If you don’t keep swimming, you drown. This is an ironic mantra for several character to repeat in the Arrow Season 5 premiere given that the episode (and hopefully the entire season) is a return to the past for this show, rather than a moving away from it. This nostalgic embrace of many of the elements that once made this show so damn good is what makes “Legacy” one of the best episodes of Arrow in recent memory.
It’s been a rough few years to be an Arrow fan. Sure, there has been an occasional arc or episode that gave us something to gush about. (Personally, I have been a big fan of the consistency of Thea and Oliver’s relationship, as well as episodes like “The Return,” “The Fallen,” and even bee-themed episode “Beacon of Hope” — but that last one might be just bee because I got to make a lot of puns on Twitter). I am not someone who blames one specific thing (i.e. Olicity) for the downfall of the show, but rather a general lack of thematic focus, poor characterization, and an interest in magic that directly clashes with the series’ initial promises and themes. Luckily, none of these things were present in “Legacy.”
The Season 5 premiere picks up a few months following the events of the Season 4 finale. Oliver and Felicity, romantically separate but still on good terms, are the only ones left on Team Arrow, and it’s getting harder to keep the lights on and the streets safe with such a barebones crew. The job is made harder by Oliver’s role as city mayor. He doesn’t have time to do both, and is not doing the latter particularly well. Green Arrow is still his priority. Mayor is just a means to an end, a way to access resources and information that will help in his efforts to “save this city” as a vigilante.
Oliver’s relative lack of interest in being the mayor is also at odds with Thea’s desperate efforts to lead a “normal” life. She acts as his chief of staff, and she seems good at the job. She has (mostly) hung up her bow and arrow as Speedy and spends her time trying to honor Laurel’s memory, not through a life of crime-fighting on the streets, but through a life of crime-fighting via public policy and statues. Frankly, it’s the kind of nuanced approach (well, the public policy, not the statues) to saving this city that Arrow has been missing arguably since day one. It makes sense that Thea, this show’s most consistent and insightfully brave character, would be the one to make it happen.
There is a growing sense in the Season 5 premiere that, to make a real, permanent difference, Team Arrow can’t just pick bad guys off through vigilantism. There will always be more bad guys (especially in the DC universe) to pop up and take the old bad guys’ place. If Arrow is serious about engaging with its initial themes of making the city safe, then it needs to address some of the systemic inequalities and corruption nibbling at the heart of Star City. This is the part where I quote my favorite conversation from the entire show, and the one that first made me sit up during my Arrow Season 1 binge-watch and engage with it:
“Do you remember when the people in this city helped each other? They can’t do that anymore, because a group of people, people like my father, they see nothing wrong with raising themselves up by stepping on other people’s throats. It does need to stop, and if it’s not gonna be the courts and it’s not gonna be the cops, then it’s gonna be me.” Oliver, and Arrow with him, seems ready to drop the mysticism and engage back into the wealth and power inequality critique that branded the first season of this show as something other than silly superhero fare.
This is where the new police corruption storyline comes in. Though Arrow has flirted with police corruption as a subplot in the past, it seems to be active element of the Season 5 narrative. This especially makes sense as a way to bring Quentin Lance into the fold in some believable way. With Laurel gone and his badge courtesy of the Star City Police Department gathering dust, Lance needs an identifiable reason to stay part of the team. A role as the liaison between Team Arrow and the not-corrupt cops is the perfect solution, and one that keeps his weary, yet wise presence around as a counterpoint to Oliver’s brand of machismo-driven leadership.
Oliver is at his most likable in a while here. Even though he’s started killing people again, he is listening to his teammates and friends. He is honest with himself about his limitations and he isn’t making decisions for the people in his life, at least for now. (He is shooting fellow vigilantes with arrows though, in a move that reminded me a bit of the wonderful Nikita Season 2 premiere.)
And, let’s be honest, that not-killing-people thing was starting to get pretty problematic on a storytelling level. I love the speech Thea gives Oliver about how his decision to start killing people again is a major step back (again, their relationship continues to be very consistently written). It makes sense for her and, if I were Oliver’s sister, I would 100 percent be worried about his murderous ways. However, as a viewer, Oliver’s contortions not to kill were just another way this show lost its realism in recent seasons. I’m not for Oliver turning into a no-holds-bar killer, but that particular brand of all-or-nothing vigilante policy didn’t seem very realistic.
Oliver needs to be morally ambiguous. Because, as this episode constantly reminds us, this isn’t a show about superheroes; it’s a show about vigilantes, and the Oliver Won’t Kill Anyone felt pretty forced after Season 2. It became boring. We know that Oliver would always choose not to kill and it not only eliminated a lot of complicated moral tension from this world, but also served to undermine the existing realism even further. Because it seems pretty hard not to kill people and still survive yourself in this kind of high-stakes fighting. Especially when you’re the one bringing a bow-and-arrow to a gunfight.
Of course, this show has changed since Season 1. And it must for this season to have any narrative weight. Oliver is not the same broken, lone wolf vigilante we met in the series premiere. If the flashbacks serve any purpose right now, it is to remind us of that. Oliver has grown a lot since then. This is clear in his eventual decision to recruit a new team, after much cajoling from Felicity. He not only accepts the need to move forward and form a new team, but he also talks the decision through with multiple people. This is a sign of emotional maturity that the Oliver of season one never would have exhibited.
I can’t go any further without mentioning the chair-breaking, neck-snapping “nobody can know my secret” homage to the Arrow season premiere. It’s the show’s way of letting the audience know: “Yeah, we’ve heard you. You miss the show that Arrow was in Seasons 1 and 2. Let’s do something about that.”
The Season 5 premiere doesn’t just give us a return to Oliver’s messier morality, but also a return to his secret-keeping, which is a vital part of a show that, let’s face it, takes significant cues from Batman Begins. In order for Arrow to fire on all cylinders, and for Oliver’s vigilante/regular guy dichotomy to hold any tension, there has to be a secret. It can’t be from his family, like it was in Seasons 1 and 2, but it can be from the larger public. It can be the people who hold him accountable as mayor, a job he actively ran for and took, knowing that he might have some conflicts of interest as the Green Arrow. These are classic Batman character politics: the vigilante and the billionaire joke. I hope Arrow thoroughly embraces it in Season 5.
To hammer home the point that Oliver isn’t some cold-blooded killer, that he still has same kind of moral code (it’s just more complicated than Not Killing), we have Vigilante, a well, vigilante who seems to see killing as his first and only option. He kills a cop at the end of the episode, which will no doubt lead to trouble for Green Arrow. For now, though, we know very little about the newest addition to the Star City streets.
We only have one more season of flashbacks, folks! And, so far, they’re… fine. Anatoly helps. He is another reminder of Arrow days past, more specifically Season 2, when the flashbacks were arguably at their height.
I like that Arrow is addressing Oliver’s not returning home as a decision, rather than a situation that is totally forced upon him, as in the past. This is also one of the reasons why Anatoly works so well here. Oliver’s friend has always seen right through him. He calls Oliver out on his death wish, on his self-imposed drowning. Oliver doesn’t want to return home. He doesn’t seem to think he deserves it. We know from “The Return” that Island Oliver has briefly returned home once, and it didn’t go so well.
The beginnings of the single-minded obsession with his list-led mission has already started to burrow its way into his bones. He has a promise to keep to Taiana, but he has another promise to keep this father. This is where the Bratva comes in. Apparently.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
— The direction helps immensely with the grounded, gritty realism of the episode. stunt coordinator James Bamford, who directed his first two episodes last season, has always had an immediacy and intimacy to his direction style, characterized by lots of long, moving, close-up shots. It was a breath of visual fresh air last season, but when paired with a script that also emphasizes immediacy and intimacy, it’s that much more powerful.
— Add an arrow-parachute and an arrow that diffuses bombs to the show’s list of awesome trick arrows.
— Felicity’s new boyfriend is a handsome cop detective who we really don’t get to spend much time with in the first episode. We’ll have to wait and see how this character and relationship develops. Right now, the dude seems too good to be true. Hopefully, he gets some nuance moving forward.
— Um, is Curtis sure he wants to be a vigilante? Frankly, it doesn’t look like much fun.
— Not sure how I feel about Mr. Church. So far, he’s fine. He feels like villains we’ve seen before on Arrow, but he works well enough as a vehicle for chaos so far.
— From the Olicity perspective, the Felicity and Oliver stuff also feels like a return to series past. It feels natural. These are two people who care about one another and who have a complicated relationship, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work together on a daily basis without things getting complicated. (Though, inevitably, you know they will.) It’s very Season 2.
— I love how, even on the other side of the world, Diggle is still Oliver’s go-to therapist. Frankly, that man deserves a medal for his years-long struggle helping Oliver work through his feelings.