[This is a review of Arrow season 4, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
After the adventures of Arrow became a dour affair through much of season 3, it seemed audiences and even the show's creators were eager to turn over a new leaf and to discover how the world of Oliver Queen might be restructured in a way that presented an interesting challenge and a much-needed change of pace. As it turns out, all that and more was readily present in giving the character the one thing he had denied himself since coming home with notebook full of names and a quiver full of arrows. That is: happiness.
Since the series began, Oliver Queen has been presented as a man with an almost unbearable burden, which has made him, at times, more than a little self-serious and frequently cranky. And for the most part, it worked. Season 3 saw the worst of it, however, after Oliver was seemingly killed by Ra's Al Ghul, he "returned" to life having missed out on the restful benefits of a temporary dirt nap. The rest of the season played out as a somewhat dour, solemn affair that, despite featuring the show's usual solid stunt work and the presence of an engaging villain, too often relied on putting characters on a darker – or, in the case of Felicity, one seriously tear-stained – path.
Self-serious is one thing, but joyless is something else, and after the finale ended with Oliver and Felicity literally driving off into the sunset, it certainly felt as though change was in the air. As Arrow kicks-off a somewhat rebranded season 4 with the aptly titled 'Green Arrow,' it's clear those changes will come in both subtle and substantial ways.
One of the most significant changes is the series' shift in tone. Last season saw Arrow share its universe with the far lighter and effortlessly charming The Flash, which had a strong emotional component to counter the Scarlet Speedster's encounters with his growing cast of villains. Now, in its alterations in tone Arrow isn't looking to become a carbon copy of its sister show, but rather to take advantage of its deep cast of characters and allowing the show more freedom to fluctuate between tones, switching from stern to dire to playful all in span of, say, a tenuously restructured Team Arrow searching a train station for bombs. The effect helps let some light shine in, as it were.
Even though the discussion is focused on the overall effect of these changes, many of them aren't really changes at all – well, outside of Diggle's divisive helmet, that is. Rather, what feels like a significant deviation is just a slight readjustment in purpose; it's like the saying, "A good archer is known not by his arrows, but by his aim." Here, Arrow is still drawing from the same quiver; it's just pointing at a different target.
That target allows the show to make an up-and-back that doesn't feel perfunctory, but instead reveals something about the characters' motivations and sense of purpose. To that end, the opening sequence is a bit Twilight Zone-y, in that it drops the viewer into a unique situation, one which feels wholly unfamiliar and yet is populated with recognizable characters. The moment plays with audience expectation in clever ways, flirting with remnants of the recent past by having the characters in question acknowledge their situation without directly saying, "Isn't this weird?" Oliver's "you have failed this omelet" is familiar and alien, much like the apparent contented domesticity of a once-brooding vigilante.
Dessert soufflés, brunch with the neighbors, and a halted marriage proposal; it's enough to have the audience think Arrow has crossed over into the multiverse, or, worse, it is all some sort of self-imposed exile. But, thankfully, it is neither, and Oliver's return to active duty, as the rebranded Green Arrow, isn't met with a reluctant insistence that the domestic and the super heroic can never comingle. Instead, it is presented as something he truly feels compelled to do; it is something he wants, not out of some sense of obligation but rather genuine desire.
What's more, that desire is brought to light because of Felicity's own aspiration to continue being a part of Team Arrow. There is a delightfully subversive element in finding out Ms. Smoak, nascent CEO of Palmer Technologies and would-be spouse of Oliver Queen, is also helping Laurel, Diggle, and Thea run missions, while keeping Oliver in the dark regarding her extra-curricular activities – some of which, as Oliver mentioned, derailed personal plans just like he used to do. It is a classic shoe-on-the-other-foot scenario but again, rather than make it an element that needs to be reversed Felicity's vigilantism is presented as the path she chooses to be on. That, in turn, bleeds into Oliver's choice to do the same. These characters aren't pushed into a situation they don't want to be a part of; they make an active decision to do what they do, and that makes it feel as though the character's choices are dictating the events of story, not the other way around.
Those events waste no time in introducing Neal McDonough's Damien Darhk. Putting Darhk front and center, having him actively engaged with Oliver and the rest of Team Arrow is maybe the best decision made in the premiere. Allowing the opposing characters to interact propels the hour in a way that might have been lost had their threads not intertwined. It takes the often-tedious getting-to-know-you phase and makes it part of the narrative thrust – which is then magnified by a fight onboard a high-speed train filled with explosives.
The result is a confident, fast-paced episode that finds time to work in Captain Lance's affiliation with Darhk, Thea's possible descent into darkness, and the emotional cloudiness of Diggle and Oliver's strained relationship, all of which feel like avenues worth exploring this season. If there's a hitch in the premiere's giddy-up it would be from the whiplash-like effect of jumping forward six months to see Oliver standing over someone's grave. While it gives the season opener some gravity – to go along with the shots of Oliver stashing an engagement ring in a decorative bowl – there is a shoehorned-in quality to the moment, the deliberateness of which is the only thing keeping the incongruity of it all from being too much.
And yet, in spite of that, 'Green Arrow' is the return (and return to form) the series needed in order to bring fans and its characters back into the fold. Whatever missteps may lie in the past (or are still ahead), the boldness and energy of the Arrow season 4 premiere suggests the series is willing to learn from its mistakes and to change its aim, without changing what the show is at its core.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with 'The Candidate' @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: