Summary: A mixed bag that offers some hope on a new season but also seems to be mired in some well-trod ground.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
Oliver has a tough time keeping up with his mayoral duties because he is splitting time fighting crime on the streets as Green Arrow, including taking down Lonnie Machin (Anarky) who is trying to set off a bomb in the city. Oliver tries to convince Thea, who is helping run his city staff, to rejoin him as Speedy, but she’s far more interested in a normal life right now. He’s also convinced that Team Arrow will come back together, though Felicity keeps insisting that he take some of the fledgling vigilantes that have begun to wage their own battles to create a new team. Police corruption is rampant in the city, and Oliver turns to Quentin Lance to help. Back in town and back on the bottle after splitting from Donna Smoak, Lance pulls himself up to put together a police task force that Oliver can use as both GA and the mayor to help fight crime and the dirty cops. Amidst all this, a new figure named Tobias Church, known on the street as Charon, is trying to consolidate power to become the man in charge in the city. He kidnaps the mayor to draw out the Green Arrow, which doesn’t go as Church planned. Speaking with Diggle, who is not interested in returning, Oliver finally gives in and accepts he needs to build a new team, one Curtis is all too willing to join.
Meanwhile, five years ago, Oliver is in Russia to hunt down Constantine Kovar, the man who had oppressed Taiana’s village and he swore to her he would take down. Participating in an underground fighting ring, Oliver is captured by the Bratva and finds himself face to face with his old friend Anatoly Knyazev. Anatoly tells him the only way to get to Kovar would be with the Bratva on his side, and Oliver begins the path to join the Russian mob.
Arrow‘s fifth season opener is a mixed bag. For those looking for a turnaround after what have generally been considered two lackluster seasons, this opening episode is more of a positive mixed bag. Is it enough to lure people back who might have tuned out? Is it enough to draw in a newer audience?
The show is at an interesting crossroads. The premise, as initially designed, lent itself to five seasons. (With obvious options to continue beyond that point.) Though the present is an ongoing story, the structure of the flashbacks had a built-in clock of five years from the time Oliver is marooned during the sinking of the Queen’s Gambit to the moment he lights the signal fire for the passing ship on Lian Yu to be rescued and returned to Starling City. We’re finally at that year where the origin of the Oliver Queen who would appear on our screens and kick off the origin of Green Arrow wraps back around.
Curiously, the show has chosen to place present-day Oliver back in a similar head and function space to where he was five years ago. The idea is to explore the juxtaposition of the cold, driven Oliver we were introduced to with the flawed man we’ve come to know, forced by experience to retake that harder edge, especially in light of Laurel Lance’s death months ago. Narratively, there is a solid logic in that approach. From an viewer perspective, though, this feels all too familiar.
Having sampled audience response over the years and even just for this episode, there is a portion that absolutely cherishes an Oliver who is a brutal killing machine who answers to no one but himself. They have wanted Oliver to return to these methods and never waiver from them. To see mayor Oliver free himself from a chair, take down a guy, and snap his neck because “no one can know my secret” was a welcome and long overdue thrill for them. For many, including myself, this felt like a step back, nice callback to the pilot or not. Thea was right to express exactly that.
What stands out most about this is we’ve seen Oliver here before. Every year he seems to find himself back at this point. While there is some authenticity to that, if you make the assumption that Oliver’s path is similar to an addict’s path, it also feels like much of the same wheel spinning that plagued his development as a character for the last two years. Season 3 was about whether Oliver Queen and the Arrow could exist together. Season 4 was whether Oliver could step into the light as Green Arrow or if he would forever have to give into his dark impulses to accomplish his mission. Season 5, in this one episode, seems to be a culmination of those concepts, in addition to revisiting the struggle with taking life or not Oliver spent all of Season 2 going through.
Stephen Amell and the showrunners have mentioned that, more than before, Season 5 is really bringing a close to this opening volume of Oliver’s life as Green Arrow. There is a fair amount that can be played with that, but it was hard to shake an overwhelming sense of deja vu during the episode. Frankly, it’s tiresome to retread the same ground.
Speaking of shaking, as much as I respect what James Bamford has brought to the show in terms of the stunts and the action language of the series as a whole, I have to own up to not particularly caring much for his work as a director. There are points in the episode where you can see growth over his earlier episodes, but he falls into the trap that many creatives do. When DPs first direct, they tend to go overboard in the uses of different camera lenses, shot setups, lighting, and media. When writers first direct, they tend to film very static work with significant chunks of dialogue. With Bamford, he’s shown a tendency to get very frenetic with his camerawork in an effort to put the audience alongside the characters in the thick of action. It’s admirable, and it’s nice to see some shakeup now and then, but there was so much unnecessary movement of the camera in the episode that it was pulling me out of the story far too often. I’ve heard nothing but lovely things from the actors on working with him as a director, but technically, I hope he finds a balance between his action tendencies and the storytelling.
For the positive of the mixed bag, Arrow stripping itself down to essentials is a good thing. Trying to capitalize on the verve and feel of the first season is good from the perspective of the attitude and tone of the show. A city overrun with crime and police corruption is the perfect setting for a character like Green Arrow. You don’t want to ignore that he exists in a world of superpowers, but what defines his corner of that world is the street-level aspect of it. That makes a villain like Tobias Church feel right.
After such escalating stakes as an earthquake machine, a superpowered army, assassins with a bioweapon, and magic with a nuclear missile chaser, sending Oliver to space would be the only way to get any larger. So, you have to turn inward. The threat has to be something smaller and more personally vicious. Church isn’t the only threat, as we see the Hood-inspired Prometheus show up at episode’s end to smear Green Arrow’s good name. Yet, he’s the kind of stakes that made the show so tense and interesting to start with. That he was able to infiltrate the various gangs and crime syndicates and the police makes him formidable. It’s the kind of threat suited to Oliver’s scope and yet also large enough that he can’t do it on his own, prompting the new team. Plus, Arrow is always best when there is a strong physical challenge in front of Oliver.
Physical challenge seems to be the name of the game this year, as the flashbacks gave us a taste of the kind of punishment Oliver is going to go through to become Bratva and take on Kovar. Immediately, the flashbacks feel more relevant and the danger more immediate. Just as with Church, Kovar is a grounded goal. That doesn’t make the challenge easy, but it doesn’t convolute it in fantasy and pseudo-mysticism. Oliver on the hunt against just a man is the show at its purest, and it could be argued its best.
And Oliver is definitely on the hunt in both timelines. He wants crime done in his city. Not finding he can do it as mayor, he’s damn well going to do it as Green Arrow. The action of the episode that was getting somewhat lost in the camerawork was superb, presenting GA at his most leonine, stalking prey and attacking with brutal force and speed. While I can’t condone the killing, a determined force-of-nature Oliver is worth having back to drive the action home.
What I know of the premiere is it’s the kind of episode that needs context to truly understand how well it works. Right now, it feels like they’ve undone so much of Oliver’s growth in an effort to reclaim past glory that one can’t help but dread the Sisyphean climb back up the familiar mountain as he relearns all of his lessons. Yet, we’ll have to see two or three episodes from now what this journey entails, especially as he starts training a whole new team. What Oliver leaves in his wake seems to be a big theme for the year, so context will help to set this hour up in its appropriate light.