WARNING: This episode includes SPOILERS for Arrow Season 5 Episode 13
Typically, TV shows based on a monster-of-the-week formula or capes-and-cowls soap opera tend to find their footing and tone with greater ease as the seasons wear on. But The CW's Arrow has become something of an enigma of late, as the show's early dedication to grounded (if theatrical) street crime soon gave way to superpowers and ancient mysticism. Despite comments from the star reinforcing the idea that Arrow is best when it leaves comic book fantasy to its CW colleagues, the grounded, visceral violence and moral dilemmas of the early season have continued to fade in place of more 'comic book' action (for lack of a better term). That was, until the producers revealed that they would be tackling the issue of gun control, violence, and legislation.
There's a good chance that plenty of casual viewers or lapsed fans took notice of the marketing for "Spectre of the Gun," which suggested that the morality, ethics, and familiarity with firearms that the show has exhibited in recent seasons would take center stage. But, as is always guaranteed when popular programming releases an episode "ripped from the headlines" or somehow "political," skeptics also voiced predictions of a preachy dose of lip service. Or, at the most cynical, that Arrow was looking to score points for seeming relevant" or "socially conscious."
In actual fact, "Spectre of the Gun" - written by Arrow's executive producer Marc Guggenheim - didn't actually have the teeth to be called preachy, or the content to be viewed as making any political statement, whatsoever. Those hoping to see a show immersed in guns and gun violence acknowledge either will be disappointed, because Arrow's first look at 'guns as the enemy' gives new life to the out of date 'after school special.' The result is a parade of toothless, heavy-handed, trite, tired, and generally clichéd exchanges that prove one thing: adding a political issue to a pop culture property isn't worth the effort if the writers have nothing to actually say. And by its final scene, Arrow finds a way to add offense to the formula, too.
The Potential Was There
It's worth noting that, as a matter of total coincidence, this episode of Arrow hit the airwaves on the exact same day that Green Lanterns tackled a similar issue for DC Comics, with Lantern Simon Baz turning in his infamous and controversial sidearm, trusting instead to the tools and willpower of a true hero. On the comic book page, writer Sam Humphries leveraged Simon's history with the weapon, discrimination, fear, and regret into a poignant decision informed only by his own narrative. And just as we previously wondered why Arrow avoided transforming Laurel Lance into its new Black Canary, the decision to completely ignore the role of guns among the actual heroes of this show is baffling.
The flashback portions of the episode do shed some light on how drugs and a gun destroyed the family life of Rene Ramirez a.k.a. Wild Dog (Rick Gonzalez). But viewers had every right to assume that if Arrow was tackling the question of gun violence, then logic would dictate that the conversation begin with the fact that two of its gallery of heroes - John Diggle (David Ramsey) and Wild Dog - actually use handguns as weapons every week, and must wounded or killed dozens, if not hundreds of criminals by now.
Unfortunately, "Spectre of the Gun" is so devoted to dealing with this issue in a neat, tidy, and self-contained forty minutes, the fact that any such introspection would upend the show's status quo means it is completely absent. Instead, it's a veritable checklist of gun debate topics and stances: every opinion is promptly countered, every disagreement resolved, and any hypocrisy is flat out ignored. And the rote nature of the dialogue, and the self-righteous/dismissive tones given to the main debaters - Curtis (Echo Kellum) and Rene - is perfectly encapsulated in the one moment the show actually broaches its own hypocrisy.
When Curtis posits that Rene's right to bear arms is only as valid as his "right to, you know, live," the masked, gun-toting vigilante directly addresses the dissonance fans may be feeling... and before viewers can process a reply from Curtis that comes out of absolutely nowhere, the scene soon spins off into more zero-sum rhetoric by Quentin Lance and Dinah Drake:
"I don't have any problem with your right to bear arms, so long as it doesn't conflict with my right to, you know, live."
"Are you kiddin' me? Look at what we do, man. Our whole life is violence!"
"I'm not talking about what we do to protect this city. I'm talking about the fact that as a black man, I am three times more likely to be killed by a gun than you."
"He's got a point, Rene."
"Seriously? You were a cop, man."
"Cops would kind of like it if there were less people out there with guns."
"Not this cop. I think people have a right to protect themselves."
That writing doesn't dazzle in print any more than it does in action, but it exemplifies the episode's attempt to appear to engage with socially relevant issues and opinions, but saying absolutely nothing of substance. In addition, the episode - in no way - deals with police prejudice, brutality, or how race factors into violent crime at all. What's worse, Curtis's sudden injection of a statistic woefully contradicts his own stated beliefs. He opposes Rene's assertion that 'good guys with guns' are the answer to armed criminals, but here states that violent crime is significantly different than the violence Team Arrow commits as 'good guys.'
The real sin here, though, is that the one attempt to offer some comment on the show's use of guns is veered away from instantly - off of a narrative cliff, apparently hoping that the introduction of Curtis's ethnicity in such close proximity to gun deaths may distract from the shift back to banal platitudes. Make no mistake: race is never again raised in the story, and the after school exchanges (that can't ever feel anything but forced, regardless of cast and direction) continue.
Take Your Seats, Class
Most children learn at some point that the idea of "a spoon full of sugar" helping to mask the taste of the medicine applies to everything from politics to philosophy, and rhetoric of any and all kinds. In other words: the most effective lessons, political ideas, or sanitized morals are those that show, and don't tell - usually concealed enough to encourage the audience to actually ask questions that their assumed stances or entrenched opinions typically prevent them from asking.
For instance, it would be too simple for Oliver Queen and his band of vigilantes to deal with a sudden influx of illegal assault rifles in Star City's streets that the police can't help stop with restrictions or bans. No additional commentary needed: present a reality in the fictional show, and see if casting our heroes as the ones dealing with the issue can shed new light. Even the episode's gunman turning to violence after his family was killed in a mall shooting speaks for itself, without needing to overtly state that - as actually happens in the episode - "So, City Hall doesn't pass a gun law, and this guy loses his whole family."
The point is, an episode dealing with a mass shooting, illegal weapons, and Rene's trust in firearms could fit into the world of Arrow and stand as a legitimate platform to explore or discuss real problems. But unfortunately for all watching, the showrunners decided that if this show-- sorry, this single episode was going to be "about gun control" in the most literal sense of the word, characters would be required to cover all sides, all stances, and all relevant statistic and talking points. And, most surprisingly, offer almost no personal context, or original ideas.
The only way to actually demonstrate the fiction-breaking, after school special-style of bite-sized ideas is to lay them bare, so we've taken the trouble of transcribing nearly every mention of guns or gun control, and the lengths to which the show didn't go to conceal its quasi-preaching (is it preaching when you parrot both sides of an argument?) Enjoy:
"What were you doing with a gun in here?" "Judging by how I tagged the guy, I gotta go with 'saving people's lives.'"
"This is military-grade hardware." "AR-15 Assault Weapon..." "It's an M16. It's literally the same gun as an M16." "...it's available on the open market. In fact, it's the most popular gun in America." "Land of the free, home of the incredibly stupid."
"Weren't you dishonorably discharged? It's illegal for someone such as yourself to carry a firearm." "But it's pretty easy to buy one, though."
"There's no gun ownership database for me to go through..." "Yeah... why would we want something like that?" "So the government doesn't know our business."
"The Feds had an assault weapons ban for years, and it did nothing." "Actually, it did-" "Sorry hoss, but if the bad guy's got guns, I'm strappin' up too."
"What is your personal opinion [on gun control]?" "That it's complicated." "Excuse me Mr. Mayor, but seven of your staffers are dead and others severely injured. Don't you think you owe them a response beyond 'it's complicated?'"
"Gun control is a big political third rail." "This shouldn't be about politics, this should be about safety and security. Everyone's safety and security, whether they own a gun or not."
"You know, people such as yourself oppose limitations on things like abortion and freedom of speech - why is the second amendment somehow less important?" "Because people are dying, right here in this building! And there are limitations on abortion and freedom of speech."
"We used to talk about things as a society, you know? We'd debate, and we would argue, and we would still respect eachother after." "Somewhere along the line that just became... rude." "Yeah. It became impolitic to talk politics. I can't help but wonder that maybe that's why our country is the way it is today."
"Guns save lives, period." "You just want to think that." "That's what I know. Because if I'd had my gun, my wife would still be alive."
"Registries are never simple. They're bureaucracies, tying up second amendment rights in red tape. And it's not just the owners who will be affected, it's the sellers who are going to see a substantial decline in their business."
"The man who killed your family, he acquired those guns illegally. There was nothing we could have done. No registry would have helped us protect [your family]..." "I know. I was supposed to protect them. Isn't that a man's job to protect his family? ISN'T THAT WHY WE HAVE GUNS?!"
These excerpts are actually the closest that the show ever gets to reaching some kind of conclusion... in that it never comes close. Curtis mocks those who oppose gun restrictions, while Rene relies on the death of his wife to show why guns can save lives, not take them. As much as we would like to say the two come to a compromise, or some middle ground, the strife is only stopped when Curtis learns Rene's wife was shot to death, and drops the issue (strangely, Guggenheim decides to make the show's eventual legislation a product of Rene and Oliver's collaboration, when Curtis seems the more meaningful, if formulaic choice).
Elsewhere, Curtis and Felicity take a single step into interesting territory by expressing, then opposing the idea that debating issues like these can still have meaning if it does't produce a magical solution. A brief idea that is immediately swept aside in favor of the episode's most overt moment of navel-gazing. A moment that, as either an indictment or defense of Arrow, makes the argument that the show simply including these gun control talking point is healthy, and good enough - which may work for some viewers.
The bad news is that Curtis's musing is the only meaningful conclusion the episode produces: That America used to be great, and ideas used to flow freely and openly, and perhaps the lack of such discourse is "why our country is the way it is today." Maybe it is the reason. What then? Is it a moment of the one person pushing for reform accepting defeat? The problem is that raising the issue is all Arrow can do, since Guggenheim can't really state anything about the issues at hand for fear of ostracizing or offending one side of the audience. It's an understandable, and even sympathetic dilemma. But the oddly-paced and neutral story including guns, and questions of gun control and violence while remaining firmly on the fence is... well, as unsatisfying as it must be.
As a result, "Spectre of the Gun" demonstrates that if your goal is to tell a "political" story about "political" issues that matter to those watching, refusing to engage with the "politics" is likely to leave your audience wondering why you bothered to tell the story at all. But it all pales in comparison to the solution - yes, an actual solution to gun violence - offered up in the show. Without a doubt the most intellectually offensive moment in Arrow to date.
The Magic Bullet (Sorry)
When Oliver Queen decides to embrace the pain and tragedy that created this villain and save the day not as the Green Arrow, but as the Mayor, the sunlight breaks through. While promos for the episode took pains to suggest that Oliver would take issue with Rene's use of guns, no such opposition ever takes place. Instead, the episode ends as a case of Oliver Queen wading into the "complicated" arena of gun control, second amendment rights, and public safety. And when he comes up with the solution to it all, the episode shifts from heavy-handed to tasteless.
As a sidenote, it can't be overlooked that Oliver Queen never actually states an opinion, of any kind, other than the consummate middle-of-the-road belief that "life is worth protecting." Keep in mind, this is supposed to be an adaptation of the DC superhero Green Arrow, the quintessential 'social justice warrior' if there ever was one, and one of comics' most visible defenders and champions of social reform. Now, there could be an argument made that Oliver is taking both sides into account as an act of diplomacy, hoping for compromise and not just a victory.
But it's a commentary on just how far the show has strayed from the comics, if nothing else, that when the story is done, a staunch opponent of the second amendment and Ted Nugent could both walk away believing Oliver Queen is on their side.
Whatever your opinion on matters of gun control, gun violence, assault rifles, background checks, mass shooting, or government responses (or lack thereof), Arrow's decision to deal with the issues head on, including not one, but two mass shooting in its narrative, and dozens of innocents killed demands some tact. The images of office workers being shot, cowering behind desks, and fleeing a gunmen in tears are not replicated lightly. And, in the show's defense, its treatment of those scenes is a credit to first-time director Kristin Windell (and to star Stephen Amell, in the moment Oliver learns that two of the victims who succumbed to their injuries were "Kyle in Commerce, and Paula in Accounting").
With that commitment to realism, again emphasized in Oliver's inability to decide where he actually stands on the issue, Arrow had a chance to reach as unsatisfactory a conclusion as Americans are dealing with today. Sadly, that kind of ending was apparently also deemed to be making a political or divisive. Either that, or the show needed an ending to make sure this issue never returns in future episode. Whatever the reason, this drama concludes with Oliver approaching the city's leading opponent to gun control with the answer to Star City's troubles:
"What is this?"
"City-wide gun control ordinances. Nothing that makes it harder to buy, or own, or carry a gun."
"It also doesn't prohibit people from protecting themselves from gun violence."
"Okay, I'm going to back you on this... I can live with what you've got here."
"Good. Because living is the whole point."
Those with some experience in the field of gun legislation will grasp just how ridiculous this exchange actually is - as honest or believable as Oliver revealing he's solved the problem with a new energy drink that makes people 'be nice to eachother.' Even in its unsubtle fashion, the episode has raised the spectre of 'the gun,' and given both sides of the argument equal say, showing it is, if nothing else, "complicated." But to still proceed to deliver a happy ending that is simply not possible - evident in the total lack of detail or explanation - takes these problems to a new level.
The questions should be obvious to anyone: if an ordinance ensures guns can be bought, owned, and carried as easily they are now, what is the legislation actually affecting? What were the issues Oliver and Rene even discussed? Attacks on illegal guns? A city-wide registry? And most importantly: what does it possibly mean to say that this legislation "doesn't prohibit people from protecting themselves from gun violence"? Do the ordinances also make it known that Star City residents can subsist on naught but ice cream, and still lose weight?
In comic form, 'Spectre of the Gun' is a comic displaying Oliver Queen on its cover, shaken at his mayoral podium over questions of gun restrictions in the wake of a mass shooting (a seriously compelling cover). Sadly, the story inside ends with him never actually taking a stand, and essentially forging a compromise it neither explains nor explores.
Jokes aside, this "conclusion" demonstrates exactly why DC and Marvel Comics boosted American morale during World War II by displaying Superman and Captain America knocking proudly punching Hitler on their covers... and why the stories inside never matched. The writers, artists, and editors knew then that to actually show these superheroes easily winning a war that real people were fighting and dying in would have been disrespectful and vulgar. They knew that superheroes battle supervillains, but real world battles and tyrants were too serious, too important to be tackled by heroes who never lose.
It's here where Arrow fails in its most troubling sense, spending the running time paying lip service to both sides of the gun control debate but - again, understandably - unwilling to pick a side, or question one argument or the other. In all honesty, it's mostly a demonstration of why these kinds of topics are better covered in allegory, and not literally. But given that neutrality, the audacity of the show to actually give its hero an easy answer - when there are no easy answers on the issue of gun control and safety - is a problem that should be discussed.
The victims of Arrow's mass shootings may be fictional, and therefore unable to have their memory tarnished or loss insulted. So when Mayor Oliver Queen discovers, tackles, and solves the gun crisis in the span of a single day, drafting a solution agreed to by both sides that makes this pesky problem go away, it's simply an attempt by the showrunners to have their cake and eat it too.
But when Oliver stands at a candlelit memorial to the dead and wounded - an image seen too often in the real world - and embodies his own show's fence-sitting, but somehow claiming a victory with a solution people "just have to be brave enough" to follow - it flirts with obscene.
Arrow returns next Wednesday with 'The Sin-Eater' @8pm on The CW.