It’s almost inevitable that the season premiere after a finale like “Sacrifice” is going to be a letdown. Last season’s conclusion stretched the show’s budget to its very limits in depicting the devastation of the Glades wrought by Malcolm Merlyn’s Undertaking, and the seismic shifts to the show’s core characters—Malcolm and Tommy’s deaths, Moira’s arrest, and the now former Detective Lance’s decision to throw in with the Hood, orders be damned—threatened to shred the show’s original premise. There’s just no way a show, especially one with the relatively limited budgetary resources of a show on The CW, can be reasonably expected to maintain that level of high-stakes, gloriously over-the-top storytelling. There has to be a de-escalation of tension once the new season starts, simply because it’s impossible for every episode going forward to be as epic in scale as “Sacrifice.” But it’s fiendishly difficult to do that without undercutting what came before, without in some way wimping out on the game-changing storylines set up by the previous finale’s carnage. And yet tonight’s “City of Heroes,” to my surprised delight, successfully avoids such a letdown, suggesting Arrow could well be primed for a major leap forward this season.
The show accomplishes this feat by effectively using this first episode back to redefine its own premise. A few months have passed since the destruction of the Glades, and Oliver has spent most of the intervening time back on the Island, swearing that he is done forever with the city he failed. This is the kind of narrative cul-de-sac that seems all too familiar for season premieres; after all, Oliver can’t really remain permanently on the Island, and he definitely can’t abandon vigilantism forever, or else there would be no show. Indeed, his return to the Island might have theoretically threatened to push the show all the way back to something resembling its initial setup, with Oliver having to regain the trust of all his loved ones after another lengthy, poorly explained absence. And yet, that doesn’t happen. The three main women in his civilian life—his sister Thea, his friend and maybe lover Laurel, and his now incarcerated mother Moira—are all just happy to see him again, and they all say they understand why he felt the need to leave, which spares us the umpteenth round of tedious recriminations. In the meantime, Thea has found new purpose running Starling City’s hottest new nightclub (that may or may not be in the middle of a disaster zone), Laurel has begun to rebuild her shattered life by taking a job with the district attorney, and Moira seems to have found some much-needed inner peace and honesty while in prison.
Their reactions to Oliver’s return serve as subtle but important reminders of how the destruction of the Glades really has changed their perspectives. While Oliver will doubtless get in trouble at some point this season as he tries to juggle his dual identities, “City Of Heroes” suggests that will be a less important part of Arrow’s formula going forward. That’s good news for the show, as it focuses more of the drama on Oliver’s crime-fighting. Not only is the superhero material more naturally compelling than the soap opera stuff, but it also allows the show to set up conflicts that can actually be resolved. If Thea’s entire story is wrapped up in her frustration with Oliver’s constant absences, then Thea’s stories are never going to go anywhere, because those absences represent the main thrust of the show. Plus, when the show stops defining the supporting characters solely in terms of their irritation with Oliver, he isn’t the only one who benefits; he’s not wrong when he says it’s nice to see Thea have her life so together, and it’s refreshing to see Moira free of her hypocrisy at long last. Without Oliver as the fulcrum of their interactions, Moira and Thea share an emotionally tricky but surprisingly compelling subplot, as both the writers and Willa Holland show a strong, nuanced understanding of Thea’s troubled attempts to grapple with the incomprehensible magnitude of her mother’s crimes; her initial rage and subsequent forgiveness both feel entirely justified, which is particularly impressive given just how useless Thea was throughout much of last season. Even Laurel comes off well here, as it seems entirely reasonable for her and Oliver to agree not to pursue a romance after all that has happened while still acknowledging they need each other as friends. The emotional maturity of tonight’s Arrow is frankly a bit shocking, and it’s most welcome.
The most important accomplishment of “City Of Heroes” lies in how it redefines Oliver’s mission. There was, justifiably, a great deal of discussion throughout the first season with respect to the high body count Oliver racked up in the course of his crime-fighting. The show itself seemed to take a blasé attitude toward Oliver’s style, and neither of his two main allies—not surprising in Diggle’s case, though a bit more so in Felicity’s—ever really offered any sustained, substantive critique of his lethal approach. Arrow only really began to address this once Tommy learned the truth, and he responded not like a character in a pulpy superhero story but rather like a typical person. He accused Oliver of being a serial killer, and, as a still heartbroken Oliver observes at the end of tonight’s episode, Tommy died believing his lifelong best friend was a coldblooded murderer. And while it’s possible to put a more positive spin on Oliver’s actions, it’s still difficult to dispute the underlying truth of Tommy’s assessment. After all, it’s a long-ingrained rule of comic book storytelling that your average superhero just doesn’t kill people, and the first season of Arrow certainly looked like a superhero show.
But Oliver wasn’t a superhero last year, nor was he a murderer or even really a vigilante. It isn’t until this episode’s flashback to the island that it really clicks into place just what Oliver was throughout the first season. The truth becomes clear when he brutally kills a random mercenary to save Shado: From that moment on and right up to the moment of Tommy’s death, Oliver was a soldier. His time on the Island taught him that every situation was potentially a kill-or-be-killed situation, and he returned to Starling City to fight a war that his father started without ever revealing just who or what it was really against. In that context, the people on the list and their legions of henchmen represented the enemy, and their deaths were acceptable casualties. After all, even the anonymous, decidedly non-wealthy goons made the decision to throw in with those that had failed the city, and hey presumably would have killed the Hood the first chance they got. In Oliver’s formulation, they were quite literally foot soldiers, and so the simple fact of their allegiance to the enemy made their deaths justifiable.
There was no logical reason for Oliver to have a no-kill rule in the first season of Arrow, particularly when Arrow’s conception of his origin story was so wrapped up in the brutality of the Island. Oliver Queen isn’t Bruce Wayne, who saw his parents murdered before his eyes and so developed a near-absolute refusal to kill. But the success of the Undertaking and the death of Malcolm Meryln mean that Oliver’s war is over, and with it his justification to kill. Besides, as he tells Diggle and Felicity, he can’t bear the fact that his best friend died thinking he’s a murderer, and any future crime-fighting must allow him a chance to redeem himself in his dead friend’s eyes. If those reasons still seem too abstract, “City Of Heroes” presents the copycat Hoods, who take Oliver’s war on the Starling City elite to its logical extreme. Their casual willingness to kill mayors and innocent teenagers (well, Thea) is perhaps broadly understandable in light of the horrible tragedies they have all endured, but it still recalls last season’s murderous vigilantes in episodes like “The Huntress Returns” and “Salvation.” In those episodes, Oliver struggled to make a coherent distinction between their actions and those of the Hood, often to the show’s detriment. Now, Oliver knows the difference; as he tells a shocked Officer Lance as he leaves the unconscious criminals in police custody, he’s trying another way.
All this represents the essential success of “City Of Heroes.” The episode finally examines some of the major structural weaknesses of the previous season, simultaneously explaining and moving past the first year’s more curious decisions. This episode clarifies just what the first season was trying to accomplish, and that knowledge allows for greater appreciation of what this new season will attempt to do. It took Oliver a year to swear off killing, but that decision carries so much more weight because we understand exactly why Oliver chooses this path. Arrow takes the no-kill rule, deeply considers its underlying logic, and triumphantly reaffirms it. And, at episode’s end, Oliver also decides he no longer wants to be called the Hood—a literal rejection of the killings he committed under that name—so Diggle asks him what he wants to be called now. The obvious answer, and one that I couldn’t help myself whispering at the screen, is “Green Arrow.” But neither Oliver nor the show is quite there yet; if Oliver said those two words at the end of the episode, he would only be doing so because that’s what the comic books mandate. That name has to be earned—not to mention justified in terms of Arrow’s actual narrative—and what is so exciting about “City Of Heroes” is the fact that I have so much confidence that Arrow is more than up to that task.
- There are a lot of teasers for future storylines in “City Of Heroes,” and my preference is to discuss those once the show actually introduces them. Still, it’s exciting to see a female vigilante who is almost certainly Black Canary make her first appearance. Also, in the grand tradition of obvious exposition that is thinly disguised as throwaway dialogue, let’s not forget about that news report about the particle accelerator in Central City that opens later this year. Hmm, I wonder if that could have anything to do with this.
- Paul Blackthorne is just not cut out for wearing those unflattering cop uniforms. The decision to demote him is intriguing from a narrative perspective, but here’s hoping he can get back to spouting gloriously overcooked, detective novel-style dialogue as soon as possible. How else will we know who is mobbed up to the eyeballs this year?
- Oliver needs to swing to Felicity’s rescue at least twice in every episode. It’s all I ask.
- Between this and Continuum, I’m willing to declare a new rule about genre television: If a previously unseen mayor appears in the second season premiere, he or she will be immediately assassinated. Also, apparently nobody will make a very big deal out of it.
- Normally, I would give this episode an “A,” but I think that places an unnecessary cap on just how good the show can be from here on out. The fact that there’s still room for growth and improvement is what has me most excited about “City Of Heroes,” and the grade reflects that.
- For a second, I thought Arrow was going to have Oliver return to his lair without a loving shot of the salmon ladder. And then, just as I was about to lose my last shred of humanity, the camera cut to a shot that framed the salmon ladder like it was a triumphal arch, and Felicity made her obligatory, adorably awkward comment about how much she liked watching him work out on it. All the scene was missing was Oliver whispering, “Hello, old friend.” Maybe in season three.
- There’s a lot going on here that I still didn’t have a chance to get to—indeed, I haven’t even mentioned new series regulars Slade Wilson or Roy Harper, not to mention genre stalwart Summer Glau’s turn as a corporate raider or the return of Colin Salmon as Oliver’s stepfather. I’ll just say that I pretty much liked what the show was doing with all of them, but I’ll wait for a less busy week to get into a more detailed discussion of those plots. And, with that, I turn over the conversation to you all. It’s good to be back.