Oh good grief, that ending. I literally have no idea how to break this one down. If you ever felt like making an argument that reviewing television shows on an episode-by-episode basis is essentially folly … well, this wouldn’t be Exhibit A. But it would be a solid Exhibit M or N.

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Let’s back up: Laurel died at the end of this episode. That’s assuming we take what happened here at face value, and there’s a ton of circumstantial evidence to suggest we shouldn’t. The doctor said Laurel was going to be fine. Laurel articulated her last few pent-up feelings to Oliver, and then she asked him to get something out of her uniform. [Edit: Which was the photo that symbolized her love for Oliver. I’m an idiot. But there’s still that mysterious promise she asks him to make, which still leads me to think there’s something more going on here, albeit not quite as strongly. I’m editing accordingly.] One quick time cut later, and Laurel suffered that fatal seizure. The bit about the doctor could be ignored as a swerve for the sake of a swerve, but that mysterious something promise must have some significance, and the one plausible conclusion, at least based on the finality of Laurel’s conversation with Oliver and the apparent disconnect between her prognosis and her almost immediate death, is that she used said mysterious something to fake her own death, with or without Oliver’s knowledge.Oliver somehow helped her fake her death.

One of the most famous concepts in storytelling is that of Chekhov’s gun, the narrative principle that something significant should not be introduced without some sort of payoff. The odd thing about “Eleven-Fifty-Nine” is that we’re effectively dealing with a pair of Chekhov’s guns, each pointed in opposite directions. Something screwy happened at the end of this episode, which means Laurel probably survived. But then, the only reason anyone had to die, or appear to die, in the first place is that the season premiere gave us a year-spanning Chekhov’s gun, with the flash-forward to someone’s grave. The Arrow creative team has been candid about how they didn’t have a specific person in mind when they first shot that scene, with the initial flash-forward eliminating only the already effectively unkillable Oliver and Barry, and with a later reprise scene adding only Felicity to the safe list.

Now, a big part of the reason that Chekhov’s gun is such an important concept is that it articulates a promise made between the storyteller and the audience: This thing we’re setting up here will be followed through on later. For better or worse, Arrow promised us a body at the beginning of the season, and the peripheral signs indicated the victim was someone important, almost certainly someone in the core cast. What complicates all this is that viewers are aware of ideas like Chekhov’s gun, even if not all know the name, and that makes it harder for a show to stay one step ahead, to be both satisfying and surprising. That’s why I got suspicious tonight when the episode went in so ridiculously hard on foreshadowing Laurel’s death. She got offered the big promotion! Oliver reminded her that she never set out to be the Black Canary, and maybe it’s time to put her now unnecessary grief for Sara to one side and chase her own dream again! Damien Dahrk threatened her life even before he got his powers back! Her dad talked at length about how wonderful she is for no particular reason! She actually, honest-to-goodness talked about how this was her one last job! The show was laying this all down so ridiculously thick that I assumed a twist had to be coming, which got me especially scared when Malcolm got the drop on Thea and looked like he was maybe prepared at last to end her.

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But there’s another issue going on here, and it speaks to a basic question of what the individual viewer wants Arrow to be. Your reaction to whatever happened (or is still to happen) with Laurel tonight likely depends on what kind of show you want Arrow to be. Should Arrow be a grim, dark show in which death is a constant companion and tragedy keeps visiting our heroes even as they struggle to be better? Should Arrow be something more hopeful, leaving open space for happy endings and just deserts even as Oliver and company stare into the darkness? Or does is matter less what specific philosophy Arrow espouses, just as long as it keeps its damn promises? All those perspectives are valid! If you favor the first or the last viewpoint, then you probably would prefer Laurel to be dead. (And yes, I realize there’s also the “I just really dislike Laurel, so it’s fine if she died” contingent, but let’s just pause on that for one second.) But I’ll admit I’m in that second camp, in which I’ve seen enough death on Arrow, and if the way to avoid one more death is for the show to pull some ridiculous swerve out of its ass, then … eh. I can live with that.

Even if it’s basically repeating Roy’s exit from the show. Hell, even if it’s potentially pulling an inverted version of Laurel keeping Sara’s death from her father. And even if there’s a real possibility that, if Laurel really did fake her own death, she didn’t fully consider the possibility that the news might still give her father a heart attack, which he appears damn close to having tonight. But dammit, Quentin is tragedied up to the eyeballs. Could we just let him have this one back, even if the ending and the promo for the next episode suggests that, if Laurel is coming back from the dead, that’s not happening straight away, perhaps not until the very end of the season.

I could be wrong about all this. That mysterious something Laurel wanted must have some significance, but maybe it wasn’t some sort of weird talisman or League of Assassins doohickey to simulate deathpromise the show cut away from must have some significance. I will say I sure hope Oliver isn’t in on this particular secret, though I guess he would have to be, because if he does allow Diggle to carry the guilt of Laurel’s death and allow Lance to labor under the belief he has lost a daughter for the third time, then I really don’t see how Oliver isn’t a completely irredeemable asshole at that point. But yes, I’m pretty sure there’s more going on here than meets the eye, but Arrow has thrown out enough conflicting hints that it’s damn hard to figure out where this is going. Which, again, makes it damn hard to review this as an isolated hour of television.

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That said, this is mostly a very good episode of Arrow. I’ll admit I’m getting lost in how the alliances between Damien, his wife, and Malcolm work at this point, but the show covers up any convoluted storytelling by just letting Neal McDonough and John Barrowman chew scenery at each other, which is really all I need from those two at this point. This episode isn’t as quippy as last week’s, but there are a few more self-aware moments in which Laurel and Thea call out Oliver for his utterly unpredictable secrecy. All the business with Andy Diggle is effectively a microcosm of what I’ve been talking about with Laurel’s maybe demise: Last week’s final scene really should have made it clear Andy was playing the team, but this episode sold the fake-out as hard as it could, and part of that relied on weaponizing the audience’s (or at least my) hope that something might just work out for the best against it (or me). And Diggle delivered an absolutely savage takedown of Oliver and why his self-pity and self-righteousness have trapped him. It’s just, you know, the episode didn’t really complete its story, or if it did, it told the story in a way that made it feel unfinished, with too many conspicuously hanging threads. All of which is to say I think this is a good episode, but check back with me in a few weeks.

Stray observations

  • So yeah, Mayor Evil Madam Dahrk declared she wanted to “Make this city great again.” Just going to leave that one where it is.
  • When Damien started quoting Julius Caesar at his evil, mouth-sewn henchman, I wrote in my notes: WE HAVE ATTAINED PEAK QUARLES, I REPEAT, WE HAVE ATTAINED PEAK QUARLES.
  • “I’m going to hit the streets.” “Thea, no one is going to give up Merlyn.” “Then I’m going to hit people on the streets.” Guys, Thea is perfect. Give her her own show already.
  • I realize I didn’t really pay tribute to Laurel, and I guess I’ll do that if and when I’m convinced she’s actually gone for good. But suffice it to say: Both the Arrow creative team and Katie Cassidy struggled mightily to make Laurel work, but they really hit on something fun this season with her as a supporting (and supportive) player, and Laurel has generally been a strength of the show this season after being its most glaring weakness for most of the show’s run. So, maybe I’m in the minority, but I’d miss Laurel if this really is the end.

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