Arrow, “Lian Yu”: On Vampires, Superheroes and When to Say Enough is Enough

The most disappointed I have ever been in a TV show was the series finale of The Vampire Diaries a few months ago. Much like my courtship with Arrow, it took me a couple of episodes to fall in love with TVD. Though it started as a clear attempt to capitalize on the Twilight craze, the show gradually became something more satisfying as the writers took risk after risk with their plotting. Even characters that seemed indispensable weren’t safe and I was thrilled by how the show always made the least-expected and most difficult story choices.

However, TVD wasn’t always great. Like Arrow, the show’s fifth season almost convinced me to stop watching. It was filled with lazy character work and forced plot twists, but the show eventually recovered. At the time, I dismissed that one bad season as an aberration, the inevitable growing pains of a long-running show. Surely the writers had realized their mistakes and wouldn’t make them again, but then the final season happened. Suddenly, it became clear that I had overestimated the writers’ ability to understand their own world. Instead, I spent that final season watching a show I loved slowly twist itself into illogical knots to reach an end that didn’t suit the evolution the story had taken.

Now, TVD and Arrow are very different shows, but as the latter comes to the end of its own troubled fifth season, it’s impossible not to see similarities. Like TVD, Arrow miraculously and improbably ended this season on a high. Well, at least for the handful of episodes before last night’s finale. As the coda to this season and to the larger story the show has been telling for five years, “Lian Yu” was poorly-paced, uneventful, nonsensically structured, repetitive and mostly unsatisfying. I say “mostly” because right at the very end, Arrow did pull off one surprise, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

It’s hard to choose what to complain about first. There was the moment Samantha (Anna Hopkins) minimized Felicity’s (Emily Bett Rickards) motivations for breaking up with Oliver, which seems hypocritical considering her insane restrictions on Oliver’s interactions with William. There was the fact that the episode was so bad at building tension that it literally broke up the giant hero/villain fight scene we’ve waited weeks to see with FLASHBACKS. However, the most frustrating thing of all was that the episode fell prey to the same weakness that has always kept the show from being great: lazy writing that fails to justify interesting ends with believable means.

At the end of last week’s episode, we saw Oliver enlist Slade (Manu Bennett) in his fight against Chase (Josh Segarra). Given where their relationship left off years ago, there is almost no scenario in which that team-up makes sense. And yet the show asked us to believe that Slade was so touched by Oliver’s request for help that he suddenly forgot how much he hated him. It was frustrating — especially because the show gave a much more compelling justification for the team-up immediately after when Oliver offered to help Slade find his own missing son once they got off the island. It’s sloppy writing and worse, it’s maddeningly repetitive.

Every season – and multiple times in Season 5 – Oliver sends his allies away and enlists his enemies for help even though it never works and he supposedly learns his lesson every time. So, it was downright insulting for the show to ask us to believe he would make the same mistake again. Admittedly, Malcolm (John Barrowman) and Slade gave Oliver some much-needed personal advice and there was something satisfying in being reminded of the show’s better days. However, it was out-weighted by the injustice of Team Arrow being reduced to damsels in distress throughout the episode—especially during the season-ending cliffhanger.

There is undeniable justice in Lian Yu being blown off the face of the earth. Yet leaving us and Oliver to wonder if Team Arrow survived the island-wide explosions resulted in both the show’s most dramatic cliffhanger ever and the most compelling reason of all to never watch this show again. After saving William (and some embarrassing yet forgivable over-acting on Amell’s part), Oliver stood powerless as Chase killed himself in order to blow up the island. You almost have to admire the show for committing to giving longtime fans the middle finger that way. Sure, we got to see a little character development for Oliver before that, but we needed a lot more than seeing him recommit to not killing at this point in his journey. We need him to stop making the same mistakes over and over and finally grow.

This show became good when it shifted from focusing solely on a brooding rich boy with a savior complex to a true ensemble. Oliver’s friends are his strength and while our affection for them gives the cliffhanger its drama, it’s also difficult to believe anyone will actually die. Thanks to previous announcements from The CW, we already know Felicity, Diggle (David Ramsey), Thea (Willa Holland) Curtis (Echo Kellum), Dinah (Juliana Harkavy), Wild Dog (Rick Gonzales) and Dark Laurel (Katie Cassidy) survive. Moreover, given how bad this show is at permanently killing everyone except Tommy (Colin Donnell) and Moira (Susannah Thompson, who delivered this episode’s one moment of genuine emotion), even those who died will probably return at some point.

So, what does this big explosion achieve other than to distract us from noticing that barely anything happened in this episode? How did a show that used to deliver thrilling finales every year lose its spark?

When TVD pulled a similar stunt at the end of its fifth season, I asked the same questions. That’s why I almost stopped watching. However, there had been a few signs of life in that finale and I decided to let the sixth season’s premiere determine whether I’d continue. As it happens, that episode was the beginning of TVD‘s renaissance and I gradually fell in love with the show again. Maybe Arrow can pull off the same feat, but after five seasons, I don’t think it’s capable.

When I used to recommend Arrow, I would say that its best feature was its ability to course-correct. When the voiceover didn’t work, the writers got rid of it. When it became clear Felicity made the show’s dour tone bearable, she became a full-time member of Team Arrow. When “Lauriver” wasn’t working, the relationship ended. Much of Season 5 was the result of the exact same drive to course-correct, but suddenly the choices were all wrong. Yes, the handful of episodes preceding the finale had their merits and maybe things will improve next season. However, even if it does, if the writers can misunderstand what makes the show interesting on such a fundamental level once, who’s to say it can’t happen again? It happened with TVD.

I am the first to admit that the emotional investment I had in The Vampire Diaries and have in Arrow probably borders on unhealthy. They’re just TV shows. But shows that run this long require a significant amount of time, emotional investment and in my case, work. So, when the quality takes a dive this serious, it’s difficult to want to keep watching. This episode didn’t make that decision any easier.

Rating: 4/10

By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.