[This is a review of Arrow season 4, episode 18. There will be SPOILERS.]
Television has been riddled with “shocking” character deaths as of late. The night Arrow aired ‘Eleven-Fifty-Nine’ saw two other series kill off major characters with varying degrees of success, putting their respective audiences in varying states of aforementioned shock. The thing is, though, those other two shows didn’t have what Arrow did: a flash-forward storytelling device that warned the audience ahead of time someone was going to die. The decision by the Arrow writers’ room not only altered the episode’s approach to the long-awaited confirmation of who belonged in that grave from the season’s first episode, but it fundamentally upends the dramatic impact that comes from an event such as Laurel Lance meeting her demise.
A show can create a great deal of tension by intimating something as significant as a major character death, even when it does so months in advance. But the longer the tension of something like that is asked to hang there, often in the background as other events take precedence over one that hasn’t happened yet, the more likely it is for there to develop some slack in the all-important tension. And so the moment in question tends to feel more like a perfunctory release than an actual shock. Moreover, because the show chose to front-load the season with a specific mystery, regardless of what happened in the interim, those moments would inevitably be scrutinized more for what they might reveal about the big moment than for their ability to tell the story they were meant to tell.
Essentially, the grave reveal at the beginning of the season turned a great deal of Arrow season 4 into narrative math, which is really only fun for people who see a narrative as something to be solved. Granted, the air of mystery certainly makes the question of solving the storyline a little more legitimate, but episodes like ‘Eleven-Fifty-Nine’ make you think of that scene from Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon and Stellan Skarsgård high-five after solving an equation – only this time it’s the show’s writers slapping hands on a job… well, done.
That’s not to say there isn’t some surprise in Laurel being the one who died. Arrow really only had a few legitimate choices when it comes to characters who could have justified the importance ascribed the grave sequence. With it made clear that Felicity wasn’t the one occupying the ground, the choice was effectively narrowed down to Laurel, Thea, or Diggle. Some might have thought it was Quentin Lance or his newfound ladylove Donna Smoak, since the culmination of that relationship smacked of potential for a quick and easy emotional payoff that would otherwise leave the rest of the show undisturbed. But credit due to the Arrow writers’ room for choosing Laurel, a character whose death will certainly carry with it the requisite postmortem talking points – both in-show and out.
Before we get to the obvious and lamentable question of whether or not Arrow is pulling a fast one on its audience or if any questions as to the permanence of Laurel’s death are simply an unfortunate result of television, comic books, and this show’s own history with undoing character deaths, there needs to be a discussion of just how hard ‘Eleven-Fifty-Nine’ worked to make this feel like the Last Dayiest day in all of Arrow-dom. Laurel is offered a promotion and threatened by Damien Darhk in rapid succession. She has a discussion with Oliver about hanging up the Black Canary persona and returning to the life she’d been living before Sara died. Laurel enjoys a dinner date with her dad who plies her with the sort of fatherly flattery that all but guarantees one of them will be checking out before the hour was through. Then, she actually looks at Oliver and says, “One last time” before she suits up for… the last time. The episode worked so hard to telegraph Laurel’s demise, the viewer is all but drenched by the show’s perspiratory efforts.
Matters of how it all came to be aside, Laurel’s death does feel like a direct result of the show’s ongoing struggle to find an appropriate place for the character and to make use of her in a compelling way. Shocking or no, there is a certain sense that, even in the role of Black Canary, the essentialness of the character was always in question. With the series long since having moved away from Laurel as a romantic figure in Oliver’s life, combined with how taxed it was trying to fold her role as the assistant DA into the ongoing narrative, the question of where Laurel belonged in that narrative became more and more obvious. And it certainly didn’t help that even when Katie Cassidy turned in some of her best work on the series in the wake of her Sara’s death, the show undermined those efforts by lifting the reason for her grief with her sister’s resurrection.
Of course, that brings us right back to the question of whether or not Arrow plans to keep the death of a significant character permanent or if the scene between Oliver and Laurel in the hospital room is the show giving itself some room to maneuver. Regardless of what that maneuver might or might not be, whether the twist really is that Oliver helped Laurel fake her death – though given what her father has already been through in terms of losing one daughter over and over again that seems particularly cruel, unless Ollie somehow immediately lets him in on the ruse – the fact that it’s even a question essentially resets the problem the show created for itself when it chose to disclose someone would die at some point during season 4.
All of this is to say that, in spite of an admittedly major character death and some terrific character moments, like when Diggle lashes out at Oliver for being trapped in his “self-pity” and for suspecting Andy (even though he was proven right), ‘Eleven-Fifty-Nine’ undercut the efficacy of its own presentation with the introduction of even more hanging threads and questions as to the veracity of what was shown. Laurel died and instead of that being the weighty note on which the hour ends, the episode closes with the distinct feeling of her story being unfinished.
Arrow will be taking the next few weeks off. That means there is time for the audience to scrutinize the episode’s big moment, which feels like exactly what this particular moment doesn’t need.
Arrow will return on Wednesday, April 27 with ‘Canary Cry’ @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below:
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