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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow became great by emphasizing characters above all else

Illustration for article titled Arrow became great by emphasizing characters above all else
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In “Identity,” the second episode of the excellent second season of Arrow, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) is chasing his frequent adversary, gang leader China White (Kelly Hu). Having recently declared a “no kill” edict for himself in honor of his slain best friend, the Arrow chooses to incapacitate his foe rather than go for a kill shot, eliciting Hu to snidely declare that despite his new philosophical aversion to murder, he’ll still never be seen as anything but a criminal to the very people he’s trying to protect.

The Arrow’s response—that as long as his city is safe, it doesn’t matter what its denizens think of him—is significant, because it puts a perfect capper on the show’s journey up until that moment, while also offering an exciting jumping-off point for what’s to come. Although Amell had been donning the hood and chasing bad guys for more than a season, it was in this moment that a superhero was born and that Arrow officially established itself as one of the most satisfying shows on television. The most satisfying thing of all is that it did so by respecting its characters.


A superhero show on The CW is inevitably forced to face an uphill battle with public perception, especially from the very comics fans that most want it to be successful. Will the leads be too pretty? Will the stories be too soapy? Will the character’s rich mythology be ignored? Arrow smartly deals with these concerns by using them to the show’s advantage, respecting the character’s comic-book roots in its overarching plotlines, all while using the network-appropriate soap-opera stories to do the heavy character lifting. This was best exemplified by last season’s love triangle between Oliver and longtime friends Laurel (Katie Cassidy) and Tommy (Colin Donnell), an arc that started as bland nonsense, but slowly and effectively evolved into something much deeper for all three parties. It did this by essentially making Amell the bad guy and betrayer—not because he stole his best friend’s girl, but because he kept his secret identity hidden, a secret identity that Donnell could not bring himself to even comprehend, let alone accept.

At its heart this is basic superhero stuff, but what Arrow always recognizes is how to take these tropes and use them to resonate beyond their traditionally narrow scope. When Tommy dies while trying to save Laurel from an earthquake machine that’s threatening to destroy a whole neighborhood (an earthquake machine placed there by his supervillain father—this is a comic-book show after all), it informs everything about Oliver and Laurel in season two. Arrow uses ripple effects such as these to create a world where every action builds upon itself, every personal choice has consequences, and the past is just as important as the future.

But the character building isn’t confined to betrayals and love triangles. Arrow’s most important relationship is the symbiotic one between Oliver and the keepers of all his secrets, bodyguard and driver John Diggle (David Ramsey) and computer genius and executive assistant Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). Like any good superhero, the Arrow started as a lone wolf, but no good hero can go it alone. By bringing John and Felicity into his crime-fighting world, the show gives itself multiple interpersonal dynamics to exploit: love, loyalty, respect, and disapproval. Along with their lighthearted banter, Amell, Ramsey, and Rickards have the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry that makes all their scenes together hum.

It’s all the more impressive that Arrow’s character work extends from the core team to its fully realized peripheral characters. Thea Queen (Willa Holland) and Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) have evolved from misfires in season one to legitimately interesting parts of the ensemble, especially now that Haynes is caught up in his new position as the Arrow’s man on the street. Susanna Thompson’s role as the duplicitous Queen matriarch grew intriguing as she navigated a power struggle with evil, while rehabilitating her savaged reputation. The one exception to this is Laurel, whom the show is struggling to organically integrate into the narrative in the wake of the love triangle’s end.


It’s because Arrow put in the necessary work to develop its characters that it now has plenty of room to run wild with its plot, and this is where the show’s more sprawling ambitions for season two come out to play. The first season’s climax did an admirable job of bringing Oliver’s revenge journey to an end—allowing him to quit making up for his father’s shortcomings and become a superhero of his own making—but season two has a much larger scope in mind. Arrow has always struggled with thematically linking its weekly island flashbacks to the action happening in the present, but by introducing a new villain (Dylan Neal, who’s having a blast) whose secret experiments connect to the new threat of super powered thugs in the present, nearly all of these problems have been solved. Tie that in with the return of John Barrowman as the evil (and presumed dead) Malcolm Merlyn and mother Queen revealing she is suddenly in cahoots with the League of Assassins, and well, ambitious might be too tame a description.

All These threads are still dangling, but not precariously. There’s a sense of swagger here, of the show radiating a genuine, winning confidence. It’s now so self-assured it can easily run two huge, impressive action set pieces a week, juggle simultaneous past and present storylines, set up long-term story arcs, deal with both the Arrow’s public and private lives, service all its supporting characters, and bring in Grant Gustin as the Flash. A Flash spin-off is in the works, and if the producers manage to create anything nearly as accomplished for the character as what they’ve done for the Green Arrow, Gustin looks to have a long future ahead of him on The CW.


Developed by: Andrew Kreisberg, Greg Berlanti, and Marc Guggenheim

Starring: Stephen Amell, Katie Cassidy, David Ramsey, Emily Bett Rickards, Willa Holland

Airs: Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern on The CW
Format: Hour-long superhero drama

Entire series watched for review

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