Arrow: 419 “Canary Cry” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Three weeks ago, Arrow left off for a brief hiatus with one of its most controversial creative decisions yet; the death of Laurel Lance aka the Black Canary at the hands of Damien Dahrk, This was a choice that a lot of viewers, including myself, took umbrage with for a whole lot of reasons, one of which was the fact that Arrow had slowly been losing interest in developing Laurel’s character, making the death feel somewhat hollow. Arrow has actually had a pretty great track record in following up with its major deaths by summing up what the fallen character meant to everyone else and underlining the weight of their loss, but it’s safe to say that Canary Cry was launching from somewhat shakier foundations than those previous episodes.
Canary Cry is, as the title would suggest, all about Laurel – on the face of it, it’s a tribute to Laurel’s character and a final, definitive send-off. Unfortunately, the episode can never quite reconcile Laurel’s relatively inconsequential role that she played for the last season and a half with the huge importance ascribed to her here, which leads to some muddled and arguably wrong-headed creative choice. It aspires to be gut-wrenching drama, and there are some moments where it really reaches that level, but elsewhere Canary Cry fumbles the easy opportunity to resonantly pay tribute to Laurel, leading to an episode that’s ultimately patchy and unsatisfying in key areas.
Perhaps my biggest issue of the way Canary Cry paid tribute to Laurel was that for vast sections of the episode it was almost obsessively focused on paying tribute to Black Canary and her legacy. The idea of the Black Canary’s legacy crops up a lot, most pertinently through the introduction of a new character named Evelyn Sharp who picks up the Black Canary mantle, and it’s more or less attributed as the most important thing that Laurel left behind. Here, unfortunately, is where Arrow’s treatment of Laurel this season in particular becomes problematic. Canary Cry really wants the viewer to invest in the heroic and inspiring legacy that Laurel left behind as the Black Canary, even pinning the climatic moment with Evelyn and Ruve Dahrk on the power of that legacy, but it fails to really alleviate the crucial fact that Arrow has never spent that much time showing the impact of the Black Canary. Laurel never really got any individual scenes as a vigilante this season, merely tagging along as a tertiary member of Team Arrow who had the fewest lines, and that kind of downplaying isn’t conducive to a huge legacy all of her own, meaning that this idea of a huge and inspiring legacy left by Laurel feels like it’s been awkwardly made up on the spot to give her death some extra emotional resonance.
Evelyn herself is an interesting character on a thematic level, but her fury at the Green Arrow for abandoning them adds an unnecessary additional layer to her conflict that detracts from the more pertinent exploration of exactly why Laurel inspired her to pick up the outfit. Furthermore, the episode fails to make this newfound concept of Laurel’s legacy convincing even on its own terms, because all Canary Cry has to offer is that Laurel was selfless and heroic, a hopelessly generic description that offers no individuality and could quite honestly apply to any member of Team Arrow. The combined lack of specificity to Laurel as a character and the seeming requirement to invest in a legacy that Arrow has spent very little time building up means that Canary Cry’s attempt to show the huge impact of Laurel’s vigilantism only comes across as a confirmation that her death was a creative choice made late in the day, considering how little basis there is in season four for the kind of legacy explored here. All of this means that scenes that are clearly meant to be deeply affecting such as Oliver’s appeal to Evelyn are hollow; it’s all just skin-deep sentiment that bears little scrutiny, so a crucial part of Canary Cry comes across as a misfire.
What does work better in Canary Cry’s exploration of the impact of Laurel’s death is Lance’s reaction to it, even if it’s filed off into a subplot divorced from the main ‘new Black Canary’ narrative. A lot of the Lance material rests on Paul Blackthorne’s performance to give it resonance, and thankfully Blackthorne delivers with a rivetingly affecting performance – watching Lance spiral further and further into denial before hitting rock bottom is genuinely gut wrenching, and Blackthone convinces every step of the way. One of the strongest creative choices that Canary Cry makes is to use the unreliability of death in a universe where the Lazarus Pit, time travel and other resurrection technology exists as a way to heighten the impact of Laurel’s death. Canary Cry understands that constant returns from the dead have undermined the finality of death in this universe, and it cleverly plays into this by incorporating this natural scepticism into Lance’s reaction to Laurel’s death, playing up the vague hope that Laurel could have made it out alive before brutally yanking that away, leaving only the cold finality of Laurel’s death for Lance to cope with. It’s smart, self-aware storytelling that pre-emptively quashes theories of Laurel’s survival, fuelling Lance’s denial as he has to come to terms with the fact that Laurel’s death is a tragic exception to the rule. The mythology of this universe is often tangled and contradictory and has only become messier as the show has brought more characters back to service the narrative – but this tangled mythology doesn’t have to be a burden, and Canary Cry certainly uses it to great effect.
The reactions to Laurel’s death are an important part of this episode as they’re the chance to define what Laurel really means to each of the characters, and they’re something of a mixed bag. I appreciate the self-awareness about this show’s tendency to revert to self-blame as a means of creating drama after tragic events, but the lampshading of the fact doesn’t cover up for the fact that Canary Cry spends an awful lot of time focusing on characters blaming themselves or being told that they’re not to blame, to the point where it all becomes a little wearying as the primary reaction to Laurel’s death. It’s also problematic that these reactions fail to really make up for what was missing in the attempt to explore Laurel’s legacy – since the reactions to her death are dominantly insular and focused on surviving characters rather than Laurel herself, they offer precious few insights into Laurel’s place in the lives of each of the team members, instead reverting to familiar means of drama that doesn’t really cover any new ground.
At times, Canary Cry seems completely unsure how to really focus on Laurel’s impact on the characters, and eventually shies away from any incisive exploration of her place in Team Arrow at all, and all it really has to offer as an alternative is yet more self-blame. There’s one exception to this, which is Diggle’s furious attempt on Ruve Dahrk’s life, but that active response is, in of itself, executed somewhat poorly. It, breaks up the monotony, but it’s an unusual moment that lacks sufficient build-up, constituting a rapid escalation of events that doesn’t quite feel earned, and is barely mentioned afterwards despite the hints of conflict that it sets up between Diggle and Oliver, so it’s an isolated moment that works fine when taken out of context, but feels out of step with the rest of the episode as a whole.
The flashbacks with Laurel and Oliver have a lot of potential, and there’s definitely a lot of merit in revisiting their romantic relationship given how crucial that storyline was to Laurel’s character in the first two seasons. Canary Cry re-asserts the importance of that relationship and the way it was corroded by the tragedy of Tommy effectively, providing some surprisingly joined-up connective tissue by sketching out how their romantic relationship came to an end between seasons one and two. That connective tissue is valuable because it expands our understanding of what Laurel and Oliver meant to each other and heightens the tragedy of their relationship, but the flashbacks suffer from the fact that they’re somewhat awkwardly inserted into the chronology of the show; the idea that Oliver was involved with Laurel romantically after Tommy’s death doesn’t really cohere with the pre-established history of the show. So while the flashbacks serve their purpose to some degree, they’re also another example of the way in which Canary Cry retrofits ideas and themes onto Laurel’s character – it’s as if the episode doesn’t feel confident sending off Laurel based purely on what Arrow’s done with the character beforehand, which counts as something of an indictment of how much Laurel’s been mishandled.
Not everyone will have liked the choice to out Laurel as the Black Canary, but it’s a sensible choice given how fumbled the rest of Canary Cry’s attempts to paying tribute to either side of the character is. Oliver’s eulogy is one of the very few times here where it feels like Canary Cry has a handle on what Laurel meant as a character, meaning that the speech hits the mark as an effective and coherent summation of Laurel’s actual legacy on the show, relying entirely on previous development of the character to link together the Black Canary and Laurel personas in an episode where they so frequently feel like disconnected entities. It doesn’t completely clear up the episode’s previous attempts at paying tribute, but it’s important that Canary Cry pins a lot on this final moment of clarity and actually comes up trumps.
For want of a better word, Canary Cry is a weird episode, and it’s notable that it’s simply the latest oddball instalment in a run that’s included the turgid Oliver/Felicity episode, the fun but tonally messy romp involving the Bug-Eyed Bandit and the ambitious theatrics of Laurel’s death. For a season that started with an impressive clarity of purpose in a relatively focused first half, season four has become a distinctly uneven run that’s careered from ambitious to small-scale and from light-hearted to gravely serious in very little time. Great, affecting drama has stood alongside plotlines and creative decisions that have been baffling, and the Damien Dahrk threat has become so inconsistent that he’s somewhat lost his lustre as the main villain. Season four has become a confounding season of TV that’s thrown me for a loop week upon week recently, good or bad, and Canary Cry is only the latest episode to leave me feeling puzzled and uncertain about what exactly Arrow is doing. Hopefully, with four episodes on the clock, the show will pull it together for the final run…
Canary Cry aspires to explore Laurel’s legacy and pay tribute to her character, and while there’s merit in these attempts with Lance’s great storyline and the final eulogy, the episode really drops the ball in crucial areas with a wrong-headed focus on an unfounded ‘Black Canary legacy’ and excessive, tiresome moping that makes this a messy episode that only periodically hits the target.