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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Reflections On Five Seasons Of Arrow

Having become a fan of the “Arrowverse” on the CW Network and catching up on the five seasons of Arrow – the show that started the flood of DC superhero shows on CW – I thought I’d sit down and consider how Arrow has come along after its first five seasons.

The first five seasons have followed the journey of Oliver Queen from his return home after being separated from his family for five years, much of that time (thought not all of it) spent on Lian Yu. For the first five seasons, the majority of episodes focused on Oliver’s path taken in Starling City (later Star City) with flashbacks detailing Oliver’s five years away from his hometown.

Season Five ended this week with what I thought was one of the strongest episodes the show has ever produced, but before I get to that, let’s run down the past few seasons to see what has worked and hasn’t worked as the show’s writers and producers told the tale of Oliver’s journey.

WARNING: Spoilers for the Season 5 finale appear down toward the end, so either don’t look beyond the link or stop when you get to Season 4.

Season 1: The main theme was Oliver returning to Starling City after five years away from home. We learn about the first year he was marooned, in which his father killed himself so that Oliver could live. While stranded on Lian Yu, Oliver came under the tutelage of Yao Fei and, later, Slade Wilson. That’s contrasted to his first year back in Starling City, in which Oliver’s purpose is to target names on a list that his father left behind, leading to a showdown with Malcolm Merlyn, who wants to destroy the Glades, the poorer district in Starling City, to avenge his wife’s death 20 years earlier.

Season 1 was where the show was trying to find its identity, starting with the usual trope of Oliver tracking down a name on his father’s list and taking that person down, before picking up steam in the second half of the season and the looming confrontation between Oliver and Merlyn. The flashbacks served their purpose not only for understanding Oliver’s transformation but for setting the stage for Season 2.

Once Season 1 found its footing, it provided some very good episodes, though the ending of the season didn’t really deliver a satisfying cliffhanger.

Season 2: This was the season when Arrow set the bar high, with the creative team rolling out a strong overall season. The main theme followed Oliver’s decision to stop killing out of malice and try to be a better person, the start of his transformation from pure vigilante to hero. What made this season work so well was the overarching storyline paralleled so well with the flashbacks, both which told the story of Oliver’s relationship with Slade Wilson and how they went from being friends to enemies.

The season is also noteworthy for the start of the Black Canary storyline, in which Sara Lance, thought to be dead when the Queen’s ship was wrecked, is revealed to be alive and having joined The League of Assassins and taking an Arabic name that translates to Canary, Slade Wilson’s transformation into Deathstroke and a two-episode arc that introduced audiences to Barry Allen (who would just so happen to get his own TV show later on).

Season two was strong because of how neatly it paired the storyline of Oliver and Slade’s relationship falling apart while on Lian Yu to how the two square off with each other in Starling City. There were few weak links in this season and the final confrontation between Oliver and Slade was so satisfying.

Season 3: The main storyline arch is The League of Assassins taking interest in Starling City after the death of Sara Lance – a death orchestrated by Malcolm Merlyn, who had been a member of the League but was on the outs with the League’s leader, Ra’s Al Guhl. It leads to Oliver confronting Ra’s himself, survive an initial encounter and Ra’s trying to persuade Oliver to take his place as leader of the League.

The season had a few good episodes but something was missing in the attempt to build to the confrontation between Oliver and Ra’s. A side storyline of Laurel Lance striving to take up her sister’s mantle as the Canary (the birth of Black Canary) was generally done well but got lost in the shuffle by season’s end. And the season is noteworthy for introducing Ray Palmer. But where the season suffered the most was the flashbacks, which reveal Oliver’s connections to Amanda Waller and Argus – not only did we learn Oliver wasn’t on Lian Yu all five years he was away from Starling City, but the flashbacks didn’t serve as a way to contrast Oliver’s path as a hero in Starling City.

There were some episodes that worked well, but the overall season faltered. True, it was hard to meet the high bar Season 2 set, but Season 3 struggled at times to meet expectations and is mediocre overall.

Season 4: When we concluded Season 3, Oliver sought to leave behind Starling City (now Star City) and have a relationship with Felicity Malone, only to be pulled back into that life. Officially taking the mantel of the Green Arrow, the first few episodes of the season seemed to be more about setting up for another Arrowverse show, Legends of Tomorrow, while the latter half tries to get back to the main arc of Damian Dahrk and his plans for the city.

Damian Dahrk was a wonderful antagonist, thanks largely to the portrayal by Neil McDonough, but his threat was mainly represented by his possession of a magic totem that granted him special powers. The attempt by the creative team to roll out magic into Season 4 never worked, largely because Arrow had spent its first three seasons keeping things grounded and only crossing over into the world of special powers once in a while, mostly doing it from a science-based perspective.

The creative team also struggled with its attempts at tension in the romantic relationship between Oliver and Felicity and made an unpopular decision to kill off Laurel Lance – true, there were more fans of Caity Lotz’s portrayal of Sara Lance as the Canary (who, by this point, was in Legends of Tomorrow), but Katie Cassidy was starting to find her niche as Laurel/Black Canary. Most of all, the flashbacks were awkward, with Oliver back on Lian Yu, tasked with confronting mercenaries who sought a magic totem – the same totem Dahrk came to possess, but failed to show any connection between the flashbacks and the present day other than “well, Oliver’s dealt with magic before.”

It’s no surprise Season 4 was poorly received by fans, to the point that some didn’t want to watch the show any longer.

Season 5: Arrow got back to its roots this year, but found a clever way to tie Oliver’s times in Star City with the first year since his return to his hometown. Prometheus was this season’s main antagonist, an individual who Oliver learned was the son of one of the men on his father’s list and who Oliver killed four years earlier. Oliver is forced to balance his time serving as mayor of Star City while also continuing his work as the Green Arrow.

Along the way, Oliver learns to trust new team members, learns to come to grips with his past and to be more open rather than keep so many secrets like in years past, only for it to all come to a head when he learns that his district attorney, Adrian Chase, is none other than Prometheus. The stakes are raised as Adrian seeks to prove that Oliver has never been willing to leave his past behind and that he will always be the pure vigilante in his first year back home.

The flashbacks revealed Oliver’s ties to the Bratva – they worked at times, but felt out of place in other instances. However, the season relied less on flashbacks of Oliver’s time away from Star City than in the past, resulting in a smoother focus on the current-time storyline of Oliver’s dealings with Prometheus/Adrian Chase.

Getting back to the roots of what made Arrow work in the first place resulted in another strong season, one that finished on a high note. Oliver is forced to return to Lian Yu after Adrian kidnaps all of his friends and family members and has to work alongside Malcom Merlyn, Nyssa Al Guhl and Slade Wilson to save them.

The Season 5 finale put the exclamation point on the season and tied up nearly every loose end. Oliver makes amends with Slade, Malcolm proves himself to be noble despite his troubled past, Adrian fails at almost every turn to get Oliver to do what Adrian wants (prove Oliver is a ruthless killer) and the fight scenes toward the end of the episode give everyone a moment. And the flashbacks, though maybe not impressive by themselves, served to illustrate how far Oliver has come, from a man who had no problem killing someone in cold blood to the hero who refuses to do it, no matter the situation. Bonus points for the last flashback in which Oliver calls his mother to tell her he’s alive.

And then there was the cliffhanger… Adrian Chase kills himself and the entire Lian Yu island blows up, leaving Oliver and his son to wonder if any of their friends or family members survived. That’s how you get people to anticipate another season, folks.

Arrow has had its ups and down through its first five seasons, but two seasons, 2 and 5, stand out and Season 1 had a lot of worthwhile moments. Throw in a few good Season 3 episodes and the series overall has been a fun ride.  

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