[This is a review of the season 5 premiere of Arrow. There will be SPOILERS.]
So much has been made about the "back to basics" approach to Arrow season 5 that you could be forgiven for having incredibly high expectations for the premiere. In the offseason (and a little before season 4 ended) Stephen Amell and showrunner Wendy Mericle had a lot to say about where the series was headed after two more or less disappointing seasons hinted that The CW's flagship series in its shared DC TV Universe was in decline. The indications they gave, in addition the many, many offseason additions made to the cast, were the sort of thing that certainly inspires hope among those continuing to watch a show that, in its second season, set a high bar in terms of what the then-nascent Arrowverse was capable of.
But being on the ropes and having to meet exorbitant expectations is definitely in Arrow's wheelhouse. After all, it had to overcome the chilly skepticism of not-yet fans long before The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, or Supergirl were a twinkle in The CW's eye. Its first season was not without wrinkles in need of some ironing, but it inspired more than a few converts who then got to witness the series' biggest success to date in the aforementioned second season. It's no surprise, then, that all this talk of "back to basics" has given rise to (considering the evidence supplied by the cast and crew of the series) hopes that season 5 will see a return to that sophomore season's style in more ways than one.
So now, as the new season gets underway with 'Legacy,' Arrow finds itself in a tricky predicament in which it wants to thematically go back to a time when its storytelling was more grounded and gritty, but at the same time acknowledge everything that has come before – especially the events of season 4, which saw Oliver become mayor of Star City and the death of long-time supporting player Laurel Lance, who by that time had become Black Canary. This push and pull of nostalgia and the need for narrative progression puts the series in an interesting place. It's one that, in the early goings of the season premiere anyway, almost suggest that even the series isn't too sure which thematic target it should be aiming for. That makes for an interesting way to start the season; one that also asks whether or not Arrow is serious about its much-ballyhooed "back to basics" approach.
But after Oliver has a brief and painful interaction with Anarky and future Team Arrow 2.0 recruit Wild Dog, the season premiere starts to settle into a comfortable rhythm. Green Arrow is going it alone with only Felicity watching his back. At the same time, Oliver is devoting what little time he has in his civilian identity to his work as mayor, which, so far in the premiere means unveiling statutes of Black Canary while trying to convince Quentin to drop the bottle and help out with Star City's crime problem. In its own way, everything the premiere touches on feels a little bit like housecleaning. Thea only suits up as Speedy because she thinks her brother's life is in danger and Diggle only makes an appearance when Oliver chats with him over a video call. There's little doubt that either won't be back sometime this season, but for now it's oddly refreshing for the series to have fewer plates spinning.
The plates its does keep going, however, are intriguing ones. Chad L. Coleman brings a surprising amount of energy to his performance as Tobias Church. The usually subdued actor introduces his villainous character by chewing the scenery a la Neal McDonough's Damien Darhk – okay, maybe not that much, but let's just say he makes his presence felt. The combination of Coleman's imposing physical presence and his willingness to go big in nearly all of his scenes makes Church an engaging adversary for the early part of the season. Even the fight scenes he was involved in felt more dynamic and exciting than the show's been in a couple of seasons – which, unsurprisingly probably has something to do with the fact that it's just two regular (well, okay, not regular regular) dudes duking it out in a warehouse rigged to explode.
Moreover, Church's presence is easily explained; he doesn't need a secret agenda or world-ending plan. He's a criminal who wants to make his job a little easier by killing the guy who makes things harder for his line of work. That kind of simplified, streamlined adversary is a welcome change to the series, which, oddly enough, is also reflected in the premiere's flashbacks. Oliver is in Russia with a clear objective and he is going about achieving that goal through methods he (as the audience well knows) is familiar with. Sometimes, the mirroring of events in the past with those in the present can become tedious and the show needs to be cautious not to use it too often, but here it works well. The pairing of Oliver being zip tied to a chair and being taught (painfully) how to escape plays well into the reveal of how he escapes his captor after being kidnapped by Church's thugs. It plays especially well when you realize the scene is very reminiscent of the "You touch me again and I'll kill you" scene in The Last Boy Scout. In fact, Arrow would do well incorporating more Shane Black-isms into its episodic adventures.
Of course, the big takeaway of the premiere may be Oliver's return to killing. The body count in 'Legacy' is startlingly high at times. His escape from his captors is marked with numerous kills and a cheeky throwback to the series premiere with a pointed neck snap. To the series' credit, it addresses the Green Arrow's recent kill streak by having Thea throw a little moral rain on her brother's kill parade. Thea thinks killing his adversaries sullies the memory of Laurel, while Oliver is committed to the idea that Laurel would still be alive if he'd been more aggressive. The argument isn't settled and that's a good place for Arrow to leave things for the time being. With Oliver having such a fluid stance on taking the lives of other people, it will be interesting to see where he lands when he starts training Team Arrow 2.0. Ollie's already got his first two recruits lined up, and given the episode also reveals Laurel's dying words – that there should always be a Black Canary – it seems likely that he has a third in mind as well.
All in all, 'Legacy' proved to be a solid return to form for the series, from its terrific action sequences to its balancing of the flashback sequences with present day concerns, it all worked pretty well. It's impossible to tell whether or not Arrow has found its footing again, but this premiere was promising step in the right direction.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with 'The Recruits' @8pm on The CW.