Arrow: 423 “Schism” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
This year has been another bumpy road for Arrow, and it’s all the more noteworthy considering how it started. The winter run of this season was all-round solid stuff, marking a genuine attempt to address and improve the issues of the infamously divisive third season alongside a more propulsive and involving serialised arc. Yet things slackened on the return from the winter break, and gradually the air has gone out of the season once more, slipping into old habits of interminable relationship drama and a tendency for empty shock value with Laurel’s death, coming into its season finale with a ludicrously overblown endgame that’s been handled pretty shoddily thus far. Did the season four finale right the course and cap off an intermittently entertaining fourth season satisfyingly?
Unfortunately, Schism is quite the opposite of satisfying. This is an outright misfire, botching the conclusion to Oliver’s character arc with a central theme that’s entirely hackneyed and devoid of substance in its portrayal. There’s no big, explosive storytelling mistakes here – rather, the fault of Schism is perhaps worse; it’s frankly dull, making the imminent nuclear apocalypse about as exciting as boiling a kettle. If this all sounds overly harsh, then it’s worth noting that this isn’t an irredeemable instalment, and there are definitely instances of solid writing here and there. These good moments play out in the margins, of less importance than the limp mess of a central story, but they keep this finale afloat from being downright awful. And, to the episode’s credit, it tees up a very different status quo for season five in a way that made me curious to see what comes next, even if it’s hard to keep faith that the lofty promises will actually be delivered upon.
To get to the core of Schism’s failure as a satisfying capper on this year’s character stories and thematic through-lines, there’s no need to look any further than Oliver’s story. To the episode’s credit, it at least draws a distinct line between this episode and the premiere, legitimising the developments here as something that at least vaguely stems from where we all started. Unfortunately, there’s very little of merit in Oliver’s actual story. Schism invests a great deal in the central conflict of light versus dark as the bedrock of Oliver’s conclusion here, but this is a conflict so utterly simplistic, devoid of any kind of shading or nuance that it becomes impossible to invest in. Black-and-white conflicts between heroes and dastardly super-villains are bread and butter stuff for superhero fiction, but Schism can’t even pull off an old-school, cheesy atmosphere of Oliver vs. pantomime villain due to its insipid usage of Star City’s citizens as a means to make a particular thematic point. As with last week, the citizens of Star City do not behave like real people with individual views and hopes; here, they’re essentially a faceless horde connected by a hive-mind, doing exactly the same thing at once and then collectively changing their mind to do another thing, again as the same collective entity. It doesn’t help that the big moment that influences these hollow shells claiming to be humans is a speech by Oliver that’s inspiring in the same way that motivational Twitter accounts are inspiring; vaguely encouraging and slightly meaningful platitudes that simply fail to convince when extrapolated out to an emotionally complex situation like the one Schism attempts to present with its disillusioned citizens.
The fact that Schism portrays this speech as a huge moment of inspiration that grips everyone feels fundamentally at odds with both the enormous stakes of 15,000 nuclear missiles racing towards locations worldwide and their previous actions (rioting, in another example of the episode being unable to provide anything but a very blunt and sharp contrast between elements) means that the developments and decisions in service of Oliver’s arc are transparently contrived, with the mechanics and puppet strings behind it all clearly visible in the forced way everything is unconvincingly pushed into place to prove that thematic point. Moments that should be uplifting and thrilling such as the citizens’ protection of Oliver and his ability to stave off Dahrk’s magic through the hope of the citizens (but Dahrk is still able, bafflingly, to kill Felicity’s boring hacker boyfriend remotely) come across as laughably silly, detached from any kind of internal logic or emotional realism to the point where Arrow just undermines its own attempts at darker and deeper honesty elsewhere with this comically thin thematic exploration. There’s a sense here that Arrow became too absorbed in its thin light versus dark conflict and simply expanded that out without considering the nuances that bringing in thousands of diverse individuals instantly connotes, which means Oliver’s arc is based on seriously shaky and corner-cutting storytelling that just hammers the same point home constantly with the same clunky refusal to deviate from that dichotomy in any way.
Weirdly, Schism isn’t even able to stampede to the finish in a show of bone-headed but ultimately committed confidence in itself. Instead, it undermines the own story it’s telling through Oliver’s cold-blooded execution of Damien Dahrk. There’s some attempt later to underline this moment as an example of Oliver’s internal schism, but by that point Schism has already shot itself in the foot by providing a supposedly uplifting sense of hope and optimism in a scene that builds to a coolly calculated killing that was carried across without emotion. If the ‘schism’ between Oliver’s dark and light side is going to be next year’s big emotional story, then fine, but surely there was a better way to set that up than sapping a great deal of his character development in not only this season but the last few of its actual weight and legitimacy. It’s a frustrating character regression, and most importantly feels crowbarred in to provide a drop of ‘complexity’ to excuse the black-and-white stuff elsewhere despite the fact that it never feels like a moment that the episode was ever building to. It is out of step with everything that occurs before and after in how quietly cynical it is, and the fact that it’s only flagged up in that one scene with Oliver towards the end indicates a reticence to engage with the implications on a major level, at least for the time being. That’s either kicking the can down the road or ignoring it entirely, both of which, alongside the whole mishandling of the nuke scenario, indicate a nasty tendency to skip past shocking moments of violence, giving them lip service over coherent exploration. On the whole, it renders Oliver’s already shaky character arc here a total mess, making a point about his character so muddled that Felicity needs to explicitly spell it out in bright letters just to get a vague idea of what the episode is conveying.
It’s also noteworthy that, much like The Flash’s season finale and Zoom, Schism is unable to wring anything interesting out of Damien Dahrk or its endgame despite the enduring fun of Neal McDonough’s performance. The return of Rubicon plays as lame, unimaginative escalation of what came before in order to artificially dial up the stakes – which feel entirely vague and theoretical for the most part, as the threat of the 15,000 nukes never once feels urgent; when Damien tells Oliver there’s 15 minutes left for the world, it was genuinely hard to believe him. It’s all resolved via hand-waved Hollywood hacking (read: a lot of babbling, followed by an intense session of typing, followed by more babbling) and more hastily cooked-up tech from Curtis, and the innate predictability of Rubicon’s demise means that the entire conflict feels weightless, spinning its wheels until the inevitable moment where the nukes are disarmed; never once is there is a genuine worry that even one or two nukes could land. Rubicon and the global threat always felt like an uneasy fit for a show that’s done best when it’s zoomed in on the personal or street-level conflicts like seasons one or two, and Schism only confirms that Arrow is unable to imbue credibility and tangibility into the threat of the nukes, ensuring that a lot of the supposedly tense endgame action here lacked any kind of suspense or unpredictability.
And then there’s the character departures, an idea that’s very interesting on paper but fails to really come off in its execution due to the way some of the excuses provided for characters skipping town don’t really ring true as pressing concerns that have been naturally building for a while now. Thea’s existential crisis and fear that she was becoming a Merlyn have been ideas that have intermittently cropped up here and there but have never felt like a continuous through-line and especially failed to come together at the end of a season where Thea felt relatively confident once her Lazarus Pit issues were resolved. Likewise, Lance’s departure happens just because it needs to – his resignation has basis in previous episodes, but that development doesn’t feel conducive to actually skipping town and spending time away; there’s a clear sense of dissonance between Arrow’s ambitions and the reality of character motivations here which really undermines everything. It’s only Diggle’s departure that feels legitimately justified by this episode – his story here was one of the rare bright spots, a joined-up and sensitively handled take on his inability to reconcile his decision to kill Andy with his righteous crusade, with Lyla’s soldier-like response encouraging him to dip back into a more black-and-white conflict in the army in order to rediscover himself. It’s solidly handled and builds satisfyingly to the natural conclusion of his departure that feels like it really needed to happen as a justified story development.
There are other things to enjoy within Schism. The aforementioned Diggle story is pleasingly robust in its construction. Curtis really smoothly slots into the Team Arrow dynamics here, contributing a genuine sense of awkward fun and optimism to the team with his speech to Oliver raising a couple of very legitimate sentiments, making Echo Kellum’s promotion to series regular for season five look like a very shrewd move. And while there’s no build-up and the dynamics behind it all make very little sense, there’s real merit in Oliver’s ascension to mayor, not just for opening up a whole new sandbox of storytelling possibilities with the mostly untapped public persona of Oliver, but also for closing out his story arc by literally making him the beacon of hope for the city; cheesy, perhaps, but fitting in a symbolic kind of way. Unfortunately, the good is few and far between here, with great drama only flashing up briefly before another frustrating decision or unconvincing pep talk.
Ultimately, this was a poor finale that cemented this season as very much of a kind with season three representing the slump Arrow has undergone since season two, even if the improved villain and better-handled ensemble (Diggle and Thea have both received substantially better stories here) meant that this was a stronger season than last year. Schism doesn’t necessarily double down on everything that went wrong, but it certainly fails to fix it, instead bringing these thinly sketched stories and uninteresting arcs to their inevitably flat conclusion, making the episode feel sometimes interminable as the episode wades through the mistakes already made this season. There’s still certainly gas in the tank here, as indicated by the mayoral development, and cast/creator comments about getting back to the basis of gritty, street level action as a direct contrast to the more fantastical superhero shows Arrow has been overshadowed by certainly indicates a desire to really tapping into what made Arrow such a fresh and invigorating addition to the genre in season two. Season four may have misfired in its conclusion, but there’s still reason to hope for something better when the show returns in October.