The Dilettante’s Guide to Arrow

This season, I’m going to try recapping The CW’s Arrow. Fair warning: It may not work out. This site is littered with the rotting, forgotten carcasses of shows I started reviewing, then abandoned out of frustration or tedium, and Arrow, for all its strengths, is wholly capable of being both frustrating and tedious. We’ll see how this goes.

After a critically and commercially successful first season, Arrow kicked off Season Two earlier this month. Developed by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, Arrow centers around the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow, though it’s more of a reimagining of the source material than a faithful adaptation. While it’s got some problem areas, the show is pretty enjoyable overall, with some cool visuals and evocative themes, and it has the potential to evolve into something great.

Arrow has a large and unwieldy cast. Let’s meet our main players. Spoiler warnings for the complete first season:

Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell)
Billionaire scion of the disreputable Queen family. A big, handsome, meaty slab of blankness, Oliver spent five years shipwrecked on a mysterious island, where he developed some super-cool fighting skills, but lost much of his humanity. After returning to the lawless cesspool of violence and corruption known as Starling City, Oliver created a formidable crime-fighting alter-ego known as the Hood. In the first season, the Hood racked up a dizzyingly high body count, though Oliver has recently vowed to cut back on the murdering. In many ways, Oliver is a frustratingly vague and inert protagonist, but Stephen Amell freaking nails the action scenes. He’s fast and graceful and powerful all at once, and that makes up for a lot.

Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy)
Oliver’s once-and-future girlfriend, Laurel is an assistant district attorney in crime-ridden Starling City. I really, really want to like Laurel (and not just because Katie Cassidy is David’s daughter and Shaun’s niece, though that does suggest she’s genetically predisposed towards awesomeness, or at least the ability to sing catchy pop tunes), but it’s an uphill battle. On paper, we can see the bare bones of a cool character emerging: she’s smart, she’s beautiful, she supports the legal system, she’s trained in self-defense, and she knows her way around a shotgun. Problem is, even after a full season, there’s not enough of a character here to like—apart from some low-grade smarm, Laurel has yet to show much spark*. Here’s hoping this gets addressed and fixed in season two.

*To be fair to Laurel, it’s not like Oliver is a simmering cauldron of verve and vigor, either, but at least he can point to his five years of dehumanizing trauma on the island as an excuse for his blandness. In any case, whenever these two star-crossed lovers share a scene, the show creaks to a halt. The lack of a believable emotional connection between its leads is one of Arrow’s biggest problems.

John Diggle (David Ramsey)
Oliver’s bodyguard, who becomes his partner in fighting crime. Competent and sensible, Digg is a cool, laid-back guy who mostly flies under the radar, but has occasional moments of hardcore awesomeness. Gets consistently taken for granted by Oliver.

Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards)
Scene-stealing IT whiz who assists Oliver with his crime-fighting derring-do. Smart and funny, Felicity is proof that someone on the creative staff knows how to write decent female characters, though Laurel and Moira and Shado would seem to suggest otherwise.

Moira Queen (Susanna Thompson)
Oliver’s mom. A spineless and unfathomably corrupt wretch of a human being who spent five years conspiring to murder hundreds of people, all with some vague, muddled notion of Protecting Her Family™. Moira is currently in jail. Good.

Thea Queen (Willa Holland)
Oliver’s wild-child kid sister. Thea has never conspired to commit mass murder, nor has she ever killed anyone in cold blood, which automatically makes her the most likeable and relatable member of the Queen family. She’s irresponsible and reckless and mouthy, and she and beautiful hoodlum Roy Harper keep enthusiastically sexing each other up all over the place, and thanks to all this, I am firmly pro-Thea.

Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell)
Laurel’s occasional boyfriend. Like his best friend Oliver, Tommy is a billionaire scion with fierce daddy issues. He has a reputation around Starling City for being a free-wheeling, high-living, scandalous bon vivant, though we sadly see little evidence of this. Mostly, he glumly frets about how he can’t compete with Oliver for Laurel’s heart. And then he dies.

Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne)
Laurel’s overprotective dad and a detective in Starling City’s police department. Loathes Oliver, loathes Tommy, loathes the Hood. Not terribly competent, not terribly likeable, perpetually grumpy. However, Paul Blackthorne was one of the few saving graces of ABC’s short-lived, train-wreckish supernatural prime-time soap The Gates (he played a suavely evil vampire, while his beauteous Arrow costar Colton Haynes played a moody teen werewolf), and thus my feelings toward Quentin are mostly warm.

Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett)
A gruff and mysterious Australian Intelligence agent who allies himself with Oliver during his time on the island. Has awfully nice upper arms.

Shado (Celina Jade)
A martial-arts master who teaches Oliver some mad archery skillz whilst stranded with him on the island. Shado gets repeatedly captured and used as a hostage by various island miscreants, which: knock it off, Arrow. It’s been established that she’s a badass; let’s start seeing some signs of this.

Roy Harper (Colton Haynes)
A feisty young hoodlum with great cheekbones and an impressive rap sheet. Roy spends his time romancing Thea, stealing cars, getting beat up, and hero-worshipping the Hood. Roy is fun.

Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman)
Tommy’s villainous, mass-murdering dad, who has his own dangerous secret identity: He’s the Dark Archer, a bigger, stronger, meaner version of the Hood. John Barrowman, folks. I mean, John Barrowman.

The Story Thus Far:
Five years ago: Billionaire Robert Queen, CEO of Queen Consolidated, sets sail from Starling City to China. His shiftless twentysomething son, Oliver, tags along for the ride, accompanied by Sarah Lance, the younger sister of his steady girlfriend, Laurel. An explosion sinks the boat, killing Sarah and most of the crew. Robert and Oliver make it to a life raft, along with another crew member. After floating adrift at sea for days, Robert murders the crew member and shoots himself in the head, all to improve Oliver’s chances of reaching land before supplies run out.

(Oliver likes to wax philosophic about how his father sacrificed himself so he might live. We’re into the second season now, and I’m still waiting for Oliver to acknowledge that murdering that poor crew member was, like, morally wrong or whatever. I suspect I’ll be waiting a while. Oliver’s moral compass is in need of realignment.)

Oliver makes his way to a mysterious island, where he’s taken under the wing of an exiled Chinese military officer, Yao Fei (Byron Mann, aka Ryu in Street Fighter, the very best gleefully terrible mid-nineties film based on an old arcade game, edging out such formidable competition as Mortal Kombat, Double Dragon, and yes, even Super Mario Bros). While dodging various hostile factions on the island, Oliver teams up with Yao Fei’s daughter, Shado, and Slade Wilson, an Australian secret agent, both of whom teach him the skills he needs to survive in this dangerous environment… look, let’s just move on, because no one cares about the island plotline. All episodes, which are primarily set in present-day Starling City, are peppered with multiple flashbacks to Oliver’s time on the island, which means we’re deluged with scenes of Oliver training in archery, hand-to-hand combat, etcetera, all of which: a) are repetitive and dull, and b) suck valuable momentum away from the action taking place in the present.

(I understand that Oliver’s island training is crucial to Green Arrow’s origin story. I get that, I do. Still, wouldn’t it have been far cooler if the island flashbacks were omitted entirely, and the question of how Oliver picked up his sweet new skills—his prowess with a bow and arrow, his knowledge of martial arts, his fluency in Chinese and Russian—during his missing years was left as a big, tantalizing mystery?)

Present day: Following his eventual rescue from the island, Oliver returns home, hardened yet purposeless. His father kept a secret notebook filled with the names of Starling City’s most corrupt citizens: drug dealers, crime bosses, slumlords, embezzlers. Determined to clean up the city, Oliver creates a secret identity, that of a leather-clad, bow-wielding vigilante known as the Hood, and systematically murders his way down the list of names. He recruits a pair of accomplices: Digg, a former soldier set on avenging his brother’s death at the hands of an assassin named Deadshot, and Felicity, the sharpest employee in Queen Consolidated’s IT department. They set up a cool superhero lair in the basement of Verdant, a sleek nightclub that Oliver runs to help maintain his outward appearance of a shallow, dissolute trust-fund baby.

As the Hood, Oliver runs afoul of corrupt billionaire Malcolm Merlyn, who has spent the past five years conspiring with other members of the wealthy elite, Oliver’s mother Moira chief among them, on a plot to generate an earthquake destructive enough to obliterate the Glades, Starling City’s most crime-ridden neighborhood. At the last moment, Moira’s conscience finally kicks in, and she calls a press conference to expose Malcolm’s plan. The Hood battles Malcolm’s alter ego, the Dark Archer, and ultimately prevails, though he’s too late to stop the activation of the seismic device. Hundreds of people in the Glades are killed, including Malcolm’s son Tommy, who dies while rescuing Laurel at the climax of the first season.

The creative minds behind Arrow have done a top-notch job of establishing Starling City as a believable setting for all this. The downtown skyline is a triumph of CGI, filled with glittering skyscrapers that radiate wealth and vibrancy, in stark contrast to the rest of the city, which is a mess of abandoned construction sites and burned-out cars and boarded-up houses. Arrow’s primary theme (fittingly, considering Green Arrow’s Robin Hood-inspired roots) is the dichotomy between the rich and the poor, and the problems this imbalance creates. In Starling City, the wealthy elite are waging outright war on the impoverished (the 1% battling the 99%, if you will), seen most clearly in Malcolm Merlyn’s destruction of the Glades, which is done with the support of Starling City’s most powerful leaders. Malcolm is motivated by vengeance: His wife was murdered in the Glades, and thus he wants to wipe the entire neighborhood off the map. Robert and Moira Queen, on the other hand, are motivated by cowardice and moral weakness: After accidentally killing someone, Robert allowed himself to be blackmailed into supporting Malcolm’s attempt at mass murder, whereas Moira cooperated out of fear. (In an attempt to break free of Malcolm’s grip, Moira and a business associate send an assassin after him. When the attempt backfires, she feigns innocence and rats out her associate, whom Malcolm promptly murders. The Queens are awful people.)

Oliver’s vigilante escapades, on the other hand, don’t appear to be motivated by much of anything, apart from maybe a hazy desire to mete out justice. Or perhaps he just really likes killing people—it’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s going on in Oliver’s head. To survive on the island, he was forced to shed his entitled rich-kid skin, and now that he’s returned to his old life, he hasn’t yet figured out who he should become when he’s not the Hood. His odd blankness makes sense for the character, given what he’s been through, but it also makes him a frustrating protagonist. Oliver is mostly defined by what he’s not: He’s not smart, he’s not witty, he’s not compassionate, he’s not goofy, he’s not really… anything. He’s great at killing, and that’s about it.

Despite having a cast comprised of young, attractive people, all of whom clearly spend lots and lots of hours in the gym, Arrow is curiously sexless and dour when it comes to romance. In the Arrow universe, romantic pairings are a smorgasbord of disappointment and secrets and squabbles and injured feelings. Here’s a rundown of all the glum, listless hookups featured on the show thus far: Oliver and Laurel, Laurel and Tommy, Oliver and Shado, Oliver and Helena Bertinelli, Oliver and Detective McKenna Hall, Moira and Walter Steele, and Digg and Carly. Arrow has some good writers, but damn, they take a sour view of relationships. The only not-awful romance thus far is the fun, lively dynamic between pampered princess Thea Queen and bad-boy Roy Harper (they have a meet-cute in the Glades when Roy steals Thea’s purse, then gets stabbed while protecting her from a gang of thugs). They’re cute and peppy and seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and as the great poet Rick Springfield once said, ain’t that the way love’s supposed to be? If Roy and Thea were to spin off into their own series (the Joanie Loves Chachi to Arrow’s Happy Days, natch), in which they fight crime with equal parts enthusiasm and incompetence while engaging in giggly banter and having a lot of really great sex, I would watch the hell out of it.

(Speaking of Roy… Poaching Colton Haynes from Teen Wolf may be the shrewdest casting move Arrow has made thus far, because the kid has added a much-needed jolt of adrenaline to the show. Haynes was downright mesmerizing on Teen Wolf as the damaged, toxic, hilariously pissy Jackson, who stole scenes with every eye roll and nostril flare and hissed line of dialogue. Haynes is a live wire, which is good news, because Arrow’s cast features a number of actors who keep sleepwalking through their scenes. It makes me worry about the quality of the coffee on the craft services table on the show’s Vancouver set.)

Heading into Season Two, with Tommy and Malcolm dead, the Glades in shambles, Moira in prison, and Oliver making a game attempt at being the kind of vigilante who doesn’t murder everyone in sight, Arrow’s in decent, if imperfect, shape. I’m in for the ride.

(I’ll try to crank out the first few recaps of Season Two next week and get all caught up by the time the fourth episode airs. No promises, though. I’m very lazy.)


Dan Liebke said…
If nobody's made a 'Felicity Smoak-in' reference at some point, we're going to have to shut down the internet and start all over.

If nothing else, with all these pretty people running around doing what I'm almost certain is nonsense, Arrow would make wonderful wallpaper while you read The Longbow Hunters or something.
Morgan Richter said…
Someone out there must've made that joke at some point, Dan, but yes, Felicity is indeed smoakin'. And she's funny and adorable! Started out as a bit player, got swiftly promoted to a series regular due to all her funny adorableness. Wise move.
Dan Liebke said…
Paparazzi Gossip News to the rescue:
Morgan Richter said…
Ah, excellent. Good to see Paparazzi Gossip is on top of the Smoak puns.
DKoren said…
I have been wanting to watch this series for awhile now, so will come back to these reviews after I've caught up!
Morgan Richter said…
I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Arrow after you've watched it, Deb. The show makes a lot of very big mistakes, particularly with its treatment/portrayals of women and gender issues, which raises a huge caution flag for me... but at the same time, there's a whole lot of potential for it to turn into something pretty good. So... I can't wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, but I've been interested enough to keep watching.
DKoren said…
Okey-dokey... just finished all of season one. LOL! It did hook me and I just sort of ended up blasting through all the eps (thank goodness it was all on netflix!) Coming back to read your review here is awesome, cuz you nailed it. You summed up the characters dead on. I was trying to figure out what I actually feel about Oliver Queen, cuz I like him, but I don't, and he confuses me, and your description just made me go, yes! That's it. I do like that he's so conflicted. He's stubborn and self-righteous and makes bad decisions half the time (and he never thinks ahead to the consequences of his actions), and it makes the show very appealing because he's far from perfect. But he keeps trying to make things right. I like that. And he does move beautifully.

Overall, I quite enjoyed season one. Hooked me right away. I love Felicity and Thea and Roy and Diggle and Slade (yowza, is he good-looking!) and Walter... and to my great surprise, as he isn't the type of character I usually fall for, I rather fell in love with Tommy. Under-utilized and turned into victim by the writers (stupid choice), but still, he ended up being my favorite character. And from the second or third ep, I was like, oh, he's so toast by the end of this season... and damn it, I was right and they did kill him off. Maybe because he had more growth than most of the other characters, and him telling his father off on his birthday night might be my favorite moment. Anyway, he was rather adorable, sweet and sassy, and has the moral center Oliver is lacking. I kind of want to bring him home with me.

Moira... wow, you summed her up precisely. What a piece of work she was.

I think the only thing I disagree on is that I actually liked the flashbacks, and in some eps was more into what was happening there than current day. That could be because that's where Slade is, and there's not enough of him otherwise.

Okay, now ready to move on to Season 2!
Morgan Richter said…
Heh, I did exactly the same thing with pounding back the whole season in a short amount of time. There's nothing quite like Netflix for binge-watching, is there? The show is smart enough and compelling enough to keep me watching, but at the same time, there are some areas that I just want to be better. I want it to stop turning women into neurotic messes, I want it to knock it off with the soggy, tedious romantic pairings, and I want it to raise the energy levels overall. Because apart from all that? It's a darn good show, with more sophistication than I expected.

Oh, yeah, Slade is far and away the best thing about the island. Love him, and I like what he brings out in Oliver.

I've read recaps on two other sites, both of which despise Thea and love Moira, which is the kind of thing that makes me wonder which show I've been watching. Moira's so spineless. Drives me crazy.

(True confession: I started watching Arrow almost entirely for Colton Haynes--Roy--who was astonishingly good as a villain--hilarious and damaged and tragic and vicious all at once--on Teen Wolf. The kid might be the very best Abercrombie & Fitch model-turned-actor out there.)

Anyway. Season Two is still maintaining that queasy relationship between awesome stuff and mediocre stuff. I'm still optimistic it'll fully commit to awesomeness at some point.
DKoren said…
Um... people actually like Moira?? Totally spineless. The whole "protect my family at any cost" thing is one of the most cowardly excuses a person can use.

I may have to give Teen Wolf a try, cuz, yeah, Colton Haynes is so much fun here, I'd like to see him in something else.
Morgan Richter said…
Yep. In Moira's case, the "protecting my family" excuse really doesn't fly--sure, Malcolm was ruthless, but she was in cahoots with him to destroy the Glades for the five years while Oliver and her husband were presumed dead, which meant she only needed to protect Thea. Moira has billions. She could send Thea off to a Swiss boarding school to keep her safe, then call in the Feds and alert them to the mass murder plot. Seems like a far better option than conspiring to murder hundreds of people.

Oh, Teen Wolf. It can be pretty awful (hint: if you start watching it -- it's streaming on Netflix! -- just skip the pilot episode entirely. You won't miss anything), but there's something about those first two seasons that resonates very deeply with my soul. Part of it is that it's executive produced/directed by the great Russell Mulcahy, which means it has the glossy look of a vintage Duran Duran video, and part of it is Colton. He started out quietly in the first couple of episodes, playing a rich, popular, beautiful, nasty jock (which is always fun in its own way -- in a 1980s movie, his character would be played by James Spader or Billy Zabka), and then by the fourth or fifth episode, he becomes amazing. It's one of those performances that, for whatever combination of reasons, managed to get under my skin and stick with me. And once he left Teen Wolf at the end of the second season, all the life drained out of the show.

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