Remember when CW’s superhero melodrama Arrow was good? How about when it was great? If you answered “no” or “barely” to those queries rest assured you aren’t alone. In fact, after Season Three turned out to be an agonizing and ultimately doomed affair, it seemed like many people had written off the emerald archer. Who could blame them though? Focusing on Oliver Queen’s intractable conflict with a boorish Ra’s al Ghul (Matt Nable) and his League of Shadows, Season Three’s ambitious scope torpedoed its narrative momentum. Plus, the nonsensical romantic tension between Oliver and Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards), percolating since Season One, was bizarrely pushed onto center stage. A romantic pairing that nobody understood much less wanted, this move felt like the writers had a personal vendetta, and not just against viewers everywhere, but against art, logic and common decency.
That’s why the season premiere of Arrow’s Fourth Season was pleasantly surprising and surprisingly pleasant. Maybe it’s because I went into it with marginal expectations, but the premiere was a welcomed change in direction. It didn’t hit the bullseye mind you, but with its rapid pacing, forceful performances and generally resurgent tone, the premiere was filled with promising signs, pointing to a show operating once again with a full quiver.
Season Four picks up the lives of Team Arrow many months after the near cataclysm depicted at the end of Season Three. Oliver/Arrow – who bizarrely departed Starling City with Felicity – is now living a life of suburban bliss. His days are filled by vigorous runs through ethnically homogeneous streets, re-purposing his famous vigilante mantra: “You have FAILED this city,” for playful jabs at Felicity’s cooking (“You have FAILED this omelet”), and having brunches with the most surreal and laughable suburban couple outside of TV Land.
Meanwhile, Team Arrow is deeply mired in the dystopia that is Star City. Oliver’s pint-size sister Thea (Willa Holland), now goes by the moniker of Red Arrow, and fights alongside Laurel/Black Canary (Katie Cassidy) and John Diggle (David Ramsey) against The Ghosts, a new tactical team of heavily armed lawbreakers. Additionally, nobody’s favorite detective, Quentin Lance, is hard at work trying to keep Star City afloat. Revenue and tourism is down across the board, an unsurprising fact seeing how the last three seasons have shown that entering Star City amounts to a death wish.
The force behind The Ghosts is revealed to be the mystical Damian Darhk, played by veteran character actor Neil McDonough. His performance gives the episode a blast of vigor, turning Darhk into a formidable yet joyful figure. McDonough clearly relishes the part, and his rapid, engaging introduction stands in stark contrast to the way Ra’s al Ghul was treated last year. Say what you want about Season Three as a whole, but between the torpid buildup and Matt Nable’s sedated performance, the central antagonist of the show felt incredibly underwhelming. It was like a Christmas present that you wait to unwrap all December, that turns out to be a pair of poorly made socks. Or, maybe it was closer to a meal that you think is going to be good because it has been cooking for a long time, but in the end it tastes like a bucket of crap.
The only problem one can see with McDonough’s Darhk is that his intentions – at least right now – are hardly unique. A big bad waxing about city-wide chaos is something you can only hear so many times before your eyes start glazing over like a creepy China doll.
Thankfully, the episode’s thematic focus is not on Darhk, but on Stephen Amell’s titular hero; no small feat in a genre that always favors the flamboyant villain over the stoic hero. This is the correct choice, however, especially as the episode functions as an important reintroduction to the character. Ever since Season One, Amell’s playboy vigilante character has been governed by a myopic and compulsive fixation on his own rage. He may have postured that his actions were for the good of the city, but to viewers it was always clear that they possessed a self-serving edge, acting as a salve for past trauma. This type of stagnant motivation is unsustainable in a TV format, ultimately leading to character development slowing to a crawl. This makes it exciting when in “Green Arrow” we see the character deciding to recommit himself to vigilantism as a form of public service. Amell effectively navigates these new emotional states, giving a subtle and genuine performance. He does this despite being saddled with goofy quirks like the Felicity romance, and an impassioned yet stilted speech his character makes late in the episode that reintroduces himself to the city as Green Arrow, as opposed to, well, Arrow.
Most of the other cast members get significantly less to do, although Ramsey’s Diggle does get a couple of nice exchanges with Oliver. In these scenes the character airs his grievances regarding Oliver’s clandestine behavior last season, which involved the hero pretending to go over to the Ras’s side and then selling this change by threatening his former team members. Lance also gets an intriguing moment with Darhk, which undoubtedly will affect later episodes. Despite this, the supporting players are largely relegated to physical props in the show’s frequent battles, which is both a pro and a con. The constant nature of these action scenes contribute to the episode’s throttling momentum. Yet, it makes establishing new arcs for the supporting characters nearly impossible, which gives the story a slightly weightless quality. And, although most of the action is staged well, there are some dubious touches. This is particularly true with a couple of digitally-assisted shots, that will surely leave you with a pit in your stomach about the budgetary capabilities of superhero television.
Arrow was a bit of an anomaly when it premiered back in 2012, with the live action superhero show landscape being far less inundated than it is now. And, although the show is now the resident senior in a batch of contemporary programs (including The Flash, Daredevil, Gotham and the upcoming Supergirl), it doesn’t seem content to rest on its laurels. In fact, if the premiere is any indicator, it is determined to move away from them. This is an exciting and much-needed goal, at which the show will hopefully continue to take aim.