When I last wrote about Arrow, Reme “Wild Dog” Ramirez, one of Oliver’s new recruits this season, had just been captured by well-connected gangster and brass knuckle-enthusiast Tobias Church. So much has happened in the three episodes since then (e.g., for one thing, Tobias is dead now), yet I’ve stayed oddly silent, watching each new episode without logging a corresponding review for the site. The reasons for this are varied and not worth going into right now, but perhaps I’ve simply been too stunned to know what to say. It’s not that any remarkably compelling or regrettably boneheaded plot twist, an Arrow special in recent seasons, has come along and left me tongue-tied. No, it’s been more cumulative: almost everything about Arrow is great right now. Even the flashbacks are tolerable again, although Dolph Lundgren’s Russian accent demands multiple viewings just to fully understand everything he’s saying (maybe he’d be better off barely talking at all ala his Rocky IV character).
That can’t be right. Arrow, great again? First of all, it’s debatable if it ever truly achieved greatness in the first place. Secondly, we’re talking about the same Arrow which ended so poorly last season the hardcore fans over at Reddit openly revolted and turned the show’s thread into a Daredevil thread. This is the same Arrow which so severely mismanaged Laurel Lance’s exit from the show it’s now on the verge of bringing Katie Cassidy back just to make up for it. This is the same Arrow that hilariously had Felicity recover the ability to walk right in time to walk out the door after breaking up with Oliver. This is the same Arrow…
Let’s just stop right there. If we start listing all of the show’s lowlights and most objectional moments we’ll be here all day, and probably fall right back into the Olicity wars. Besides, as EW recently argued in its big Arrowverse cover story Arrow‘s downfall has not been due to any one specific storyline (despite how much people want to blame the Oliver-Felicity romance) but instead its inability to stick to and master a consistent tone. To be fair, tonal issues plague the entire Arrowverse, infecting Supergirl, Flash and Legends of Tomorrow as well, and Arrow and Flash are also uniquely guilty of consistently underserving their female characters. However, Arrow is far and away the biggest sinner in the tone department, largely because the constraints of being the anchor of an ever-expanding cinematic universe has pulled it the furthest away from its original mission.
For example, characters like Hawkman and Hawgirl (i.e., walking reincarnations of long-since dead Egyptian figures) have absolutely no place on Arrow nor do crappy flashbacks to ancient Egypt, yet there they both were during Arrow‘s half of last season’s big crossover event.
It got to the point I honestly didn’t even know why I was still reviewing Arrow last season, continuing on more out of habit (been reviewing every episode since season 2) than anything else. It’s not like anyone I knew still watched the show. The few I had convinced to give the show a chance in the early years jumped ship by the third season, and by last season even Stephen Amell was guilty of simply going through the motions, admitting in the EW cover story:
“I put my heart and soul into every day of work and every episode, but at the same time there is a lull in any relationship where you need to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment, so to speak. That happened for me in the latter half of season 4, where I feel like there were just a few things that got lost in the shuffle, so we needed to really refocus in season 5.”
Since Mr. Amell is basically Mr. Comic-Con (any Comic-Con, not just the one in San Diego) there was no shortage of quotes from him over the summer claiming Arrow was going to get back to basics in season 5. Yeah, yeah, yeah…whatever. It seems like either he or the showrunners or both say that same basic thing in-between every season.
Well, shut my mouth because this time they meant it. The Arrow I came to know and usually dread in seasons 3 and 4 is gone (for now). What we have before us in season 5 is not quite the Dark Knight imitator of season 1 nor the gonzo soap opera of season 2. It’s something new, some weird combination of all the best parts of the show from the past 4 seasons and none or at least very little of the bad parts. They’ve returned to doing what that they do best, less romantic melodrama, fewer fantastical characters, more dudes in suits fighting bank robbers and drug runners while Oliver grapples with his morals and struggles to become a better person.
As Amell told EW, “There are things that Legends and Flash and Supergirl can do, based on the sort of more fantastical nature of their shows. But there are things that we can do that none of them can. We are a street-level crime fighting show. We’re at our best when we’re focused on those things.”
However, to say the show has improved simply by dropping Olicity as well as all of that business with magic and metahumans would be an oversimplification, an inaccurate one at that. After all, while most of Oliver’s new recruits are de-powered dudes (Wild Dog, Curtis “Mr. Terrific” Holt) and one gal (Evelyn “Artemis” Sharp) there’s also Rory “Ragman” Regan.
This is a guy who dresses in ancient Jewish rags which are more or less magic and share more in common with Spawn (the rags regularly protrude out of his body like weapons ala Spawn’s chains) than the world of Green Arrow. Yet it manages to work because Rory is a character rooted in emotion and not spectacle and/or camp. He’s not simply a special effect nor is he some charismatic showman like Damien Darhk was last season and now continues to be on Legends of Tomorrow (which is also vastly improved, btw). Instead, Rory has been allowed to progress from a sympathetic villain of the week to an ally, one entitled to his mixed feelings over Oliver’s methods and Felicity’s role in his own tragic backstory (I’d get into it in more detail here, but then I’d have to think about that season 4 finale again and I just can’t). He’s even shown he has a life away from Team Arrow, working in some kind of metal cutting shop he inherited.
Of course, this is still Arrow, not Ragman nor The Rory Regan & Pals Hour. However, I single him out because he’s exactly the kind of universe-bending character who has dragged Arrow down in the past, yet in season five he’s but a solid piece of a widening ensemble of team members who have united around Oliver’s mission but are not always keen to follow his orders, thus forcing him to be a better leader and face up to some of his hypocrisies. At the same time, he’s also quick to expect more out of them. They questioned him last week upon learning he killed a bunch of people back in season 1 and didn’t tell them about it, but then last night he rightly pointed out their own hypocrisy when they supported the town’s mysterious new Vigilante who racks up fatalities instead of arrests.
These are the types of connections Arrow never used to make, leaving it up to us fans to nitpick online about plot and character inconsistencies. This season, though, someone on the show almost always hangs a lantern on it or turns it into a nice dramatic moment.
Similar to Rory, all of the new characters have eventually earned their own showcase episode, but even when they’re simply part of the ensemble, maybe consigned to the C storyline, they’re intriguing. For example, Reme and Diggle, who is taking on a mentor role while hiding out from the law since he’s a fugitive (for complicated reasons), have now bonded in ways that didn’t revolve around Oliver Queen. Diggle helped Reme move past an emotional trauma a couple episodes ago, and then last night Reme helped Diggle have a belated birthday party with his son after having missed the real birthday party.
Oliver wasn’t a party to any of that because he didn’t to have to be. Not everything on Arrow has to revolve around Oliver. There was a prolonged stretch during last night’s episode (“Vigilante”) where his team, led by Felicity and Diggle, worked a bank robbery case entirely on their own, and it was several minutes before I realized Oliver hadn’t been on screen in a while. I actually hadn’t missed him, not because I dislike him but more because the season has built up his team enough that they’re fun to watch on their own, even if Wild Dog’s hockey mask costume is in dire need of an upgrade.
Is that why the show is great again? Because of the new characters, one of whom was just revealed to be a traitor secretly working with Prometheus, although anyone who watched Young Justice had to have seen that coming?
Not necessarily. As the AV Club argued, it’s actually the way the show’s writers have arranged all of the characters, new and old, this season, which has resulted in the most coherent season of the show in some time:
Felicity is back in the role where she can function best and gain the most fan support (or the least fan ire, depending). Diggle moves seamlessly into a mentor role for Wild Dog and maybe the rest of the team. And Thea and Lance are called to bring their considerable chops to what might otherwise be the show’s driest plotline (i.e., someone’s got to run the city when Oliver’s too busy to be mayor). This is all just really clever character allocation
I say all of this, yet Arrow’s next episode, which will be its 100th (Mazeltov!), will see the team fighting aliens as part of the four-night crossover. So, yeah, that might not be so great in terms of a back to basics season, but now that these new characters have been established I can’t wait to see how they bounce off of the Flash, Supergirl and Legends people.
Beyond that, I am actually invested in all of the storylines this season. I want to see who Prometheus is. I want to see what becomes of Oliver and Susan Williams, whether she’s just playing him since she secretly has the picture proving he wasn’t really just on that island for those 5 years like he said. I am curious to see if there’ll be anything more to Felicity’s cop boyfriend than meets the eye, and what the team will do with Vigilane when they discover his true identity. I am pulling for Quentin to make it through rehab, and can’t believe how efficiently they’ve turned him into a surrogate father for Thea. I am remarkably curious to see how the team reacts whenever Artemis’ betrayal becomes known, and whether or not it will be more complicated that it currently appears. I hope Oliver reconciles with the Bratva and Dol…
Okay. Maybe not every storyline. Still, I actually like Arrow again this season, even if I realize it’s still not Daredevil or even Agents of SHIELD, which is killing it right now with its Ghost Rider storyline. But, and I mean this in the best possible way, Arrow is back to being Arrow again, and I couldn’t be more surprised.