Arrow: 418 “Eleven-Fifty-Nine” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Though this season of Arrow was promised to be a lighter and breezier affair, a dark inevitability has been hanging over it since the end of the season premiere, which revealed that a major character would be meeting their maker sometime in the future. Only Oliver and Felicity had been scratched off the list of candidates in the two portentous flashbacks to that cemetery, so going into this major episode, almost all of Arrow’s main cast were in the firing line…
Eleven-Fifty-Nine finally revealed, for better or for worse, who was in the grave, in a 45 minute packed to the gills with action, conflicts and enough foreshadowing to (theoretically) ensure that no member of Team Arrow was safe. At points, it’s as thrilling and compelling as Arrow has been this season with a devastating gut-punch of an ending, but it’s nonetheless an unusual episode that bites off a little more than it can chew. It’s the same kind of problem that The Walking Dead’s season finale faced with its own death lottery – the need to spread the foreshadowing among the show’s cast so that one likely candidate doesn’t immediately emerge five minutes in; which means that Eleven-Fifty-Nine packed in major storylines for Thea, Laurel and Diggle that could all quite comfortably have formed the basis of one episode each. Packed together, the result is an episode that’s undoubtedly gripping but rather scattershot and chaotic in its plotting – and then there’s the problem of the grave reveal itself.
It was perhaps Diggle’s storyline involving Andy that took up the most time here, and it’s one that’s only fitfully successful. The problem here is that Arrow has told quite a few stories like this before about ‘blindspots’ for family members or friends, and Eleven-Fifty-Nine subsequently, unsurprisingly ends up at a familiar conclusion that once again confirms the risks of underestimating people you’re close to. However, despite the familiarity, it’s the actors who really carry this storyline and give it power – there’s always going to be a lot of weight in major clashes between Oliver and Diggle as they were the original members of Team Arrow, and David Ramsey and Stephen Amell are great at conveying the intensity and fury that’s necessary to sell the significance of this feud between old friends. Amell and Ramsey’s intense performances breathe life into this familiar conflict, making it feel fresh and invigorating as opposed to a staid rehash, and it’s a testament to their acting that, despite the fact that the story follows a formula that makes Andy’s allegiances very predictable (the cursory red herring of Andy taking an arrow for Oliver rings particularly false as a misdirect), it’s genuinely gripping and nail-biting viewing.
Thea’s arc with Malcolm plays more as a traditional continuation of their growing feud than a complete story in of itself like Laurel’s, and to an extent’s Diggle’s, but Thea’s storyline seems to be greatly improving as a result of the increased animosity between her and Malcolm. It’s fresh and exciting to see Thea genuinely at loggerheads with her father in a bloody rivalry after two seasons’ worth of demented parenting that had eventually worn a bit thin, and John Barrowman continues to imbue Malcolm with a crazed sense of paternalism mixed with slight disappointment that his daughter would dare stand against him. Thea has really broken out this season as a great supporting player whose subplots organically and neatly feed into the main stories, and her father-daughter conflict with Malcolm is continuing to add a compelling yet subversively unusual personal dimension to the battle with HIVE, ensuring that it’s more layered and complex than just another fight between Oliver and a super-villain.
And then there’s Laurel, who gets her most involved and fleshed-out storyline in a season where’s she’s routinely been shunted to window-dressing status. Her storyline suffers a little from excessive telegraphing: despite its wish to involve all of Team Arrow in personal conflicts that could end in their death, Eleven-Fifty-Nine is frequently clumsy in its heavy-handed references to Laurel hanging up the Black Canary outfit (Arrow’s equivalent of the cop who’s two days from retirement), which escalate and accrue to the point where it’s blindingly obvious that Laurel’s in for the chop before it happens. The clunky foreshadowing (worst example: Laurel saying ‘one last time’ as she heads out to the prison) aside, it’s somewhat refreshing to see Laurel get a genuinely substantial storyline that’s personal to her. The lawyer element of Arrow has been ignored a great deal since season two, and it’s notable here how its brief return adds an intriguing element of political gamesmanship involving Damien Dahrk’s wife as Laurel contemplates taking the DA job to keep tabs on her – a slightly different flavour of conflict that I’d like to see the show explore more due to the way its potential has been mostly untapped, even after the events of this episode. Her dilemma surrounding the DA position is a pretty traditional quandary for a superhero to face, but Eleven-Fifty-Nine adds intrigue by placing it not as a simple conflict between Laurel’s wish to fight crime or live a normal life (the standard setting for these types of dilemmas, a la Spider-Man 2), but as a conflict between how Laurel wants to fight crime. This storytelling choice works because it reveals a great deal about her character’s burning desire for justice and inability to truly walk away from danger without beating the viewer over the head with this fact, as Arrow’s been prone to do. As a way to incisively explore how Laurel’s character has stayed firmly the same in certain aspects since the pilot in terms of her tendency to crusade for justice even if it gets her into danger, her storyline is an effective one, though marred by the aforementioned ham-fisted foreshadowing.
Someone had to fill the grave, of course, and in some respects it’s not that surprising that it’s Laurel – once she’d been accepted into Team Arrow as the Black Canary midway through season three, Arrow seemed to have lost interest in giving Laurel her own individual storylines. Her death, on a logical level, removes a character who’s just been another participant in action scenes and a handy plot device for any legal problems this season, keeping the show’s status quo mostly intact while providing a huge impetus for emotional fallout and reconsideration among the team. On a basic level, it makes sense for the way this grave reveal has been decided (the occupant was picked after the flashforwards were written according to whose death would work best as a creative choice). Her death scene is also a really well-executed moment in of itself – from the moment of her stabbing that’s shocking and jolting despite all the foreshadowing, to her time in the hospital that carefully, cruelly builds up hope that Laurel might make it out alive before suddenly snatching it away with a final death scene that’s brutal in how instantly hope is lost. Katie Cassidy does some of her series-best work here, conveying a tender, nostalgic level of honesty on her death-bed with Oliver that’s naturally not apparent in her more guarded performance. Cassidy has fumbled some of Laurel’s biggest storylines in the first couple of seasons and only came into her own once Sara had died, but she certainly goes out on a high here with a subtly emotional performance that doesn’t revel in the innate melodrama of the scene.
Laurel’s death, when purely considered within the context of this episode, works. However, it’s been an extremely controversial decision within a fandom that hated the sight of her until the start of the third season, and there are some very legitimate reasons why this can be seen as a damaging twist for the show. The grave mystery, from what the interviewers have said, is fundamentally flawed storytelling based on skewed priorities from the writers. It’s a moment constructed for social media conversation that was written without knowledge of how the season would lead into a particular character’s death, locking the writers into killing someone off just because they’d made that promise and not because it had organically emerged as a natural development. Laurel’s death, therefore, is a moment that’s simultaneously great drama and extremely flawed storytelling. It’s emotional and shocking, but it’s innately, deeply contrived and removes a character who hadn’t necessarily run her course (if she’d actually become DA, that would have been a fruitful and substantial storyline for her) just because she looked like the most expendable candidate at the time. It feels as if instead of deciding why Laurel had become so extraneous a presence on the show, the writers simply went for the easy route of killing her off instead of trying to fix that problem; a creative choice that might work here and now, but doesn’t seem built as the most natural choice for the show going forward into the future. I’m not hugely invested in having Arrow studiously follow DC canon (in which Laurel was Oliver’s partner, both romantically and as the Black Canary), but this killing off of a character who’s such a crucial element of the Green Arrow mythos because she was stuck in a rut feels like a bit of a waste.
Fittingly, considering the animosity circulating through Arrow’s viewership right now, the show won’t return til April 27 with an episode fittingly titled Canary Cry. And while I certainly have my grievances with Laurel’s death as a creative choice, it’s going to be fascinating to see just how Team Arrow react to Dahrk as his Genesis plan begins to ramp up…
Giving this episode the same rating as last week’s routinely enjoyable, solid episode might seem a bit odd, but this is more of a case of first-grade, hugely affecting storytelling and acting awkwardly sharing space with an extremely questionable creative choice and an excess of clumsy foreshadowing, balancing out to something in between. Gripping, frustrating and baffling all at once, Eleven-Fifty-Nine was an episode to remember, for better or for worse.