My co-hosts and I haven’t made any bones about our feelings on Arrow‘s most recent season: It’s a notch or two down in quality. No matter how high they ratchet the action, tie in related comics properties, or hype the romantic pairing of the week, it all seems built on quicksand. The ratings bear me out on this: Currently, Arrow is rocking half the audience of its heyday, and is beaten soundly every week by the CW’s other tights-and-capes effort Flash.
The reasons for this, I fear, are mired in the show’s foundation: I’Il bet many of them are in the series bible, or were pitched at network execs early in production.
Listed below are the chief reasons the show is losing my attention. Although they are separate aspects, they are connected at common threads throughout:
1. Ollie Isn’t Likable
It’s tough to judge series lead actor Stephen Amell on his performance as Oliver Queen, when he’s clearly directed to maintain intensity at all times. I bet his every line in the script is in italics. I bet the director routinely scolds him for turning up the corners of his mouth, even a little. Put simply, somewhere between the writing and direction, there is a mandate that Ollie not be allowed lingering moments of joviality, affection, sadness, sincerity, kindness…you know, the kind of emotional bearing that wins friends and influences viewers. And don’t cite the occasional 30-second speech about his feelings he gives every other episode, between melee attacks: Narration is the cheapest means in cinema to tell a story. We’re to believe Ollie loves the women in his life because he says so…like a robot, on his way out the door. We’re to believe Ollie feels hurt, afraid, angry, nonplussed, etc. because he says so…like a robot, on his way out the door. I’m amazed how little it occurs to the writers to have these sorts of emotions flow freely from conversations, arguments, etc., instead opting again and again for pre-melee statements and speeches.
Ollie is surrounded by a supporting cast purported to be his friends…but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Can you? His little odyssey got Laurel’s sister killed and alienated her from her father…why’s she still around? Felicity spends her nights wearing tight dresses to the Arrow cave, but invariably ends up alone, bathing in the light of an LCD while Ollie orders up this or that digital deus ex machina; Why is she there? Is there a particular reason Roy feels inspired by Ollie’s crusade, enough to don red leather and brave the militaristic villainy of Starling City? There may be all the reasoning in the world, but without giving Ollie some charisma, none of these relationships feel natural. Come to think of it, why should I care about Ollie?
2. Modeling Arrow After The Movie It Wants To Be
The problem here, I think, is in modeling the show after cinematic takes featuring similar characters. The “action movie every week” model mandates Ollie define his relationships in curt statements uttered while he straps his quiver on. Further than that, the push toward melee action makes every subsequent effort at dramatic tension less and less convincing. Although the writers have been successful, after a fashion, at roping nearly every threat into the hero’s origin or personal mileau, these conflicts never carry the weight they should: The personal stakes are alluded to, but their effects are all but ignored. Because of the lack of emotional range allowed the main character, it just doesn’t grab.
3. CW Pairing Of The Week
If the show-runners spend half their time thinking about how they can make Arrow more like Batman Begins, then a good part of the remainder is spent playing musical chairs with the supporting characters’ relationship status. These approaches are wholly at odds with one another: Attempting a Nolan-esque tone for Arrow is admirable, in my opinion, but a lot of that tone is subverted by the sort of “will they won’t they” romantic tension and shifting relationships that is a cornerstone of the network’s offerings.
Take Laurel’s ever-changing relationship dynamic, for example: Laurel mad at Ollie/Laurel supports Ollie, Laurel vs. drugs/Laurel masked hero, Laurel lies to her Dad/ Laurel loves her dad/Laurel the DA working against her Dad on Ollie’s behalf….and that’s just one supporting character! The Arrow/Canary relationship is, imho, one of the best pairings in comics….here, you’d need pushpins and yarn just to explain Ollie’s relationship to Laurel. As the central figure, Ollie’s own palette is decidedly more convoluted: Ollie will/won’t Laurel, Ollie will/won’t Felicity, Ollie’s working with Detective Lance but protecting Canary’s identity, etc. constantly changing in dynamic, yet never managing freedom from the tepid, muddy tones these relationships become mired in. Speedy is just a train wreck at this point: The writers have contradicted themselves on her motivations way too many times for her character to seem anything but a means to a narrative end. I can hear her voice now: “You lied to me, Roy/Ollie, so I hate you! But it was to protect me, so I love you again! I’m hanging out with the dad I never knew who’s a psychopathic mass murderer, because it seems like a good way to get back at you or avenge my mom or something! But now I hate him because he lied to me, and I’m going to sell him out to the League of Assassins…”
4. Ollie Isn’t A Hero
This is the most important aspect, I feel, in which the Arrow has ‘failed this city’. In its attempts to capture the tone of Nolan’s Batman films, the Arrow creators missed the mark on one very important aspect of character: Through most of the first season, Ollie was portrayed as a vengeance-fueled nemesis who checked his enemies off the list, Punisher-style. The show was well on its way through the first season before series bible changes were made and the opening narrative was amended with a vague stricture against killing.
I’m sure the show-runners were going for a darker tone, a more “mature” theme to entice the ever-important young adult male viewership. I’m sure many would defend the “willing to kill” idea as a stylistic choice, citing how this kind of psychotic behavior and emotional deconstruction of a character can be complex, even fascinating, to explore in series television. While I agree to that possibility, I don’t think the writers either fully understood or evaluated how this would impact their long-term goals for the character.
The effects of this decision weren’t just stylistic. Besides alienating many fans of the comics character (who no doubt represent only a tiny fraction of the tv viewership), Ollie racking up (see what I did there?) a body count that would make Rambo blush set relationships on which the show depends on a foundation of quicksand.
Think about it from a writer’s perspective, in terms of the early planning for the character: You’re telling the story of a vigilante who lives in a fair-sized city in the modern era. Your desire is to surround him with the supporting cast necessary for that CW soap-opera aspect. You accept that audiences will lend you a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, especially when your hero is cloaked in some form of “super” costume. Maybe they’ll allow that the hero shows up at the crime scene without being noticed by the several hundred smart-phone laden persons he had to drive past… while in costume…on his green motorbike. Maybe they’ll accept that a hood is a great way to conceal one’s identity from an interested population.
Of course you anticipate your hero running into the police from time to time. If you were planning such a character for series television, wouldn’t you carefully define that relationship early on? No doubt they are the most likely source of allies and/or rivals for your character, or at least a source of information on crime. Is your character in constant threat of being arrested and tried? Maybe there’s a friend on the force or at city hall who provides tips to your hero. Maybe there’s a detective nemesis searching for your hero’s identity. Arrow has or had all of these things, and relies on these relationships frequently. Think of how the decision to make Ollie a murderer affected his relationship with the police. Is there any positive aspect? In any case, wouldn’t the conceit that the police turn a blind eye (as illustrated in The Dark Knight) to the hero’s nightly exploits because he’s a ‘good guy’ be helpful? Conversely, if you’re planning on illustrating the hero as a perpetual fugitive, and are on board with him murdering people in a quest for justice, then you’d better pare down the close relationships with those in and around the police, maybe? Like maybe Ollie shouldn’t foster a working relationship with Laurel as Canary? Like maybe Detective Lance should be a little less ready to embrace the vigilante as a force for justice? Batman meeting Jim Gordon on a rooftop makes sense because Batman doesn’t kill people.
Even though he turned a new leaf in later seasons, Ollie-as-murderer still strains credibility in terms of his relationships. Whenever purportedly rational characters, characters who know and/or care about him, speak concerning these deeds, they seem delusional. Witness Felicity, when confronted by Ray over her alliance with murderer Ollie: “You don’t know him…you don’t know what he’s been through,” she says, sounding a lot like a 14-year-old explaining her love of early 2 Live Crew to her horrified father. Witness Detective Lance: No doubt it was the alcohol that inspired him to knowingly turn a blind eye to a mass murderer for a year before coming to his senses, right? How de-humanizing is it whenever Roy and Diggle talk Ollie down when he expresses even the least bit of remorse: “You did what you had to,” and whatnot. Only he didn’t have to, did he? Ollie himself, in CW-sized moments of remorse, talks about bearing “the burden”, as if the consequence owed him for killing all those people is having a 1000-yard stare and being unable to articulate emotions besides intensity.
Judging by the hood and the way he acts around women, maybe his idea of an appropriate consequence is celibate monasticism.
Ollie is harried and pressured into just about every move he makes as the Arrow, instead of exposing his sense of justice, love of his friends and family, or any other traits that elevate the hero from the vigilante. Yes, there are those times where protection of loved ones supposedly motivates him, but the show does not invest enough in establishing those relationships for that aspect to ring true. Further, the emotionally stunted way in which Ollie addresses the danger he places those loved ones in by allowing their association with him doesn’t speak highly of his character. At least the Punisher knows enough to keep innocents at arm’s length.
Bringing it back to the comparison: Batman is a character that is, in my opinion, not principally motivated by a need for vengeance, regardless of any themes and mantras he voices about being ‘the night’ and whatnot. Vengeance is a trait not in keeping with his discipline of mind and body, his commitment to the mission, and his forthright expectation of cooperation from other heroes and guardians of justice. As a character, I think the best portrayals of Bruce Wayne depict him as a boy robbed of justice, of order, and of safety in a way that his sheltered life couldn’t keep at bay. Therefore, he seeks to create justice, order, and safety for others via use of the Bat as a symbol to inspire fear in criminals. The same discipline that allows him to do so without succumbing to fear himself denies him the self-indulgence that vengeance represents.
What if the same had been true for the Arrow? What if, in gaining skill and overcoming the threat the island posed, he forged peace and justice for himself instead of anger? In my opinion, this would have been the better outcome, and the one more likely to yield interesting plots for seasons to come. Although Ollie’s “evolution” from murder has yielded much in terms of conflict, we don’t need every aspect of character and relationship defined by conflict. Contrast is a necessary part of defining a character, too! If you can’t convey love, hope, or joy, then you can’t do justice to loss, shame, anger, etc.
In short, I think vengeful Ollie was a serious mistake, and I’m glad to see in recent episodes the writers finally address the consequences in a seemingly serious way. However, the damage has been done, and a full exploration of realistic consequences would involve many long years with Ollie in a prison cell. Best now to tell a quick story about it, then move along. I’m hoping the writers find a way to close the book on that aspect of character AND its consequences. I hope they give Ollie and the supporting cast some time to strengthen emotional ties and humanize the main character. Let the conflicts come from his enemies exclusively for a while, and give viewers a hero they can empathize with.