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Arrow hops into a time-loop and continues its hot streak

Katie Cassidy, Paul Blackthorne, Stephen Amell
Photo: Colin Bentley (The CW)
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“I’m not giving up. Maybe I’m giving in.”

There’s something kind of fascinating about Arrow’s approach to this final season—a sentimental but not maudlin victory lap. The show’s writers are clearly and methodically revisiting old haunts, each episode linked to and reflecting themes from a corresponding earlier season—episode one to season one, two to two, and so on. Sometimes those links are small, sometimes they’re big and obvious—in this case it’s the latter, as it’s in season six that Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne, killing it) shuffles off this mortal coil and his relationship with Not-Laurel gets particularly complicated. It’s also the season that begins with Oliver Queen bowing to the inevitable and beginning his prison sentence (referenced here with Quentin’s joke idea)—an unavoidable thing that will protect the people he loves. It’s not in any sense a lazy retread, but it is familiar territory, not just narratively but thematically.

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Yet at the same time, it seems as though the fact that the ground is so familiar, the characters so established and the themes so deeply embedded in the show’s history, has freed up the show’s writers to do things that feel utterly new for the series. Here we are in season eight, having left the 150 episode mark far behind, and Arrow is just now getting around to the time-honored tradition of the time-loop episode.

Writers Onalee Hunter Hughes and Maya Houston know exactly what a time-loop episode is for: Getting your hero (or heroes) to fix or face a problem, over and over again. Appropriately for Arrow, the magic exit door for Oliver wasn’t finding a solution but accepting that there isn’t one—literally accepting futility and inevitability—and changing his mindset accordingly. On The Flash, that story would be inverted (and come to think of it, that is actually what The Flash has been doing this season, at least until tonight—Barry just accepting that he’s toast and actively discouraging everyone else from trying to find a fix). But Arrow has always been the dark and twisty sister in the family; of course its take on this particular trope would be more melancholy. Of course Laurel’s gift is the chance to grieve, and Oliver’s is one of perspective.

That’s not to say this is a particularly morose episode. There are some clever moments, though Hughes, Houston, and director David Ramsey (that’s David “John ‘Digg’ Diggle” Ramsey to you) seem far more interested in the emotional underpinnings than the typical clever trappings of stories of this sort. (Could have done with more of the nice but beleaguered champagne carrier and less of the one-joke guy.) Many of them, my this writer’s endless delight, come courtesy of Not-Laurel; at this point it’s not news that Katie Cassidy is much better served as this conflicted, multifaceted, very funny woman, but Laurel and Cassidy are invaluable here, keeping things at least a little bit sharp-edged and wry when they could otherwise be all too dark. I’m particularly fond of “Okay, fine, you did it,” followed by that wicked smile, but there are half a dozen such moments or more.

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It’s also directed with a lot of thought and subtlety. Doubtless, the scene that will get the most attention is that long, single-take fight scene as Quentin and Oliver race through the warehouse (it’s possible there’s a cut in there, but it’s cleverly masked). Still, I think my favorite bit of direction, fittingly, is Oliver’s brief scene with Diggle in the basement of Star City P.D., when Oliver resignedly mentions the time-loop and Digg accepts it immediately. When Digg expresses his faith that Oliver will figure it out, the camera moves in, underlining the casual, easy intimacy between the two; one moment, they’re just two people talking about a weird as hell thing, and the next, they’re brothers, telling the truth.

It’s good stuff, but the best element of this episode is equal parts clever trick and emotional beat. Every time the loop starts over, Oliver sits up on the couch, and Future Team Arrow strolls in, fresh off a trip to Big Belly Burger. Every time, he rushes out. Every time until the last, that is. Having listened to Quentin as he talked about knowing when it was his time and choosing not to fight it, having listened to Laurel confess that all she ever wanted was to say goodbye to this person she loved, he begins the loop again, and this time, he pauses. It’s a testament to Amell’s performance and the writing of the episode that the final scene between Laurel and Oliver isn’t totally necessary, lovely though it is. We already know that this time Oliver has with his grown kids is a gift, because Amell shows us in that scene (and the kids are pretty good too).

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In a good time-loop episode, the details matter. In this one, the only details that truly matter are that entrance with the burgers, the easy acceptance of Digg and especially Quentin, the steely compassion of Lyla, and Oliver and Laurel’s final quiet chat. Arrow may be revisiting old haunts—in this case, literally revisiting the same few scenes over and over again—but the results are anything but tired.

Stray observations

  • Lots of great time-loop episodes out there, but my favorite of recent years is also perhaps my single favorite Arrowverse episode, Legends Of Tomorrow’s “Here I Go Again.” 
  • If they bring Diaz back, so help me god.
  • In all seriousness, who else is due? Would love to see Slade Wilson back. Damien Darhk would have shown up by now (and it sort of feels like he was so brilliantly rehabbed by Legends that he belongs to that show now). I don’t know... Ragman? Who else?
  • Was there any salmon ladder?: No, and Laurel should definitely have used multiple loops to get good at the salmon ladder. Laurel and Ollie deserved a fun montage.
  • TAMVP: Katie Cassidy and Stephen Amell have been great in every single episode of this season so far, and that’s still true here—but man, Paul Blackthorne was out for blood. Just ruthlessly breaking hearts over and over again. Aubrey Marie Anderson was good too.
  • This week’s Arrow as a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song. You know the trope. In storytelling it’s a norm.

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About the author

Allison Shoemaker

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.