticking point might be the reveal that Damien has mystical powers, and/or that he has suckered Captain Lance into working for him. First, super soldiers. Then, the magic hot tub. Now, a big bad who is basically an evil wizard. What? But this is the fourth season of Arrow. Are we really still surprised by the way the show keeps challenging the laws of its own reality?
Ultimately, after that third season things needed to change. Thus far, all the changes they made look like they’re for the better. Bravo, Arrow.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There are several areas which beg to be nitpicked, but “Green Arrow” is a season premiere which feels like a balls-to-the-wall season finale. It’s not enough to erase the mistrust built up by the show’s deeply disappointing third season, but it is a far better first step than I had anticipated.
I usually take notes while watching the episodes, but this time I simply followed all of the live-tweets and marveled at how quickly everyone made the exact same types of jokes I would have: