A few years ago, one of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, did an episode about contemporary romance novels. On it, they mentioned a book called Passion and Ponies, which tells the story of an heiress to a cupcake/sex toy business who falls in love with a “brony”. I’ve never thrown away money on an ebook faster. While the novel itself was, sadly, low on both passion and ponies, I was hooked on the genre.
Don’t get me wrong, these books are not good. In fact, most of them are actively bad. Like Manaconda, which is, unfortunately, not what the title suggests it’s about. However, what makes these books enjoyable (other than the occasional titillation provided by the smutty sex scenes, I suppose) is their conventionality. With little variation, contemporary romance novels follow the exact same narrative pattern. While some would find that boring, in these uncertain times, there is comfort in knowing exactly what will happen in a story and–most importantly–knowing that story will end happily.
For almost a year now, Arrow‘s Oliver (Stephen Amell) and Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards) have been stuck in my least favorite part of that standard romantic narrative: the temporary break-up. Though some romances surprise you with how they fall apart, most (including Arrow) fall apart because of an unbelievable contrivance. In Oliver’s case, it’s that he fell back on old habits and kept secrets from Felicity even though that was the one thing she would never be able to forgive. And while Amell and Rickards did a fine job selling that break-up, it didn’t change the fact that the writing that got us there was lazy and stupid.
Now, I can’t say for sure that the Olicity break-up isn’t the main reason I’ve been so unkind to the show this season. Just because one is aware of one’s biases doesn’t mean one can completely correct for them. However, I do know that a person could easily skip every episode between the Season 4 finale and this one and barely misunderstand a thing. Sure, they’d need to be told about the new characters’ backstories, but even then, we don’t know as much about these people as we should. And while that’s largely an expression of how bad this season has been, it also indicates how excellent this episode was.
There is perhaps no romantic plot contrivance more sacred than taking your arguing couple and trapping them in a room together. Thrillingly, Arrow did this twice over—once in present day and once in the flashbacks to the break between Seasons 4 and 5. In the latter, Olicity fans got almost everything they wanted: Oliver and Felicity made up and they had sex on the training mats in front of the salmon ladder. But they also didn’t get back together because, as Felicity noted, having sex didn’t solve the problems that initiated their break up. Luckily, addressing those problems was the point of the present-day “trapped in the bunker with the air running out” storyline. As Oliver and Felicity squabbled over how to escape, they also finally worked out their trust issues. Felicity reiterated that she couldn’t be in a relationship with a man wouldn’t let her know him fully and Oliver admitted that he couldn’t be totally honest because he doesn’t know himself completely. It was a brilliant use of flashbacks and if that’s how they’ll function in coming seasons now that we’re about to catch up with Oliver’s history, then they may finally become an asset to the show.
However, the best thing to come out of those parallel timelines was that it allowed Felicity to neutralize and finally expose how stupid Oliver’s “I enjoyed killing” revelation from a few weeks ago really was. That particular bottle episode was possibly one of the series’ worst episodes because what it “revealed” about our hero was both obvious and too late in the story. If, for example, that revelation had come at the end of Season 1 and been the reason Oliver stopped killing, it would have meant something. Now, it’s just a somewhat bizarre plot device to get Oliver to do the self-reflection he’s always avoided. Granted, this really shouldn’t be so surprising. Arrow has always had a disappointing habit of using illogical or sloppily–written means to get to satisfying ends. Even this brilliant episode fell prey to that tendency.
Sure, Oliver and Felicity now understand each other more deeply, but some of their emotional progress didn’t quite make sense. For instance, Felicity giving into the condescending patriarchal tone that I highlighted last week by saying that she didn’t understand Oliver’s pain until now. Still, most of what didn’t work about this reconciliation is that the fight it’s based upon was so ill-conceived and executed in the first place. When a foundation is bad, it’s hard to build a sturdy structure atop it. However, while “Underneath” was an imperfect hour of television, it was also a step in the right direction for a show that has been tumbling uncontrolled down a mountainside for months now. It was exciting and character-driven in a way the show hasn’t been in ages. The only way it could have been more perfect is if Oliver and Felicity had ended the episode as a couple again. But we have three episodes left. Plenty of time for a big romantic reconciliation.