[This is a review of the Arrow season 4 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
During the early part of season 4, Arrow put considerable emphasis on Oliver Queen using his mutable nature to approach his role as the Green Arrow from a new perspective. This gave the first few episodes a strong through line that didn’t just afford the writers a chance to use the word “darkness” as much as possible, but it also suggested the show was serious about accepting and dealing with many of the recent criticisms leveled against it in the wake of a somber third season. It was refreshing to see the series address its problems head-on, by having its protagonist do the very same thing.
Those first few episodes were promising. They were a strong start to a season that would falter as the story progressed, and as the promising storytelling and character development gradually gave way to gimmicks, like the flash forward that foretold the death of someone from Team Arrow and a villain who could stop the hero’s weapon of choice dead in its tracks. If the former had been resolved sooner, and the latter developed into a villain half as interesting as the performance given by the actor playing him (hats off to Neal McDonough who at least made it look like he was having fun the whole time), things might have been different. For one thing, there might have been more time to explore the interesting character aspects of Oliver Queen’s personality shift and why, as the season came to a close with ‘Schism,’ it became clear that Oliver – or the Green Arrow – isn’t an all or nothing kind of hero; there are two sides to him that, as Felicity put it, are at war with one another.
That means Oliver can kill someone like Damien Darhk in cold blood, but still be the kind of hero who lets Slade Wilson continue to draw breath. This is a point the writers go to great lengths to make clear during the climactic battle between Green Arrow and Darhk, as the moment seems to go against everything Oliver has fought to become since he returned home from Lian Yu and took up the tough business of vigilantism. But the writers are making a larger point about their character and about their show, one that turns Oliver’s grim journey in season 3 into a fundamental part of his evolution rather than something to be forgotten. At this point, season 4 turned in on itself in an unexpected way, making for a surprising metatextual angle where the finale was dismantling Team Arrow for the dramatic impact it would have on the viewer, while also hinting that the show had gotten off track and the writers were looking for a way to get back on.
Maybe that’s reading too much into things, but after two uneven seasons, it’s difficult not to read Diggle’s goodbye speech to Oliver as something more. It helps that co-showrunner Wendy Mericle and series star, Stephen Amell, have both addressed certain aspects of the show publicly, with Mericle discussing getting the flashbacks to a place where they aren’t just filler, and Amell calling for a return to basics, a desire to see Arrow be more of the gritty, street-level crime show it was seasons 1 and 2. It also helps that the final moments of ‘Schism’ see the characters reflecting on all that has happened to them and all they have done over the course of the season (and before), and realizing it was time to take a step back, that a reorganization was in order. In a way, with the Arrow bunker in disarray and the team down to just Oliver and Felicity, Arrow was once again hitting the reset button. So maybe Darhk’s plan was the right one after all; it just needed to happen on a much smaller scale and with a distinct group of superheroes.
‘Schism’ loops back around to the season premiere so well almost everything that happened in the interim feels immaterial; it’s like the writers are tacitly saying how much tighter things could be if they could just cut the season down by, say, ten episodes. There’s no mention of Felicity’s paralysis – which isn’t much of a surprise since the series felt like it wanted to undo her injury the second it happened – and even a discussion of Laurel feels shoehorned in for the most part. Instead, Arrow becomes focused on the changes implemented by Oliver in ‘Green Arrow’ and the two or three episodes that followed. Back then, Oliver was trying to get back on track and did so by making extreme changes to the way he lived his life. It’s not uncommon for people to see a need for change in themselves and to react by going full tilt in the other direction as a way of correcting course. So even though this is Arrow, the impulse felt real enough that it should have registered for some of the audience.
But it didn’t really register until the closing moments of the finale, which made for a more compelling denouement than it did climax to the whole Damien Darhk storyline. For all the spectacle that was involved in organizing a massive brawl on the streets of Star City, to see Oliver feeding off the hope of the citizens he had sworn to protect as a means of combating Darhk’s magic, it was the quiet, reflective moments afterward that gave ‘Schism’ – and the season – the feeling there was some weight behind what transpired. Most of that weight came from Oliver realizing he still had a long way to go in figuring out who he is as a person and as a vigilante.
In the end, the realization works in much the same way the season 3 finale did: a recognition that there are ups and downs but things can always be turned around so long as you understand the reasons for change. It leads to a flurry of stuff happening in a short span of time. Diggle seems to have reenlisted, Thea sees more of Malcolm in herself than she’d like and steps back from the superhero game, and Oliver becomes interim mayor of Star City. A great deal is left unsaid – there is a surprising amount of emotion conveyed in John and Lyla’s exchange, for instance – but for the most part the closing moments of ‘Schism’ read like a new beginning. Arrow has been here before, promising things have changed, things will be different. It’s encouraging; it’s maybe even a little exciting, but it’s not entirely convincing.
Arrow will return for season 5 in the fall of 2016 on The CW.