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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow: “The Calm”

Illustration for article titled iArrow/i: “The Calm”
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As the episode’s title indicates, Arrow’s third season premiere begins during a period of relative quiet for Oliver and company. Much of this episode plays as an epilogue of sorts to the previous season, as Oliver is given the space he needs to consider just what he wants his life to be. After all, for as long as we have known him, Oliver has never really had the chance to define himself on his own terms. In the first season, he allowed himself to be consumed by the anti-corporate—eventually revealed to be anti-Undertaking and anti-Malcolm Merlyn—quest his dead father set him on. He spent most of the second season reacting to Slade Wilson’s latest devastating attack. And let’s not forget the flashbacks, where Oliver has no existence beyond the desperate effort to live through the day. For the first 20 or so minutes, Oliver is simply doing what he does because he has actively chosen to; the mere fact that there’s nothing to stop him quitting at any moment gives him a freedom that he’s never really had before.

“The Calm” lets our hero imagine a life in which he can be both the Arrow and Oliver Queen, as his latest round of superhero work takes on an office-job flavor. He’s reached the point where he can ask Felicity her restaurant preferences while chasing down the villains. As he says, he’s multi-tasking. And let’s not completely skip over the fact that he asks Felicity out on a date at all. After two seasons of playing coy, teasing fans, and finally using the specter of Olicity for the mother of all fake-outs in the finale, “The Calm” just goes ahead and admits that Oliver totally does have very real feelings for Felicity, and it’s high time he actually engages with them. So much of what Stephen Amell is asked to do as Oliver—beyond all the bone-crushing stuntwork, that is—requires him to hold back, to suggest incalculable damage while only rarely dealing with those issues head-on.

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While Arrow’s entire reason to exist is for Oliver to be, well, the Arrow, “The Calm” underlines how that vigilante work is essentially one long distraction for Oliver the person. For the first half of this premiere, Oliver has the chance to focus on his civilian life, and Amell makes the most of the opportunity to open up, portraying a natural warmth to Oliver that is no longer couched in some identity-concealing obfuscation. As Oliver admits at dinner, his time on the island—and off it, as we start to learn in tonight’s new flashback arc—has made it difficult for him to think of people as anything other than threats or targets, but Felicity, the first innocent person he met upon his return, has helped convince him it might be worth finding his way back. And, for a little while there, Oliver appears closer to that destination than he ever has before. Then a damn rocket rips through the restaurant, and everything goes to hell.

“The Calm” is at its best when it feels least like an Arrow episode. That isn’t exactly unprecedented for the show, as last season featured some strong episodes that were also essentially meditative character pieces, mostly focusing on Oliver’s sense of hopelessness in the face of Slade Wilson. Tonight’s title suggests this episode is going to explore what happens when nothing much is going on for the Arrow, and the episode loses so much of what makes it special once everything starts to snap back into the formula. Some of this is understandable; after all, “The Calm” does have the responsibility of setting up the new season, and it can’t really accomplish that if it spends the entire hour exploring Oliver’s personal journey when it’s inevitable that his crusade as the Arrow must reassert itself as the most important aspect of the show. Hell, as nice as it is to see Oliver and Felicity on a date, I’m hardly agitating for the show to forget the superhero stuff and turn into a straight-up romance. But the first half of this episode has the experimental feel of a midseason episode, something the show can do as a change of pace from business as usual. In this case, the second half of the episode has to get back to more standard Arrow fare, and what we get feels awfully familiar.

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In particular, the episode struggles to figure out just what to do with Peter Stormare as the show’s second Count Vertigo. Stormare is one of Hollywood’s great go-to psychos, and his work here is reliably disquieting if not exactly revelatory; he’s there to play your standard-issue starter villain, and he does the job well enough. The idea that his refined version of the vertigo drug can make people see their worst fears—and that the Arrow’s worst fear is Oliver himself—is a clever enough concept, and Arrow does manage to make this Vertigo a formidable adversary; it’s not every villain of the week who can plant a GPS tracker on our hero. This all could work quite well for a season opener, but where “The Calm” proves a letdown is in Oliver’s reaction; after a first half of the episode that represents the show exploring new territory for its main character, it’s disappointing to see Oliver cycle through the same set of beats about how it’s too dangerous for him to have a personal life. In fairness, the episode does find at least one new twist on this formula, as the new dad Diggle admits Oliver was right to take him out of the field. That moment of understanding—really, just the very idea that Oliver might be correct when he says he can’t allow others to share his risks—does indicate a progression of the show’s core ideas, but the episode has to run through a bit too much well-worn material to get to that point.

And then there’s the big twist at the end of the episode. Unless the previews for next week are brazenly lying—wouldn’t be the first time!—the episode ends with Sara Lance dying for the third and final time, shot dead by a mysterious archer who is likely to play a major role in the coming season. That last bit means Sara’s death is mostly setup for future storytelling, because it sure as hell doesn’t work as a plot beat in the here and now. Yes, there’s something to be said for the out-of-nowhere shock death, a grim reminder that not everyone gets to go out in a blaze of glory; indeed, Sara’s death would have been an intriguing way to break the episode’s titular calm, but that would mean getting rid of the restaurant attack and letting more of the episode play out as a character piece. Besides, the fact that Sara inexplicably returns in the middle of the climactic fight sequence and then ignominiously dies mere minutes later makes it feel like the premiere is tying up a loose end the show forgot to deal with last season. Sara’s death has always felt inevitable, if only because it was hard to imagine the Black Canary mantle wouldn’t eventually pass to the comics-mandated owner, but this is a particularly cheap way to finish her journey. The fact that the end of the episode also has to crowbar in an acknowledgment of The Flash doesn’t exactly help the sense that “The Calm” has run out of its own story and is just engaged in perfunctory setup for what is to come next.

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Still, there are promising elements here. Onetime Superman Brandon Routh figures to be a ton of fun as genius businessman Ray Palmer, even if he never gets around to shrinking to subatomic sizes. The Amanda Waller-centric Hong Kong flashbacks at least represent a move away from the island, where the show had exhausted all conceivable narrative possibilities; as slight are tonight’s flashbacks scenes are, they do at least ultimately find a sensible reason for Oliver buying into what Waller is selling him. The most intriguing character tonight might actually be Roy, if only because the episode does so little with him beyond using him as a sidekick, which leaves plenty of potential for post-Mirakuru development. In particular, it could be interesting to see how Oliver leans harder on the unattached Roy now that he’s unwilling to risk the lives of Felicity and Diggle—actually, make that John. “The Calm” ends up too shapeless to reveal what the show’s third season has in store, and it’s done in by a little too much uninspired execution. But this is definitely still Arrow, and that’s reason enough to be excited.

Stray observations:

  • “And I’ve seen you shirtless. Multiple times. Shirtless all the time.”
  • “He’s a real nutbar.” “Keep your head on a swivel then.” I think I transcribed that right. Point is, Captain Detective Lance’s crazy hardboiled 50s detective speak is infectious!
  • “One man cannot live by two names.” “What does that mean?” “In your case, I believe it means not having any choice.” Yeah, usually the show is a bit better at hiding when it’s using the flashbacks to comment on the present-day stuff.
  • “Maybe not ever.” “Then say never. Stop dangling maybes.” Good call, Felicity. There’s absolutely no way Oliver is going to follow through on that request, as his kiss demonstrates, but still!
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