WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Arrow
It was 2012, and DC was losing. Despite The Dark Knight Rises concluding Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Batman trilogy, Joss Whedon’s Avengers film blew the doors off that summer. All the groundwork Marvel Studios laid to get to that point paid off handsomely, and the studio stole everyone’s thunder. (Thanks, Thor.) The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the 500-pound gorilla that tears down other tentpoles left and right, while DC’s Superman projects (Superman Returns, Man of Steel, the forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) don’t make nearly the same impression. Why bring this up in a binge-watching guide? Because Greg Berlanti’s success with Arrow on the CW may be the most important victory DC has had over Marvel in the past decade.
The show about the oft-overlooked archer Green Arrow had a great debut—the highest pilot premiere for any CW show since The Vampire Diaries in 2008—and immediately drew comparisons to The Dark Knight. Centering on philandering playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), the show begins with the character returning to notoriously corrupt and failing Starling City after five years stranded on an island after a mysterious shipwreck that killed his father and left him presumed dead. Once ensconced, he secretly donned a hood and started tracking down names on a mysterious list in order to save his city. While keeping his identity a secret from his mother Moira (Susanna Thompson), younger sister Thea (Willa Holland), best friend Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), and ex-girlfriend Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), Oliver enlists his bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey) to help him fight crime.
In parallel storylines, Oliver’s time stranded on the island gets illuminated, revealing how he went from weak and entitled brat to a steeled fighter. Over the course of three seasons, Arrow has incorporated several characters familiar to comics readers, put its own spin on the Batman/Ra’s al Ghul plot that Nolan employed, and done its fair share of shocking deaths undercut by surprise revivals. (It’s done all this, mind you, while playing up the soapy melodrama of many different relationship possibilities.)
Berlanti’s vision for a television superhero universe didn’t just work, it cultivated rabid fans, just like Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, and other CW programs that now occupy successful niches. And over time, that gritty reboot feel gave way to something more adventurous and goofy, with plenty of room for humor and the weirder characters in DC’s rolodex. While Marvel has successfully surpassed DC in film development, they still haven’t cracked the television code with the same zeal.
DC’s philosophy of putting up a narrative wall between film and television incarnations of its characters has worked wonders for the week-to-week model. And that all got started with Berlanti, Amell, and Arrow. As the new season gets underway, here’s how to catch up with everything going on in and around Starling City.
Number of Seasons: 3 (The fourth started last week.)
Time Requirements: At 70 episodes and climbing, it’ll take almost 50 hours to catch up with the show as it begins its fourth season. But split that up into a handful of episodes per day (which is pretty easy given that several plots per season have multi-episode arcs), and you’ll be caught up in about a month.
Where to Get Your Fix: Netflix
Best Character to Follow: This is going to be a strange pick because Stephen Amell is a mega-hunk, like chiseled from the finest marble in the world C-U-T. And as Oliver Queen, he’s carved out a brooding, affecting performance from what could’ve been man candy with a sleeveless hooded vest. But the best character to follow on the show is one who didn’t exist in the comics, Emily Bett Rickards’ Felicity Smoak. As the goofy IT girl, she starts out as the tech whiz who assists Oliver with some clandestine tasks related to his vigilante side gig. But once she’s brought into the fold, her loss of innocence and subsequent steeling makes her a great audience surrogate with just the right sense of humor. Without Felicity, there’s no way Berlanti would’ve spun off The Flash and the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow with the tones they have. There are some undoubtedly weak moments for her character—times when she’s a damsel in distress or too blatantly hangs on Oliver’s every word waiting for her chance to be with him—but she’s also the show’s one shining original creation, and one that makes Arrow very worthwhile.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
Season 1: Episode 18, “Salvation” Of all the episodic criminal gambits employed by the first season of Arrow, the one with an abandoned subway car traversing underground Starling City and playing violent vigilante against perceived slumlords is the worst. It’s Law & Order-style, ripped-from-the-headlines sociopolitical zeitgeist injected with comic-book ludicrousness, and it doesn’t pair well.
Season 3: Episode 5, “The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak” The thing that makes Felicity Smoak so great is that she brings a lot to the Arrow team without projecting her own cloaked-in-mystery backstory—which is why an episode devoted to creating more of an origin story for her falls flat. There’s no reason for her mother to show up and complicate things other than an obsession with characters’ origins. Not even John Diggle’s revived romance with his ex-wife as a recurring plot is as burdensome as this one hour. Felicity is great and a much-needed comedic presence on the show. Giving her a troubled and hurried backstory is not.
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, “Pilot” Oliver Queen’s origin story as the hardened billionaire would-be savior of his city is so close to Batman that it’s easy to see why it went into development after Nolan’s film trilogy ended. But this pilot sets up Oliver as working on his crime-fighting while simultaneously re-integrating into his family life. His mother has remarried, his ex-girlfriend Laurel is livid at him for cheating on her with her younger sister Sara (who died in the shipwreck), and Laurel’s father Quentin (Paul Blackthorne) is the police detective tasked with hunting down the hooded archer stalking criminals at night.
Season 1: Episode 8, “Vendetta” The best early use of a recurring character from the Green Arrow storylines on Arrow is the debut of Helena Bertinelli (Jessica De Gouw), aka Huntress, as Oliver’s partner in crimefighting and the bedroom. But what’s even better about the two-episode Huntress arc here is that it allows Oliver to find out what’s even too extreme for him. Subsequent seasons make the gravity of this decision kind of ridiculous, given the larger backstory revealed over time, but in the early going, this is a standout moral dilemma.
Season 1: Episode 14, “The Odyssey” This is perhaps the most important episode of the first season, not from a plot standpoint, but from a casting one, as it’s the big moment when Felicity Smoak joins Oliver and John Diggle as a crime-fighting team. (At first it’s temporary, but come on, she’s never going to leave.) There’s also a lot of good backstory in the island flashback between Oliver and Australian operative Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett), his mentor who just gives off a foreboding vibe. This season is rocky when it comes to balancing how the flashbacks inform the present timeline, but here, with Oliver recovering from a gunshot wound, those sequences finally start to click into place.
Season 1: Episode 21, “The Undertaking” John Barrowman is rightly beloved for his role as Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and spin-off Torchwood. But he’s equally delightful on Arrow as the verbal-mustache-twirling antagonist Malcolm Merlyn, father of Oliver’s best friend Tommy. He brings exactly the right kind of Riddler-meets-Joker mix of wit and menace to the role, and the final stretch of the first season is where he really gets to shine for the first time. Oliver finally puts together the pieces of why his father’s boat went down that fateful night, what his mother knew about it, and how all the power brokers in Starling City are connected to a plot to irrevocably alter the city.
Season 1: Episode 23, “Sacrifice” Tommy Merlyn unfortunately gets squeezed out of a lot of Arrow’s major plot moves. John Diggle and Felicity Smoak help out Team Arrow, and Oliver deals with his mother, sister, and stepfather while battling a rotating episodic rogue’s gallery. But still, it was a shame to lose Colin Donnell as a full-time member of the cast. But like any improving show figuring out its tone, the first-season finale brings everything together and sets up dramatic improvement for the next season. Oliver and the team take down a big enemy plot but lose one of their own, while in the flashbacks, information gets teased out about who will become the second season’s Big Bad.
Season 2: Episode 5, “League of Assassins” The beginning of Arrow’s use of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins is also the return of a previously presumed dead character and presents the early rumblings of what has become a massive television undertaking for DC characters. During this season, the addition of that mystery character and Roy (Colton Haynes), a love interest for Oliver’s sister Thea, continues to keep the cast overcrowded. But the only drawback to that is pushing Laurel Lance further and further into the background. In flashbacks, inklings of the Mirakuru synthetic drug plot begin to flourish, which will pay off at the end of the season.
Season 2: Episode 9, “Three Ghosts” One of the best episodes of Arrow is where the backdoor pilot for The Flash begins. Barry Allen’s (Grant Gustin) lighter presence in Starling City helps to even out Oliver’s depressed brooding. He’s also got a great connection with Felicity, which helps keep a strong bond between the shows as characters crossover even more frequently than Joss Whedon’s Buffy/Angel characters did over a decade ago. And the main villain of the season gets revealed—not the corrupt politician Sebastian Blood (Kevin Alejandro), but a vitally important figure from Oliver’s past who has been keeping a grudge.
Season 2: Episode 15, “The Promise” Without the burden of introduction and exposition, the second season of Arrow moves at an impressive clip, filling in island backstory for Oliver, Slade Wilson, and several other characters, while at the same time bringing together Team Arrow in Starling City as they face down an enemy whose origins trace back to the island. It’s a perfectly balanced narrative that reveals just enough to pay off in a satisfying way as the plot moves forward in the present. And it’s no secret that as Arrow started to move away from hand-to-hand combat and gritty realism into more cartoonish style, it got a lot funnier, which even helped make the darker parts of the season land with more shock value.
Season 2: Episode 23, “Unthinkable” One thing to remember: Summer Glau recurs for a few episodes throughout the second season, but only becomes a big part of the plot towards the end. The final arc, beginning with “The Promise” through to this finale, is the strongest single stretch Arrow has done up to this point. It includes a television incarnation of the Suicide Squad, deviations for John Diggle rekindling his marriage, the ascension of Roy Harper to Red Arrow status, and this blistering finale. The Arrow fights Deathstroke, everyone fends off a ‘roided-up army hellbent on destroying Starling City, and the back end of the season treats all the shippers to some glorious Olicity content.
Season 3: Episode 4, “The Magician” After all the unifying narrative fireworks of the second season, the third season of Arrow is a bit rockier, as it contains the death of a major character, some fuzzy amnesia plotting, multiple crossovers, and setups for other shows. But Katrina Law is great as Nyssa al Ghul, and the emphasis on the Oliver/Ra’s confrontation over the course of the season brings Nyssa into the fold not only to defend a lover, but to eventually mentor Laurel and turn her into a viable vigilante character in her own right. Meanwhile, the flashbacks continue, but for the first time they’re not confined to the island, and that deviation helps to underscore why this season feels slightly weaker than the previous one.
Season 3: Episode 9, “The Climb” The entire first half of this season builds to a confrontation between Oliver and Ra’s over who has authority in Starling City. It’s a shocking midseason finale insofar as it painted the show into a narrative corner, challenging the writers to find a reasonable way out. And this is about the point where it becomes almost impossible to comprehend just how many people know Oliver’s secret identity, and how many of those people are becoming secret vigilantes or training to become assassins themselves.
Season 3: Episode 11, “Midnight City” There are so many characters on a superhero show that it’s a wonder Ray Palmer (previous Superman Brandon Routh) hasn’t come up until now. As a rival billionaire, inventor, and love interest for Felicity, Ray is everything that Oliver can’t be, and yet they both somehow want what the other has. He’s infinitely better as a whip-smart yet vulnerable and self-deprecating billionaire who matches Felicity one-liner for one-liner. Even if he’s supposed to finish second to Oliver the whole time, he’s the kind of daytime rival he hasn’t dealt with on the show before.
Season 3: Episode 18, “Public Enemy” The big choice of the season hinges on whether Oliver will accept an offer extended to him by Ra’s al Ghul to take over as the head of the League of Assassins in his place—which justifiably infuriates his daughter Nyssa. But the way in which that looming decision empowers the rest of the team, from Diggle to Felicity to Roy to Laurel to Thea, is perhaps the best team-up the show has ever portrayed. There are way too many characters on Arrow, and by this point the writers knew it, so people start taking leaves or getting picked off so they can go have their own stories in another show. But it’s a doozy of a landing as the final arc of the season starts rolling and the show flashes between Oliver as an assassin-in-training trying to help his friend in Hong Kong and the group in Nanda Parbat.
Season 3: Episode 19, “Broken Arrow” As The Flash got going, Arrow didn’t just deal with crime bosses, but with more outlandish characters from the DC Universe, including metahumans. That has led to a much more fun and campy atmosphere where there used to simply be hard shadows and television-grade fight choreography and cinematography. This is also the point where it becomes clear Arrow will indulge in the Lazarus Pit plot line more boldly than Nolan’s Batman films did, and the inclination towards the supernatural suits the show’s gradual transformation.
Season 3: Episode 23, “My Name Is Oliver Queen” Another season, another standout season finale that ties everything together as well as possible, featuring crossover guest stars, Big Bad showdowns, and shipper romance fodder. The end of the third season features the largest-scale fight scenes the show has attempted, and in the light of day instead of hiding everything with harsh shadows. And finally, finally Felicity gets to do something during the big action scenes other than type at a computer or swoon over Oliver. Here’s to that being standard operating procedure in the fourth season.
Why You Should Binge:
There are already events where Marvel screens every film from the phases of the Cinematic Universe in a row as everyone tries to stay awake during the second Incredible Hulk movie.
Best Scene—The Boxing Glove Arrow:
Green Arrow’s comic book history is more modern-day Robin Hood than it is Dark Knight Returns-era Batman. Arrow has worked up to that level of camp—which The Flash employed in its first season with characters like Gorilla Grodd—and now has a healthy collection of silly moments to call its own. There are myriad YouTube collections of the fight scenes on the show, highlighting showdowns with Malcolm Merlyn, Slade Wilson, and others. But the brief clip that sums up everything the show has become, and how it has endeared itself to viewers as a dark show with a campy, bleeding heart on its sleeve, is the boxing glove. In an episode where Oliver discovers and fights a vigilante who worked Starling City while he was sequestered on the island, there’s a tussle. An arrow goes into a boxing glove, and the rest is (forgive me) a knockout.
Marvel may be winning the battle at the multiplex, but with DC’s strong showing on television, with Arrow as a foundation, they haven’t won the war.
If You Liked Arrow You’ll Love:
The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl.