In the first episode of Arrow‘s fifth season, the title character — the hero — commits murder. This serves as an early reminder that Arrow, detailing the rise and career of DC Comics’ emerald archer Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), is an extremely violent show. Not only is this murder brutal and painful (a broken neck) but is the killing of a corrupt cop at the hands of Star City’s own mayor. While its fellow DC series on Fox, Gotham, features the villainous Penguin as the mayor of its titular city, Arrow‘s Star City voted in its most notable superhero, one that, at times, acts like a villain.
Of course, this is the result of five years of evolution with this show. Arrow could have featured a purely heroic character, with no dark side and always making the right choices. That may have been more palatable for some audiences, and would have attracted a younger demographic, but that not the Arrow we got (nor one I’d want to see). With Gotham (which isn’t part of the Arrowverse) examining Batman’s origins, Arrow has often made Oliver Queen something of a stand-in for the caped crusader. The big difference is that even as some storylines are borrowed from Batman, Arrow follows Oliver Queen’s biography from the comic books; unlike (some versions of) Batman, Queen has no compunctions about killing the bad guys.
This element could’ve been toned down over the years, but as the first episode proves, it hasn’t. That doesn’t mean season five is just more of the same. The presence of this violence even as Queen has ascended to the mayor’s office provides an interesting backdrop for this season: what hath this violence wrought?
Coming out of the woodwork are new vigilantes inspired by Green Arrow and his team. One of these is a particularly violent intellectual scion with the less-than-brilliant moniker of “Vigilante”. (Don’t let the name fool you; he’s a fascinating character based on a fascinating comic character.) Others include Wild Dog (Rick Gonzalez), Ragman (Joe Dinicol), Artemis (Madison McLaughlin), Team Arrow’s own Mister Terrific (Echo Kellum), and a new meta-human version of Black Canary (Juliana Harkavy).
Of course, not only good guys emerge from Arrow’s half-decade of adventures. Enter the villain Prometheus, also a hooded, masked figure with an archery fetish. While seemingly another rising rogue in the Star City underworld, this villain proves to be much more. Prometheus is a skilled fighter and archer who owes his origin to Oliver’s killing spree in season one. This origin story is a mystery to the team; all traces of his identity have been wiped away, even from the internet.
Having lost the prior team due to retirement, reassignment, or death, Oliver’s best option (while still running the city) is recruiting these new vigilantes into the new Team Arrow, supplemented by his friend John “Spartan” Diggle (David Ramsey). This leads to an exciting season of cat-and-mouse, surprise side-switching, and mistaken identity. When the identity of a certain character seems to be obvious (even to comic fans), it proves to be something completely different. The guessing game is fun, and smartly ends halfway through the season before it becomes too tedious. That said, the menace doesn’t end when the identities are revealed.
All the while we are reminded of the violence our title character has committed and continues to commit, even as he sanctimoniously lectures others about said violence. Often, it isn’t clear who’s really confused: Oliver Queen or the show’s writers. In one episode, Team Arrow fights through an army of henchmen to get to their boss. As the team is surrounded by the dead bodies of the hired help, we’re treated to a straight-faced lecture about how a certain character doesn’t have to cross the line to kill the actual bad guy. Apparently bad guys are useless cannon fodder in the Arrowverse, but really, really bad guys are precious lives to be preserved.
Another strange recurring theme in season five revolves around costuming. New viewers may find it confusing as to who is who when so many characters are similarly attired. Green Arrow wears a leather hood and mask with a full quiver of arrows and his bow. Prometheus has almost the exact same bow, quiver, and arrows, a leather hood, and a full facemask. That facemask appears to be made of rags, which is nearly identical to the mask of good guy Rory Regan/Ragman (who also wears a dark hood and superhero power-granting costume, but thankfully is arrow-free).
Of course, this sameness is nothing new. Much as The Flash must have an evil speedster each season to match with its star, Arrow must feature archery-themed heroes and villains each season because… well, it’s in the title. There are even lectures about how bows and arrows can be preferable to guns due to efficiency, diversity, and silence. Yet Oliver himself often eschews the Green Arrow costume to raid a place while wearing a black mask and wielding a firearm.
One bone of contention I always have watching The Flash and Supergirl relates to just why the full spectrum of each character’s powers isn’t used, aside from the need to keep each episode from lasting seven minutes. The Flash can lose a non-powered criminal in a crowd because the guy who’s so fast he can run through walls and across time only watches said criminal run (kind of) fast around a corner. Superman and Supergirl talk about missing people a few cities away, in spite of the fact that they can cover that distance in a few seconds.
Ragman faces a similar issue; he can do just about anything, and yet remains a junior member of Green Arrow’s team. Admittedly, Rory Regan is depicted as a newcomer who hasn’t learned everything about his powers yet, but he’s also a guy who can do almost anything; not once but twice his suit is able to deflect and even contain the blast of a nuclear weapon. How then does Ragman not unmask Prometheus with the flip of his cape in his first appearance? He does just about every other amazing thing over the course of his story arc; he should be solving virtually every crime in the city in about 17 seconds.
Perhaps realizing this, the writers sent Rory away toward the end of the season to prevent a series of deus ex machinas in every episode. He’ll be back in the sixth season, though; perhaps Oliver can just focus on being mayor while Ragman does literally everything else in the city with his godlike powers. That would certainly spare the audience non-violence lectures from a guy who continues to commit violence.
It’s narrative elements like this that make season five not quite add up. Season five is exciting; there’s not a single boring episode, and particularly shocking season finale. Considering the fact that Arrow‘s storyline begins after Oliver Queen’s “five years of hell” — supplemented by flashbacks — means that this season’s flashbacks lead directly into the first episode. While leaving the question open about next year, viewers are unlikely to be disappointed by how this plays out.
Take a step back from these high-octane episodes, and it starts to fall apart. The quality performances and fast-paced storytelling make for a dark and thrilling show that addresses a series of moral questions. Yet a deeper look at the episodes implies that the writers threw every ball they could think of into the air and tried like hell to catch them all before the final episode.
They don’t quite succeed. Major characters vanish and are forgotten. Logical characters do remarkably illogical things, and the plot too often relies on coincidence and convenience to work. It may be exciting in the moment, but things don’t remain cohesive with repeated viewings. Many of these contrived moments are played for shock that covers up the lack of logic. It works in the immediate viewing, but ultimately is nowhere near seamless.
That being said, it’s a hell of a ride.
The 2017 Blu Ray release is packed with extras to help sort out this ride, including a documentary on Prometheus and his origin, and one on the “Invasion!” crossover between Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow, although unlike previous box sets, the other episodes in the crossover aren’t present. A look at the 2016 Comic-Con panel, the new Team Arrow, a gag reel, and deleted scenes round out the extras and make for a complete viewing experience.
Arrow is still a quality show, and some fifth season episodes feature some of the best performances of the entire series. It’s still visually stunning, and the spectacle frequently papers over the plot holes. Unfortunately, those plot holes are still there, and big enough for much more than an arrow to shoot its way through.