Season 3 of Arrow wasn’t… well, it wasn’t great. Some of that’s beyond the showrunners’ control – after a blinding strong Season 2, they were going to have to work twice as hard just to stay still. It’s like comparing Age of Ultron to Avengers Assemble. Once you’ve seen all the cogs connect for the first time, bringing the machine to life, it’s just not as impressive the second. But even with that in mind, Season 3 was underwhelming, idling for a span of its middle episodes, then thundering to a rushed conclusion. So the only way is up, yes? Season 4 must be better? Find out after the spoiler break. And there be spoilers.
Earlier in the year, I watched the most recent series of House of Cards. About halfway through, there was a moment in which it felt like the writers were reaching out to the audience. ‘We’re sorry about the time-wasting in Season 3,’ they seemed to say. Now, Arrow’s done the same. There’s a palpable feeling of toys being picked up, dusted off and carefully replaced in their proper positions in the toy box. Loads of baggage from the previous year is thrown out over the course of these twenty four episodes, and all of it for the better. Crippling heart disease, the League of Assassins, fake-out deaths, forced love triangles, implausible promotions. They’re all gone by the time the final credits roll.
The core cast are (generally) much better written this year, with even the usually-inconsistent Thea (Willa Holland) and Laurel (Katie Cassidy) having character arcs, rather than taking actions simply to move the plot along. Diggle (David Ramsey) has always been great, and finally gets a chunk of story to himself. Stephen Amell hands in his by now inevitably tortured performance as Oliver Queen, and Paul Blackthorne’s Captain Lance is as delightfully dour as ever. After four years with the a show, I know I’m coming back as much to watch the character bounce off each other as beat down the baddies, and Arrow seldom disappointed me this year.
But what of Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards)? Felicity gives me headaches. I like so much about the character. I love the mix of scatty and genius. I enjoy her manner of speech. But, man, I hate her as the love interest. Sadly, Season 4 continues Arrow’s sins past by handing the idiot ball to the female lead. Lauren had it in Season 1, Sara in Season 2 and now, in Season 4, Felicity continues her two year reign as Queen of the Idiots. At least when she’s talking to Ollie. The rest of the time, she’s still good fun, which to my mind proves it’s the writing at fault, not the actress. It’s like the showrunners want romantic tension in this series, but don’t really know how to make it believable and compelling. Felicity changes direction so much, I swear she’s taking her emotional direction from a storm-tossed weathervane. It’s a waste of a good character, a good actress and it’s maddening as hell.
As for the rest? The flashbacks? They’re ballast. They don’t really tie back into the main story, don’t tell us anything new about Ollie, and are only tangentially entertaining. However, the guest appearances make up for this misstep. In addition to the now-annual Flash/Arrow crossover, there are plenty of familiar faces from what I suppose we have to call the Arrowverse, as well as fun turns by Matt Ryan as Constantine (escaping the crash/burn cancellation of his own show) and Megalyn Echikunwoke as Vixen.
This year’s villain, the improbably named Damian Darhk (Neal McDonough) is a blast. After the oh-so-serious turns of Ra’s al-Ghul and Slade Wilson, it’s a delight to have a baddie whose mission in life is as much to chew the scenery as destroy Team Arrow. But McDonough always stays on the right side of that invisible line – mostly because he goes from darkly amusing to chilling at the drop of a hat. Whenever he’s the motive force, the show’s all the better for it.
The other villains don’t work so well. We get to see the Arrowverse’s take on Double Down and Anarky this time around, and neither make a great impression. Darhk aside, the best antagonists come courtesy of previously established (and sometime-allies) of Team Arrow, because there’s always something more at stake that losing a superhero slugfest. The notable exception is Tom Amandes’ Calculator, who brings exactly the right balance of menace and charm. Oh, and special mention has to go to Janet Kidder’s Ruve Adams, who simply oozes menace every time she’s in shot.
Arc-wise, Season 4 attempts to show Ollie trying to abandon the darkness and embrace hope. It’s a great idea for the arc, but sadly it’s too often abandoned or pushed out of sight by nonsensical relationship drama. The idea of lifestyle layabout Oliver Queen running for mayor is as great in the show as it is in the comics, but is never really given opportunity to breathe. Similarly, there’s a redemption subplot running through the back half of the season which, although powerful, needed a bit of contrast to really sing (there is kinda-sorta something with Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman) that qualifies, but it never really connects). That said, the consequences of the subplot aren’t brushed aside, which is unusually brave, and works all the better for it. In fact, this season doesn’t shy away from consequence at all – as a notable death hammers home.
So, overall Arrow Season 4 represents a massive step in the right direction and a huge improvement over last year’s offering. It still has issues to work out, but if superheroes or action/drama is in your wheelhouse, give it a go. And take a shot any time one of the leads asks for ‘a moment’ or a ‘word in private’. Seriously, it happens a lot.