Photo: Jack Rowand (The CW)

A great deal can happen in seven years. In its seven seasons on The CW, Arrow has seen a lot of villains, storylines, and themes come and go. Almost every major character on the show has either been pretend dead, presumed dead, almost dead, it-was-only-a-dream dead, actually dead and brought back to life, actually dead but replaced by someone from another earth, or just dead. There’s been prison and guilt and distance and closeness and loads of arguments about vigilanteism. Seventh verse, same as the first.

With so much built-in repetition, so much ground already covered, there are really only two successful paths forward. One, do something new. Two, dip back into the familiar, but do so in a way that’s unexpected, extremely well done, or, ideally, both. In her first outing as showrunner, Beth Schwartz went for a little from both columns. The result, to put it plainly, ain’t half bad.

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“Inmate 4587,” a subdued but appealingly efficient premiere, feels in many ways like the kind of episode you’d get much later in the season. It’s here to set the table, moving all the pieces around to line things up for the future. Given how inconsistent the sixth season was, this seems like a wise choice; the episode, written by Schwartz and Oscar Balderrama and directed by Arrow stalwart James Bamford, doesn’t exactly hit control-Z on the season 6 finale, but does spend a significant chunk of its runtime rejiggering the dynamics and energy of the series. Yes, there’s the standard time-jump check-in, but the most important information here isn’t, for example, what Dinah (Juliana Harkavy) is up to career-wise, it’s where she’s at emotionally and in her relationships. The same goes for all of them. And beyond that, after the chaos that was the end of season six, the show needed to make these characters recognizably human again. A tall order, but one that’s nevertheless fulfilled.

What a relief. As a piece of course-correction and table-setting, there’s much in “Inmate 4587” to be admired. It catches the audience up on where nearly everyone is and gives us a clue as to what they want and where they’re headed. Sure, all we know of Curtis is that he’s enjoying his fancy health insurance and still dating a cute cop, and our sole glimpse of Not Laurel shows she’s still pretending to be Laurel and drawing a hard line with regard to vigilantes in the city. Of everyone else though, we learn quite a bit more. Dinah’s a Captain, and once again has a tight hold on her shit, having lost it many times in the previous season. Her goal: Keep herself and the rest of Team Arrow out of prison, and restore the city’s faith in the police force after Diaz’s infiltration and corruption. Diggle is still with A.R.G.U.S., now effectively conducting the search for Diaz on his own from within the organization while serving as Oliver’s connection to the outside world. He wants to find Diaz and keep chaos at bay. Rene is teaching kids in the Glades to box. He wants to fight for his daughter, his neighborhood, and his city. Felicity and William are in witness protection, lonely and feeling powerless and rudderless.

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And Oliver’s in the slammer, fighting his instincts in hopes of getting back to his family. He wants to do his time and keep them safe, and those two wants are both inextricable and in direct opposition to each other.

Showing us all this—and not telling us, as the series has done in its weaker moments—takes time. The result is that while this episode has a few really solid fight scenes, including a great dueling fight montage between Felicity/Diaz and Oliver/a whole bunch of dudes in a shower, it’s a mostly quiet affair, give or take a mysterious new Green Arrow. That’s okay! Clarity with regard to the characters on this show is always welcome, but especially now. Still, with the exception of those fights—and especially, let’s be honest, that cool whipping-a-guy-over-your-back-through-the-air-with-an-arrow-on-a-cable maneuver—this doesn’t have anything like the flash, the thrills, or the surprises you expect of a season premiere. There’s one exception, though, and the exception proves the rule.

The revelation that the series of flashbacks seen throughout the episode were actually flash-forwards feels like classic Arrow (and also, of course, like Lost). The fogginess of Oliver’s timeline after the wreck of the Queen’s Gambit but before his proper return to then-Starling City was key to the early seasons of Arrow, considerably adding to the complexity of a character that could too easily go one-note and giving the writers plenty of room to play (for better and worse). But like the best of those decisions, this is a jump focused on characters, not on mythology or some sort of explosive, plot-driven element. William, all grown up, is looking for Roy Harper, who “knew [his] father” (past tense). Roy Harper is alone (maybe) on Lian Yu. How they got there and what happened all matters, but the why is infinitely more interesting.

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The why is the kind of storytelling promised by this premiere. Sure, it revisits a lot of familiar territory (Hi, Brick, Derek Sampson, and other assorted Arrow baddies!), but it breaks new ground for Arrow while having its priorities in precisely the right place. It’s the beginning of a new era for Arrow, and whether you credit this episode’s success to either focus or flash-forwards, it’s a promising start.

Stray observations

  • Welcome back, Arrow! The A.V. Club is discontinuing weekly coverage for now, but I’ll be back for the crossover event, the finale, and maybe an episode or two in between. We’ll see. Always happy to discuss the show on Twitter, and you can also find me covering DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, which returns next week.
  • Oliver beating up a guy with a copy of The Count Of Monte Cristo is exactly the right kind of too much.
  • Whatever kind of voice modification the person under the new Green Arrow hood is using makes he or she sound a lot like the time demon Mallus, which means that, in canon, the new Green Arrow sounds a lot like actor John Noble.
  • Another promising sign for the season: Unless I missed something, Rene called exactly nobody “Hoss.”
  • Who do we think is under the hood?
  • That new prison buddy of Oliver’s is bad news, right? I expected the reveal that he was working with Brick and company by the end of the episode.
  • Firmly in favor of Felicity’s pink hair. Firmly on board with conveniently shipping William off to boarding school. Firmly delighted by “Oh, thank god you monologue.”
  • See you for “Elseworlds”!

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