The best part of “Emerald Archer” is the first 15 seconds. After the familiar CW intro, we get not a “Previously, on Arrow,” but the old-timey tinkle and eventual triumphant brass and cymbals of the Warner Bros. logo animation music. It’s so familiar, but totally out of place. After 150 episodes of television, it’s a clever way of signaling that what follows is different, special. It’s a wink, one that may take a moment to sink in. And best of all, it’s there for a reason. It conveys information. It helps establish a premise, and a tone. It works.
The same can’t be said of what follows.
More’s the pity. I’m inclined to be a bit more forgiving toward “Emerald Archer” than I might normally be, considering the significant failings of thus cameo-peppered hour. There’s a comically disappointing villain, a ludicrous conclusion that promises nothing good for the future, one particularly aggravating subplot, the single most unnecessary Ricardo Diaz appearance yet (really saying something), and most injuriously, a central conceit that not only does little to add to the proceedings, but actually highlights all the routine shortcomings that are otherwise fairly easy to dismiss. But there’s also ambition, and risk-taking, both qualities most welcome in a series that’s getting a bit long in the tooth (and about to get longer-toothed). The effort and the risk should both be celebrated, but risks don’t always pay off, and this one doesn’t.
“Emerald Archer” takes the form, at least in part, of a documentary, compiled of interviews filmed over several years and footage shot in the show’s present (Emiko, being deputized, etc.) By adopting, however irregularly, the tone and style of cinema verité-style documentary filmmaking, Arrow asks us to believe that this story, this precise chapter of it, has roots in our reality. That means when Oliver, an official member of the Star City Police Department, picks the lock on a building without hesitation and storms in, he does so in a context in which a film crew is documenting his every move in hopes of prompting its audience to ask themselves big questions about vigilantism, justice, the law, and the public good. It’s no longer something to be hand-waved away with a nice “this isn’t that kind of show, it’s not The Wire.” It has given us another lens, and that lens is unforgiving.
It doesn’t help that we get no idea why the lens is on the premises in the first place. Jessica Heafey’s character “Documentarian” fares only slightly better than her camera-people, because she has a few lines of dialogue and a face, but we have no sense of why this is being made, what compelled her to make it, or if and how her mind is or is not changed by what she discovers. We know that the final product will be banned at some point in the future, perhaps because it reveals too much about the newly-reformed Team Arrow, and we know that in the end it has a “pro-vigilante” stance (something that Katherine McNamara’s Blackstar helpfully sneers in the episode’s closing scene). That’s it.
Worse, though, is that the documentary format changes almost nothing about the story, and it also doesn’t alter the way that the characters behave. Their choices, their language, the faces they present are all the same. The cameras change almost nothing. On the rare occasion that there are conversations to which the crew is not privy, moments behind closed doors or in quiet corners, the audience still sees those conversations. Our perspective is not ultimately, that of the documentary viewer. It’s still just Arrow, but with more cameos, some very jiggly camera work, and a credits sequence that would make the American Vandal guys feel very pleased with themselves. No one, not even poor Curtis, alters their behavior to seem more sympathetic or cool on camera, and no one tells us anything we didn’t already know. One of the interviewees even risks outing himself by participating, something the show doesn’t acknowledge.
The documentary team needs another cop to serve as a talking head, so they ask Barry Allen? The fast-talking, jittery CSI from Central City who is seemingly unconnected with any and everyone involved with Team Arrow seems like the man for the job? The Barry interview, brief though it is, offers some welcome levity (and it’s nice to see awkward fun Barry again), and this is not an argument that it should have been cut, but was no one worried that this film might out some of the still-masked heroes who are participating?
Maybe that seems like a dumb question. But since one of the episode’s more affecting moments does involve the outing of one of those characters (that would be Dinah’s unhesitating canary cry), and since the crew does get Emiko’s face on camera, it’s the kind of question you ask. Stories told this way are supposed to ask you to ask questions, and consider the truth. Here are some questions and truths this episode asks us to consider: Oliver doesn’t need a search warrant? This crew doesn’t ask Sara Lance what she does for a living? ARGUS is cool with cameras on the premises, and with Curtis talking up a storm in front of said cameras? A fancy boarding school expelled William and no one called his family? That hilarious footage of Diaz in his prison cell was filmed when, exactly? The mayor really thinks debating a guy in a green leather suit in front of cameras and an audience is the best way to increase her power and get her way? Why does Oliver being deputized mean he’s allowed to just shoot arrows at people? And wait, are Rory and Helena dead, or not?
Arrow makes it pretty easy to ignore most of those things, most of the time. (It’s not The Wire.) And the willing suspension of disbelief is a requirement for all fiction, to a greater or lesser extent. But those dumb documentary cameras ask the opposite. They are meant to challenge perception, and to offer a new perspective. This just offers some new choppy camera work and the challenge of believing that any of that shit would actually fly.
The documentary has got nothing on the villain, however. What a let down. “Man, fans are intense?” That’s the hook? Really? That crazy mask and suit (complete with power-source MacGuffin) and a love of the Green Arrow?
Arrow took a risk, and it flopped. But showrunner Beth Schwartz has turned in a solid season so far, and as a result it’s perhaps best to dwell on the positive: Arrow, a show that’s been on forever, took a risk, and every once in awhile, it worked. That’s no small thing.
- Cameos, ranked: 1) Captain Lance (Paul Blackthorne), starting things on a good note. 2) Barry, giggling and totally making people suspect he’s The Flash. 3) Sara Lance, acknowledging the death of her father on one show at least. 4) Everyone else (including Thea—good to see Willa Holland back, but they could have given her something more to do) except the unnecessary voice of Kelsey Grammer. 5) The unnecessary voice of Kelsey Grammer.
- TAMVP: Stephen Amell, who still says “I never should have XXX” like it’s the first time, even when it’s the 150th.
- Was there any salmon ladder?: No, alas. Might have bested Quentin for the #1 slot if there were.
- Curtis also brought up Cisco in conversation with a bunch of confirmed and suspected vigilantes, so thanks a lot, Curtis.
- “You’ve met my wife, right Curtis?”
- Please, please let a fictional documentarian make a movie about the Legends Of Tomorrow. Please.