What Arrow can learn from Agents of Shield: Part 2 - Relationships

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If you’d asked me a few years ago - indeed, if you’d asked many fans of comic book television - whether I preferred Arrow or Agents of SHIELD, I would have chosen Arrow. While Agents of SHIELD showed promise, it was Arrow that delivered on that promise; I often thought that SHIELD could learn a thing or two from Arrow, in terms not just of being a comic book adaptation, but also in terms of simply being a good drama.

Quite unexpectedly, however, the tables have turned. Personally speaking, I’m consistently impressed by Agents of SHIELD, and sadly frequently let down by Arrow. I, of course, do not necessarily represent the views of every fan - plenty of people still love Arrow, after all. But to my mind, at least, Arrow could learn a thing or two from Agents of SHIELD - hence a series of comparative posts, in light of the most recent season of each show, outlining just what Arrow might be able to do differently…

Part Two - Relationships

This is, admittedly, a very tricky one. Arrow criticism of late has been dominated by the topic of relationships; every comment upon the series, by necessity, has had to address a particular key relationship within the series.

That’s “Olicity”.

For those of you who are unaware, “Olicity” is a portmanteau used predominantly by fans to refer to the relationship between Oliver Queen and Felicity Smoak. I say “predominantly” used by fans, because the term has in fact began to proliferate associated media, such as cast interviews and news reports, even to the point where people like Larry King are asking about it. The term has even made it onto Arrow itself! For someone who’s been active in fan circles as long as I have, it is a little weird to see the level of recognition that it’s achieved. (Though I do love every opportunity it’s given me to use the word “portmanteau”.)

There’s a lot of negative back and forth regarding “Olicity”, a lot of which can be reduced to fan politics I’m not particularly interested in embroiling myself in. I do, however, want to note that there are ardent proponents and detractors of this relationship on both sides, and I’ve had conversations with people who are articulate and eloquent in their support of and passion for the relationship.

Nonetheless. As is presumably apparent from the fact I think Arrow could learn a thing or two from Agents of SHIELD, I personally have not been overly happy with “Olicity” during season four of Arrow. (For what it’s worth, though, I would defend it in Season 3 and have done before in the past. Opinions are funny old things, aren’t they? So nuanced and difficult to homogenise.)

To me, the primary issue with Olicity has been in terms of focus, and of balance. Across the course of the season, I’ve felt that this relationship has been given increasing amounts of screen time, at the expense of the other supporting characters. (My issue also extends from concerns over the way Felicity has been written, which are outlined in this prior article.)

Obviously, I don’t want to come across as an emotionally arrested nerd type who can’t handle emotional arcs in a superhero drama. Personally speaking, I’d argue that emotional arcs are a necessity for these programs, and that without them superhero dramas would be utterly vacuous and entirely lacking in any depth at all.

However, I’d in turn argue that the depiction of “Olicity” across Season 4 has been predicated largely upon entirely contrived drama, to the point at which it reaches levels of exaggerated melodrama. I think the couple worked best when it was largely stable, and it was another character attribute for these two individuals; conversely, however, following their breakup, it felt more as though each of these characters was primarily defined in terms of their relationship, and their relationship alone.

(I am sacrificing depth of analysis for brevity, as I’m already quite keenly aware of the length of this piece; I haven’t even reached the comparisons yet.)

Conversely! Agents of SHIELD has also seen a fan favourite couple come together this year, and to my mind it worked far better than its equivalent number on Arrow. In this case, it’s the relationship between Fitz and Simmons. It’s something that had been teased since the finale of the first season, and gradually built up until the third season, with the tentative beginnings of this relationship.

Bluntly speaking, it’s brilliant. I would go as far as to say that it’s the best depiction of a relationship I’ve seen on any science fiction drama; it doesn’t just leave Arrow trailing in the dust, but also programs like Doctor Who, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Primeval, Daredevil, Orphan Black and plenty more besides. It’d take a whole other article to properly analyse it, admittedly, but trust me when I say - it works.

What’s interesting, of course, is that it hasn’t all been plain sailing for either couple. Both of them have had difficulties across this past year (S3 for SHIELD, and S4 for Arrow) which have disrupted the course of the relationships. But the interesting difference is that on SHIELD, those difficulties have been from external factors, whereas on Arrow, they’ve been internal factors.

Where the relationship conflict on SHIELD was derived from outside influences that prevented the pair from being together, Arrow was reliant on giving their characters utterly inconsistent worldviews to ply them apart. I don’t mean inconsistent with each other, of course, but inconsistent with their own between episodes. Much has been made of Arrow’s focus on lying as a plot device; while in theory there’s nothing wrong with that, there needs to be some degree of consistency. My favourite example to point to is the fact that, immediately following the episode where Felicity convinces her mother not to end a relationship because of lying, she then proceeds to break up with Oliver because he was lying.

(I am, of course, aware that it’s a different scenario. However! The writing did not draw attention to this, or make anything of the fact that it was a different situation. It leaves us in a position where Felicity is a firm proponent of lying one episode, before doing a complete 180 the next. Without a degree of development or introspection there, it’s hard to consider this anything other than complete character assassination.)

Now, obviously, those aren’t the only relationships on Arrow, or on Agents of SHIELD. But they are, if you like, the “main ones”, that get the most attention within the narrative and from the fanbase. As such, they’re the ones most well primed for analysis in this article - it’s also where I think Arrow has most to learn. The depiction of, say, Diggle and Lyla is essentially as good as the depiction of Coulson and Rosalind, meaning there’s not a great deal to be said there. I do think, though, there are some key failings with the depiction of “Olicity” in comparison to that of “Fitzsimmons”. (I do love portmanteaus.)

Ultimately, what Arrow has to learn from Agents of SHIELD in this instance is thus: relationship drama does not have to be contrived drama. It need not be dependent on intrapersonal conflict, but can take be influenced by extrapersonal conflict. At all times, one should be true to the characters within their established personalities, rather than simply altering the characters to suit the demands of an increasingly melodramatic plot. Further, it should always be ensured that no one set of characters, or relationship, are focused on at the expense of others…

That final line brings us reasonably neatly onto the next article, which will be focused on the matter of character arcs, and shall be posted early next week.

Related:

What Arrow can learn from Agents of SHIELD: Part One - Character Deaths

Arrow - The Disturbing Trend of Fridging Female Characters

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