In Roundtable Review, two or more contributors review, pick apart, and critique those nerd properties that are just too big for one person to tackle — a comic book series, a television season, a movie trilogy, etc.
In our inaugural Roundtable Review, Tek and Dwight take a look back at the 23-episodes of Arrow, season two, examining the big plot points, the DC Universe connections, and the season’s major successes and minor failures.
Damn, Arrow. Just… damn. After the events of last season’s “Sacrifice,” I had high hopes for Arrow’s sophomore season. When they announced that Manu Bennett, Colton Haynes, and Emily Bett Rickards were promoted to series regulars, my excitement for the new season hit fever pitch.
Now that the season has finished, I can comfortably say that it blew my expectations out of the water. I can’t think of a TV show in recent memory that truly maintained such a high level of quality (although not universally flawless) throughout each and every one of the season’s 23 episodes. The fact that it’s a superhero show only makes this more impressive, since it would have been easy to fall into certain tropes again and again. Instead, the writers and cast of the show chose to either subvert those expectations (the fact that the hero Oliver practically never has the upper hand against the villain Slade all season) or to lean into those expectations (Roy didn’t just go crazy, he went batshit insane) to avoid being dull.
Compared to its previous season, Arrow has been firing on all cylinders. Last year, Oliver (and, therefore, the show) was obsessed with crossing names off the list. That’s, arguably, a necessary evil, as the show undergoes the expositional growing pains of a brand new series, but I think most would agree that Arrow really took off during the latter half’s tete-a-tete with Malcolm Merlyn. This year, though, the writers capitalized on their strengths — focusing on the chess game between Team Arrow and Deathstroke to move the plot forward. Almost all of the events of the season tied in some way to the main conflict, expanding its overall scope and raising its overall stakes with each passing episode.
And that’s quite a feat when you consider just how much has happened this season: the introduction of Sara Lance aka “The Canary,” Brother Blood’s rise to power, the League of Assassins and Nyssa Al Ghul, Amanda Waller and the Suicide Squad, Roy’s Mirakuru injection, Queen Consolidated’s hostile takeover by Isabel Rochev, the death of Moira Queen, the lightning strike on Barry Allen, Slade’s descent into madness in the flashbacks… (I’m even intentionally leaving some stuff out so as to keep the word count to a minimum.)
In some way, shape, and form, all of that takes place to serve Slade’s machinations in the present — and as a result, were better for the show in the long run. Conversely, the plotlines that didn’t tie into Slade were easily the weakest (did anyone care if Laurel overdosed?)
Considering how much there was, it would be easy for any team to drop the spinning plates, but Team Arrow handled this with aplomb. Stephen Amell continues to be an impressively capable actor, clearly capturing and differentiating the naivete of past Oliver, the tortured soul of present Oliver, and the boldness of the Arrow. When I rewatch an episode, I only become more and more impressed with his performances (in both physicality and expression), and I shudder to think what it could be like with a different man at the helm.
Similarly, Emily Bett Rickards deserves every accolade thrown in her direction for what she has brought to Felicity Smoak. I’d go so far to say that #Olicity is such an attractive OTP not because of Oliver, but because of Felicity. Who didn’t love it when she declared herself the “Bitch with Wifi”? Or when she stood up to “Nyssa, Heir to the Demon” as “Felicity Smoak, MIT Class of ’09”?
On the enemies’ side, I loved watching Slade Wilson turn from ally to enemy in the past side-by-side with Deathstroke’s plans in the present, all in the name of “keeping his promise.” It was hard not to smile as Deathstroke claimed the upper hand at every turn, as Manu Bennett’s calm, gravelly voice declared impending victory. Even as he slew Moira Queen, I found myself being impressed with his badassdom and conviction. Brother Blood and Isabel Rochev were less interesting as characters, but they served their purpose as being pawns in Slade’s plans.
(Speaking of enemies, who wants to see a buddy cop show starring Deadshot and Diggle?)
If I were to describe this season in a word, I think it would be “fearless.” The writers, if you would forgive the expression, weren’t fucking around. And on the whole, the great cast brought that great writing to life – and that’s all one could ask for. This season went to some dark places – up to and including Oliver contemplating suicide-by-Deathstroke – and there was never an apparent hesitation to put our heroes in that position, to pull the rug out from our heroes every time they thought they had beaten Slade to the punch. Over the course of these trials (this “crucible,” to use Arrow parlance), every single character on this show experienced an arc that meaningfully developed who they were, what they were, and why they were.
And Oliver most of all. He unblinkingly declares to Slade that he’s not the murderer anymore; he’s the hero. That line that might be considered cheesy in any other show, but, much like the series itself, it just works.
Arrow certainly has exceeded expectations since its debut in October of 2012. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I had an overwhelmingly negative opinion after watching the series premiere, referring to it as a rehashing of Batman Begins on TV. Rarely have I been so happy to be so wrong.
As my intrepid cohort so eloquently expressed above, season 2 met and exceeded the hype that had built in the time leading up to its premiere. Teases for such things as appearances by Black Canary and Barry Allen, as well as the possible return of Malcolm Merlyn, kept the expectations high as we drew closer the premiere. Comfortable in what it had become, the series was not afraid to raise its own bar by going bigger with its storytelling and going deeper with its exploration of the DC Universe.
Parallel storylines both in Starling City and on the island was, of course, a running theme in season 1, but with season 2 came the inclusion of multiple shared characters in each arc, which clearly benefitted the ongoing plan to keep the two interwoven. Manu Bennett was one of the top reasons I kept with the series during its first year, so to finally have him as a regular, and be a constant presence during the island flashbacks and eventually show up in Starling was a real treat. And how great is Anatoly Knyazev? Deadshot and Diggle may deserve a buddy cop show, but he needs a reality series where he fixes celebrity cars or something.
Let us not forget, though, that this is still a show based on a comic book. That is in no way a bad thing, especially when Oliver Queen’s home, the DC Universe, is chock full of characters who have been crossing paths for decades. Season 1 saw the inclusion of a handful of villains such as Deadshot and Count Vertigo, but this year went full tilt as the series not only revisited those favorites, but also introduced Isabel Rochev, Sebastian Blood, Cyrus Gold (aka Solomon Grundy), William Tockman (aka The Clock King), and Dr. Anthony Ivo to name a few.
Establishing a legitimate rogues gallery was not where the fun would stop, however. With a bevy of supporting characters filling the broad palette that is the DCU, Arrow was quick to take advantage of a fair share of them. Much like an artist who will drop a familiar face into the background of comic panels, the Arrow writers have done the same by tossing out a name here and there that any sharp-eared fan could pluck out. Jean Loring and Kate Spencer, Moira Queen’s attorney and the Starling City DA respectively, are two that come to mind, but you may know them better as Eclipso and Manhunter.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, Arrow has featured some of DC’s more iconic individuals, using those particular resources to treat some episodes as if they were the grand events you’d expect from a long-running comic series. Season 2 saw the introduction of Amanda Waller, the perennial manipulator and hardass behind such shadowy organizations as A.R.G.U.S. and Checkmate, bringing together the latest version of the Suicide Squad, which, in turn, tied together several character who were already established. Even the Huntress returned to Starling City, and with Black Canary also in town, a worthy nod to the immensely popular Birds of Prey title came together, even if Felicity was the placeholder for Oracle. (Personal note: Arrow accomplished both of these way better than both Smallville and the short-lived BoP series). However, the ultimate fanboy moment to come out of this season was the two-episode arc involving everyone’s favorite tardy CSI, Barry Allen, which beautifully set the groundwork for the forthcoming The Flash series. I’m looking forward to some pretty spectacular Brave and the Bold moments in the future.
It was also refreshing to see Arrow embrace the style one would prefer to associate with a comic book universe. Early on, existing characters like the Royal Flush Gang or Firefly were portrayed fairly realistically, but now we’ve had the pleasure of seeing Black Canary, Brother Blood, and Deathstroke in full regalia. That first time Slade suited up in his armor felt like a victory, topped only by the grand reveal of present-day Slade sporting his trademark eye patch. (Paging Metal Gear Solid producers. I think we’ve found our Snake/Big Boss).
With all due respect to the writers who have constructed a fantastic narrative, the characters that populate this world are the standout features, allowing Arrow to cease being just a TV show based on a comic and become a living, breathing extension of the comic book universe from whence it came. Season 2 left us with some compelling cliffhangers, namely the re-emergence of Malcolm Merlyn and Thea’s choice to go with him, the sudden decline of Det. Lance’s health, and the flashback of Oliver’s initial encounter with Waller. So many episodes this season left me shouting for more when the title appeared on screen, signifying that the hour was up, but seeing it at the end of the season increased that reaction exponentially. Season 3 has great potential.