Over the past two and a half years, The CW’s Arrow has been forging a path for comic translations on television. Preceding Marvel’s Agents of Shield by a year and setting off a DC multi-network blitzkrieg this past fall, Arrow brought an adaptation reminiscent of the hugely popular Dark Knight film trilogy to the small screen.
By all rights, Arrow should not have worked. It airs on a network most known for its romances and teen dramas, both vampiric and otherwise. The general audience is female-dominated, and the majority of the characters are well above the general CW age cap. There are weekly flashbacks featuring an otherwise dreamy lead in a wig of varying awfulness. Smallville may have lasted for a good ten seasons on The CW, but Arrow is designed to appeal to a wider audience and tell the story of a superhero less universally known than Superman. Based on the premise going into the premiere, Arrow did not seem like a show likely to command many viewers over the intended five seasons.
On December 10, the winter finale of the third season of Arrow aired, providing the not insubstantial audience with one heck of a (surprisingly literal) cliffhanger that will undoubtedly bring most of us back in January. It was a pretty great episode overall, and there was an organic plot that will stand up on its own even after our hero gets himself out of this mess.
As it happens, the hero’s current mess is one not easily resolved, and this hiatus will be a tough one for fans. Luckily, we have more than fifty episodes to rewatch and reexamine until the show returns on January 21. So, without any further ado, here is a look at what worked and what didn’t in the very first episode of the series: “Pilot.”
Warning: For any new viewers, spoilers for all three seasons await.
In “Pilot,” billionaire Oliver Queen is recovered from an island in the North China sea after a shipwreck that left him presumed dead for five years. While his family and most of his friends are thrilled to see him, it quickly becomes apparent that the Ollie who went down on his family’s yacht is not the same Oliver who came back to Starling City. In fact, the spoiled airhead who took his sister’s girlfriend on a debauched cruise and only got away with his terrible haircut because he was a billionaire is clearly lost forever as we see him replaced by a ruthless serial killer checking names off of a list via a bow and arrow.
Kind of a lot happened the first 42 minutes of the series. Like most pilots, the execution of certain aspects could have been handled more smoothly. Overall, however, “Pilot” stands out as one of the most entertaining and rewatchable installments of Arrow as a whole.
What Worked: Any pilot introducing a storyline as necessarily ridiculous as befittting a comic adaptation must rely on more than the bare bones of the plot to draw in a wider audience. In the case of “Pilot,” much of what was so compelling about the episode lay in the performances of nearly all of the main actors. Susanna Thompson as Moira Queen embodied the mother thrilled and yet somewhat tentative around her recently resurrected son…as well as the potential villainess who ordered her recently resurrected son kidnapped and tortured for information. Katie Cassidy lit up in Laurel’s interactions with Tommy. Willa Holland was effective as overjoyed little sister and misbehaving heiress Thea Queen. Colin Donnell sold the friendship between Tommy and the old Ollie with little exposition to back it up. Colin Salmon as Walter Steele was charming as the surprisingly non-evil stepfather, and the return of Walter at any point in the rest of the series beyond a few cameos would be more than welcome. (Also: Raisa. Bring back Raisa, Arrow.)
For his part, a great deal of pressure fell on the delightfully broad shoulders of lead Stephen Amell as he tackled the role of Oliver Queen, carrying all three distinctly different aspects of the character with aplomb. He was suitably irritating as Flashback Ollie, warm enough (in his own traumatized way) as Present Oliver, and perfectly terrifying as Vigilante Oliver. At the time of the premiere in 2012, Amell was accused of delivering a wooden performance as he presented limited gurning or gushing as Present Oliver, but the clear layer of post-traumatic stress underlies every interaction. He is never at rest even at his most stoic, and moments such as his sudden animalistic alertness at Tommy’s appearance behind him and his deduction that Walter and Moira are involved indicate that he did not truly leave the island behind. It’s easier to appreciate the performance in hindsight, and he only gets better with each passing year. There’s more to Stephen Amell than abs and arms.
Not that those abs and arms do any harm. The pure physicality as Oliver would have been enough to at least counter a wooden performance, and not just because he’s fun to look at. He powers his way up the salmon ladder, literally steams with the burn as he completes upside down sit-ups from the rafters, scales fences with ease, defies gravity, and wears the heck out of a light jacket. Amell lends a sense of legitimacy to an otherwise unlikely set of skills as he tackles the physical aspects of the role himself, evident both throughout the workouts and the majority of his own stunts.
And there is no shortage of stunts. Honestly, the action sequences of Arrow are on scale with or surpass those of most feature films, and the pilot provided one heck of an introduction to this part of the show. In the first, Oliver escapes being zip-tied to a chair after a few rounds with a taser and proceeds to defeat (and kill) all three of his kidnappers, chasing down the last with a good showing of parkour and snapping his neck with ease. Was it somewhat disturbing to see the hero remorselessly killing henchmen out of self-preservation? Sure. It was still pretty cool.
Even better was the second major action sequence as the Hood fights his way through a small army of goons on his way to confront a slimy business man before zip-lining out of a window. It looks unbelievable on paper and sounds absurd out loud, but this sequence believably establishes Oliver as a man who actually could carry out a reckoning against the corrupt of his city in green leather with a bow and arrow.
Of course, not all of Amell’s screentime was devoted to stunts and brooding. Flashback Ollie was just about as useless as could be, and that first wig (about which this reviewer shall never not complain) manages to counteract much of his current handsomeness. The pilot flashbacks, however, were actually fairly good. They gave Ollie a good starting point for his descent into total shutdown as he loses Sara 1.0 and watches his father commit suicide after shooting their other companion in the head. Stewing on that alone for five years would have been enough to traumatize a guy already trapped on a deserted island.
Or, as the case may be, a not-so-deserted island. We may not see much of the place where Oliver would spent at least the first two years of his absence, we get a few hints that he maybe wasn’t quite so alone as he claims. The Deathstroke mask stuck into the ground with an arrow through the eye was certainly something of a giveaway, and he clearly did not suffer the scars and burns that cover 20% of his body in the shipwreck. Besides, unless he washed up on a beach that featured an abandoned outpost filled with how-to books on martial arts, archery, Russian, and the art of the self-tattoo, Oliver clearly had company on the island, and we got just enough to pique our interest to overlook the potentially tiresome ongoing flashbacks.
Sadly, despite the successful aspects of the pilot, there were some flaws that are difficult to ignore.
What Didn’t Work: Less sadly, some of those aspects were elements fixed a few episodes into the series. The first of these is the frankly dreadful voiceover. The stoicism that serves Oliver well on-screen is not quite so effective in an off-screen monologue, and much of it could have been written out altogether if scenes had been constructed differently. The now-absent voiceovers are more tolerable in retrospect, and they were necessary back before Diggle and Felicity were brought in on the secret and gave Oliver the ability to exposit via dialogue instead. Still, these were a tough few first episodes.
Another sticking point of “Pilot” lies in the fact that in addition to those Russian and archery textbooks, Oliver apparently had access to the latest in computer technology on the island. While the scene in which he fires a trick arrow behind the bad guy to electronically fleece him for forty million dollars was satisfying as it gave Oliver a heroic moment to counter all of the murder, the question of how he got that trick arrow and how he managed to set up this particular sting sticks out. Fortunately—for so very many reasons—this problem was addressed in the third episode with the introduction of the remarkable (and adorable) Felicity Smoak.
And then there’s Laurel.
If you didn’t sigh either in frustration at the mishandling of her arc over the past two and a half seasons or irritation that yet another review is going to rant a bit about her, you have greater restraint than most.
Laurel Lance is almost certainly the most divisive character on Arrow, and less popular with viewers than the most dastardly villains. Unfortunately, much of her screentime in “Pilot” encapsulates what would be so exasperating about her in the rest of the series. Her very first scene did her a disservice as she—while understandably shaken at the report mentioning her philandering ex-boyfriend and her then presumed dead sister—takes the remote and switches off the television while glaring accusingly at her assembled coworkers who had been innocently watching the news. She got off on the wrong foot with audiences right away, and even such a tiny moment colored the rest of her time on screen in the episode.
Also problematic was—and is—the lack of romantic chemistry between Katie Cassidy and Stephen Amell. Through no fault of either performer, there was no spark to create any appeal. Without enough wistfulness underlying Laurel’s vitriol or Oliver’s stoicism, viewers had to struggle to justify the idea that these individuals would want to be together and figure out why we should as well. Laurel cannot be blamed for being angry with the man who cheated on her with her sister which then led to her death, but the wildly inconsistent writing that ultimately motivates her to go back to this man who so mistreated her and then muddle through her own disjointed plotlines creates in her a character that leaves viewers more likely to roll their eyes than relate. She was most genuine in her relationship with Tommy, and his death at the end of the first season deprived her of most of what warmth she’d displayed. In many ways, Arrow failed Laurel Lance from the very beginning.
On a more pedantic note: Oliver’s opening monologue explicitly states that he was on an island for five years. As we learned in the final moments of the Season 2 finale, that was not quite so true. Granted, the show couldn’t give the game away so early, but Season 3 managed to switch “island” for “in hell” without any trouble.
Also: The wig. Seriously, even the Hong Kong hobo wig is better than the first Ollie wig.
Thoughts? Arguments? Suggestions for future episode coverage? Let me know in the comments or via twitter with @lah9891.