I have to admit, I never saw the appeal of Arrow. It basically looked like soap opera Nolan Batman for me, and nothing I saw from the initial crossovers with The Flash overturned that thesis for me. However I decided to watch it and that took a weird turn. While yes, it is a soap opera, it’s not totally Batman. Batman doesn’t kill after all, but the Arrow does, and the show takes great pains to investigate what that means. Season 2 of Arrow is a high water mark for television, but after that… the show just begins to steadily fall into bad storytelling and crossovers that detract from it, and as a show that created its own universe I want to figure out how that happened.
To be clear the show wasn’t without its problems when it first started. It lacked for things to do with Thea beyond the repeated substance abuse stories; the show’s major arc started out as a Revenge copycat, and certain characters like Tommy or Laurel had problems with being superfluous beyond filling CW soap opera quotas. It did eventually get past those problems once it started looking past the initial arc of Ollie hunting people on his dad’s “List” and moving him towards helping people as a proto-superhero. That said, Season 1 eventually acquitted itself with Oliver’s actions costing him so much: his best friend dying thinking he was a murderer, the destruction of his city, and the fact his actions failed to change anything.
Where the show really shined was in Season 2. The course correction was pretty tight at that point and it did take a hard look at Ollie’s willingness to kill vs the reality that it makes you look like a serial killer regardless of intentions. While it was couched in Ollie’s grief over the realization his best friend died knowing he murdered people, it did signal the show’s effort to move the character forward. It also took a great deal of time to allow the show to retain its tone while also allowing more superheroic elements to leak in. Chief among that was the introduction of the Mirakuru serum. While a serum that gives you a healing factor and enhanced strength are a dime a dozen in comics, for Arrow it was a sea change and showed how out of his league Oliver was. It also was carefully introduced -through the best use of the flashbacks the show has had – the story of Ollie’s betrayal of Slade Wilson, as well as how friendship and love can curdle into hatred and madness.
What made Deathstroke such a fantastic villain was that crazy though he may be, he wasn’t wrong. Ollie didn’t tell him the truth about Shado’s death, and left him to die when what he needed was help. The revenge was obviously outsized by attempting to destroy Starling City, and killing Moira Queen but the lead up was all on Oliver’s head. It’s made all the more painful in that you have two seasons of buildup with tense moments, friendship shared, love unrequited, and betrayal to fill the climax with greater meaning. The second season was pretty clearly evolving into a superhero show, however it – along with season 1 – tied the ultimate threats to Oliver’s past.
The following two seasons are a different story with Arrow attempting to work in superheroes like the Flash via a backdoor. That spinoff, along with Legends of Tomorrow, Vixen, and ties with the defunct Constantine, as well as executive demands, began to interfere with the show. One of the first signs of that was the random death of Sara Lance kicking off season 3 and its immediate reversal in the following season. There’s nothing wrong with having the spinoffs, or listening to criticism, but the show lost the sense of reality that dictated the first two seasons. People would die and come back to life like Sara or Andy Diggle, characters like Laurel would be randomly killed to service the character arcs of Oliver and Quentin, and spinoff duties or crossovers began to hijack what used to be a singular machine. Crossovers have been around for a long long time in both television and comics, but when a show begins to become lost in a sea of spinoffs, it might be time to reorient.
Season 4 in particular exemplifies this problem. While it took steps to rectify Season 3’s problems by resurrecting Sara, and having a great scenery chewing villain with Damien Darhk, it didn’t change that Oliver largely became a bystander in his own show. The show in became a victim of fan demand, caving with a sudden Oliver and Felicity relationship that was tanked as quickly as it started by the walking plot device of Oliver’s secret son. The major villain, Damien Darhk, was just a hand waving sorcerer who wants to destroy the world just cuz, and enjoys killing people. I’m by no means against a character who is a card carrying villain and proud of it but it doesn’t make for a good villain. What made Merlyn and Deathstroke good villains is that they were shades of Oliver’s past, and were reflective of Oliver himself. Darhk and Ra’s Al Ghul are outside figures that come to town outside of his control and are toothless at best with confusing goals. Then there’s the shows utter unwillingness to let a major villain die or stay dead. (I.E Malcolm Merlyn or Darhk in Legends of Tomorrow)
Arrow season 5 is seemingly trying to tap back into what made the first two seasons great: street crime; an evil Green Arrow doppelganger like the Dark Archer; reexamining the show’s history in light of Oliver’s reinvention as a mayor and superhero via finally seeing his time as a Bratva Captain. It’s a bit early to say whether this will work, it does seem to be making an attempt to address the contradictory nature of Arrow’s history. However, it also continues seesawing with Oliver’s willingness to kill, as well as the questionable nature of Oliver’s recruits such as a teenage girl and a clearly unhinged ex-Navy SEAL. I do have some hope that Arrow will find itself again, but given that the show still pays homage to the crossover gods, as well as it’s propensity – like Flash – to revisit the same character beats, I won’t hold my breath.