In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, executive producer Greg Berlanti explained that the formula for Arrow isn’t so much based on Oliver learning a new lesson about being a hero at the end of each episode; rather, Oliver “learned a lot of things on an island so that he could survive—[things] that, in a lot of ways, he has to unlearn,” and that his real goal is to “regain his humanity” now that he’s back among the living. “Burned” is a particularly strong illustration of that idea, and if anything, tonight’s episode actually shows Oliver attempting to jump ahead prematurely in the rehabilitation of his soul. While he’s still training as hard as ever—because otherwise we wouldn’t see Stephen Amell’s abs, and then there’d be no point to the show, dammit—Oliver hasn’t pursued any of the names on his list for months, preferring instead to spend time with his once again grief-stricken mother and sister, who are reeling from Walter’s mysterious disappearance at the hands of Malcolm Merlyn. Even when Diggle is able to guilt Oliver into doing a little vigilante work, he lacks the killer instinct and willingness to put his life on the line that once made him such a force for good.
“Burned” introduces us to a particularly grisly adversary, as a mysterious assailant—based on the D.C. Comics pyromaniac Firefly, hence the tattoo—is using the cover of burning buildings to incinerate firefighters, one of whom is the brother of Laurel’s best friend. Laurel purloins her father’s special Arrow phone and uses it to contract the missing vigilante. Oliver halfheartedly investigates, delegating most of the work to Diggle as he shifts his focus to something, anything else. To be sure, Oliver is every bit the ideal son and brother in this episode—this actually might be the first episode where neither Moira nor Thea take him to task for a perceived character flaw—and he even shows an interest in running the nightclub that’s supposedly being built above his Arrow lair, but Diggle quickly sees through these as convenient excuses. Oliver was spooked by losing his battle with the Dark Archer, and his initial attempt to take down the murderer, in which another firefighter meets a horrific fate and Oliver gets his ass kicked, is an outright embarrassment. It takes a particularly perceptive pep talk from Diggle to snap Oliver out of it, which leads to a rather strange confrontation between Oliver and the assailant. But hey, don’t argue with results, I guess, because Oliver is ready to resume the hunt.
It’s crucial to the success of “Burned” in the overarching narrative of the show that Oliver is still working through his defeat at the hands of the Dark Archer. Given everything Arrow has shown us of Oliver thus far, the natural assumption is that Oliver would throw himself even more completely into his vigilante work, shutting himself off from the people he cares about so as to ensure they don’t make him weak anymore. Indeed, Diggle underscores that point when he tells Oliver he had prepared a “You’re pushing yourself too hard” speech that is now entirely inappropriate. For Oliver jumps in the other direction; he isn’t going so far as to question his mission, but he’s happy to leave it on the backburner for the foreseeable future. Oliver is arguably making the right decision for himself in stepping away from the Hood, but he’s doing it for the wrong reasons. If he sincerely wanted to leave it all behind to forge a real life for himself, Diggle would probably support that eventually. But as it is now, he’s still basically a walking, talking weapon, albeit a scared one. Under those circumstances, there’s an argument to be made that it’s selfish not to go around doing his vigilante thing, and that’s precisely the point Diggle makes when Oliver tries to ignore the next firefighter murder. It’s a murder he utterly fails to prevent, but still.
His ultimate recovery is particularly interesting, as Oliver essentially utilizes both his personae—the fearsome vigilante and the billionaire playboy—to put an end to Garfield Lynns’ pyromaniac murder spree. Oliver makes a point of confronting Lynns’ old superior while still in his civilian guise and with Laurel looking on, as though to illustrate Oliver Queen is just as capable of investigation as the Hood. Of course, from a tactical perspective, it’s a bizarre move insofar as increases the risk of Laurel connecting Oliver with the other guy she’s asked to investigate the case. Later, Oliver implicitly leans on his immense wealth and makes Lynns the same offer he made to the Royal Flush Gang, offering Firefly all the help he needs if he will simply give up his vendetta. Lynns seems momentarily touched by the offer, but then he rather cheesily explains, “I’ve already been burned” and flings himself into the blaze, seemingly to kill himself (but since he’s a supervillain, we can’t rule out a miraculous survival).
This big climactic sequence doesn’t really work, especially since Oliver and Lynns only share a couple lines before the latter unceremoniously offs himself. The exchange is trying to dig into the idea of which psychic wounds can heal and which are permanent, to differentiate between Oliver’s ongoing reclamation of his humanity and Lynns’ death spiral. It’s a potentially strong contrast, but the episode merely glances past the idea instead of really exploring it. “Burned” doesn’t waste Firefly in the same way “Lone Gunmen” wasted Deadshot, but this particular interpretation leaves aside a lot of the comic book Firefly’s more colorful aspects, especially his weird mystical obsession with fire. The episode repurposes Firefly as a damaged, obsessive vigilante with a list of men he must kill in order to right a past wrong. So, yes, he’s essentially a fiery mirror image of Arrow, except the episode only vaguely acknowledges this when Oliver tells Lynns that he’s afraid to live, echoing his own problems. Like some earlier Arrow entries, “Burned” lays the groundwork for some fascinating thematic work, but then doesn’t develop them.
Still, the episode hardly falls flat entirely. As mentioned earlier, Oliver’s crime-fighting technique feels distinctly different here from what we saw in the first half of the season. The sensitivity and caring he shows his mother early in the episode shows up again in his dealings with Lynns, and the moment when he drops his bow as a sign of good faith to Firefly is an especially pivotal one. While his dealings with the Royal Flush Gang and even with Huntress had empathetic motivations, the former was complicated by his father’s culpability in the gang’s situation and the latter by his romantic entanglement. But his straightforward mercy towards Lynns is a genuinely noble, altruistic action, and it’s no coincidence that the Starling City media are now beginning to recast the fearsome vigilante as gallant hero. Looking again to Green Arrow’s more famous Gotham City counterpart, there’s an old argument that “Bruce Wayne” doesn’t really exist, that it’s merely an alter ego constructed by Batman for when he has to pretend to be normal. For the first half of the season, that might well have been true about the relationship between the Hood and Oliver. But “Burned” suggests the man ready to go on the hunt is Oliver pretending to be the Arrow, not the other way round. Even if parts of the episode don’t work, it succeeds in opening up this bold, new, and decidedly heroic path for Oliver to take.
- Random Starling City Police Department tech guy is right. Detective Lance is stone cold. Also, he’s being kind of a total dick with the whole “wire-tapping his daughter to bring in the vigilante” masterplan.
- Laurel unknowingly comments on Oliver’s trepidation when she discusses her and Tommy’s drawer issues. It’s not my favorite example of the technique, but I’m glad to see that Arrow is still at least trying to connect together the superhero and soap opera elements.
- Would it have killed Oliver to include Diggle in the list of people he cares about while he was actually talking to Diggle? That just seems like a major sidekick faux pas.