Disclaimer: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-Ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own. That said, I’ve been following the series since it first aired and would have reviewed it regardless of the promotional copy.
Arrow is a bit of an anomaly. The first of the CW’s post-Smallville attempts to bring DC superheroes to the small screen, it has paved the way for a whole pack of comic book-influenced television including The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow with more properties waiting in the wings to launch this year and next. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet for comics fans these days and it’s great to see the general public embracing four-color heroes and outrageous villains. But Arrow has never quite given itself over to the more outlandish nature of its source material in the way these other shows have.
Perhaps because it was first of this new wave of superhero television, the creative team chose to ground it in a dark grittiness to help bolster believability and engagement. It worked, but fans notoriously pushed back against seeing their hero turned into a murderous vigilante. This resulted in changes that led to a “no mo’ murder” vow from the character, which lightened the mood by a degree or two, though Arrow has remained staunchly grimdark in its tone and approach throughout.
With Season Five, we see an attempt to bring a bit more color and panache into play. We also, after three intervening seasons, see the problematic nature of Oliver’s murderous past addressed to cathartic satisfaction. These two elements are approached with varying degrees of success, resulting in an uneven season that’s sure to have been equal parts joy and pain for fans.
First, let’s talk about the new blood. Following the events of Season Four, Team Arrow has been all but disbanded. Diggle has gone back to the military, Thea has gone off on some extended leave and it’s pretty much just Oliver and Felicity keeping watch over Star City. It might have been nice to hover there for a bit, to explore in a little more detail the weirdness that has surrounded their on/off/on/off relationship, but we are pretty quickly introduced to a new round of potential teammates in the form of the city’s newest vigilantes.
This season pays some deep fan service, bringing Z-listers like Wild Dog, Ragman, Mr. Terrific, Vigilante and The Human Target into the mix. There’s also the inclusion of more well-known characters like Artemis and Prometheus as well as a couple of the show’s seemingly endless iterations of Black Canary. Arrow has always somewhat resisted the heavy inclusion of superpowered characters, or “metas” as they are known in the Arrowverse, preferring to stick with physically capable fighters sometimes augmented by tech. So it’s probably not a surprise that characters like Ragman, who possesses some pretty weird powers thanks to his, ummm, rag suit(?) don’t integrate particularly well.
The show also plays things pretty loose with Mr. Terrific. Introduced originally last season as primarily a comic-relief character and nerd culture touchstone, Curtis Holt is a hard sell as an ass-kicking badass that can hold his own with Oliver Queen. Things are buoyed a bit as they finally introduce his T-spheres, giving him some tech-based advantages to level the playing field, but there’s still something a bit off about this character. He seems much more at home behind the scenes and it’s hard to reconcile his scant months of training with the skill level he exhibits in combat. And who the hell is cornrowing his hair in the two minutes of prep they have before hitting the field?
I jest, but there is a disconnect here. I love Curtis, he is often the only voice of levity in an impossibly grim setting. I love that he’s been written as a gay person of color and that the show doesn’t shy away from addressing his relationship with his husband. I love his pop-culture references. He’s the best addition to the show in several seasons, but when it’s time for Mr. Terrific I just can’t reconcile the costume and character with whom I know is behind the T-mask. I feel like a slower development towards Mr. Terrific and an arc that accounts for his development of the T-spheres would have been the better move here.
This is kind of a hallmark for Arrow though. You’ve only got so much time to season and develop your characters before throwing them into the frying pan. I never quite bought Thea’s transformation into Speedy and part of that is how well she embodied the character prior to the show’s decision to turn her into a battle-hardened she-devil. We see an inversion of that this season with the character of Wild Dog, Rene Ramirez, taking on the role of Assistant to the Deputy Mayor. It’s difficult to imagine a streetwise vigilante fitting in with the suit-and-tie crowd, and while this is balanced somewhat by the presence of the hard-nosed Quentin Lance as Deputy Mayor, you’ve still got this young guy showing up in the mayor’s office every day with a black eye, broken nose or other signs of his alternate identity not quite fitting in. Thankfully, Lance’s mentorship of Rene rescues this arc as we eventually learn enough about Wild Dog’s past to give a shit about him.
And that brings us to this season’s biggest roadblock: The Mayor’s Office. While it was an ambitious and dramatic move to make Oliver Queen the mayor of Star City, it just never really works. Those duties are always at odds with his Arrow activities, and the writer’s obvious need to focus on the hot superhero action mean that the mayoral side of things is always woefully underserved. It’s nearly comical at points, the excuses and workarounds that come up to justify Oliver’s absence from the role. And then, as it occasionally plays to the ongoing plot, he gives a dramatic speech in front of his constituents and we’re left to think that Star City is in good hands? I get it, nobody wins if the show suddenly becomes about political maneuvering on the mayoral level (witness Iron Fist’s preoccupation with boardroom politics) but it’s almost absurd to continue with this particular piece of the story when it plays so little importance to what the show is actually about. Millionaire Playboy is an easily managed alter ego, Hunky Mayor, not so much.
Until the moment it makes sense. A late reveal of the identity of this season’s Big Bad, Prometheus, puts all of that into perspective if never quite making up for the awkwardness that preceded it. In a handful of final episodes, Prometheus becomes a true and viable threat, stepping out of the shadows to utterly break Oliver Queen, leading to that catharsis I mentioned earlier.
It’s a dark moment in a show that revels in dark moments. I mean, goddamn, the constantly escalating sense of tension and hopelessness of this show can be positively soul-crushing. Nothing is ever good or right or pure for very long before it’s catapulted deep into the darkest quagmire of despair. It’s Arrow’s brand, I get it, but it’s absolutely exhausting sometimes how utterly fucking grim this show can be.
It’s also a sharp contrast to the source material. In many ways, Arrow has always been more Dark Knight than Green Arrow. Borrowing Batman villains, characters and themes has allowed Arrow to explore a lot of the territory that Warner Bros seems to be reluctant to engage directly by piloting an actual Batman show. It’s frustrating at times as a fan when the show finally seems to be willing to address the more lighthearted and colorful nature of the source material but then chooses to blanket everything in its patented patina of grit and grim. And as always on Arrow, it’s only a matter of time before a fucking al Ghul shows up to further darken the mood.
My least favorite thing about Arrow (post-Season One) are the flashback sequences. Initially, a brilliant way to forego the usual linear exploration of the character’s origin story, it’s become an absolutely tedious exercise in somehow attempting to reflect on current events by showing us some struggle that Oliver faced in his development towards becoming the hero he is today. It’s always an even darker storyline than the current continuity, and are perpetually full of abject desperation, terror, and murder.
This season’s flashbacks focus on Oliver’s time spent with the Bratva, a Russian brotherhood of criminals and thieves. It’s slightly less of a bore this outing thanks to the inclusion of Dolph Lundgren as Konstantin Kovar. It would have been nice to see a more meaty role, perhaps even in the present day continuity, but Lundgren is a treat regardless. Five seasons in and the Oliver flashback wigs are still the absolute worst. Meant to signify to the viewer “OK, WE ARE FLASHING BACK NOW” they are a monumental distraction and immediately derail my suspension of disbelief. I’ve been referring to this season’s model as “the greasy John Wick”. I’m seriously hoping the Blu-Ray for Season Six includes a “skip all irrelevant flashback sequences” option.
I’ll give the writers some credit in that the flashbacks this season eventually surface into the current continuity in a real way. After an incredibly uneven balance of tension for the first three-quarters of Season Five, things really kick into gear in the final stretch, and part of that centers on Oliver brokering a deal with the Bratva and an old ally turned foe. There were moments around the midpoint of the season that I actually questioned why I keep on with this show, but by the time Anatoly shows up and Prometheus is revealed it’s a sprint to the finish line and to a batshit crazy final episode that ups the ante all the way around.
Another unexpected joy: the poorly integrated but nonetheless fascinating crossover event in the first half of the season uniting the entire CW Arrowverse. Characters from The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow all converge into a storyline that’s gloriously pulpy in the best possible way. For a few fantastic moments, it’s all wild comic book action and quippy one-liners as everybody has to somehow find a way to overcome their personal distrust of one another to conquer a greater threat. It’s not even a particularly compelling storyline and it’s not written into the preceding story arc of Arrow (or the other shows) in a way that allows you to really invest in it but damned if it’s still not a lot of fun.
I’ll look forward to a day when Arrow isn’t afraid to drop the bummer flashbacks and the pitch black tone to embrace a bit more of the things that make its sister shows so great: a genuine love of the comic book source material. Until then, I’ll appreciate its better moments and the sense of existential dread it evokes. This Green Arrow may be the hero we deserve, even if he’s not always the hero I want.