Review: (Spoilers intermittent throughout)
There’s a scene near the beginning of the fourth episode of Arrow’s new season that starts out problematic and rapidly devolves into something appalling. The villain stands in his liar, a derelict nightclub, perforating a mannequin with a hipshot assault rifle. His laugh: maniacal. His accuracy: questionable. He shifts his gaze to a recently thwarted henchman and, before doling out the inevitable punishment, proceeds to literally exposit his character’s “tragic” backstory, motivation and raison d’etre like he was reading them off cue cards. The kicker: he’s dead about 35 minutes later.
I know what you’re thinking: what a waste of time (and bullets). Quality drama television shows spend seasons teasing those details out of their characters, and without acting a fraction so wooden. And you’d be right; drama’s all about the slow play, the buildup, the catharsis. But don’t be so quick to write off Arrow.
Because later in that very same episode there’s another scene, also in a nightclub, that gets it right. Quentin Lance comes to Oliver for help with his daughter, Laurel, who’s fresh off another near-death experience and drowning her post-traumatic stress in pinot grigio. The emotion evident, the subtext clear: I wouldn’t be asking if I thought there was another way. It’s deftly executed. The eyes and inflected voices saying much more than the dialog passing between the men. The pity felt more acutely because we know Oliver’s harboring a Gibraltar-sized secret about Quentin’s second daughter, Sara (Caity Lotz) – the one everyone thought dead. (Spoiler: she’s not.) He can’t say no but he can only ameliorate a modicum of guilt by saying yes, and he knows it. So after a prolonged silence he ponies up. “I’ll talk to Laurel,” he says.
The writing here is of a caliber you’d probably never expect from a CW show, and take for granted in cable dramas. But it also epitomizes the creative team’s ability, like a silver medalist, to do almost everything right; to teeter at the cusp of greatness. In a vacuum, and with only those two scenes as evidence, you’d never guess they were 10 minutes apart much less written by the same people. In fact, you might not even think they were from the same show.
That’s a sobering notion, to say the least, but nonetheless part of an even more sobering pattern. That is, in this show every positive has an asterisk, a qualifier: the action sequences are brisk but the preceding banter inert; several plotlines are compelling (e.g., the Ra’s al Ghul namedrop) but many are underdeveloped or recycled; Felicity Smoak’s babbling is cute now but threatens to become ingratiating; Stephen Amell delivers a strong lead performance but Paul Blackthorne’s acting (in a supporting role) is stronger. But that’s not the worst of it.
In the season 2 opener, Oliver reexamined his vigilante policy on criminal extermination, summarized reductively as “kill or be killed,” because he felt convicted by close friends labeling him a murderer (and probably overwhelmed by a staggering body count). A simple yet brilliant ethical struggle most, if not all, superheroes encounter and endure. The problem: after two conversations – early in the episode and rife with flimsy logic – he simply decided not to kill anybody anymore and that was the end of it. I kid you not. No conflicted soul or divided mind or possibility of a slip-up. The issue now only addressed in passing and often by proxy. Occasionally a thug tries to bait The Arrow, but the lout is so obviously determined to die that clearly the better punishment is to keep him alive. Or, as I said before, the problem manifests in others. Like when the Canary (spoiler: Sara Lance) hesitates momentarily before offing a minion and Oliver shouts, “Wait! You don’t have to do this! There’s another way!” and she snaps the guy’s neck anyway. But there’s no discussion or debate afterward, not even a perfunctory reprimand. Either a character does it or he or she doesn’t – no middle ground, no shades of grey. Strange because Vince Gilligan et al. on Breaking Bad (I get one comparison) spent arguably the entire series run – 62 episodes – probing questions of morality (Is it right to kill a man to protect yourself, or someone you care about? Is it right to allow a person to die to save someone you care about? Is that your choice to make? and so on), but Oliver Queen needs only 20 minutes and a dollop of incomprehensible philosophizing and his mind’s made up? I’m no engineer and that still sounds like bad calculus to me.
And now you’re thinking, wait, wasn’t I was supposed to give this show a fair shake? Don’t judge a TV drama by its network’s spotty reputation and such? Right again, because I’m telling you, despite a myriad of problems, Arrow still deserves your attention. None of these issues are immutable. And, apart from the “kill or don’t kill” conundrum, I might even call them minor. Let me tell you why.
I’m five episodes deep in the second season and I’ve only seen improvement or plateau in quality. No regression. The first episode trotted out yet another group of blase Dark Knight-knockoff baddies but nailed the kiss-off with a twist (the Canary intro) and a wink (the arrowhead). The second episode featured some of the worst dialog from either season, but also delivered one of the most genuinely satisfying Oliver-Diggle-Felicity interactions and threw Sebastian Blood (Kevin Alejandro) into the fold. The third episode hinted at that Ra’s al Ghul connection and upended the Detective Officer Lance/vigilante relationship. The fourth episode torpedoed my opinion of Laurel but offered me hope for the character of Roy Harper (sans Thea Queen, naturally). The fifth episode allotted Thea too much screen time (read: any) to howl at injustices and personal affronts, as is her wont (and only ostensible purpose), but counterbalanced with a knockout performance from Blackthorne and restored a sliver of my empathy for Laurel and introduced more than one narrative development with intriguing potential.
Now all the sub-par acting and clunky dialog and outlandish logical leaps stand out because everything surrounding those lapses is, by any network’s standards, markedly improved. In season 1, those moments were few and far between (see: “The Odyssey” and “Home Invasion”) with large swathes of the show passing indistinguishably, or in reverse order with the bad drowning out the good at its core. That’s simply not the case anymore, at least so far. And when you witness the sustained, successful execution of a difficult task, like producing an engrossing TV drama, you’re allowed to be picky because you know just how good it can be – and how good you want it to be.
You realize suddenly that winning a silver medal might be the best thing that could ever happen to you because it gives you something to work for.