Arrow still has all the pieces to be a fun show, maybe even a good one. Stephen Amell has proved a charismatic leading man with arms capable of several degrees of freedom. Paul Blackthorne and Willa Holland are consistently great at locating the humanity in their characters and their often absurd situations—even when tasked with spewing expository dialogue that just restates what was in the opening recap, those two make Lance and Thea feel like fully realized characters. The flashbacks are still a deeply weird thing for a show to be doing five seasons in, but at least we’re finally getting to the bit where Oliver becomes a captain in the Russian mafia, and the return of Anatoli harks back to the last season when the flashbacks weren’t a detriment to the show, and even occasionally an active strength. And hey, it’s hard not to cut a little slack to any show that casts about the DC universe looking for new characters to add and says, “Eh, screw it, let’s add Wild Dog to the mix.” Again, I’m not saying Arrow is ever likely to be classic television—it flirted with transcendence ever so briefly during the Slade Wilson arc, but that was a long time ago—but if it’s going to be pulpy nonsense, it can at least be the right kind of pulpy nonsense.

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I want to feel more optimistic than I do by the end of “Legacy,” but damn it, Arrow, we’ve been down this road before. There are about three fundamental problems Arrow needs to reckon with coming out of its fourth season, and only one of them—the tediousness of the flashbacks—looks like something the show is actively course-correcting. Much of the episode’s running time does appear to show similar improvements in Oliver and Felicity’s relationship, mostly because, well, the episode doesn’t really acknowledge their former relationship. They are back to being crime-fighting allies and combative friends, both of which suit the show better than a romance that once felt like such a natural outgrowth of the actors’ chemistry but just ended up leaving Felicity dangerously overexposed. I’m not as down on Felicity as a character as most fans are, but I can’t help but groan when the penultimate sequence of the episode ends up being all about Felicity, having Diggle bring up the subject of reunion to a suddenly pensive Oliver and treating the fact that Felicity has a boyfriend as a shocking reveal.

As much as anything else, Arrow just needs to build up some equity with its viewers after a couple meandering seasons. Telling good, solid stories is a start, and “Legacy” does that fairly well. Not immediately giving back into all the show’s worst impulses is another part, and the fact that the premiere did so well for so long in downplaying Oliver and Felicity’s former romance makes the renewed focus on it at the end all the more disappointing. Along similar lines, there’s how the episode treats Oliver, who has abandoned his no-kill rule and spends most of the episode regressing before our very eyes. This is the third basic problem Arrow would do well to address: the fact that Oliver keeps cycling through the same emotional beats over and over. In theory, his deciding to kill again could be an interesting development for the character, particularly since the show got good mileage in the early going from actually interrogating why a vigilante would choose not to kill, but the show skipped the bit that would actually be interesting. Sure, guilt over Laurel’s death and his hesitation in killing Darhk sooner is a plausible motivation for Oliver to rethink things, but without actually seeing Oliver struggle none of that carries much weight.

To the episode’s credit, it does at least suggest Oliver is learning how to change his mind more quickly, with Felicity registering her surprise at his sudden acceptance of the new status quo. If that’s the takeaway from this episode on a character level, then Arrow has something to work with going forward, and that does appear to track with Oliver’s renewed appreciation for his responsibilities as mayor. Serialized character work has never exactly been Arrow’s strength, but all the show really needs to do is find ways for Oliver to work through different single-episode emotional arcs. This episode can be about him accepting that the old way of things is gone. If the next episode is about him genuinely accepting his new role as a mentor to a fresh round of recruits, then that too can feel fresh. I’m being tentative here, admittedly, but there’s at least a blueprint for a better Arrow in “Legacy.”

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Besides, there’s plenty here that’s just straight-up very good. The decision to have Lance fall off the wagon stings in just the way it ought to, and his friendly yet gruff resignation to his new life brings a nice, unexpected dimension to his scenes with Oliver. More than anywhere else, it’s in the interactions between those two that there is a sense of forward movement, of four years and counting having accummulated. Blackthorne has always brought a lived-in energy to Lance, but he kicks that up another notch tonight, and his possible role as a kind of unofficial liaison between Team Arrow and the police is an intriguing one. Lance did articulate his basic character arc when he explained a drunk needs a reason to stay sober, with the heartbreaking implication that the death of Laurel (and the de facto loss of Sara, given her time-travelling responsibilities) robbed him of his last one. He’s searching for renewed meaning just as Thea appears on the cusp of finding herself, even if both seem to recognize that what might be best for them emotionally isn’t what the city—or, more to the point, the superhero show Arrow—needs them to be. There’s wonderful tension when Thea and Lance are trying to figure out how to help Oliver without just reverting back to old habits. Both end up doing so, though Thea at least appears to be out again for the foreseeable.

And then there’s our new cadre of villains, featuring the newcomer Tobias Church and the latest mysterious Arrow-like baddie. I’m still not entirely sure what the comic book inspiration for Church is, which may mean he’s got a true identity the show’s going to reveal in due time, but for now he appears to just be a terrifying but essentially straightforward criminal, and that itself is an interesting route for Arrow to explore. After getting ever more over the top with its villains, the show might well benefit from spending some time with a character who is a threat mostly because he’s just so damn ruthless and violent. Then again, I still feel like there’s a twist coming. That’s either the promise or the curse of Arrow. Time will just have to tell this season which of those it is.

Stray observations

  • I did legitimately love Anatoli showing Oliver how to escape being tied up in the flashback, only for that to immediately pay off in the present. That can feel a little hackneyed when Anatoli isn’t involved, but hey… Anatoli was involved!
  • I feel like Curtis was supposed to come across as tougher in that final scene than he really ended up being. It kind of came across like Oliver was just willing to train whoever was the next person to ask him. But whatever, we’re getting Mr. Terrific, so I’m completely on board with this.
  • And so begins our coverage of the fifth season of Arrow. While I’m trying to be upfront about my reserverations with the show going forward, I’m also still legitimately excited to have some fun with the show. Like I say, I’m still rooting for this to be the right kind of pulpy nonsense.

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