Arrow Season 2 Finale Review: Hero's Journey
"Unthinkable" was more than just a season finale. Sure, it resolved Arrow's big Season 2 plots while leaving a few threads dangling to keep us wondering over the summer (you'd better not die on me, Quentin!), but it also brought closure to the stories of all 45 of the episodes that preceded it. Knowingly or not, Arrow had long been building toward those last few scenes of "Unthinkable," with Oliver and Slade in an A.R.G.U.S. cell in the bowels of Lian Yu, and Past Oliver waking up in Hong Kong, free of the island and its terrors. Those moments, along with Thea's departure with Malcolm, made it clear that we're entering a new phase of Arrow's narrative.
The series' first two seasons essentially constitute a single story, a story in which Oliver sought to understand how he could save Starling City, whether as the murderous vigilante or the less murderous hero. Racking up a body count in Season 1 clearly didn't do much, and in the same way that he initially aimed to honor his father's memory by rampaging through the city's criminal element, the no-kill rule in Season 2 was intended to honor Tommy's memory, to subscribe to the notion that maybe there was a better way to make a difference.
This didn't always work out for Oliver, as we've all been very quick to point out. The Count's death. All those dead Russian prison guards. It was good of the show to acknowledge that Oliver had "faltered" with regard to his no-kill rule, and to question whether or not he was capable of following through with it—especially as those around him encouraged him to make an exception for Slade, and then maybe he could really start sticking to it. Of course, Arrow could've done a better job of dramatizing some of that struggle within Oliver, as opposed to having him always work to stay Sara's hand. The temptation to kill someone never really presented itself prior to Slade's return, and even then, Oliver was pretty steadfast in his refusal to off his old friend.
Despite its varying degrees of success, the story of Oliver getting to the point where he accepted that he could be this hero started back in Season 1, as Diggle tried to get him to stop a family of bank robbers instead of just corrupt one-percenters. It was a character arc that took time to build and narrative events to justify. Oliver being so resolved so quickly this season may have been a bit more satisfying, but he needed to be stripped to the barest of essentials in order to realize that he could achieve his goal of honoring Tommy's memory, and perhaps he could save the soul Diggle was worried about back in Season 1 as well.
Oliver thinks with his training and with his arrows, and he thinks as a lone operator. He doesn't think strategically, and he doesn't think as man with allies who are just as committed to his cause as he is. He projects his insecurities and his fears onto his allies; sometimes this is justified, as it is in Sara's case, and sometimes it isn't justified, as in his to-this-point concerns about Felicity's safety. While Slade may've provided Oliver with the ultimate test (for now, because there's always a bigger fish), it was Felicity who provided Oliver with the inspiration for how to defeat Slade without killing the guy, yet still preventing Slade from taking anything or anyone else from him. All it took was a little thought and faith. (And potentially lying to the woman who has a huge crush on him. That must've hurt, Olicity 'shippers.) With Slade's defeat, Oliver finds himself with the confidence and trust in his comrades that he needs in order to commit to this previously thorny path.
It wasn't just Oliver's arc for the past two seasons that was resolved in "Unthinkable," either. Felicity has gone from being the IT woman who ignored flimsy demands about tech needs from her billionaire playboy boss and freaked out when a bleeding Oliver appeared in her car to being willing to inject a de-powering serum into a super-powered psycho who's holding a sword to her neck. That's a corner turned for Miss Felicity Smoak, one that Oliver will have to acknowledge going forward. With a little training, Felicity could certainly protect herself from the more "normal" threats that Starling City faces. Like with Oliver's evolution into being a hero, Felicity's growth as a character had to be motivated by events that meant something to her and those she cares about. Otherwise, it's just "Hey, what if Felicity was suddenly beating up goons?" with no explanation at all.
Thea has faced a similar journey; she started out as a spoiled brat, and now she's angry and broken. Her frustration with the lies and secrets wasn't based solely in the revelations that Moira was involved in the Undertaking or that Malcolm was her father or that Roy wasn't willing to give up his heroic calling; it was based in the fact that no one allowed agency in her own life. Those around her believed she couldn't handle various truths, instead of giving her the respect she deserved to deal with things and work through them. That's why she ended up getting into Malcolm's limo at the end of the episode. In a life where no one offered her choices, Malcolm did: Stay in Starling City, with its lies and half-truths, or join Malcolm where at least he hasn't lied (yet). It was a sly instance of symmetry, given that she rejected Walter's similar offer to take her in following Moira's death.
Then there's the Lance sisters. Only Quentin seemed at all perturbed that his previously presumed-dead daughter was going to go hang out with a bunch of assassins. Laurel was all, "Hey, that's cool, sis. I ain't gonna judge," while Quentin yelling at Nyssa may've been my favorite part of the episode. Laurel's been through a lot, as we've discussed for much of the back half of the season, and to find her feeling content just before Quentin began to succumb to his internal injuries was something of a relief. The hand-off of the leather jacket may've been a passing of the torch, but given how patient Arrow seems to be with developing its characters and their stories, I wouldn't expect her to be joining Oliver in the field all that soon.
Sara seemed happy as well, but I don't know how well that worked for me. Has Sara accepted who she is, or is she just running away from her family again? I like to think that she's obtained some new understanding of herself, but it's not really clear to me whether or not she's had some sort epiphany. Either way, I'm glad that Arrow has left her alive, thus allowing her the chance to return, and also that it kept the League of Assassins link viable.
As I think back on this season, I keep returning to two things. The first is that Arrow grew a great deal in this season. Even if it struggled a bit with Oliver's no killing thing, it was far less awful than the justice/revenge nonsense from last season, so an improvement on that front. It also managed to find a balance between the personal melodrama and the costumed crime-fighting so that Arrow didn't feel like a few different shows competing for attention. While it's pretty ridiculous that pretty much everyone knows Oliver's identity, it also meant that there was more overlap in those story threads, and that prevented things from feeling too segregated, as they often were last season despite Moira's involvement in Malcolm's machinations. Indeed, the fewer secrets everyone had, the better the show became.
Along similar lines, the serialized storytelling was better executed compared to last season. Dividing up narrative attention between Sebastian (letting us know he was the man in the skull mask very quickly was also smart) and Slade kept the big seasonal storyline moving, compared the other drawn out or seemingly ignored way that Malcolm's plan and its moving bits, like Moira's involvement or Walter's kidnapping, often were. The standalone, episodic villains and case are still hit (the first portion of the season) or miss (pretty much the entire second portion), so that's still something for Arrow to improve on going forward.
The other thing that came to mind as I reflected on Season 2 had to do with women. I realized it before the finale, but Arrow is dedicated to its female characters. You may love them or hate them, or you may have issues with how the show structures their narratives (I'm in the latter category; I don't care if I like character or not, so long as he or she is well-crafted), but for a show that's been about a whole lot of man-pain—Oliver's angst, Malcolm and Slade's respective grievances (both of which are motivated by the loss of women)—the show has never left its female characters without storylines. Look at this season, look at this finale. Oliver, of course, received plenty of attention, but so much of the rest of the action was focused on the women around them.
While some of it merely romantic polygonal stuff, that's not the only thing the women of Arrow are concerned with. Moira had her redemption arc this season with the trial and her mayoral run. Thea became a self-assured and emotionally stable businesswoman before everything was ripped away from her. Felicity's always been cool and funny, and she's only maturing and growing more confident as the show progresses. Laurel and Sara both had large arcs this season that focused on their inner and outer demons. And Season 3 seems primed to keep that going, with Amanda Waller hopefully on her way to having a larger role.
Sure, some of this may be motivated by the demographics intentions of The CW, but consider that Supernatural—a significantly more melodramatic show than Arrow that airs on the same network and has plenty of man-pain to go around—seemingly can't help but kill every female character who isn't played by Felicia Day. Arrow could've followed in that path somehow or another, and instead it offered up women with conflicting and contradictory emotions and motivations, even if we may not agree on the validity of the representation.
Which bring me to my one Season 3 request, apart from better standalone plots and villains: a female Big Bad. Given the events of "Unthinkable," it seems likely that Malcolm's going to recur in some capacity, and even Thea may even become a villain before all is said and done. But for now, I don't care if it's Amanda Waller, I just want a female villain with her own agenda and plot that Team Arrow will be responsible for foiling. Two seasons' worth of men driven to extremes by women is enough; it's time for a woman with extreme methods of her own.
FROM THE QUIVER
– As a comic book fan, I'm a little excited about this destitute Oliver. When Green Arrow was updated in 1969, Neal Adams and Dennis O'Neil took away Oliver Queen's fortune and made him a strong left-winger and a champion of the underprivileged. I don't expect Arrow to engage in those political leanings—though I totally wish it would—but I certainly wouldn't mind Oliver doing some humanitarian work instead of reclaiming his company.
– The action was pretty wild this week, but what does it say about me that my favorite bit was the tail end of Oliver and Slade's fight? They were both exhausted, staggering and stumbling around. It helped to sell the intensity of their duel, even though the present-day encounter wasn't as intense-seeming as the one on the sinking Amazo.
– "It's called Kevlar." Thea shot Malcolm. Twice. So much for shooting at someone behind him, eh, folks?
– Diggle's gonna be a dad! That's nice! But I hope this doesn't mean the character will spend more time on the sidelines. I mean, there's still that whole H.I.V.E. thing to resolve.
– Someone needs to confirm that Isabel's really dead. Will a snapped neck kill someone with the mirakuru in them? Or will it just take a long time to heal?
What did you think of "Unthinkable" and Season 2 as a whole? What do you think Season 3 has in store for us?
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