Spoilers for the entire series follow:
From 2012 to 2014 The CW’s Arrow was on top of the world. The first live-action superhero series since the end of Smallville, Arrow (based on DC Comics character Green Arrow) scratched an itch for weekly tales of comic book crime fighting that viewers didn’t seem to know they had. The show was rightly praised in its first two seasons for its quick pace, genuinely surprising twists, high-quality action sequences, and complex, engaging characters, none more so than lead Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell). This success kick-started a new wave of small screen superhero series, many of which (such as The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow) are parts of the endlessly entertaining interconnected universe Arrow started and anyone who enjoys any of these series, as well as those series own creators, owe some gratitude to early Arrow. That being said, after its awesome second season Arrow‘s own magic seemed to have run out, and its quality quickly declined. The third year did some good work with a few of the more interesting supporting characters but was rather directionless about what it was trying to say about Oliver and was further damned by a truly unsatisfying conclusion. The fourth season was an absolute disaster. The villainous plot was absolutely absurd and far too fantastical for a series that had always kept one foot planted in reality, almost all action sequences lacked impact, and the creators’ obsession with soap opera-like relationship drama and the series’ weakest characters prevented any interesting narratives from taking off. Sadly, it seemed as if the time had come to abandon the first of the many superhero series that now fill our TV screens. However the diminished population that, out of either loyalty or habit, continued watching Arrow as its fifth season began discovered a gem. The fifth season brings back much of what people loved about those wonderful first two years, from the strength of the action to the emotional complexity.
One of the best things about Season 5 of Arrow is that it remembers that as strong as some of the shows supporting players are, its most interesting character will always be Mister Queen himself. The renewed focus on Oliver’s psyche and morality as well as Amell’s revitalized performance give a weight and energy to each episode that the series had been missing for some time. The use of the serialized flashbacks that chronicle Oliver’s five years surviving various hellholes throughout the world before returning home always meant that the fifth season was going to be the end of a chapter for the show. This lends a sense of immediacy and importance to this season’s flashbacks that makes them the strongest since the second season and this gravity leaks over into the present day storyline. But as helpful as their place in the chronology is, the fact is that this year’s main storylines both in the past and the present are just plain good regardless of their slightly increased importance to the show’s history. Oliver’s conflict with serial killer Prometheus in the present day and his time serving as a member of the Russian mob, the Bratva, before returning to the island on which he was originally marooned five years before tie together wonderfully due to the core thematic ideas of exploring Oliver’s relationship with violence and the legitimacy and impact of his vigilante mission to make Star City a better, safer place.
Two noticeable improvements Season 5 makes over the last two years are the action sequences and Oliver’s recently bequeathed position as mayor of Star City. The fight sequences this year are leaps and bounds above those of Seasons 3 and 4 if not quite as mind blowing as those from Seasons 1 or 2. The directors and choreographers of season 5 seem more interested in having Oliver face off with singular opponents who can keep up with him a bit more as opposed to having him take on small armies of goons singlehandedly as he often used to. Holding the camera back allows for some nice long, uninterrupted shots of combat but this costs some of the in-your-face intensity the old closer angles gave. That being said, even if it can’t quite top itself, Arrow is back to offering some of TV’s best action, with Oliver’s one-on-one bouts against Prometheus and the first escalator-set martial arts fight I’ve ever seen being standouts. That mayoral position is a wonderful addition to the show. After taking his family company away from him late in the second season, Arrow has struggled to maintain a balance between Oliver’s vigilante activities and his outside life. Season 4 had a potential dramatic goldmine in Oliver’s mayoral campaign but really only used it as background noise and it’s a mystery to this day what his employment and living statuses were throughout Season 3. Putting Ollie in the mayor’s office gives him, his sister Thea (Willa Holland), and quasi-father figure Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) things to do other than hunting down criminals and the three actors have a delightful chemistry (Oliver and Thea have always had one of the show’s strongest on-screen relationships but adding Quentin into the family circle is a masterstroke). While the political escapades of the show don’t seem particularly realistic (this is a show which once had Thea running a nightclub/bar despite not being old enough to legally drink, after all) they don’t really have to be: they give Amell, Holland, and Blackthorne opportunities to be authoritative and talk down to slimy city politicians and that’s just fun to watch. Giving Oliver a day job which also focuses on helping the good people of his city gives him a unity of purpose that past jobs haven’t and Amell’s performance clearly indicates to the viewer that in spite of himself Oliver enjoys the job, which gives added tension when his administration is threatened in the middle of the season.
Aside from Thea and Quentin, and two others who I’ll get to later, the supporting characters are average at best this year and missteps in their use are evidence that Arrow still has more than a few problems. Oliver takes on a crop of trainee vigilantes early on to fill out the ranks of his dwindling crime-fighting team but the only one given significant development over the year is Rick Gonzalez’s Rene Ramirez/Wild Dog. Joe Dinicol’s Rory Regan/Ragman is entertaining but isn’t given enough focus and leaves unceremoniously in the middle of the season, making his appearances feel somewhat pointless. David Ramsey is still strong as Oliver’s right-hand man, John Diggle, but the downward spiral of writing for the character that started last season continues. The writers need to realize that Diggle’s character works best when acting as Team Arrow’s voice of reason or in romantic scenes with Audrey Marie Anderson’s Lyla and bromantic scenes with Oliver. Instead they continue to have the character, who was introduced as the most righteous and understanding on the show, continue to act immorally or hypocritically object to questionable decisions made by others, when he’s not acting as a cheerleader for the narratively toxic romance that nearly destroyed the show. Emily Bett Rickards’ Felicity is no stronger a character than she was the last two years (in which she received an overabundance of screen time) and shows the same hypocrisy as Diggle. Now, Oliver is often a hypocrite as well, but the important distinction between his characterization and that of his two confidants is that for Oliver, hypocrisy is an established character flaw, one that was consciously included and is openly recognized as a problem he works on. John and Felicity’s hypocrisies, on the other hand, are simply exemplary of inconsistent writing and the fact that the rest of the characters continue deferring to them as if they’re always right despite their spotty track records is infuriating. Finally, comic-relief tech expert Curtis (Echo Kellum) has lost all his appeal and is simply unfunny this year.
That last paragraph may seem contradictory to my praise for this season but that’s because the weakness of those supporting characters is more than made up for by the core narrative of the season, which is an intimate, powerful, character study of Oliver. There are only three pairs of characters and actors that really needed to work for this season to succeed: Oliver and Amell, Josh Segarra as Oliver’s tormentor, Adrian Chase, and David Nykl as Oliver’s friend and Bratva ally, Anatoli Kynazev. Thankfully, these pairs do work, with the actors giving spectacular interpretations of strong material. Nykl was a consistent and entertaining presence in the second season’s flashbacks but played second fiddle to the tragic downfall of Manu Bennet’s terrific Slade Wilson. With Slade’s part in Oliver’s “five years in hell” long since finished and Past Oliver and Anatoly reunited due to the former’s dealings with the Bratva, the flashback sequences put the spotlight firmly on Anatoly, and Nykl really shines. Oliver and Anatoly had already developed a strong bond but their time together in Russia really solidifies how important they are to each other as well as how suprisingly similar they are. Anatoly isn’t an average gangster. Like Oliver he seeks to protect those who can’t protect themselves. Oliver puts on a hood and puts arrows into the criminals and corrupt who exploit the weaknesses in the Star City and larger American systems. In Anatoly’s homeland the system itself is what’s exploitative so he puts his faith in the Bratva, because of its (perceived) loyalty and dedication to helping the little guy. In the flashbacks Anatoly is witness to Oliver at his worst and is horrified by his dear friend’s increasingly violent, often murderous tendenices, while present day scenes have Oliver, picking himself up from possibly his darkest hour yet realizing that five years as a Bratva leader have caused Anatoly to lose most of the idealism that separated him from the rest of their criminal fraternity as Arrow finally deals with the intriguing contradiction of depicting a super hero with ties to organized crime. The shifting nature of Oliver and Anatoly’s relationship is enthralling to watch and Nykl shifts between past and present sequences exceptionally, offering humor and warmth in the former, and a quiet, tired hurt in the latter. But if there is one element of Season 5 that will cause it to stand out most among the rest of Arrow it is Josh Segarra’s performance. Introduced as Star City’s new district attorney, whose brutal tactics mesh well with Oliver’s, Adrian is revealed to be the masked serial killer Prometheus. After losing a loved one to Oliver’s lethal vigilante crusade in Season 1 Adrian has become obsessed with revenge, and has created a meticulously plotted plan to tear the other man’s life apart. Segarra is electrifying in the role, bringing a wonderfully psychotic energy to every scene he’s in. Adrian’s plan may be similar in general concept to Slade Wilson’s in season 2 but the execution is different enough to feel fresh. Slade moved with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball, destroying every aspect of Oliver’s life that he possibly could, while Adrian is much more specific. As Adrian once says he’s always “ten steps ahead” of Oliver and this allows Segarra to go for a unique portrayal of villainy. Adrian doesn’t show his anger openly that often and Segarra is more often than not wonderfully smug, rubbing Oliver’s face in the fact that he can’t keep up, all while making it clear there is a truly terrifying monster hiding under Adrian’s cocky grin. Both Nykl and Segarra bring out the absolute best of Amell, whose passion for Oliver’s character seems reinvigorated by the much stronger material he receives this year. As flawed as he is, Oliver is someone the viewer cares about deeply and Amell makes it absolutely heart wrenching to see him fight for his very soul, displaying both rare vulnerability and the constant will to survive that makes the character one to root for in the first place.
Its impossible to talk about this season of Arrow without giving special praise to its finest episode, “Kapiushon”. The seventeenth episode of the season finds present-day Oliver a prisoner of Adrian, who is torturing him both mentally and physically, while in the past Oliver and Anatoly finally engage corrupt Russian government official Konstantin Kovar (Dolph Lundgren) in a catastrophic confrontation. The direct thematic parallels between Oliver’s weekly adventures in present day Star City and those during his aforementioned “five years in hell” have often been criticized but that’s due to problems with execution, not with the idea of these connections in general. “Kapiushon” proves that when the formula works, it works well. Arrow‘s darkest ever episode by far, “Kapiushon” is all about a terrible secret about Oliver, one Anatoly discovered five years ago which present-day Adrian is determined to force Oliver to confess. One of the great strengths of Season 5 is that it is more than anything a psychological thriller and that is never more on display than in “Kapiushon”. While the flashback story is propelled by a standard espionage plot and has some exciting fight scenes the main focus of both sets of scenes is probing the mind and heart of a character viewers have known for five years and forcing us to wonder whether he is truly the conflicted hero we thought we knew or a dangerous stranger with monstrous desires. The greatest thing a series as far along as Arrow can do is cause viewers to reconsider all they have seen before, and that is exactly what Season 5 in general, and “Kapiushon” in particular, does. I imagine re-watching older episodes, especially from season 1, will be a chillingly different experience after seeing this one.
As I hope I’ve made clear, Arrow is still far, far from perfect and not all problems are being addressed. The return of the romance that ruined the show in the first place is troubling to say the least and the day to day lives of characters other than Oliver still aren’t given enough focus, which leads to a lack of variety in location (this year if a scene isn’t a fight scene or a flashback, chances are it takes place either in the Arrow Cave or at City Hall). Despite all this, Anatoly, the action sequences, the depth given to Oliver, and a cunning villain make this a worthwhile season. Hopefully the finale’s explosive cliffhanger is a sign that some of the core ideas that made this season so fun will carry over into next year. If so, it will be safe to say Arrow‘s back.