Arrow – Season 8 Episode 1
Arrow begins its eighth and final season with a trip down memory lane to the beginnings of Oliver Queen’s crusade.
TV shows in their final season often get nostalgic because they’ve earned the right to do so. Seven seasons on the air builds up a significant legacy and Arrow has always been good at developing it while using what has come before to build the future. This episode is a great example of how far things have come since the show began.
The episode opens just as the first episode did, with Oliver traversing Lian Yu in order to get the attention of a nearby boat that can get him off the island. Things are immediately different such as a Batman cowl where the Deathstroke mask once was and Oliver’s far shorter hair. From here we get something of a remixed version of the pilot where Oliver returns home to find that his mother is now married to Malcolm Merlyn and Thea died of an overdose on her 18th birthday. It’s immediately apparent that this takes place on another Earth where Oliver Queen never returned from Lian Yu.
It makes for a really clever way to explore Oliver Queen’s legacy in a way reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life. Oliver gets to see what the world would be like if he never returned and it’s largely worse off without him. There is still a heroic vigilante presence in Starling city led by Laurel as the Black Canary partnered with Adrian Chase in the guise of The Hood but there’s also a lot wrong with this reality such as the city being terrorised by the Dark Archer with Tommy Merlyn in the role rather than his father. Dinah and Rene are allied with Tommy which puts them on the wrong side so it’s easy to see how things are worse without Oliver Queen being around to help people find a better path.
What I find interesting about this exploration of Oliver’s influence on the city and the people in it is that it’s not wholly positive. A big part of this show has been how flawed Oliver Queen is and what he does to make up for his mistakes so there has never been any attempt to characterise Oliver as anything close to perfect. Adrian Chase in a more heroic role exemplifies this perfectly as Oliver had a very negative impact on him which led him down a path of vengeance which ultimately consumed him. In essence the episode is trying to say that not everything is made better by Oliver Queen being an active force in the world but he does a lot more good than harm and it’s a message that is conveyed very well.
There are other things that don’t seem to be impacted by him such as Malcolm being a good person and the absence of Walter but things like that can be explained away by other differences in an alternate universe leading those characters down different paths. Malcolm mainly exists as a red herring to hide the shift in identity for the Dark Archer. That doesn’t necessarily work on the viewers who could see that coming a mile off but it does present a problem for Oliver who makes assumptions based on his own experience. If he learns one thing from this adventure it’s that things don’t always play out as he expects them to in other universes.
Tommy as the villain may not necessarily be a surprise but it works on a number of levels. Even though it isn’t the Tommy Oliver knew he’s certainly close enough for him to latch onto. The bond of friendship comes across strongly with both actors falling easily into the old back and forth that they shared in season 1. This allows the villain reveal to be something that shocks Oliver and gives the struggle a defined emotional grounding. Considering how rapidly the episode rushes through what took an entire season before this is absolutely necessary and the familiar elements at play make it easier to accept the rapid plotting. Even Tommy’s motivation for becoming The Dark Archer and wanting to destroy The Glades works because it’s easy to imagine how close he and Thea might have become in the intervening years which makes it plausible that he would be destroyed by her death to the point that he wants to take it out on those he feels is responsible. Oliver managing to talk him out of it with a well placed speech continues the idea of the world being better with him in it as well as the ongoing Arrow theme of being able to find redemption in the darkest of times. Instead of being a bad person Tommy is simply misguided and Oliver helps him realise that killing lots of people isn’t a good outlet for the pain he is unable to process. It’s a great showing of the Oliver/Tommy friendship and an excellent tribute to the first season.
Oliver Queen’s characterisation in this episode is great. The previous season ended with The Monitor cashing in the deal he made to put him to work before his -apparently- inevitable death and this season begins with a look at what that mission is. It seems that he is to tour the Multiverse to obtain items necessary to perhaps stop the coming Crisis. Naturally The Monotor is vague and doesn’t tell Oliver why he has to do something for reasons that will hopefully become clear. The first stop is this alternate Earth to find some Dwarf Star material though the item he needs isn’t actually important because it’s all about what this means for him as a character. As I’ve already mentioned Oliver remains flawed as shown by him making assumptions based on his previous experience despite this being a different universe. He also makes the mistake of assuming that he has to assume this responsibility all by himself; an error he frequently makes. The appearance of “his” Diggle into these events gives him the benefit of his best friend and right hand man to help him. Diggle is there to remind him that he’s not alone and can rely on the help of those who care about him. Oliver predictably rejects this at first which allows for a fun throwback to the pilot where he tricks Diggle into being knocked out but it doesn’t take long for him to realise that his friend won’t let this drop and includes him in this mission.
The Oliver/Diggle friendship is one of the pillars of the show so it’s great to see that this isn’t sacrificed with the vastly different direction for the final season. If this is to be a trip through the Multiverse then it’s great that Oliver and Diggle will be doing it together. Diggle has always been a character who can get to the root of what Oliver is feeling and help him move forward. This is something he does here by reminding him of the support he has and refusing to accept that Oliver has to die. If there is a way to prevent it then Diggle will be the one to find it.
Outside of that friendship, Oliver as depicted here is someone who has learned a lot over the years. Nothing about this reality surprises him as he has had to face dead loved ones on several occasions as well as witnessing allies become enemies and vice versa so there’s very little that can surprise him at this point. He takes learning that Tommy is the Dark Archer in his stride and is completely unphased by all of the changes he encounters in this universe with the exception of Thea’s death which proves to be something of a shock for him. Oliver is very focused on what he has to do while also being impacted by everything he sees which allows this trip into an alternate universe to carry real emotional weight. When Oliver interacts with the alternate version of his mother he’s thrown by how similar she is to the woman he knew but also gets a form of catharsis when he is able to say goodbye to her which is something he was denied before. He is also visibly affected when he has to watch her disintegrate when the universe is destroyed. I often talk about how outlandish elements such as the erasing of an entire universe can be grounded in something that the audience can relate to and Oliver watching versions of those he care about erased from existence gives it that emotional grounding. It’s a great example of merging high stakes with personal ones. Oliver isn’t only fighting to save the Multiverse he’s fighting to save those he cares about.
The episode also features a continuation of the flashforwards in the previous season. Mia, William, Connor and Lucy are working together as a successor to Team Arrow and finding it difficult to harmonise. Each of the characters have something of their parents in them which means that Mia stubbornly doesn’t play well with others which causes issues in their initial operation. William has taken on a leadership role but doesn’t entirely have the respect of everyone else so is ineffective at this point. They are all agreed that Mia is too reckless and needs to learn to trust the rest of the team rather than going off on her own. This sets up Mia’s arc for the season and establishes a narrative where this new team have to learn to be more effective without the help of those that preceded them.
I do like these characters and the introduction of John Junior (Charlie Barnett) as the villain provides a personal connection between the team and the antagonist that could provide a lot to work with as the season progresses but this would have been better left for a later episode. There was a lot to get through here with the show redefining itself in its shorter final season so the cuts to the future plot felt distracting and upset the pacing of the episode. Thankfully the plot and character dynamics were interesting enough but leaving this aspect of the show until the next episode would have be been more than acceptable.
An excellent opening to the final season that delivers a nuanced exploration of Oliver Queen’s legacy by revisiting prior events in an altered way. Allowing Oliver to see what the world would have been like had he not returned is a really good way to explore the impact he’s had on it. For the most part his influence is positive but his mistakes are also acknowledged such as Adrian Chase portrayed in a more heroic light rather than being consumed by vengeance on the back of a decision Oliver made. Arrow has always been about how the flawed Oliver Queen learns and improves so having that reflected in a world that doesn’t have him is really good. This episode manages to burn through a lot of plot by allowing the audience to fill in the blanks based on the prior version of this story. Tommy Merlyn as The Dark Archer isn’t really a surprise but it helps Oliver learn the lesson to not make assumptions based on his experience where other universe are concerned. Familiarity with that friendship allows Tommy’s motivations to make sense and for a resolution to this story that has an emotional impact.
Oliver’s characterisation in the episode is great. Bringing “his” Diggle into it allows that friendship to continue rather than be sacrificed by the new direction the show is taking. Diggle also reminds him that he doesn’t need to act alone and he should rely on the support of his friends even though his on a very definitive mission. He also makes it clear that Oliver’s death is something he intends to find a way to prevent. Outside of that Oliver is characterised as someone who has learned a lot over the years. He isn’t surprised by encountering alternate versions of his loved ones and he’s seen enough of allies become enemies etc to be able to roll with the punches. This doesn’t mean he’s not affected by what he encounters as he is visibly saddened by Thea’s death and is thrown by how similar this version of Moira is to the woman he knew. He does get a form of catharsis by being able to say goodbye to her but also has to watch her disintegrate when the universe is erased. This helps grounds the high stakes into something a lot more personal. The flashforwards continue though they would have been better left for a later episode as the cuts to them are distracting and bring the pace down. Seeing the growing pains of the new team and how much Mia takes after her father is interesting as is the reveal that John Junior is the villain but leaving this until later would have benefited an already busy episode.
- using familiar elements to explore Oliver Queen’s legacy
- highlighting Oliver’s triumphs and mistakes to deliver a nuanced exploration of Oliver’s impact
- preserving the Oliver/Diggle friendship
- Oliver’s characterisation
- high stakes tempered by an emotional grounding
- the flashforwards acting as a distraction that upsets the pace of the episode
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