I won’t rehash the critiques I already raised in my review of “Monument Point,” but I’m now more certain than ever that the nukes were a terrible idea. In fairness, they actually work really well if we strictly consider Damien Dahrk. As a catalyst for expanding his death-fueled magic and for creating genesis, they make plenty of sense. Revealing Damien Dahrk is prepared to burn the entire world not just out of vengeance for his wife’s death but as the ultimately twisted way of sparing his surviving daughter from life’s grim torments is its own special kind of demented brilliance. The trouble is that, perfect as the nukes might be for the show’s villain, they represent an impossible challenge for the show’s heroes. As the previous season finales have indicated, Oliver really only has two finishing moves. One, he can inspire the kind of hope necessary for people—be they just Team Arrow or the entire population of Star City—to fight and risk their lives alongside him. Two, he can dig into previously untapped reserves and just kind of fight harder than he ever has before, which generally means proving himself willing to cross some line his adversary assumes Oliver won’t be able to do.
And it’s not as though “Schism” doesn’t understand that on a pretty deep level. After all, the episode’s very title is in reference to the contradictions inherent in those two abilities. But neither of them is even remotely up to the task of dealing with more than 15,000 nuclear missiles—that’s the kind of conundrum for which it might be useful to, I don’t know, run really fast, or something. (The “or something” in this case turns out to be Felicity and Curtis’ magical hacking skills, which are so drenched in technobabble at this stage that they’re basically just one big techie deus ex machina.) When Oliver gets up on the roof of that car and challenges his fellow citizens to come together as a city just as they did during all those previous season-ending crises, the rhetoric is plenty inspirational, but it still seems kind of irrelevant when faced with the specter of nuclear annihilation. How exactly is people putting aside their differences going to protect against the fallout of a damn mushroom cloud? Stephen Amell does his best to put over the speech, but it’s too preposterously askew from the actual circumstances of the threat for it to work as intended.
Which is a little odd, considering that, once you subtract out the warheads, a lot of this episode’s main plot works just fine. The people of Starling City rising up against Dahrk in a surprising effectively rebellion is precisely the logical storytelling extension of Oliver’s speech the episode would have been better to focus on. Then there’s Oliver’s ultimate decision to kill a man who left with him no alternative, a decision he explicitly contrasts with his choice to spare Slade Wilson two years ago. Arrow has long drawn distinctions between killings that occur during the heart of what is essentially battle—there’s a reason Lyla chalks up John’s shooting of Andy to the fog of war—and those carried out in cold blood, which I think is why we’re ever supposed to doubt that Oliver will kill the bastard, especially given his total willingness to shoot Dahrk’s hapless henchmen as they race into the scene for the umpteenth time. All of which is to say that it sure feels like Arrow thought through most of the implications of its big endgame storytelling, then just sort of ignored that little extra bit of nuance or complexity that would make these distinctions sufficiently clear.
The breakup of Team Arrow at episode’s end, with Lance and Donna, Thea, and Diggle all electing to move on, is also a tricky proposition. It’s certainly possible to wring huge emotional and dramatic stakes from an unexpected—and, let’s be real, only temporary—parting of the ways like this. I know this, because once upon a time in the glorious past (and maybe, just maybe, someday again!), I reviewed Farscape, and that show excelled at detailing the slow accumulation of damage and distrust that made such mass departures as brutal as they were inevitable. In Arrow’s case, it’s harder to distinguish between characters announcing their departures as an intended recognition of their unbearable collective pain or a desperate admission that, for all this season’s improvements over last year on an episode-by-episode basis, the premise and these characters all pretty desperately need a reset. In fairness, the actors make their explanatory monologues work as well as they possibly can, with Willa Holland again doing next-level work as she talks about threatening to murder a child and realizing she’s totally her father’s daughter. Here’s hoping even this fictitious time away will rejuvenate all involved—having Oliver and Felicity carry on by themselves is either going to be a welcome return to an earlier storytelling model, or it’s going to see the show double down on some of its most unpopular elements. Feels like only really two ways forward with that.
For all that, I don’t mind “Schism,” though that’s a pretty damn underwhelming response to the season finale of a show once capable of the heights glimpsed in things like the Mirakuru arc. I respect the show’s efforts to offer some tangible payoff to Oliver’s efforts to find the more hopeful version of himself, even if all the discussion of his big inspiring speech and his season-ending installation as mayor do drag on a bit. In isolation, this is a perfectly decent end to a perfectly decent season, but a show this far into its run can’t really be expected to be judged in isolation. The fourth season recognized some of the flaws of the previous year—a weak central villain, for one—and solved at least that particular one by throwing Neal McDonough at it, which is always a fine solution. But too many other problems went unaddressed or were even elevated to still greater prominence, most infamously with all the romance business between Oliver and Felicity that I don’t think was nearly as bad as its reputation suggests but, yeah, still absolutely threw the rest of the season off-kilter with its outsize importance.
At the end of it all, with an episode like “Schism” that feels more like the culmination of storytelling strands already set in motion than the introduction of any real game-changing twists, it’s hard not to shrug at it all. I’m not necessarily advocating for something as messy and weird as last night’s Flash season finale, but that one at least keeps you guessing in a way tonight’s Arrow finale doesn’t manage to. The show has gotten back on track to the extent that everything here feels competent, and Damien Dahrk remains a hoot to watch to the bitter end—hell, he even gets a quick moment of genuine pathos with the daughter he soon intends to sacrifice in the cleansing fire of the nuclear holocaust—and the cast is experienced enough to make this kind of material work. But this show has been capable, and I really hope still is capable of something more than that. This season was a step in the right direction, but a proper return to past glory still feels awfully far away.
Well, unless they bring in John Constantine fulltime. Then I’d be prepared to reconsider. I’m just saying!
- There was a whole lot of reflecting on Laurel’s legacy and what she would have stood for and whatnot, and… man, I don’t know. I do think Willa Holland and Paul Blackthorne were able to communicate some sense of why Laurel mattered so much to them—not too surprising in the latter’s case, given she was Lance’s daughter—but this idea that Laurel was the conscience of the group and the one who challenged people to be better… well, I don’t think it’s wrong, exactly, but it just feels like the show way exaggerating its own past storytelling and characterization. Basically, this all would have had so much more impact here if, say, the show had actually known Laurel was going to be in that grave from the beginning of the season and made a concerted effort to define her role as clearly as possible so that her loss would register properly when the time came. As is, it all feels a bit slapdash.
- I’m not really going to quibble with Malcolm’s latest face turn, given that “not wanting the entire planet to be destroyed, seeing as I live there” is about the least inherently heroic motivation a hero-aligned character can have. But I’m starting to agree with commenters who feel his presence too is just feeling a little tired at this point. As I think I said once earlier this season: Maybe 23 episodes is just a handful too many for this show to sustain its plots.
- Hey, they let Amanda Waller make a return in the flashbacks, even as Suicide Squad’s release date approaches! How generous of Warner Bros., I guess. At least we finally appear on track for Oliver to become a captain in the Russian mafia. You know, I’m feeling more optimistic already.
- No, seriously, you guys, Neal McDonough was the best. I’m glad Oliver finished Dahrk off at last, but he will be missed.