The death of Sara Lance was so sudden, so tacked-on to last week’s premiere that it honestly hadn’t yet registered when I sat down to write the review. Arrow is a show that loves its shocking twists, and “Sara” is bookended by a pair of such unexpected developments: the flashback return of Tommy Merlyn and the reveal that Thea is now in training under Malcolm’s tutelage. (Admittedly, I’m not sure I’d call that plot turn all that surprising, but we do at least learn that she’s now calling him “dad” and rocking a shorter haircut.) The only danger here is that the show can become so plot-driven that even something as monumental as Sara’s death becomes weightless. Given that “The Calm” rather obviously brought Sara in for a quick cameo just so that it could kill her off, the task before tonight’s episode is to lend Sara’s death a meaning that the premiere could not. “Sara” accomplishes that task first by selling the horrible reality that Sara is gone and not coming back, then by examining just what she meant to those she left behind. Remarkably, the show doesn’t even lean on its old standby of flashbacks to help memorialize Sara; Caity Lotz’s only appearance here is as a cadaver on the Arrow Cave’s makeshift slab.
Indeed, that’s the first thing that really sells that “Sara” intends to get serious about the death of its title character. In keeping with its superhero roots, death has already become a fairly cheap commodity on Arrow: This episode ends with a cameo by Malcolm Merlyn, who really looked like he died at the end of season one. Last season was built around the return of Slade Wilson, whom Oliver thought had died in the sinking of the ferry. Hell, Sara herself has already died and come back on at least two separate occasions. So to show her body lying there in Team Arrow’s headquarters, her eyes staring at nowhere in particular in a frozen expression of surprise and pain, lends a harsh dose of reality to the proceedings. Yes, it’s absolutely possible that Sara could still come back; the existence of Ra’s al Ghul and this universe’s willingness to embrace the more outlandish elements of the DC Comics mythos mean that the words “Lazarus pit” are a distinct possibility. But until then, Arrow gets the audience to buy into Sara’s death as much as any superhero story can get its audience to buy into any death, and the repeated reminders of the delayed grief that awaits Detective Lance are a particularly brutal touch.
But until the elder Lance inevitably learns the terrible truth, the show focuses on what Sara’s death means to Oliver, Laurel, Felicity, and, to a much lesser extent, Diggle. The reaction of Arrow’s leading man is intentionally underwritten, which once more places a lot on the shoulders of Stephen Amell. Acting moves that might have come across as stiff at the beginning of the show’s run now play as carefully controlled. It’s impressive just how much Amell has grown into the role of Oliver, to the point that he can weave a palpable sense of grief into the way Oliver physically reenacts Sara’s murder. When Felicity briefly takes Oliver to task for not showing emotion at Sara’s death, Oliver doesn’t have to say anything for it to be obvious how wrong she is. After last week’s premiere fell back on some clichéd emotional beats in its exploration of Oliver’s reaction to the Count’s attack, it’s reassuring that “Sara” trusts its audience to invest in far subtler character choices. It’s not hard to see how much turmoil Oliver is in here, yet he’s right that the burden of leadership requires him to bury those emotions. He’s hurting, but he has to be there for those who are hurting more.
Where the episode finds itself on less certain ground is in its handling of Laurel and Felicity’s reactions. This is where Arrow has to do the best it can with the realities of asymmetrical character development: The show has one character who has a strong connection to Sara and one character who is fleshed-out enough to do some serious emotional heavy-lifting, but they aren’t the same person. Thus the weird situation where Felicity, who was never really that close to Sara, is the person most affected by her death, at least as an end in and of itself. After the first 10 or so minutes, Felicity becomes the focal point for the entire show’s grieving process, as the other characters’ anguish is subsumed into the episode’s narrative arc. It’s not that this is a bad decision: Felicity is easily the show’s most emotionally open character, and Emily Bett Rickards does a nice job selling the idea that her character wasn’t so much friends with Sara as she was in awe of her, and that Sara’s death is as much about the loss of innocence, of the sense of invulnerability, as it is the loss of a loved one. The episode even manages to slide in some rather nifty character development for Ray Palmer, as Brandon Routh gets to show his character is more than just a slick-talking corporate mega-genius.
Laurel is the trickier case here. To its credit, “Sara” does give Laurel some space to grieve like a real person would, and the opening scene in which Laurel reminisces about Sara’s beloved stuffed animal features some of the most honest and most effective Katie Cassidy has done on the show. Still, Laurel remains a character defined more by the stuff that happens to her than by how she reacts to it; when the show stretches, it can write a grieving scene for her that’s just as powerful as the subsequent scenes with Felicity, but that isn’t the show’s main priority. Indeed, it’s difficult to shake the sense that the show’s real priority here is to lay the groundwork for Laurel’s eventual assumption of the Black Canary mantle. Are her brutal interrogation methods and willingness to kill Simon Lacroix evidence of her inner turmoil, or are they just there to establish her vigilante bona fides? Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference, but the key takeaway here is that Laurel’s initial, character-based grief turns into something more plot-driven. Whereas Felicity is given the space to mourn Sara’s death like a real person would, Laurel has to react like she’s a character on a superhero show. At least Laurel is a better-written character on a superhero show than she was in previous seasons—indeed, she wasn’t as much a character on a superhero show back then as she was a character in a seriously wonky soap opera—but Arrow’s struggle to define Laurel on her own terms ends up undercutting some of the potential power of her sister’s death.
Like “The Calm,” tonight’s episode feels like the third season finding its way, focusing on more intimate stories before the year’s larger narrative arcs kick off. Sara’s death and the search for the archer responsible are likely to drive a lot of this season’s story, but for now the show is more willing to focus on the human side of this loss. The effort is not entirely successful, but enough of “Sara” works to justify the more meditative storytelling. This is an episode that dares to let the Arrow’s latest bone-crushing stunts appear almost routine; the show can get in its requisite action scenes almost as an afterthought, the better to keep the focus on the underlying character dynamics. That approach is an extension of what we saw last year, but this still feels like a more mature, more ambitious direction for Arrow to pursue. The show is still pushing itself, and that’s likely to pay off in a very big way sooner rather than later.
- I’m not sure how much we really get out of Tommy’s return to the show. It’s always nice to see Colin Donnell again, and the show comes up with a clever, entirely reasonable justification as to why Oliver’s first target would be his best friend, but the Hong Kong flashbacks still feel a bit rudderless at this point.
- It also still doesn’t feel like the show has worked out quite what to do with Roy, but I actually appreciate that Arrow isn’t trying to oversell his importance. He’s the sidekick, and the show is content to keep him on the margins until it has a suitably good use for him. I’m guessing the return of Thea will make him feel vital again real quick.