Arrow suddenly feels like a hopeful show. So much of that has to do with Oliver Queen’s evolving relationship with the past, and I don’t just mean the years we’ve seen detailed in flashbacks. In the show’s past seasons, what tripped Oliver up again and again was his steadfast belief that he had to keep secrets from, well, everyone. He couldn’t tell his family and friends about what had happened on the island, and what his experiences had turned him into. He couldn’t tell Thea about her true parentage, nor the circumstances of her resurrection. He couldn’t tell Detective Lance about Sara’s death. By concealing all that crucial information, he chose to run away from his past, and in so doing he allowed the past to define him. He burned people’s trust and lost friends and allies for his trouble, and his conclusion was never that he had to mend his ways and learn how to trust people. Rather, Oliver always came back to the fool notion that the solution would be to put yet more distance between him and those he cared about, a self-defeating process that led to some pretty damn repetitive story beats after a while.

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Well, that was the story of the Arrow, but now we’re talking about the Green Arrow. We’re talking about the guy who gets Felicity a potted plant for her office and even packs her lunch. That moment is alternately sweet and goofy, but then that’s very much the point: There’s no simpler shorthand to demonstrate that Oliver no longer lets the darkness define him. After years of fighting the temptation of romance—be it with Felicity or Laurel or Sara—because he believed himself incapable of making that kind of commitment, Oliver has fast discovered that giving into his feelings has actually made him capable of more than he imagined. The show has consistently portrayed Oliver and Felicity’s relationship as something healthy for Oliver; yeah, we found out last week that Felicity was bored stiff by life in suburbia, but Oliver legitimately appears happy wherever. Oliver has found his center, and that discovery allows him to consider possibilities that would have seemed ridiculous not so long ago. Like, say, running for mayor. That’s another development that brings Arrow in line with the Oliver Queen of the comics, but the story reasons make sense independent of any fan service. Star City can never be whole when no one is willing to step forward as its leader, and it makes sense both in terms of economy of characters and in terms of Oliver’s ongoing arc for our hero to step into the role.

That said, it really is hilarious how lethal this job is. At this point, once you take Detective Lance out of the question, I’m not even sure there’s a single senior Star City official we’ve met in the show’s run who hasn’t met a grisly fate. With tonight’s episode, Arrow is attempting the tricky task of buying back some credibility, by confronting the fact that, yeah, a whole lot of plotlines over the last three years have involved assassinated mayors and mayoral candidates, including Moira Queen herself. In the moment, those deaths all made sense as ways to advance episode-specific plots, and the breakneck pacing characteristic of shows on The CW meant Arrow was inevitably going to burn through a bunch of mayors. So then, tonight’s episode represents the show acknowledging how damaging it would be for a city to keep watching its leaders die at the hands of villains and lunatics. As much as Jessica Danforth is a non-character, made vaguely interesting only by dint of the fact that she happens to be Jeri Ryan, it still feels vaguely crushing when she pulls out of the mayoral race, not because of anything particularly compelling about her but rather because it brings home just how broken this leaderless city is. That then makes Oliver’s decision to step in all the more satisfying, because “The Candidate” has taken something that borders on a macabre running gag and reinvested it with actual emotional stakes.

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The other big development of this episode is Thea’s ongoing descent into darkness. Here again we see the potential for past mistakes to consume Oliver, but Arrow has tweaked its storytelling formula. Yeah, he screwed up by not telling her about what happened with the Lazarus Pits, and he readily admits that. But Thea is not beyond saving, even if it takes her burning the episode’s villain alive for that to become clear. For all his experience, Oliver’s wisdom doesn’t count for much when the arguments he engages in are entirely abstract, for he’s just too compromised by his past mistakes for his friends to take him all that seriously as an authority figure. But Oliver’s instincts are truer now than they have been in a long, long time, which means reality has a way of bearing out his warnings and concerns. The look on Thea’s face when she realizes just what she has done says it all: This is still Thea, even if she’s struggling to hold onto herself. So too does Oliver recognize that this isn’t a binary, as he backs off his earlier pronouncement that Thea came back wrong, instead assuring his sister that he will be there to help her through whatever challenges lie ahead.

In the midst of all this, we have Damien Darhk and the episode’s one-off villain, Lonnie Machin. The latter is a very loose translation of the comics character Anarky. This is one of those instances where the show takes the name of a fairly fascinating character—one that’s been used as a vehicle to explore just about every political philosophy you could care to name—and turned him into another generic psychopath, which feels a bit of a shame given the potential a more faithful Anarky would have offered to kick around some ideas in opposition to Darhk’s commitment to order and Team Arrow’s authoritarian vigilantism. But no matter: Whatever wasted potential there might be there, the character works just fine here as a villain that even Damien Darhk finds distasteful. One of the challenges in making Darhk an active player in Star City this early on is finding ways to keep him away from the center of the action, for fear of bringing him into a direct confrontation with Team Arrow that the show isn’t yet ready to have. His use of someone like Anarky in his plans against Jessica Danforth may well be the supervillain equivalent of playing with his food, but Neal McDonough manages to radiate total control even as his plans technically fail. Not that I’d expect anything less from the man who gave us Robert Quarles.

“The Candidate” feels like another step in the right direction for Arrow, part of a larger course correction that could well see the show revitalized after a third season that appeared to struggle to know what to do with its characters. It’s early days, but it’s encouraging to see a version of the show that does not rely on Oliver’s endless angst to drive plots. If anything, he’s the much-needed ray of sunshine amid everyone else slowly losing it. How things change.

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Stray observations:

  • Hey, flashback Oliver got a haircut! In an unrelated bit of speculation, I’m going to go ahead and guess Stephen Amell is starting to exert a decent amount of creative control.
  • Anyone who is aware of The CW’s upcoming spin-off plans can’t feel too surprised that Laurel would try to use the Lazarus Pits to bring Sara back, but that still doesn’t really prepare you for the actual sight of Sara’s decomposing corpse. That’s some hardcore shit, Arrow, and I respect it.
  • Also, for those looking out for additional comics tie-ins, Felicity’s new work buddy Curtis Holt is based on the comics character Mr. Terrific. Here’s hoping he’s going to paint a giant “T” on his face and start using gadgets to kick some serious ass before too long.
  • One fun little casting gag to having Jeri Ryan play Moira’s best friend: Ryan’s most famous credit has really got to be as Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, and Susanna Thompson played the Borg Queen on a bunch of episodes.

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