Summary: A decidedly uneven start to the new season with one hell of a wallop that changes everything.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
Five months after Slade’s attack on the city, Team Arrow have become quite adept at patrolling the streets and taking down criminals. Laurel enjoys the work prosecuting them. Quentin, who survived his attack, has been promoted to captain and taken out of the field. He honors the Arrow’s contributions to the city and gets rid of the anti-vigilante task force. Diggle and Lyla are expecting their daughter any day now. Life is good and Oliver decides it’s time to enjoy it. He gives in to his feelings and asks Felicity on a date, much to her surprise and joy.
A criminal named Werner Zytle takes on the title of Count Vertigo, altering the drug to have a psychotropic fear quality. He muscles his way into the head of a criminal organization and aims at taking the Arrow down. Zytle attacks Oliver and Felicity on their date. Oliver also loses in his bid to regain Queen Consolidated to Ray Palmer, a confident scientist with designs to not only improve the company but all of Starling City, as people are leaving in droves following two terrorist attacks in two years.
Lyla gives birth and Diggle reconsiders his work with the team. Oliver decides he can’t live two lives and tells Felicity they can’t pursue a relationship. Zytle attempts to blow up a boxing match at Wildcat Arena. As Roy and Felicity deal with the bomb, Oliver fights Zytle and his goons on the roof. The Canary returns to offer a quick hand, and they take the gang down. Oliver asks if Sara is permanently back, but she’s not sure.
Sara visits with Laurel but asks her not to tell their father she’s in town. Quentin, having been sneaking out in the field to help the Arrow, is hospitalized because his body can’t take the strain. Sara prepares to deal with the business that brought her to town when she’s interrupted by someone she knows. The mysterious person shoots her in the stomach with three arrows. She falls off the roof and hits the ground dead, right in front of Laurel.
For a full recap of this episode, visit our handy episode guide.
Why is it, two years in, that I still forget how well Arrow can shock?
This was an odd episode, and if one were to be brutally truthful, it’s not one I would expect to stack near the top after Season 3 takes its curtain call. If it is, well … frankly, there are some concerns to be had for the season ahead. Before we get all prematurely hyperbolic, it’s but one episode with a new status quo to establish, so we don’t have to entertain tossing the whole thing out quite just yet.
Still, it must be noted that this was a very decidedly Arrow episode, in that when you have an outing that doesn’t fire on all cylinders, there are often still many good things about it. Various character interactions are top notch. A few lasting threads are ably touched on while quite a few new ones are introduced. Interesting new faces are brought to the mix. The dynamic of Team Arrow is a much better oiled machine out in the field after working together for months. Light and a sense of optimism have seeped into the proceedings. That ethos of getting right to the heart of plot is strongly reaffirmed.
Yet, there are so many things going on in somewhat of their own little pockets of existence throughout the hour that it can’t help but feel uneven as a whole. For as much as I was enjoying individual moments, up until that ending, it was hard not to be a bit mystified at what was a pleasant but somewhat trifling hour. Perhaps the weight of expectation was too much, certainly not lessened by the stellar opening for sister series The Flash just the night before.
Whatever the reason, the episode felt breezy in that way that the first week of school back from summer vacation used to feel. You’re reconnecting, getting bits and pieces of everyone’s summer adventure stories here and there, and doing work that’s meaningful but not really engaging full capacity.
The biggest contributor to that feeling, oddly enough, might be the fact that everyone looked … happy. It’s not so much an expectation that the world of Arrow feel overwhelmingly dark and depressing, nor any desire to never see our characters allow some joy into their lives. Everything here felt cranked up to 11, as if people were gritting through their smiles, saying “Look at how much we have of the happiness. It’s so unbelievable. We’re so happy, right? Right?!”
That somewhat aggressive sunniness never appears flamboyant or garish or campy, but it adds an unintentional pall of artificiality that doesn’t fit well with the show. There was a moment, after Oliver, Diggle, and Roy return from stopping the shipment of RPGs, where it had nearly the same vibe as a breakfast table family in a waffle commercial.
There is plenty to be happy for. Oliver saved the city, and he and Roy have been enjoying a hot streak of taking down baddies. Diggle is on the cusp of post-natal fatherhood, expecting a daughter. Laurel is mopping up in the DA’s office, making sure charges stick and justice is done against the criminals Oliver is raking in. Quentin Lance survived his attack and was promoted, albeit to take him off the streets and still make use of his leadership ability. He even calls a presser just to announce that the city officially recognizes the Arrow’s assistance and won’t be hunted down any longer. And Oliver can see some possibility in enjoying the spoils of a good life.
Yet, that tone gives everything the sheen of a postcard from The Truman Show‘s Seahaven.
It leaves one to wonder if that was purely intentional. Perhaps, it’s an overexposure to provide clear contrast with the turn the comes in the latter half of the hour. The raison d’être for the episode is to establish the theme of the season, to kick off that through-arc, and it does so in bold underline. That theme, of course, is identity and whether or not someone who devotes themselves to something can have a life outside of it. This, obviously, isn’t the first time that Oliver has asked that question. He’s at a time in his life and journey, though, where he can really explore and consider it.
Kudos to him for actually following through on entertaining the thoughts. Yet, pull those kudos right back because, just as quickly, he retreats. At least, give it a few episodes before he decides that he just can’t have those happy, extraneous things in life while he’s got a hood to wear and a job to do. To be fair, taking an RPG right in the ol’ restaurant on a first date might give most sane folk cause to pause toward pursuing a personal life with so much danger around.
It’s that first date that generated most of the buzz heading into the season, let alone the episode. Here’s the part of the program where I state once again that I’m not particularly on the side of “Olicity.” As such, the prospect of them exploring it this year didn’t hold much appeal. That said, as a realist, the chemistry on-screen between Stephen Amell and Emily Bett Rickards, which nests very well in their respective characters, is palpable and does demand being addressed on the show.
Like most everything else, they turn into it head-on, and it honestly makes for some of the best character work of the episode. Both the pick-up scene and the conversation at dinner prior to the ‘splosions were quite touching, as was the later scene at the hospital where Oliver tells her that he “just can’t do this.” This wasn’t just romantic fodder and wish fulfillment, Felicity’s own version of The Bachelor come to life. This was people connecting in deeper human ways, and it was just as heartfelt for the audience.
Have to be grateful that they gave Felicity the moment where she laid down the law about about not leading her on. It’s a very justified expectation, considering he’d only just unbound his heart in so personal a way and then abruptly laced it right back up.
For as honest and straightforward as Oliver can be, despite not being very open, he’s nothing if not overly dramatic at times. Lest we forget how cold and hardened he decided to be when he first returned to Starling City — something he even admitted to at the restaurant — he can make some brash decisions. One outing against the new Count Vertigo, Werner Zytle (a delirious and devious Peter Stormare chewing scenery like cud), and a business meeting to regain his company where he was simply outshone by a better salesman in Dr. Ray Palmer (a dashing and effervescently amusing Brandon Routh), and he taps out of his newfound pursuit of a life.
My kingdom! My kingdom for a little conviction!
That quick reversal added greatly to the uneven quality of the episode. It was at that point that everything felt more like a collection of scenes to set up the major arcs of the season than a unified opening chapter. That was encapsulated in the fun but diverting dark take on the highlight of the otherwise woeful Superman 3, a Vertigo’d Arrow fighting Zytle, who looked like Oliver Queen. You could not highlight with a big enough marker the theme of the season here, but it was a well-choreographed and well-filmed sequence.
There were quite a few well-shot scenes, particularly the action beats, which all speak amply to the sure hand of director Glen Winter. For as much as I often enjoy Winter’s work, though, I have to call out the rather strange camerawork employed during Oliver’s fight with Zytle and his goons on top of the arena. The pushes and zooms did no favors for the audience, futzing with the rhythm, and it made Sara’s odd return feel even more out of sync with everything else going on in the episode. A tone of randomness instead of awe is not what we should be left with.
Though outside of the episode we knew that Caity Lotz was returning, it really couldn’t help but feel random to see Sara back. Obviously, her reasons for coming back to town are part of a mystery set up by her reappearance, but her arrival so late in the episode seemed like an afterthought. Needless to say, by episode’s end, she would be the only thought.
It seemed quite inevitable towards the end of last season that Sara would end up sacrificing herself in a redemptive way, potentially paving the way for Laurel to take up the Canary mantle. The build-up of her story, especially in “Streets of Fire,” had all of the hallmarks, and it seemed unlikely that we wouldn’t lose someone on the good side of the scale in the finale. Yet, she survived, and it was a welcomed and appreciated turn.
Sara’s decision to return to the League of Assassins, while still a bit fuzzy, was a strong and convenient way to write her out of the series for a while, a good development considering so much of Season 2 had focused on her. It brought on some head-scratching, then, to learn that Lotz would be guest-starring at the start of this season. In fact, everything seemed to be pointing towards keeping her around for an extended stay, which made her murder all the more shocking.
The first arrow to the gut didn’t even fully register, almost as if I’d been shot myself but puzzled as to what had just happened. The second and third arrows streak in, and suddenly everything is immediate and wired. All that had come in the hour previous ceased to matter. When Sara went over the edge of the roof, the season truly began. And it made no bones about it. The brutal header into the dumpster, viciously careening to rain-soaked pavement, eyes wide-open and lifeless. Sara was gone. And right in front of Laurel.
Who knows how the story break shook out. We’d spared Sara the season before only to cruelly axe her off the first night back. Perhaps, as the audience had nearly always had the expectation that Sara was going to die, this was the one way to make it truly shocking, as well as provide narrative thrust. We can see now how a number of pieces come together, including what would draw Ra’s al Ghul out of the shadows of Nanda Parbat and to Starling City. A murder mystery also gives a stronger, more tangible focus than the thematic Oliver-vs.-himself struggle that will play out over the season.
Despite that truly wonderful yet truly devastating stinger, “The Calm” comes in as the weakest of the three premiere episodes of the series to date. We get exceptional, touching character work between Oliver and Felicity, Oliver and Diggle, Diggle and Lyla (loved their scene with the doctor prior to the birth), Laurel and Quentin, and Laurel and Sara. We get superb teamwork with Team Arrow, particularly between Oliver and Roy. We get lively guest turns from Routh and Stormare, which bode well for return appearances. We get a number of marvelous elements to work with in the hour, but it’s unbalanced in the smallest of ways that makes it all not quite flow together. The episode left me wanting … and then that ending hit and suddenly everything changed.
Odds & Ends
- The boxing match and the name of the venue for the match, Wildcat Arena, are both references to Justice Society of America member Ted Grant, who goes by the costumed identity Wildcat. Grant will be a featured character this season.
- The sponsorship banners at the boxing match featured another appearance of Ferris Air, a reference to Green Lantern.
- Ray Palmer’s impressive plan for the future of the city includes changing its name to Star City, its original name in the comics.
- Fun as the cameos were in each series, Barry Allen’s appearance here and Oliver’s appearance on The Flash both feel shoehorned into their respective episodes as a way to say Hey, we live in the same world. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
- I’m torn with Felicity’s new job. Her skills and education could surely land her something quite a bit more prestigious than working sales and tech support for a retail electronics store. Yet, because of her other duties, it sort of makes sense that she didn’t go for a qualified job, as it would likely get in the way. Oh, and she’s cute in the blue polo and khakis.
- The whole meet-cute hacking discussion with Ray at the store was way too expositional.
- Why Amanda Waller chose Oliver to be her operative is a bit unclear? Sure, Oliver’s picked up some skills being on the island, but he’s hardly qualified for spy work or special ops.
- The dynamic with Oliver beholden to Maseo Yamashiro, because Waller threatens his wife Tatsu (Katana) and son, will be interesting.
- Anyone else surprised by how tall and lithe Rila Fukushima looked as Tatsu? I last saw her in The Wolverine and they made her look quite a bit smaller. Granted, Hugh Jackman’s a tall drink of water, but still. And for a moment, from behind as they came into the scene, she looked like Celina Jade from behind. It looked momentarily like Oliver was imagining that Shado was tending to him on the bed.
- The replacement of the arrowhead design in the opening titlecard speaks to the Japanese and Chinese influence that will make up the flashbacks, and also feels reminiscent of Ra’s al Ghul, which will tie into his and the League of Assassins’ involvement.
- I’m not sure Roy would’ve survived that much loose freon blowing around like that, even with the tubing pointing away from him.