At the end of last season, Arrow was catching a lot of heat from critics and fans alike for a pretty lackluster season. While I defended the show for killing off Laurel (Katie Cassidy) and I maintain there’s a lot of unconscious sexism behind the sudden backlash against Oliver (Stephen Amell) and Felicity’s (Emily Bett Rickards) romance, but even I had to take a step back. I quit reading reviews, stopped scrolling through gifs on Tumblr and came back after summer hiatus ready to why I love this show. Instead, all that distance just made it easier to see the flaws.
The writers and cast have spent a lot of this summer promising that Season 5 would take the show back to basics and they certainly succeeded, the basics are kind of the problem. Network television (and superhero comics, for that matter) is about the appearance of change. Obstacles and supporting characters change, but the core concept stays the same. In this case, that core concept is vigilantism. Since Season 1, Oliver has lost his company and wealth, neglected his friends and family and essentially sacrificed a relationship with his son just so he could keep putting on a costume to fight crime. So, is it really a surprise that he’s a terrible mayor? He’s always chosen the selfish route, missing the bigger picture and his emotional issues through violence and self-righteousness.
That said, Oliver’s regression is understandable considering the Felicity situation. In one of the few surprising moves of the night, the episode played coy in defining their relationship until the very end, essentially putting equating the reveal of her new boyfriend with the first appearance of this year’s stupid mystery villain. I am on record as being all in for Olicity, but Oliver was such a child this episode that I say get it, girl. That detective (Tyler Ritter) seems like a nice, uncomplicated dude and Oliver is incapable change. Really. I mean, Anatoly (David Nykl) told Oliver that he has to learn to let go of the past and move forward and he STILL hasn’t learned that lesson five years later. Clearly, he and the show have no interest in letting him learn that lesson. They can’t, it’s too fundamental to the show.
Equally fundamental are the fight scenes. Maybe it’s always been this way, but did last night’s episode seem high on ass-kicking and low on content? Honestly, the only fight that achieved anything character or story-wise was the one where Oliver killed a man. While I’ve always found superheroes’ queasiness with killing contrived, I still appreciated what Thea (Willa Holland) said about his Laurel justification being a cop-out. Real talk: she was the only adult on the show last night—despite Quentin’s (Paul Blackthorne) speech. His idea that being responsible means sometimes you have to do unpleasant things is right on the surface, but using it to argue she should put her costume back on is downright toxic. Playing judge and jury as a way to not deal with your own emotional problems is no way to live and even Felicity (who seems to have abandoned her promising business career to nag Oliver) seems to have forgotten that.
Unfortunately, the Lances were filled with bad advice last night. After leaving us in the dark last season, we finally found out that Laurel made Oliver promise she wouldn’t be the last Canary. While the moment is a nice grace note for a character that was so important (if not always useful) to the show, it doesn’t really help support the season’s apparent message about accepting adult responsibilities. Despite her words, Laurel’s entire arc is an object lesson in why Team Arrow should give up vigilantism. Her legacy could have been a long, (somewhat inexplicably) successful law career that improved Star City for decades. Instead, she got an ugly bronze statue. Sadly, Laurel’s words last night were symptomatic of a larger problem.
Arrow seems unwilling or unable to stop making the same mistakes over and over. Too often, the writers resort to lazy or illogical character beats for the convenience of a predetermined narrative endpoint. No one ever changes, no one ever learns. We are in a period of “Peak TV,” the appearance of change isn’t enough anymore—even for superhero shows. At some point, these characters have to actually evolve in permanent way. They have to stop playing dress up and put away these childish things. Oliver will probably start taking his mayorship seriously by the end of the season. Felicity will probably get control of Palmer Tech back just in time for her and Oliver to fall into bed together, but there’s no way they leave the vigilante business unless the show gets cancelled. For many viewers, watching a group of costumed vigilantes get into an endless series of fights while Felicity says witty things in their ears might be enough, but it’s just not thrilling me anymore. I sincerely hope the writers let these characters–particularly Oliver–evolve in real permanent ways by the end of the season, but if they don’t, maybe I’m the one who’ll have to move on.