Anyone remember how, back when Arrow first debuted, the show’s supposed major inspiration was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy? I mean, it wasn’t exactly difficult to make that connection: the brutality of the fight scenes, the not exactly subtle connections with current social trends, the efforts to ground the superhero antics in a universe that had more or less the same laws of physics as our own, it was all there. Throw in the CW’s soap opera mandate and a hesitance to fully embrace all the trappings of the comic book source material that was reminiscent of Smallville, and you’ve pretty much got what Arrow was in the early going. And boy, did that not last very long. As the fourth season kicks off, we have reached a point where any given villain is either a metahuman or a mystical warrior, where one of Oliver Queen’s best friends is the fastest man alive, where the current issues with Thea might have something to do with the lingering after-effects of, you know, her resurrection. (Unless the show has forgotten about that, which is fine. But it’s possible!) Team Arrow lives in a city just renamed to the comic book-approved Star City in honor of a dead man who I’m going to go ahead and guess survived that explosion by shrinking himself, considering he’s got an appointment to keep with the show’s next spin-off.

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The point of all this is to say that Arrow hasn’t necessarily jettisoned its Christopher Nolan source material, but it has shifted its focus to a subtler takeaway from the Dark Knight movies. It’s easy to look at that trilogy or the early days of Arrow and say a show shouldn’t weigh itself down with stuff from the comics because it’s all so inherently ridiculous. The more nuanced view is that a show shouldn’t take on that inherently ridiculous stuff just because it’s from the comics, but it should absolutely go to those more out-there places if there’s a good story reason to do so, especially since, well, a lot of that crazy comics book stuff is really fun. Put it this way: It’s hard to come up with a particularly coherent, character-based reason that Oliver Queen would return from five traumatic years on (and occasionally off) a hellish island and immediately declare himself “the Green Arrow,” with all the fundamental lightness that implies. That moniker is something fundamentally different from, say, Batman, whose very name is meant to enhance his mystique as a force of darkness. It took three seasons and change to get there, but now Oliver Queen is ready to embrace a mantle that only makes sense if he comes there not as a monster, not as a damaged product of trauma, but as someone who is making an active, well-adjusted choice to fight crime and to inspire the people of the city he protects.

That’s part of why it makes so much sense to open with Oliver and Felicity in blissful—well, blissful to one of them—retirement. The idea of crime-fighting as compulsion is a common one in modern superhero fiction, and Oliver has shown more than a trace of that over the past few seasons. The Hood or the Arrow can be a tortured, restless soul, but the Green Arrow can’t, at least not as a defining trait. Still better is the revelation that it’s Felicity who couldn’t stand a life away from Star City. There’s the hint of a fairly novel conflict brewing here, one that’s best typified when Oliver asks Felicity’s opinion about helping Thea and Laurel and she asks why they are not already on their way. If Oliver walked away from being the Arrow to save himself, is that an inherently selfish decision, or did he recognize that his continued presence in Star City would destroy all he cared about? And is Felicity’s inability to step away indicative of a greater selflessness than Oliver’s, or is she succumbing to the same kind of compulsion that almost consumed Oliver? We know somebody has a gravestone waiting for them six months from now, and there’s even some possibility that said death will be real and permanent. There’s no shortage of people in Oliver’s life who regularly put themselves in enough danger to make their imminent death plausible, but it’s surely got to be Felicity whose death would represent the greatest test of Oliver’s resolve.

Then again, that flashforward suggests that the Oliver of six months from now already has that resolve, that he is past the point of blaming himself for those that end up in the line of fire. If the show can make that stick, both in the episodes leading up to that point and in all that comes after, it will represent a major evolution in how Arrow treats Oliver, and it could well shake the show out of some of its most repetitive storytelling habits. More broadly, that’s why “Green Arrow” represents such an exciting opening for this season of Arrow, as the narrative formula that had guided the show for much of its first three seasons had probably taken the show as far as it could go. The first era of Arrow reached its creative zenith in its second season, in large part because Manu Bennett’s Deathstroke hit the perfect balance between recognizably human pain and operatic supervillainy. The introduction of Mirakuru allowed Arrow to dabble with the more outlandish aspects of its source material while still keeping its core reality relatively grounded. While last season still had plenty to recommend it, that year struggled to handle the increasingly fantastical and insular Ra’s al Ghul storyline while still maintaining a clear connection with the audience. More than that, the unremitting grimness of it all wasn’t well executed enough to compensate for the fact that, by and large, the League of Shadows plotline wasn’t all that much fun.

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This season already looks quite a bit better on that score, if only because Neal McDonough is on board as Damien Darhk. There are plenty of places audience members might know McDonough from—I mean, this is Dum Dum Dugan himself!—but the most obvious antecedent for his work as Darhk is his season-long turn as Justified’s own Robert Quarles, a role that for all time established McDonough’s credentials as a psychotic master operator. In just a handful of scenes, McDonough establishes he is at least the equal of John Barrowman and Manu Bennett—and already far surpasses Ra’s al Ghul actor Matt Nable—when it comes to gloriously entertaining, scenery-chewing evil. He makes his line readings simultaneously intense and casual, even tossed-off, lending Darhk an unpredictability that sets him apart from any previous Arrow antagonist. He isn’t just more powerful than Oliver. It’s that he brings an entirely new energy to the show, making it nigh impossible to judge what he might be capable of.

“Green Arrow” is a promising opening statement for this new season—and perhaps this new era—of Arrow, and there’s a feeling of clarity here that eluded last season as it wallowed in Nanda Parbat. The show once again is about Oliver and company’s quest to save Starling—no, wait, Star City, thank goodness—and the focus is on Oliver defeating Darhk and rebuilding a broken if resilient Team Arrow. That Oliver is now ready to do all that as the Green Arrow is just affirmation that the show is at last ready to embrace all aspects of its source material, and the reason it took so long is that it wasn’t ready before. Now, we can only hope, it’s ready to live up to the entire Green Arrow legacy, and that’s something I’m excited to see the show attempt to do.

Stray observations:

  • So, Detective Lance is working with Damien Darhk. Huh. I’m really not sure how I feel about the closest thing to the show’s incorruptible moral compass—if occasionally a bit of an alcoholic Javert—allying with such an obvious villain, but it’s clear already that Lance is conflicted and regretful of what he got himself involved with. I’m curious to see where the show is going with this, if nothing else.
  • “Felicity Smoak, you have failed this omelette.” Oh goodness, they have the absolute weirdest pillow talk, don’t they?
  • Diggle is not about to forgive Oliver for the whole kidnapping his wife and endangering his baby (you know, as a ploy). I’m going to go ahead and say Diggle is not in the wrong here.
  • I’m not sure I’m entirely ready to take Thea seriously as a crime-fighter. Maybe she needs a scarier voice modulator or something, because her screams to get everyone to clear the train station just sounded kind of raspy.
  • Oh, and Oliver is back on the island. THERE BETTER BE A DAMN RUSSIAN MAFIA COMPOUND ON THAT ISLAND, IS ALL I’M GOING TO SAY!

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