Memory is a key element in Arrow’s dramatic DNA. Its first flashbacks arrived in the pilot, when in theory there was nothing to which it could flash back; the majority of its seasons have leaned heavily on the seemingly endless time that stretched between the sinking of the Queen’s Gambit and the day Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) officially returned to his life in Starling City. But even when the flashbacks have been absent—or when they’re flash-forwards, as introduced last season and continuing in this one—memory remains dominant. One of the benefits of being a show entering its eighth season is that the well of memories from which it stems both deep and wide, and Arrow has drunk from it freely, over and over again. The show’s writers have turned dead characters into restless spirits, memories both sweet and savage into a kind of emotional shorthand, and even the costumes and logos into a visual language linking the past and the present. (Check this week’s title card, for example.)
Sometimes, the fact that this show drinks from that well so freely lessens its potency. This is, by my count, Colin Donnell’s seventh appearance as Tommy Merlyn since that character’s death in “Sacrifice;” those appearances are a mix of flashbacks, fantasies, alternate earth or timeline Tommys, and at least one crazy Mission Impossible crazy face situation. That doesn’t mean there’s no longer any pathos to be mined from bringing a character like Tommy back, but it does make the bullseye for such a maneuver that much smaller. Luckily, “Starling City” hits it anyway.
Written by Stephanie Schwartz and Marc Guggenheim and directed by James Bamford—a formidable, and familiar, Arrow starting lineup—“Starling City” manages to check a startling number of boxes without actually accomplishing all that much, plot-wise. Diggle (David Ramsey) follows Oliver to Earth-2, reminds Oliver for the two-thousandth time that he doesn’t have to—and probably can’t—do things alone, and as Earth-2 starts to disappear around them, they, along with Not-Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), step into one of Cisco’s universe-jumping portals with a bag full of dwarf star particles in tow. In 2040, Future Team Arrow experiences some growing pains, and the team gets its ass handed to it by John “J.J.” Diggle, Jr. (Russian Doll’s Charlie Barnett) and his Deathstroke gang. That’s it.
Yet there’s so much more to it than that. This premiere, a slightly uneven but very promising start to a season likely to be quite different from its seven predecessors, is much more interested in the emotional reality of its characters—at least, of those still living in 2019, no matter what earth they call home. This is the second season premiere in a row to lean heavily on the series premiere; in this case, the opening minutes don’t quite mirror those of the pilot shot-for-shot, but they come damn close. (More on this in the stray observations section.) There are changes in circumstance: Moira’s (Susannah Thompson) new husband is Malcolm (John Barrowman), not Walter; Thea is dead, and Tommy, who greets Oliver like a brother, practically chokes on the guilt that he wasn’t able to help her as she struggled with addiction; and it’s Dinah (Juliana Harkavy) and Rene (Rick Gonzalez), now Very Bad, who glower through the conversation the Queens have with law enforcement regarding the appearance of The Hood.
But the biggest change is the reason that “Starling City” is so striking: This is a very different Oliver Queen, in a circumstance unlike any we’ve seen before. This isn’t a dream from which he must wake, or a surreal experience for which he’s unprepared. This is an Oliver who’s frankly pretty accustomed to confronting his dead loved ones, to seeing enemies become allies and allies become enemies. And more importantly, this is an Oliver Queen not only prepared to, but reconciled to the inevitability of his death. It hurts him to see these people again, but it also offers one more chance to look on them with love, and to say goodbye. Sure, he’s here for that dwarf star stuff—a very space-age MacGuffin—but really, he’s visiting Pottersville, gazing into the lives of his nearest and dearest while glimpsing what their lives might be without him.
He doesn’t see it that way at first, of course. It takes Diggle, his brother and his Clarence, to point out that despite the longing, affectionate gaze he turns his long-dead loved ones, this earth is not better for Oliver’s absence. Nor is it better to somehow go it alone. After a 12-year absence—twice the five years Oliver spent “lost at sea” on Earth-1—he returns to find his sister dead, his best friend wrecked by rage and self-recrimination, his city un-saved, and his mother married to Malcolm Merlyn. (Even if he’s a good Malcolm Merlyn, he’s also a turd.)
John Diggle takes a little portal-opening gizmo from Cisco and lands on Earth-2, ready to dish out hard truths, refusing to let Oliver once again forget a lesson he’s learned over and over and over again. “And I will be damned if I just let you go gently into that good night,” he says, right before Oliver whips out the move he first used to shake Digg from his tail back in the pilot. And yet eventually, he relents. Eventually, all seven seasons of Arrow somehow reenter his memory. Eventually, he stops being The Hood and starts being one half of the earliest iteration of Team Arrow: the two-person version.
If this is a set-up for the rest of the season—John and Oliver, possibly with Not-Laurel, roaming the multiverse to prepare for the Crisis while Oliver slowly lets go of all of his burdens—then it’s a great set-up. Even if it’s not, it’s a terrific start. Arrow has earned this level of sentimentality. Watch the first few episodes of the series and it’ll become clear how densely packed with references to early Arrow this hour is, a “Yachts suck” here, an “I missed tequila” there. Sure, it may not earn every beat—Oliver’s big speech is, as Tommy says, a good one, but it’s perhaps not quite that good. And sure, not every reappearance is welcome—Adrian Chase (Josh Segarra) isn’t really a character I needed to see again, even as a good guy, though maybe I’m just scarred by the nine lives of Ricardo Diaz. But because the show takes an “Oliver Queen, this is your life” approach, even the wink-wink moments play as bittersweet. (See: “It’s supposed to be red.”) And it anchors Oliver to Diggle in a way that, regardless of what’s to come, can only be a good thing. After all, “We’re only as good as the people we have in our lives.”
The whole thing works because Amell and Ramsey make it work—particularly Amell, who plays his hellos and goodbyes as though Oliver’s heart might burst at any moment, were the stakes not so high. It works because the writers allow those winks and easter eggs to carry real emotional weight. And it works because it’s a fittingly bittersweet place to start what’s likely to be a bittersweet season.
- Welcome back to Arrow coverage! I’ll be here for every episode, right through the end.
- That opening sequence seems to be a blend of footage taken straight from the pilot, footage from the pilot that’s been digitally altered, and new footage (mostly of Amell’s face). Also: Does Batman’s mask on the beach on Lian Yu mean that Earth-2's Batman fills the Deathstroke role in this universe? Or, like Oliver, did he just have an extended stay on everyone’s favorite nightmare island?
- Other S1 references: the Thea quote about death, Oliver trying to escape from the car, pinot noir, the catch-up dinner scene, the list goes on. Also Curtis is the head of tech at Queen Consolidated, Felicity has Smoak Tech up and running, and Adrian is palsies with Bruce Wayne.
- As for our friends in 2040: It’s fine. It’s not so much the B-plot as the C-plot, and part of me wishes it could have waited until next week. Still, Barnett is a very welcome addition, and I’m excited about the brotherly glowering ahead.
- Oliver taking out Earth-2 Rene and Dinah in two seconds is pretty funny.
- A great piece from our own Sam Barsanti on Arrow’s evolution.
- Was there any salmon ladder?: YES THERE WAS. It was Adrian, a “showoff,” but still. Also Oliver freed himself from a chain thing by climbing it while holding his legs in the air and then dropping straight down to break the pipe he was anchored to, and that was bad-ass.
- TAMVP: Susannah Thompson was great as always, but I’m going to give this to David Ramsey and Stephen Amell together. A+.
- “You need a bodyguard?”
- “I didn’t know you had WiFi on Lian Yu.”
- Per reader request, porting this feature over from Legends Of Tomorrow coverage. This week’s Arrow as a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song: