‘Arrow’: How a Death Set Season 4 Up for Failure
A major character death changes the landscape of any TV show. When you subtract someone whose presence drives the story forward, the dynamic shifts on a tectonic level. For superhero shows though, the rules are a little different. Comic books have long demonstrated that death is never the end for a major character, killing off and resurrecting heroes and villains at an astronomical rate. It’s a device used to demonstrate stakes without having to actually suffer the price of losing an important character, and at times it can stretch an audience’s patience to the limit.
No show has been more guilty of this than CW’s Arrow. Throughout its four seasons, it’s made a habit of playing fast and loose with death. Virtually every major character has either actually bit the dust at some point, or at least appeared to. It’s a long list, that includes two apparent deaths for Sara Lance, and one for each of Thea Queen, Oliver, Malcolm Merlyn, Quentin Lance, Ray Palmer, and Roy Harper. Sometimes it’s a magic resurrection pit (Sara, Thea, and possibly Malcolm), other times it’s a bait and switch (Oliver, Lance, Ray, Roy). Arrow has used just about every trick in the book to undo death’s sweet embrace, and the act is beginning to wear thin.
The exact breaking point is easy enough to pinpoint, taking place in the show’s midseason finale that just aired. In it, we spend an entire episode reading tea leaves that tell us that Felicity Smoak will be the next to go. Waiting until the moment Oliver gets down on one knee and proposes, the closing moments show Felicity suffering from what appears to be a fatal gunshot wound, followed by a fade to credits. It’s a midseason finale that mirrors the apparent death of Oliver last year around this same time, and it’s an event that’s entirely lost all weight for us as an audience.
Let’s rewind a bit first though. Season 4 kicked off with a flash forward, showing Oliver in tears, mourning over an unmarked grave. While it was easy to assume that Felicity would be the one to eventually kick the bucket, not showing the name on the headstone left just enough of an opening for us to maybe think it’d be someone else. The problem with this is twofold. First, Arrow wrote and shot the scene with the unmarked grave before the creators themselves even knew the identity of the deceased. Executive producer Wendy Mericle confirmed as much at a press screening, admitting, “we don’t necessarily know who it is right now.”
So that’s the first issue: The show set up a major character death, with no plan in place for how they’d actually get there. The second problem concerns the impossible situation the whole graveyard scene presents. We know now that Felicity actually survived her wounds, meaning the show spent a whole season playing coy about something that never actually came to pass. Now that it was someone else, we have yet another case of Arrow playing the bait-and-switch game. With the answer fianlly in hand, it sets the stage for a predictable end to the season, which in and of itself would be a tragedy given Neal McDonough’s terrific work as our main villain.
Now if Arrow ends up delivering a third outcome we’re not expecting, then we’ll happily eat crow and bow down to a feat of superior storytelling. Past behaviors have taught us this isn’t likely though; what we’re more likely to see is much, much worse. While a fan-favorite character in Felicity Smoak didn’t end up being shuffled away from the show forever, Arrow has once again taken away all sense of consequence by having her survive, in favor of killing off an entirely different character sans foreshadowing or sense. It’s a dilemma Arrow wrote itself into from the very beginning, and it doesn’t give us much hope for the future of the series.
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