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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow ends a frustrating season with a frustrating, but affecting, finale

Illustration for article titled Arrow ends a frustrating season with a frustrating, but affecting, finale
Photo: Jack Rowand (The CW)

On the whole, this isn’t a great season of Arrow. There are too many detours, too many balls dropped, more than the usual number of plot holes and some insanely short memories. Some episodes mostly worked—particularly when Michael Emerson first turned up—and there were a handful of excellent action sequences (remember that parking garage fight)?). But looking back, there are exactly three scenes that could be considered among the best in the series. “Life Sentence” adds to that number, and that fact makes this finale worth watching.


But we’ll have to get back to those, because something else absolutely must be addressed first:

Ricardo Diaz is coming back?!

No disrespect to Kirk Acevedo, a good actor who has made this disastrously uneven villain and his failed storyline as entertaining as perhaps anyone could, but wow, what an insanely bad idea. The single worst episode in this season, “Collision Course,” seemed to attempt a course-correction by going all-in on the very things that were dragging Arrow down. The choices made in that hour were so poorly handled and executed, both then and since, that they’re still hurting the show. Indeed, they hurt this finale. Yet here we are, and Arrow is making the same mistake. So what if this season was a mess, let’s hang onto one of the things that was least effective all year long.

Acevedo, sincerely, is very good in “Life Sentence.” He has a sense of playfulness when it comes to language that makes his scenes engaging to listen to, if nothing else. It may seem like non-stop shouting, and there is quite a lot of shouting. But he’s playing with volume and pitch and tempo, varying his approach surprisingly often, and even if it’s sometimes comically villainous—thinking of that scene with Anatoly in the car and his absurdly evil-sounding whisper—he’s at least doing something. Imagine if the rest of the season gave him the opportunities that the first two thirds of “The Dragon” did. Imagine if the rest of this season were less like the last third of “The Dragon.”

Alas, much of season six has a lot in common with that last third, in which a guy previously defined by his own brand of practical, meticulous evil, takes the time to light a childhood bully on fire for no good reason. It’s the kind of choice that makes it into a story because it sounds really cool and smart and deep. It’s so cool and smart and deep that no one actually stops to think about what it means, its implications, or how it will shape our perceptions going forward. The same is true of much of “Life Sentence.”

It seems cool and smart and deep for Oliver to make a farewell tour. So what if he only talks to some of his former teammates? So what if that list doesn’t include his wife and son? It seems like a great idea, to have Oliver hand himself over to the FBI in exchange for immunity for all the others, and it seems like a great idea for him to tell those others to keep on being vigilantes without him. So what if those two things are fundamentally opposed? What a great idea, bringing Sara Lance back. Who cares if it amounts to one good scene and an extended sad cameo (sadmeo?).


The frustrating thing—besides the continuing saga of Ricardo Diaz, an Arrow big bad so big and bad that he’s beaten the one-season rule—is that “Life Sentence” could be pretty great, if there were just a little more thought given to the big picture. The reason it works, when it does, is that the show focuses not just on what happens and how cool it is, but what it means to the people who are experiencing these events. It has that in common with the three scenes mentioned in that first paragraph, each of which succeeded by pausing to take a breath and consider the emotional centers, shared histories, and high stakes for both of the characters involved.

Those three scenes—Felicity’s monologue to William as they watch Oliver on the monitors, Oliver and Diggle in the bunker before their fight, and Oliver and Anatoly in that kitchen—aren’t the only good things in season six (again, what’s up, Michael Emerson), but they stand out from the pack. There are three that stand out here, too, and they’ve got quite a lot in common with the scenes above: Oliver and Quentin in the hospital room, Oliver and Felicity in the interrogation room, and Sara and Not-Laurel in the hallway.


As for what they’ve got in common—well, first, they’re all rich in history, the most valuable commodity a show that’s been on for six seasons has, and one that’s gone sorely underused this season.


Second, they all still find a way to do something new. In the scenes from earlier this season, we see a battle from Felicity’s perspective as she passes some wisdom on, we watch Oliver and Diggle reach an impasse that changes their relationship for good, and we witness two friends turned enemies manipulate and speak truth to each other, all at once. In the scenes from this season, two men who’ve been through an extraordinary amount of heartbreak tell each other they love each other, in words that aren’t those words, but which seem to matter even more; in another, a married couple don’t actually have time to love each other, as one is busy comprehending how the hell her husband could make this decision while the other tries to explain it, first to her and then to his son; in the third, a woman sees her dead sister’s dopplegänger and tries to wrap her mind around that while being terrified for her dad. (That one, in particular, is pretty damn new.)

Third, most of them prominently feature Stephen Amell. It might be the late hour, or the disappointing season, but I think “Life Sentence” is one of Amell’s best outings as Oliver Queen. He’s best when Oliver’s in a quieter mode, and Ollie is real damn quiet here. The writers of this episode tip their hands pretty early here—Oliver gives Diggle a uniform, for crying out loud—but it doesn’t much matter. It’s oddly fitting that such a violent character becomes best defined in moments of gentleness. That’s true of his scenes with Dinah, Rene, and Diggle as well as those listed above. He’s very good here, full stop.


But he’s never better than he is with Paul Blackthorne. Those who saw the news that Blackthorne was leaving the show will have seen this coming a mile away, and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if even those who didn’t know about his departure had a hunch about what would happen. The Quentin Lance story well had just about run dry, and the Not-Laurel plot was fine at best and deeply creepy and poorly handled at worst. But Blackthorne was always good, and these last scenes with Amell make for a lovely farewell.

There are worse ways to end for season, and frankly, if this episode had ended the Diaz arc, it might be easier to overlook its other silly flaws—some disappointing fights by Arrow standards, the sloppy plotting, a few off notes. I can’t overlook them, but I’m still inclined to view this episode in a mostly positive light. Maybe over the summer, Arrow’s writers (and their new showrunner) can figure out a way to use Acevedo’s talents to better effect.


Season grade: C+

Stray observations

  • What, Curtis doesn’t rate a spot on the goodbye tour? Who is he, William?
  • Salmon ladder watch: Let’s hope there’s one in the new bunker.
  • TAMVP: Stephen Amell.
  • Caity Lotz kicked the shit out of the approximately three minutes she rated in this episode. I miss you, Legends of Tomorrow.
  • Blackthorne’s next project. 
  • If you want to avoid information about the character joining the show for next year’s crossover, don’t click this link.

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!