What’s become of Arrow Season 4?
I’d considered opening this piece with one of those cloying “Is it just me or…” rhetorical questions, but let’s just go straight to the declaration: Arrow seems thoroughly bored with itself.
The fourth season of the CW hit didn’t start out that way.
In fact, after what’s generally viewed as a lackluster year in Season 3, the show bolted out of the bow with renewed vigor. A new, lighter approach, a focus on the fantastical world of magic, and a blast of a villain giving Neal McDonough five-course meals of scenery to chew gave the show a seeming fresh start. Incorporating more explicit elements from the Green Arrow comic books, including the name; an expanded focus on the team; and a more mature manner of involving the divisive romantic relationship between Oliver Queen and Felicity Smoak, which frequently devloved into groan-worthy teen melodrama the year before, all propped up a series that seemed to find its legs again.
Even the flashbacks, often cited by viewers as bothersome distractions from an episode’s main story — Season 2 aside — seemed better connected and far more interesting this year.
Yet, it was all a bit deceptive.
Both Arrow and The Flash were charged this season with helping establish and instigate another spinoff of this shared universe, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. While The Flash mostly relegated Kendra Saunders’ appearances to cameo work while it set up its Zoom and Earth-2 stories, Arrow did the heavier lifting by having to bring back both Sara Lance and Ray Palmer. Sure, The Flash spent an episode on giving us Leonard Snart backstory, as well as setting up Jax Jackson as Ronnie Raymond’s replacement for Firestorm, but these were primarily single episodes that didn’t feel like they hung over or detracted from the main season story arc the series was setting up.
Sara’s resurrection hung heavily over the first run of episodes of Arrow this year, as did Ray’s disappearance and eventual discovery and return. These were good threads that kept the audience engaged and paid off in the annual crossover that served as the backdoor pilot for Legends. Their resolutions also revealed a problem: there was less of a concise motivation for this season than originally thought.
What is Genesis, the seeming world-altering H.I.V.E. plan that we know nothing about except the field of grain underground that would appear to be tied to the biochem gas agent that Darhk tried to use on Team Arrow to exterminate them? (Everyone remembers back to that episode, right?)
What about magic? Darhk’s powers have been taken from him since his talisman was destroyed by Mari McCabe. They’ve hinted at Baron Reiter being around in the present with his connections to Shadowspire, the group that infiltrated A.R.G.U.S. and killed Amanda Waller. Mostly, he’s been relegated to increasingly awful and terminally boring flashback scenes about his search for magic ability on Lian Yu that feel like Oliver and Taiana are protagonists in a Z-grade adventure horror movie. What seemed to be such a game (and world) changing force all but peaked in the episode where John Constantine helps reconstitute Sara’s soul with her reborn body.
What about Anarky? We get an interesting origin for the chaotic bugger, only to trot him out for a kidnapping plot that buys tentative peace between Team Arrow and Darhk. I’m sure he’ll put in another appearance or two before the season’s out, but his entire approach and participation seem far more controlled than anarchic.
There’s Malcolm, who is once again just kind of there, getting to leer from the shadows with a slinged appendage now. There’s Andy Diggle, a wildcard who is not really so wild, but now seems to serve as yet another superfluous wedge to pit Team Arrow against one another. We broke up the Olicity relationship to stir the drama pot, so why not the whole team yet again?
And there’s little William, Oliver’s son, forced to be the wedge to split Oliver and Felicity, and then quickly shunted off to parts unknown in a convenient way to not have to deal with real story ramifications of father and son being in each other’s lives. William’s use was very writerly in the facacta visitation plan between Oliver and Samantha that all but stamped drama on everything with a metal press, and very writerly in the inelegant way in which they hooked him off the stage.
The one new lasting element seemed to be the one they hoped would sustain interest throughout the year: Who is in the grave?
Yet, even that supposedly tantalizing trope quickly lost its luster. Having your creative team parade through interviews early on saying that even they didn’t know who was in the grave to that point didn’t percolate the mystery in the ways intended. Instead, it inadvertently established a baseline for a seeming inability to break a compelling season story and arc that recalled the issues with plotting that plagued Season 3.
Rumors have surfaced about the character that supposedly meets their demise. (We aren’t going to share them here for those who would like to remain spoiler free, and we’d ask you to respect that in the comments. Though, we’ll certainly be removing any comments that directly reference those rumors. Guess all you want, but don’t ruin things for others with any specifics if it turns out to be true.) Others have since been ruled out. Yet, I hardly see much of any buzz going about this core question that’s supposed to be driving the season.
More important, the show really seems to care very little. Usually around this time, we’ll get a string of three or four episodes that really re-establish the main threat for the season, building to that final run of episodes to close out the year. Yet, this season, nothing so far.
In its place, we get drivel like this past week’s “Beacon of Hope,” where the most exciting thing about the episode was if you played a drinking game about the number of times people said the episode’s title. The alcohol poisoning potential was high. There are almost always one or two things to enjoy in any episode of the show — in this case, Curtis was fun, if bordering a tad on shrill — but an hour that reduced Emily Bett Rickards, Charlotte Ross, and Willa Holland to B-movie theatrics (no pun intended), set Oliver’s progression back 15 paces (yet again), and tried to bring the funny with awful puns feels more like an M.O. than an anomaly right now.
The show simply seems bored with itself. Even much of the action feels perfunctory and choreographed to within millimeters of its life rather than fierce, visceral, spontaneous, and explosive. Sure, things pick up in the final third of the season, like every year, but too much feels like going through the motions now. Last year, some of this sluggishness seemed to be a result of the creative team being split to get The Flash off the ground. This year, there were two new shows, Legends and CBS’ Supergirl, that divided the cabal. One can’t pin it solely on the shifted efforts, but it’s hard to deny at least some effect on both of the elder CW shows.
One can’t help but feel bad for the performers. We know they are game for lots of things, but after being handed the umpteenth version of the same dramatic beats and tropes each year, it’s got be hard to push through what’s sure to be some natural disinterest and work to keep things fresh.
Arrow doesn’t feel lost like it did last year, trying to make anything work. It feels more like a victim of its success, and a slave to a formula that really only worked well for a single season. Rather than being desperate to make that formula work this year, though, it seems merely content to just be on the air. I’m sure we’re in store for shocks aplenty in the final six episodes in that way Arrow does to try to make it seem like the whole season was a pressure cooker. Yet, shocks are as good as a handful of candy. It’s good in the moment, but too often not something long-lasting or memorable.
We’re still left with two questions: where is Arrow going this year, and where is it going for the future?
I can’t speak for others, though I’ve certainly heard similar comments, but I just don’t find either question to be particularly pressing. More, the series just doesn’t seem to have the gas any longer to press them.
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