If you ever wanted to hear Arrow share a bunch of alternately deranged and pseudo-profound thoughts on the nature of love, tonight’s episode is for you. Cupid’s return to Arrow means the show significantly ups its level of outright crazy, but really she’s beside the point—at least, I sure hope the show isn’t hoping its audience will legitimately invest in her motivations, given a good chunk of it rests on her inability to realize this new Green Arrow is totally the same dude as her beloved Arrow, Roy Harper’s switcheroo aside. Cupid is here to provide an appropriately superhero-friendly context for an exploration of Oliver and Felicity’s breakup, and it turns out, not particularly surprisingly, that Arrow doesn’t really have any particularly earth-shattering thoughts on the subject of what love is, in part because even that stated theme is really just a bit of narrative heavy-lifting designed to give the show space to sort out just where Oliver and Felicity now stand. And, on that score, I think it’s worth stepping back for this review, mostly leaving aside the episode itself and instead considering an issue that has been bubbling up to the surface throughout most of this season. Namely…
What the hell happened to Felicity Smoak? There was a time not so long ago that pretty much everyone—give or take the occasional guest reviewer—considered Felicity the show’s breakout character, and it wasn’t hard to see why. In an early iteration of this show that often felt trapped by its grim tone and its adherence to comics lore, Felicity and her endless supply of endearingly awkward one-liners stood out as something different, and the chemistry Stephen Amell developed with Emily Bett Rickards far exceeded whatever mythos-mandated connection he was supposed to have with Katie Cassidy’s Laurel. And then, at some point in the last three years, it feels like it all fell apart, and a quick scan of the comments on pretty much any review this season indicates just how divisive her character has become. There’s a bunch of different ways to interpret why that might be, but I’d rather not throw myself into the fray of interrogating whether Felicity is “right” or “wrong” in a given situation. Instead, it’s worth figuring out why the season four Felicity has become such a damn Rorschach test for viewers, with her every action appearing either eminently understandable or entirely unforgiveable depending on who’s watching.
Perhaps this is where we really start to see the tension between the superhero and the soap opera aspects of Arrow. Superhero storytelling, at least in the context of the Arrowverse, tends toward moral absolutes. Oliver might doubt himself on a weekly basis, but he can always find renewed strength in the fact that Damien Dahrk and his Big Bad forebears are really, truly evil, and any uncertainties about how best to fight them does not alter the essential fact that he is right to take them on. Given that Arrow has trained its audience to look at its world through such a stark lens, it’s not surprising that narrative choices that might look like nuance and complexity on another show just end up looking like messiness here. At the end of the day, is Oliver the good guy or the bad guy when it comes to his relationship with Felicity? In the context of Arrow, it’s not really possible for the show to put forth the real-world answer, which is that a whole lot of relationship disputes don’t have clearcut right and wrong sides.
And this becomes all the more impossible when Arrow goes out of its way to make Oliver wrong without really making him wrong, what with the whole deeply contrived “you can never tell anyone about your son” promise that the mother of his child made him swear. Again, if we try and look at this from any kind of realistic perspective, a person can break off an engagement for any reason he or she damn well pleases; it would be actively destructive to get married if Felicity weren’t absolutely sure she could trust Oliver. But the circumstances leading to the breakup are such a funky mix of manufactured and larger-than-life that it feels beside the point to assess them on those grounds. The actual situation is so far removed from any kind of emotional or character logic, all because Arrow (understandably, I supposed) doesn’t want to turn Oliver into the kind of shitheel that would fully justify Felicity breaking up with him, that the only real way for a viewer to assess the situation is based on which character that audience member finds more likeable.
On that score, Oliver has some serious homefield advantage, and this is where we loop in all the common audience criticisms of significant others of male TV protagonists, a phenomenon that at its most extreme saw some Breaking Bad fans conclude that Skyler was the toxic presence in the Whites’ marriage. I’ll even keep my focus narrow and set aside issues of sexism here, instead just focusing on the narrative side of thing (though this is all interrelated, in ways that I can’t sensibly tease out in a TV review, hence why I’m not advancing that side of the argument). On a basic level, Oliver is going to enjoy the bulk of the audience’s support because he’s the hero, and him being in the right means we get to see him doing lots of cool stuff. Hell, even when Oliver is feeling down, he still punches things! He still shoots arrows! He even once hit the salmon ladder! (Note to show: Where the hell is the damn salmon ladder this season?) The very structure of Arrow means that him working through his issues will almost always dovetail with the needs of the plot, whereas Felicity working through her issues is far likelier to stop an episode dead in its tracks, with her pouting or complaining or whatever else. Even if she’s arguably in the right on an in-universe level, it’s still a drag to watch for the viewer, so sympathy is going to erode fast.
Tonight’s fake wedding gambit is the quintessential example of this: By any sane metric, this is a horrible thing for Oliver to ask Felicity to do, but it’s damn near the only sensible way forward in the context of Arrow. Beyond that, though, so much of the episode features Oliver reacting to the breakup much as he would process his umpteenth crisis of conscience about his crime-fighting methods, which is to say there’s a whole lot of brooding and refusing to engage with the issue at hand. Indeed, there’s a sense that the first two-thirds of the episode are really only so much stalling, because the final third of the episode does a creditable job giving both Oliver and Felicity space to lay out how they feel about each other and why, at least according to Felicity, they can’t continue as before.
And maybe she’s right! The trouble, as much as anything else, is that this has all become so divorced from recognizable human emotions that it just feels like another narrative move, less an organic response to Oliver and Felicity’s actual relationship than it is the next step in some season-long masterplan. That works fine when we’re dealing with operatic villainy like Damien and Malcolm’s schemes, but it shortchanges a once fun character and a once fun relationship when applied on this smaller scale. At this point, about all I can say is I hope Arrow knows why it broke up Oliver and Felicity, and it knows where this is going next. Because about the only way to justify all this silliness is to make the destination so compelling that even this weird, wonky journey feels worthwhile.
- I feel like that whole court case business was massively unrealistic, what with Laurel putting her own dad on the stand and whatnot without anyone bringing up a potential conflict of interest, particularly when his stated motivation for cooperating with Dahrk was to protect her. But, hey, we’re living in a post-Hogan v. Gawker world, so let’s not act as though anything is unrealistic at this point.
- Man, those flashbacks just keep chugging along, huh?
- I realize I’m being a bit grumpy tonight (though I suspect said grumpiness won’t be met with the kind of uproar it did toward the end of season two). I think some of that has to do with the fatigue of a long season—Arrow seasons would probably benefit from being about 16 episodes long instead of 20 or more—and, more notably, the inevitable clunkiness of picking the show back up after letting it rest for a few weeks. Generally speaking, hiatuses do Arrow no favors.
- Is anyone here strongly (or even mildly) pro-Cupid? I don’t hate the character, but she just doesn’t really do much at all for me, and I’m not sure the show has ever really invested enough in her insanity to make it properly interesting. But I’d be interested to hear alternative perspectives on her.
- As the sub-headline indicates, at least Diggle and Thea are still having fun. I’ve said before that Thea is actually a strong enough character to work as the lead if Stephen Amell ever permanently left. Not that I’m rooting for that—Amell has gotten really, really good at playing Oliver, even in this bumpy patch of characterization—but I could see a show that’s literally just Thea as Green Arrow and her partner Diggle cracking wise and kicking ass being a whole hell of a lot of fun.