Warning: contains spoilers for Arrow season 5 episodes 1 to 7.
Any show’s 100th episode is a tricky thing to get right but, for Arrow – the series that began what is now affectionately called the ‘Berlanti-verse’ – it’s a mountainous task.
But here we are, five seasons and 99-episodes deep into a show whose only model for success at the time of its pilot was the recently-departed Smallville. From the start, it had more in common with the then-successful Nolan Dark Knight movies, and less with your Lois And Clarks of the world, but it was successful enough for The CW circa 2012, and has since gone on to spawn an entire empire for the channel.
Despite being the patriarch of the family, though, Arrow had a lot to prove this season. After third and fourth years that left a lot of fans frustrated, it’s been working hard to reestablish itself as a ‘street-level’ superhero show, separating itself from its peers and moving back towards the season one vigilante focus. It’s been working better than many could have hoped at this stage in its life, and just in time for the centennial anniversary.
It’d be unfair not to acknowledge those fans who enjoyed the shift in focus after season two, which prioritised Oliver’s relationship with Felicity at the expense of some of the show’s many other strong points. For the record, I don’t think that the romantic subplot of those seasons was specifically the issue – we all sat through Laurel and Oliver’s half-hearted courtship in season one, after all – but perhaps came at a time when the show’s writers had lost sight of how best to come at the series on the whole.
Instead of the outstanding hand-to-hand fight sequences and ensemble drama we’d become used to, we were given a poorly-handled disability plotline, a secret baby scandal for Oliver and a villain fighting against a bow and arrow with magic (and somehow losing). People were brought back from the dead willy nilly, and other characters seemed inexplicably unkillable (*cough*Malcolm*cough*).
It also arguably lost the most to Legends Of Tomorrow, even if story ideas for Ray and Sara were starting to look a bit thin. While The Flash handed over many supporting players, Arrow gave up two of its bigger personalities.
While I’d argue that season four was actually an improvement on season three if only because it brought Oliver back to the center, it was still a step down from its best days. It started to feel like the folks behind the scenes were seeing the widespread acclaim for The Flash – a much lighter, more playful creature – and trying to replicate it for Arrow. What followed was like a lightning bolt peg in a quiver-shaped hole, and the previously-grounded universe trying to blend in superpowers and metahumans.
It appears that even Stephen Amell agrees that things needed to shift to some extent, telling Entertainment Weekly that he’d also been left underwhelmed by the fourth season. Saying, “we’re either going to do what we do and do it well, or it’s the last year,” it’s clear there’s a lot riding on the performance of season five.
But so far it’s been getting almost everything right, from the renewed energy in those fight sequences (the one in the season premiere remains one of the best the show’s ever done) to the abundance of dynamic new characters on both sides of the war. Tobias Church was a wonderful jumping-off point to Prometheus, and Mr. Terrific, Wild Dog, Artemis, and Ragman have been added to the inner circle.
The smartest thing this season did was to give Oliver a new challenge in the form of a band of new recruits. Not only did this hand us four new characters to watch struggle with training, Oliver’s temperament and the mission in general, it has also mirrored Arrow‘s position in the franchise. It has helped to put dozens of superheroes on screen, and now we get to see that idea of legacy take centre stage in this pivotal season.
After killing off Laurel and writing Roy out semi-permanently in the previous two seasons, the Arrow Cave was looking pretty empty and, although losing either Diggle or Felicity would be a massive blow to the series, it was high time for some new blood. The original trio remain in their roles – Diggle as confidant and Felicity as tech wiz – but have been (I suspect temporarily) pushed to the background to make way for the newbies.
Season five has notably been taking the ‘back to basics’ mantra very seriously, with Prometheus reminding Oliver of his father’s list, his struggle with killing his enemies reemerging, and a 100th episode that promises to reunite us with Laurel, Moira and others, in a ‘what if?’ scenario.
Even if that’s a ploy to make fans nostalgic for the early days, it doesn’t mean it isn’t smart. Season one of Arrow gets a bad rap, and is certainly jarring to re-watch now, but that is where we’ll find the building blocks for the show at its absolute best. Now, we have the promise of the flashbacks coming full-circle and a sense that, for once, the promise of a good set-up isn’t being squandered.
Instead of trying to live up to the success of its successors, by looking backwards for inspiration but always keeping an eye on the future, the show has managed to put out the strongest half-season in years.