Of all The CW's DC Comics-based television series, Arrow is likely best suited to handling what may otherwise be known as "a very special episode." The series has its fair share of fantastical elements, but unlike The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, or Supergirl, the network's flagship comic book program can make the claim that it's at least more grounded than its superhero sibling shows. That's a dubious claim when the main character dresses in green leather and shoots bad guys with a bow and arrow, but considering the most recent plotline involves a politically inexperienced (former) billionaire with suspicious ties to Russia being elected to public office, perhaps Arrow isn't entirely as farfetched as it seems.
Oliver's role as mayor, then, becomes a key part of 'Spectre of the Gun', an episode that unfolds in the wake of an attack on City Hall, leaving Team Arrow shaken and debating the best way to handle the situation. It results in perhaps the first time the series has attempted to explore the idea of Mayor Queen as not just another facet of the Green Arrow persona, but, when the time calls for it, an entity who can be entirely independent from vigilantism and thereby be driven by other needs and goals. Oliver's understanding that the situation has to be handled delicately is considerable turning point for the episode, and although a part of him wants to seek justice in his usual green-hooded guise, the occasion calls for a defter touch. Knowing this makes for a huge test, not only for Mayor Oliver Queen, but also for Arrow as it will have to convince viewers that the onetime billionaire playboy castaway has matured sufficiently from his time abroad and under the hood to reasonably represent both the narrative process of tackling a highly politicized debate, and the gravity of the all-too frequent occurrence of a mass shooting.
'Spectre of the Gun' plays with the formula in one key respect: it uses the episode's driving incident to explore more of Rene Ramirez's past, and his relationship to violence, especially gun violence. It's an appropriate choice considering Rene's use of automatic weapons in his Wild Dog persona, and his recent professional relationship working as Deputy Mayor Quentin Lance's assistant. That puts Rene on the front lines of the attack, and it also puts him in the hot seat with regard to his no-nonsense approach to fighting crime. Like the responsibilities of taking Oliver's mayoral position seriously, this puts Arrow in a challenging position; one distanced from the buffer that superhero fantasy can provide, opening the series up to a litany of criticisms or praise.
The result, then, is an hour of television that clearly wants to engage the issue of gun control and gun violence head on, but is seemingly stymied in its attempt to say anything more than "It's complicated." Throughout the hour, 'Spectre of the Gun' sets its characters in situations where they can discuss the merits of gun control and gun ownership, but the discussions rarely see the temperature rise, let alone become heated. That's not to say that a debate between Curtis and Rene needs to turn into a shouting match, but given the gravity of the situation and the fact that Arrow is focusing its lens on a topic that is essentially baked into the show's DNA, a little more passion would have been expected and appreciated.
Writer Marc Guggenheim has admittedly set himself up with a huge, potentially unenviable task. He risks alienating a significant portion of the show's audience if he comes down too hard on one side of the debate. So, rather than take a firm stance in one way or the other, the hour tends to focus more of its energies on the idea of discourse and debate, and how overly politicized our culture has become that the notion of disagreeing with someone else is practically considered a hostile act. Guggenheim reinforces the idea again and again throughout the episode. It's so prevalent, it soon becomes clear that is the real stance of 'Spectre of the Gun': That as a society we need to learn (or re-learn, as the episode seems to suggest) how to engage in healthy debate to address our differences and take a step toward solving our problems.
The purpose of discussion becomes such a potent through line that at one point Felicity even pooh-poohs Curtis and Rene having one because she sees it as a fruitless endeavor. Maybe this is fitting, as in recent weeks Felicity has continued to flirt with some dangerous hacking in order to get the job done, suggesting she's more about walking the walk than talking the talk nowadays, but it also feels as though, given the episode's premise, every character needed to take a stance on something and Felicity drew the "questioning the merits of debate" straw.
Fitting each character into a specific slot – as it pertains to the issue of gun control – makes things easier in terms of getting various points of view across, but it also eliminates any chance that Arrow would be able to address the issue with subtlety or nuance. Case in point: while tracking down the suspected gunman, Oliver crosses paths with the gun-toting Vigilante, who essentially lets his feelings on the subject be heard before disappearing into the night.
The only character who really benefits from the episode's agenda is Rene, who benefits from a lengthy backstory that is eventually revealed to be his origin. Rene's clash with his wife over carrying a firearm in the presence of their daughter is overshadowed by her drug abuse, and later her death at the hands of a drug dealer. Rene's backstory gives the audience a better understanding of his pro-gun stance, but he, like everyone else, remains unchanged in that position by the time the episode comes to an end. There's no moment of reflection or questioning of his methods to suggest maybe there's a better way of doing his job than to shoot people – even if he or the series itself, doesn't have the answer just yet.
The expectation was never for a show like Arrow to somehow produce a nugget of wisdom and convince one side or the other to change their minds (real or fictional) on the topic of gun control. However, if a show that dabbles in violence as a much as Arrow does wants to take an hour that first depicts and later covers the various talking points on gun violence and gun control, it's not unreasonable to hope the show has more to say on the topic beyond admitting it's complicated.
Arrow returns next Wednesday with 'The Sin-Eater' @8pm on The CW.