Thursday, December 13, 2012

Did 'Arrow' Hit Its Mid-Season Target? (My Assessment Through "Year's End")...

I've said it before, and I'll say it a hundred more times, much to some of my friends' and colleagues' concern: I love my TV boyfriends dark and damaged. Flaws are just as sexy as scars, and if there is anyone who is newly proving that on today's television landscape, it is Arrow himself, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell).

Let's look at Oliver as a man first: once a spoiled, rich, trust fund brat, he was thrown into the worst possible scenario for a kid who never had to do anything for himself when he was marooned on that desert island. He had to actively make the choice to live-- over and over again, fighting the elements, the other inhabitants of the island, and his own inner demons and survivor's guilt. He grew up on that island in a kind of solitary confinement, though he wasn't one hundred percent alone, and that taught him to be introverted and secretive, always protecting himself first, never letting anyone see him sweat, let alone letting anyone into what he was really thinking. 

But then he came home, and soon enough he was faced with having to answer to those around him, previous loved ones he thought he had left behind. Suddenly things looked a lot different, not only in the light of Starling City, but when seen through the eyes of those he was doing everything for, even though he couldn't tell them. They were passing judgements-- and freer ones than they might if they knew their beloved Ollie was in fact "The Hood." Oliver came home from the island carrying himself stiffly, almost robotically, and all these weeks and episodes later, despite a little smirky fun he's started to have with a couple of key characters, he still can't help but present himself that way. It says a lot about how comfortable he feels at his supposed home, surrounded by his "family."

There is a thin line between being introspective and being brooding, though, and Amell has always managed to walk on the right side of the line so that no one would accuse him of portraying Oliver as affected. But early on in the season, when he was spending so much time in his lair, in his own head, it was easy to confuse the two things. The life he walked back into was so seemingly charmed that how he took it for granted was upsetting. The audience knew his mother had him kidnapped, but he didn't, and yet he was putting this narrow-focused plan ahead of the reunion that should have been a long time coming. Of course, when you live in your head for so long, the reunion that everyone else wants and thinks should be a no brainer for you to want, too, is not actually something that comes naturally. You've long since resigned yourself to the fact that you'd never see these people again; you've gotten yourself comfortable with being a loner. Anything else just messes up your plans. Oliver has had to make so many adjustments in such a short amount of time, but the one thing that remains unflinching is his drive. 

Oliver Queen is a man on a mission-- a man who doesn't have a whole lot of self-esteem or self-worth outside of his self-proclaimed "calling" in life. He is a man who is so desperate to make up for the sins of his family, in addition to his own-- both past and any potential ones he might have committed had he never got smacked into awareness by those waves. He is not your typical hero, and that is what I love about him. He is a sad character-- one who surely wouldn't consider himself a hero-- and that is so much more admirable than those who expect praise and accolades after the good deed is done. Oliver is still a little bit broken, but every arrow he shoots toward his goal should help heal him.

Arrow is not perfect. In nine short episodes it has repeated itself a bit and relied on exposition more times than it should have. It told when it should have showed with just about every name to be crossed off on the list. In order to keep up the fast pace of the action, and to keep the story through Oliver's eyes, the show had to sacrifice the audience getting a sense of who these guys were outside the on-paper basics. To a degree that makes sense: they are just a blip in Oliver's story, so why bog it down with too many details? At times it felt unfair to skip over them so flippantly, but for such a high concept show, it has not really been riddled with growing pains at all.

At the same time, though, exposition here and there has allowed for so much of the rest of the story to move forward faster, and one of the things I've loved most about this season thus far of Arrow is just how action-packed it is. I don't just meant the stunts here-- though those have always been amazingly impressive, especially when you consider how much work goes in behind-the-scenes for something that gets cut together to only be 20-30 seconds of screen time. Mostly I'm talking about how much they've evolved not just their hero but just about every character thus far. There was not one second wasted with filler or something that wouldn't come back to matter in a big way down the line in each of the nine episodes. The pilot started so heavily down a path of Moira (Susanna Thompson) being cunning and potentially untrustworthy, only to then have the show get sidetracked with other things.  The same can be said for Oliver's other personal relationships, yet we get enough of them in each episode that it never feels like the show is sacrificing the emotional stuff for something that merely pushes the plot along. Each episode is planting seeds for a much larger story to unfold, and that is Arrow's greatest accomplishment: it has a plan, and it is executing it sharply.

When it comes to Moira, they've come full circle now, with the mid-season finale, "Year's End," to show she actually isn't nearly as powerful as one might have assumed. I can't help but be dismayed by that, even though in the end it means she has much more humanity than initially assessed. She's just another woman being manipulated, and that's never something that can be reassuring. 

The introduction of Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman) was supposed to put this high society parenting style into perspective. But really it has reaffirmed how much Moira cares and how far she'll go. She kidnapped Oliver to find out what he knows-- but only to protect him from it. It's one thing to be ignorant and innocent and a pawn in a game of getting to the person with the power. It's another to have information that could be shared and therefore be an important player, too. But for as ominous as Malcolm was made to seem before he was revealed to be Malcolm, it did not change my thinking about Tommy (Colin Donnell) at all. I have no doubt that seeing the kind of cloth Tommy is cut from is meant to set up a bit of sympathy but also understanding-- so that if he rages later and becomes the Lex Luthor, so to speak, there is a traceable reason. But it is not a justified reason. Don't get me wrong; Malcolm is not a good guy, but nothing Malcolm said to or about Tommy was wrong. Tommy is a leech, a mooch, a stain on his bank account. The kid is almost thirty, and he's just living and partying off a trust fund? Cutting him off made me respect and like Malcolm more, not Tommy.

Just as I respect and like Walter (Colin Salmon) more for the sneaking around his wife's back that he's doing to look into the company bank accounts and salvage of the boat and now the notebooks with the hidden list (though it is weird that there would be multiple identical copies of such books in the world...) I'll admit that it seemed like Walter was just going to be a distant periphery character at first, around to cause tension as a replacement father but not really clued into anything else. I think it speaks volumes about the attention to detail from the writers and producers that all of their characters are being utilized in their own unique and important ways. I especially am intrigued by Walter and Felicity's (Emily Bett Rickards) working relationship, and I kind of hope she finds out about Oliver and uses it to her advantage. He's making it really easy for someone as smart as her to be onto him, and it seems a lot like a test.

Oliver is better with computers than he probably should be-- having five years of technology to catch up on. He built himself a digital lair in a day-- one which he has used to hack-- err, access-- important police and other government databases all on his own, all within seconds, and yet, he still went to Felicity to research where to buy a certain kind of arrow? The CW's sponsor Bing may be new, but Google has been around for years... It was suspect, to say the least.

Yes, a lot has happened in such a short amount of time-- from introducing key characters in a small way that implies their importance upon return, to acknowledging the obvious timing of Oliver's return and the vigilante's first "victims," to revealing Oliver's other side to someone within his circle. Actually, the part of what I was always most pleased by was the fact that Oliver made the choice to reveal himself. He could have saved Diggle (David Ramsey) and disappeared, but he brought him to his lair and then sat with him to make sure he was okay and would see him when he awoke. Oliver can say a lot of things about how the island changed him, but it did not break him; it made him much more compassionate because it simply made him think about other people at all. I also think this screams volumes about how lonely Oliver may actually feel, desperate for a connection, though knowing intellectually how dangerous it would be for his loved ones to know the truth.

What I am most interested to see in the second half of the season is how Oliver is affected-- if he will spiral-- as he starts to uncover a deeper truth about the corruption in his city and his own family's involvement. He has been so steadfastly sticking to this code in a way that leads me to believe he forced himself to believe certain things because the alternatives were too scary, let alone far off. But the Dark Archer has cracked the door for him to wonder now-- and to dive into the overall mythology more than the case of the week bad guys, too.

If I had to lament one loss in the first half of Arrow season one, it would be that the island flashbacks are not in every episode and actually have been pretty few and far between lately. It may be contrived to put them in every episode-- to force the lessons learned to connect just that closely-- but the island experience was so brutal and intense and important in shaping the Oliver we know and love now, and let's be honest, when you know and love someone, don't you want to get to know everything about them, including where they came from, even if that exposes just how f*ed up their life has been? Maybe it's just me...

But consider this: in the comics, Oliver first met China White (Kelly Hu) on the island. In Arrow, the first encounter the audience sees between the two is in Starling City. I'd like to go back to the island and know for sure if she was there. Because it certainly would have affected how Oliver reacted to her in Starling City if their first on-screen show encounter was not actually their first meeting in general.

When it comes to the DC characters in general, I didn't come into the show hoping for too much since I didn't know too much about this world. I love that Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim are taking care to give voices to those lesser knowns, but for me what makes or breaks the adaptation is how grounded the character can be-- and who is cast in the role. While they are without a doubt comic book nerds (and I say that with love), they also have the strong family drama sensibility on their side, in part infused from Greg Berlanti, who may be the king of such things. Because of this, I strongly believe the themes of Arrow hold up greatly, even outside of the comic book, suspended disbelief, fantasy world, and in order for those "bad guys of the week" or even the bigger bads of the season to hold up, as well, they can't all be cartoons running around with fancy costumes. Sometimes a bad guy just looks like the guy next door. So for as excited as I am that Seth Gabel is coming in as "The Count," I am more excited that his comic counterpart Vertigo was tamed for television. He can still be flamboyant and evil, but in a much more real world, and knowing Gabel, charming, way.

The same goes for the Bertinelli family and the way they were shown as mobsters, making Starling City feel like it could live in a subset of Chicago. There has to be a partial suspension of disbelief with this show, but they keep it grounded wherever and whenever they can. What could have been campy in less capable hands is extremely real and raw and dark. Even the Royal Flush Gang was given a very relatable, very "now" real world makeover by showing a father and son who had fallen on tough times and resorted to robbery to keep themselves afloat. In both these families, Oliver saw so much of his own family and their influence reflected and distorted, warped by the corruption they had caused. It's no wonder he shared who he truly was with someone from each.

But showing his face underneath the hood with these two continued proving what I was thinking about the how lonely this lone archer actually is. It is lonely keeping such a big part of yourself and your purpose a secret, and Oliver is torn by this. He wants to share it-- he just can't without risking those he loves even more than he already is. Once you let one person in, a weight has been lifted, but the desire to share doesn't go away: in fact, often it intensifies. 'One person knows and accepts me (for the most part), who else can I tell!?' It's one thing to have Diggle know his secret and to be working alongside him even while he's in his ear like Jiminy Cricket. But Oliver doesn't want to sleep with or share his life with Diggle, so there's a finite amount of satisfaction he can take from having Diggle's support. It's a slippery slope, but there is great hope in it nonetheless.

Of course, Oliver having come from the absolutely brutal world that was the island, he can't willingly let person after person in, despite what his heart may want. Thankfully, Amell has been showing this internal struggle on his face as Oliver has to stay smart, stay stoic, and stay solitary-- to a degree-- because he only knows he can trust himself one hundred and fifty percent. Everyone else falls into the gray area-- either of morality or simple muddying of his mission. Oliver has built himself up to be as strong as a machine, but he is super vulnerable underneath it all.

It probably doesn't help that the audience is now ahead of him when it comes to a number of key things, including the identity of the Dark Archer. The show operates best when the audience is going along with Oliver for the ride, learning as he does, seeing and therefore understanding and emphasizing with his point of view. The few times the show pulls out to a more omnipotent POV just serves to remind that it's all a story, and ultimately we're flipping pages in a giant, visual comic book. It's jarring. I'd much rather stay immersed in the world the whole time.

Knowing Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) will be coming in should certainly complicate things, though. He's just another character that could learn the truth quickly (I don't want to get too ahead of things and assume to much, though), and it's going to take a lot in my eyes for him to earn that right. Personally I hope Arrow's version of Roy Harper isn't Speedy, Green Arrow's sidekick from the comics but instead more akin to the addict teen characters from the younger incarnations of the comics. I think that way Roy would be a great foible to Oliver, in that Oliver would be distracted dealing with some kid who he might see himself reflected in and therefore be inclined to help. If that's not the case, though, and he is in fact Speedy, I hope it's a reluctant partnership-- especially if this new kid has eyes on Oliver's little sister.

Not only does Roy seem to fill a void there's no reason Diggle should be leaving, but it creates a much wider world of not only "in the know" but also "helpful, sidekick" characters than I personally want for this show so early in. In the comics, Roy is "Speedy," but in Arrow, Thea (Willa Holland) has been nicknamed this (which I fully admit I always mistakenly hear as "Sweetie"). Now, I never thought she should have become her older brother's sidekick; that would have just been too convenient. Nicknames can mean a lot of things; mine was Speedy, too, in middle school because of how quickly I would finish classroom assignments. But more and more, the show seems to push Thea aside, casting her unnecessary, making me wonder why they'd give Oliver a sister if not to use her. There is a lot of potential with her following in his detrimental footsteps, but sadly there isn't a lot of time to pay it off on-screen because Oliver is so preoccupied with everything else. I just don't want to see characters go the way of expendability if they're not ones who can and will challenge Oliver physically. The emotional and psychological challenges mean more to the man, even if they're not as flashy to showcase. Therefore, it would make the most sense to me for Roy to come onto Oliver's radar through Thea, to better flesh out his familial loyalties and pull.
Now, I wasn't in love with Jessica de Gouw as The Huntress, but I am in love with the idea of the character and what she represents for Oliver himself. There's a part of me that wishes the show had waited a little bit to introduce her-- to have the ratings clout under its belt to potentially get a different caliber. Don't get me wrong, de Gouw is very sweet and has a lot to bring to any role as an actor, but she's very young, and I think that negatively affected the dynamic between Helena and Oliver. How much can someone really test you if you see yourself as superior not only for your methods and motivations but for where you are in life in age and maturity, too? The Huntress is the type of character I'd want to see stick around-- not to work with Oliver consistently as a "team" vigilante but-- to challenge and attract him. They're not identical, the way she naively claimed, but they are certainly similar enough. And they certainly have things they can learn from each other, each having their own specific mission and therefore "code." Come on, didn't anyone else want Helena to bellow "You failed your family" to Frank (Jeffrey Nordling) before she tried to take him out!?

The chemistry between Oliver and The Huntress should have been explosive from the minute they saw themselves reflected, even if warped, in each other. We never should have never been able to look away, and the show shouldn't have been willing to let her ride away, but we did, and it was, and that's a slight shame.

For as much of the heart of the pilot as Oliver and Laurel's (Katie Cassidy) relationship seemed to be, as the episodes went on, the show stayed far enough away from the potential coupling that it almost became hard to make the argument that they should be together-- especially when seeing Oliver with The Huntress. He never fully let his guard down with her either, but she was the closest he ever got, and with more time, I think he would have warmed even more simply because he wanted to. He never seemed more at ease than when showing off for her, shooting anything she tested him with in mid-air-- or off her palm. What that would set up could be Oliver's greatest test.

Laurel is (understandably) stand-offish with Oliver, even when they've shared nice, comfortable, and comforting moments together. She feels the need to keep herself guarded around him so she doesn't get hurt again, so any tender moment (such as him revealing his scars to her, and her being so overcome with emotion, though not quite love, she kissed him) seems a slip. Even if it's a slip of true feelings and self. She had a similar moment when she came to his and Tommy's aid in the nightclub, kicking the ass of the douchey owner and his bodyguards. But the minute she has these little breaks from the image she has crafted to uphold-- the minute we see the cracks in her facade-- she retreats behind her fancy suits again. She is much more like Oliver than either of them seem to realize. She's protecting herself from him, and he's protecting her from him, too. Sometimes two people who are too similar fizzle instead of spark, and these particular two have so much history, they are like that long-in-the-tooth couple who have nothing to say to each other unless they're bickering over a wrong that should be long since buried in the past but of which at least one of them just refuses to let go, but I don't like that because I so badly want to want Oliver and Laurel to get back together. Even if it's misguided and makes things worse. They need to duke it out so he can realize she can protect herself around him and then they can both move on however they see fit from there. 

Arrow has already, in only nine episodes, proved it can seamlessly blend genres and deliver a complicated protagonist who embodies the shades of gray (no pun intended) while trying to live a very black and white existence. It easily puts you in Oliver's position and because of that, it makes you ponder deeply your own sense of family, community, morality, and general relationship and societal values. Most of us are far too selfish to ever live the life Oliver Queen is attempting, but what is really haunting about Arrow is that the main reason Oliver is doing this is because he doesn't feel worthy. Regardless of whatever he physically went through on the island, that is his deepest scar. He is working so hard to fix his city, but the show isn't allowing him to do it at the expense of failing himself, and that is the best kind of hope in such a tale.

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