I’ve recently been able to catch up on the third season of Arrow, which has something of a reputation for being less than stellar. Much like when I was rewatching the Star Wars prequels recently, the question of the quality of the series was something that weighed up my mind.
So, then. Was Arrow season three really that bad?
The short answer is no.
As for the long answer? Well, as ever, things are much more nuanced and complicated than they’d initially appear. Arrow Season 3 was, in many ways, the weakest season of of everything we’ve seen thus far in the CW DC universe - and yet, despite that, it did do a lot of things right, and introduced some interesting concepts.
Certainly the strongest aspect of this season was the overarching theme introduced; the question of who, exactly, Oliver Queen is, and what he’s able to achieve as the Arrow. As a through line for the series, it’s actually something that the execs made an impressive job of examining; it’s set up right from the beginning, framed in terms of Oliver’s potential relationship with Felicity (more on that later) and further examined through his interactions with the other characters. It’s in this season that we see a lot of other heroes established, and they’re all there to act as foils to Oliver; Barry crosses over from The Flash, questioning Oliver’s methods, and we see Ted Grant as Wildcat, a vigilante who gave it all up because he went too far.
Of course, it’s examined in more depth through the regular cast, particularly Colton Haynes as Roy and Katie Cassidy as Laurel. When we’re watching them develop as heroes, it’s framed alongside and contrasted against Oliver as the Arrow - it’s something that’s thrown into sharp focus during the Danny Brickwell mini-arc, wherein Oliver isn’t in Starling, and our supporting cast have to pick up the slack. True, it’s a little Dark Knight Rises, but through this juxtaposition the show was able to make some interesting commentary on what it is to be a hero, and at the same time developing our main cast of characters.
The parallels are most overt between Ray and Oliver though - the billionaire who lost something, driven to protect his city. They get some nice humour out of it (there’s a great scene with the salmon ladder) but there’s some genuine depth to it as well, I think. Oliver always took the approach that he can be the Arrow, or he can be Oliver - he can’t be both. And, as the Arrow, he can’t maintain any relationships, or get too attached to people. Yet Ray Palmer comes along, and he manages to succeed where Oliver has failed, over and over again; with his company, with Felicity, and as the ATOM. It’s an important part of the ultimately identity crisis arc that carries across the series, and Oliver’s struggle between who he wants to be, and who he had to become to save his city.
The arc is well done for the most part, and they even manage to pull it into the flashbacks; in Hong Kong, we see Oliver begin to lose himself, and become much closer to the vicious killer he was in season one, whilst at the same time slowly learning what happened to Masseo and Tatsu in a rather clever non linear narrative.
But it does begin to fall apart towards the end of the season, as does nearly everything else. Now, personally speaking, I’d say the first run of 9 episodes is a decent stretch, as is the Danny Brickwell arc; it’s after episode 15, however, that things start to stop working. Your mileage may vary on this one; I’ve seen people suggest it’s earlier, placing the cut off point at episode 12, but for me, the problems began with The Offer. Episode 15 was where we saw Ra’s Al Ghul name Oliver as his successor, and the League of Assassins (I’m not one to get picky about comic adaptation changes, but “League of Shadows” really is a better name) become the main antagonists for the rest of the season.
Honestly, it is difficult to say that this works. There are a couple of different reasons for this, of course; notably, in comparison to previous years, there aren’t really any personal stakes in play for Oliver. With both Slade and Merlyn (and, as a bonus, Harrison Wells over on The Flash) the final confrontation had been deeply personal, even bordering on intimate. It was, I think, part of that intensity that raised the stakes for those prior confrontations; in lacking that, something else needed to fill the gap with Ra’s Al Ghul.
And… well, they tried to tie Ra’s into the identity crisis arc, but they do a poor job of it. I think, in part, it’s because much of the circumstances and consequences involved just aren’t entirely clear: we get this threat from Ra’s, instructing Oliver to take his place in the league “or else”, but we’re then left with some variation of “I just don’t really want to”, which isn’t exactly a great, compelling thematic point. Certainly, there’s a genuine question as to why Oliver doesn’t just accept the role, have his new minions kill Ra’s, and then abdicate; it’s the sort of thing that’d appear to solve all his problems.
You then end up with a fairly muddled set of motivations, ranging from secret prophecy to pretending to be brainwashed, and the surprise stipulation that the new Ra’s has to destroy his previous home town - that being why we care about Starling at the minute. It’s just difficult, ultimately, to be invested in this finale, because we haven’t really seen why we should; for all the talk about the League of Assassins being genuinely threatening, we never really see any evidence for this fact.
It leads to an ultimately underwhelming finale, which is a shame; given that the high points of both the previous seasons have been their finales, the fact that this one has been lacking is a significant contributing factor to the overall condemnation of this season.
There was of course another aspect of the season finale, and indeed the season as a whole, which was quite controversial. I speak, as I’m sure you’ve surmised from the picture, of “Olicity”. (For those of you who unfamiliar with the portmanteau, I refer to the relationship between Oliver and Felicity.)
This is… difficult to comment on, as it goes. Going into the series, I’d heard a lot of bad things about this relationship, but particularly framed in terms of Felicity. So, you know, I was sort of expecting to see the arc handled quite poorly; there was an instance in the series four crossover, Legends of Yesterday, wherein Felicity was written as particularly unreasonable, which I was expecting to be the template for her character across the series.
As with most of the flaws of season 3, however, I think for the most part it was blown out of proportion. Generally, I quite liked the overarching plot given to Felicity - the fact that she wasn’t going to wait for Oliver at the beginning of the season, her relationship with Ray, and the eventual reunion with Oliver. Typically speaking, I think the unwavering conviction given to Felicity was a nice touch, and in many ways was an interesting piece of character development and growth after the past two seasons.
It’s just that there were a lot of individual instances wherein the writing let the character down - something that can be considered a trend across the series. The unwavering conviction was often allowed to devolve into outright selfishness, which was then left uncritiqued by the narrative. I think that’s the crucial reason for why Felicity would have began to grate on certain sections of the audience; there was very little balance in terms of how the character was approached. I’d argue that’s where the core of the problems originated.
Personally speaking though, in terms of the female characters, there was a much larger and more heinous mistake that stood out to me moreso than how Felicity was written: the fridging of Sara Lance. Fridging, if you’re not familiar with the term, refers to when a female supporting character is killed off to provide angst for the male main character, thus furthering his plot at the expense of her own. This was a fairly textbook example of that really - I think Sara does actually end up in a freezer after a while - and it’s a particularly undignified end for the character.
It’s particularly poor, actually, when you consider that Sara was not only the first female hero in the CW DC Universe, but also their most prominent (only?) LGBT character. Arrow doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s important to consider matters in this light. Whilst you can argue that her death provided an important catalyst to further events, it’s also worth remembering that everything that occurred on screen was fictional - there’s no reason why a different catalyst couldn’t have been written instead. I’m glad that they’ve brought Sara back for Legends of Tomorrow, in any case; it allows them to rectify the damage done with this mistake.
Arrow season three is undeniably flawed. It’s also undeniably the weakest of any of the the CW’s superhero offerings. There’s simply no way around that. Despite clever thematic work, much of their overarching aim can be let down as a result of sloppy and inconsistent writing. In many ways, I think the flaws would have been exacerbated when watching it as it was broadcast, one episode per week; there’d be longer to wait between the high points of the series. Similarly, spread out as they were, it’d be more difficult to appreciate the thematic arcs going on - they’re more clear at a distance, I think, when you can consider each episode together, and the season as a whole.
Judging from what I’ve seen from season 4 so far, though, the execs in charge of Arrow are building on and learning from their mistakes (largely speaking; there’s still some notable flaws) throughout last year’s season, hopefully giving us a much stronger offering this go round.
I think that there are merits to Arrow’s third season; that doesn’t mean there aren’t mistakes either. Neither should be forgotten - the merits are to be carried forward, and the mistakes learned from.
Maybe one day we’ll look back on Arrow season three as an essential stepping stone; a season the show had to go through so that it could become something else. Something better.