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.)