Arrow: 501 “Legacy” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Four years ago, Arrow launched as a gritty street-level superhero show with some pretty obvious influences from The Dark Knight trilogy. It debuted rough around the edges, but the show worked out the kinks and evolved into a truly great piece of superhero television by the end of season two that never lost its focus on the personal, intimate stakes. However, the show’s grip on its unique tone slackened, and in attempting to ape some of its forebears’ success with more fantastical storylines, Arrow got lost in a bumper crop of similar shows, many of whom were doing the same thing better. Despite the show’s poor creative form lately, however, interviews have indicated a darker, back-to-basics tone for season five. Did Legacy deliver on those promises?
Fortunately, Legacy is a solid premiere that genuinely does take steps in a bold new direction for Arrow. It’s let down by some sloppy storytelling here and there, but this is a far stronger episode than anything the show has put out for a year, and it sets up a really encouraging and sustainable foundation to build from in the future. Most importantly, it pares the show’s tangled web of plotlines down a little, and with some of the clutter out of the way, it feels like a much more streamlined and focused show – with a stronger handle on its central themes, Legacy is a cohesive episode that works towards a singular purpose and, in a roundabout sense, achieves it. Put simply, Arrow instantly seems to know itself better here, as shown by the considerable shift in tone. With more superhero shows of all shapes and sizes flooding in, there’s a greater need than ever for Arrow to have a strong sense of individuality – to offer its own voice and distinctive take on the basic superhero formula. Thankfully, Legacy returns to what marked Arrow out in the first place, and in doing so makes a convincing argument for this show’s continuing value on the CW’s ever-stuffed superhero roster. There’s not a meta-human or magic ritual to be seen here, and the focus solely upon criminal organisations and the street-level work of Star City’s cops was genuinely refreshing. Legacy doesn’t feel any less ambitious for its lower stakes and de-powered villains – indeed, Arrow feels much closer to its own ambitions in the execution here, which contrasts with last season in which the show continuously fell short of the lofty targets it set itself.
Oliver’s character arc is the centre here, and for the most part, it’s a very well-told story that sets up a season of character development that may be a little more complex than the simplistic A-to-B arcs the last two seasons have served up. It’s an arc that cleverly incorporates the suspicions of a lot of viewers, including myself, at the longevity of the decision to more-or-less dissolve Team Arrow at the end of last season and works it into something that feels naturalistic and convincing. The arc has a distinctly meta-fictional feel to it as Oliver finds himself stuck in old patterns, and his decision to recognise his drastically changed circumstances and move forward with his life feels very fitting for such a transformative episode for Arrow. It’s not a groundbreaking place to take Oliver, but it’s the right one for an episode that takes the lessons of the past and begins to apply them towards something that’s genuinely new. Furthermore, it’s a story that’s built to last, opening up naturally to a whole host of interesting stories about Oliver’s psychology now that he’s five years into his crimefighting crusade that seems to endlessly stretch on as his achievements are constantly cancelled out. Stephen Amell does some good work here emphasising Oliver’s mantra-like delusions with a slightly disconnected, glazed delivery earlier on and then switching to a steelier performance in the latter half of the episode that’s genuinely imposing at times. Amell evidently has an impressive understanding of his character, and it’s noteworthy here how his grasp on Oliver’s psyche allows his performance to bring ideas to the fore that the script doesn’t always make clear. There is one major problem with Oliver’s story, which we’ll get to later, but it’s a promising new direction for the character that doesn’t lock the show into one set path for Oliver like it has done in recent years.
Oliver’s arc in the present, surprisingly, is actually complemented by his journey in the flashbacks, a medium which I more or less wrote off after last season spent an interminable amount of time on a godawful Indiana Jones rip-off. The flashbacks are heading into their final year, and there’s a renewed vitality and thematic depth to the storytelling in these sequences that indicates that the writers have been creatively refreshed by the chance to link this patchwork odyssey to the images we saw at the start of the pilot. Legacy begins Oliver’s journey to that fateful boat rescue in Russia, and it’s noteworthy how joined-up the sequences feel to the present day action, without feeling contrived or neat in their parallels. There’s the obvious parallel of both incarnations of Oliver struggling to move forward, drowning in the promises and regrets of the past rather than meeting what’s to come, and that alone is enough to really enhance Oliver’s journey in Legacy by emphasising the cyclical nature of his character. As both the flashbacks and the present show, he’s someone who falls into the same patterns as a crutch again and again, an aspect that’s key to understanding his neglect of the mayor job as he simply leans upon what’s familiar in his job as Green Arrow, and his belief that his friends will return again like they always do.
The parallel of Oliver as the trainee of the Bratva in the past and the trainer of new recruits in the present is a promising one that already shows that this is an arc that’s working in the long-term (that’s a low bar, but the last two seasons didn’t clear it). And even small things like Oliver learning the thumb dislocation trick in the past to use in the present illustrate the worth of the flashbacks if they are executed well – by establishing that shorthand in the past, Legacy makes a great pay-off out of his eventual usage of the trick that allows that surprise to truly work. I’m taking the strong start with scepticism, but the flashbacks feel like an important part of Arrow once more with a stronger link to the present, and for once I’m genuinely intrigued to see what happens next despite the inevitability of the season’s end-point.
The ensemble is smaller here than in recent years, which allows Legacy to tell three distinct stories that all work in tandem with a focus on the same themes and ideas, yet feel true to where these characters have found themselves at the start of this season. Thea, for instance, finds herself moving forward into a place of equilibrium that Oliver avoids throughout the episode, and, in reverse to Oliver, finds herself having to move back into her old patterns as a cause of necessity. However, I enjoy how Legacy paid lip-service to the easy path the show could have taken with Thea’s character in bringing her back to her familiar role, but ultimately chose to strive forward with something more complicated, leaving Speedy behind. There are already hints of Thea fulfilling an intriguing new role as a key facet of Oliver’s politically-tinged mayoral story, which should hopefully allow Arrow to make the most of a character who is quietly one of the most fleshed-out in the ensemble, and allows it to expand out its world (one that felt increasingly insular last year as everyone seemed to be involved with crime-fighting) by finding roles for major characters outside of Team Arrow.
Lance’s story walks back his ending from the finale by reversing his newfound happiness and his relationship with Donna, but, truth be told, that’s probably for the best, as Arrow itself acknowledges. By throwing off that unconvincing relationship, Arrow allows itself to bring Lance’s most interesting aspects to the fore by casting him as a weary kindred spirit to both Thea and Oliver who finds himself caught between the two extremes that the Queen siblings inhibit. Lance has flip-flopped again and again as a character in terms of his psychological state and attitudes towards Team Arrow, but Legacy takes that tension and makes it into a promising new arc for Lance in which the confused and sometimes contradictory nature of his character is absolutely the point. Lance’s story in season five appears to be a quest to find a place for himself with neither his daughters nor his police badge to define him, and by having stripped away the elements that were key to Lance’s character throughout the first four seasons and starting from there, Arrow may have found a new direction for a character who has often seemed to be just a few episodes away from becoming deadweight in the past Curtis’ story is a little slighter, but it’s surprisingly effective nonetheless, briskly told as a nice lead-in to his new role this season as Mr Terrific in training. His journey from cheerful tech support to a committed trainee vigilante is Oliver’s story in microcosm in its move from familiarity to a bold choice to try something new at the end, and it’s a great way to integrate one of season four’s genuine success stories into this old-school incarnation of Arrow.
The villain here was Tobias Church, a ruthless criminal leader. Church appears to be fulfilling a secondary Big Bad role for now, so Legacy only introduces the character rather than completing his story. However, we spend a substantial amount of time with Church this episode, and it’s enough to establish him as a dynamic and imposing new foe whose villainy rests not in his powers, but simply in his uninhibited willingness to do anything, no matter how bloody or brazen, to consolidate his power as the kingpin of the city. A lot of Church’s success is down to Chad L Coleman’s great performance. Coleman pulls off the difficult balancing act of providing an ostentatious, gleefully evil performance that fits within this grounded new incarnation of Arrow, imbuing Church with an unpredictability that belies his calculated ability to map out his enemies’ weaknesses and ruthlessly exploit them. It’s almost odd to go back to criminals after a season of magicians and meta-humans, but in Church, Arrow has a villain who’s just as captivating and dangerous as any super-powered bad guy.
There’s a lot to praise about Legacy, but it’s by no means a total U-turn for Arrow, which still exhibits some of its bad habits from time to time here. One of these habits is a tendency to lazily pander to the demands of fans in order to garner praise rather than telling a story where the motivations justify the action, although the output of this pandering is a lot different to the shipper-baiting of recent seasons. It’s the key moment where Oliver breaks free and snaps his captor’s neck in cold-blood, shooting a few goons on the way out, that feels emblematic of this damaging habit. I’m sure a lot of people loved it – many fans’ principle complaint of recent seasons has been that Oliver felt less powerful and reduced in his moralistic ways, a complaint that wasn’t without merit. Yet Legacy tries to alleviate that complaint in the most obvious way possible – it’s an old adage that you shouldn’t give people exactly what they want, but it feels relevant in this case. What worked in season 1, where Oliver was a raw and undeveloped character who was consciously coming off the back of considerable trauma and working out how to find himself as a vigilante, doesn’t really work after four years of development, some of which have been exclusively dedicated to Oliver training himself to spare lives and fight crime without murder.
This episode’s arc is even about Oliver choosing to move forward from the past, which just makes the scene all the more contradictory in how it regresses Oliver back to his season 1 state with little justification (he even repeats ‘no-one can know my secret’ from the pilot – but what’s his secret here given he wasn’t outed as the Green Arrow, and what can be proved by one goon?). I get the intent of the scene, but unfortunately it just feels gratuitous – it doesn’t add anything to Oliver’s character arc, and the moment where Thea challenges his actions isn’t followed upon after as if Arrow loses interest in the moral debate. In an episode where Arrow has a better understanding of itself than it has for a while, it’s a decision that just exposes a continuing confusion about Oliver’s morality, indicating with his garbled arguments that Arrow is struggling to find a logical medium between total aversion to lethal force and wanton murder.
Legacy is refreshingly disciplined about its handling of the romance that nearly sank the show in season four, and Olicity is barely a going concern here because it’s not directly relevant to the stories the episode is telling. However, the episode falls off the wagon just a little at the end by returning to Felicity’s flat to find… a new boyfriend. Let alone the fact that Arrow keeps defining Felicity by her relationship to men time and time again, it’s a frustrating example of Arrow’s continued reliance upon turgid romance where it’s not strictly necessary. Arrow has a lot to explore already with Felicity with her role as Team Arrow’s recruiter and her trauma after dropping the nuke on Havenrock last season, so it’s tiresome to see it chuck another boyfriend character into the mix when it doesn’t feel strictly necessary. Legacy does well at presenting Felicity as a likeable character once-more and a valuable platonic friend to Oliver, but it’s if the episode can’t quite resist the opportunity to fall on old vices, which shows that Arrow hasn’t learned its lessons in romance just yet.
All that said, Legacy does end on a promising note with the requisite Big Bad tease. We barely get a few seconds of Prometheus here, but his entrance is fittingly imposing and ruthless as he cuts down a cop while effortlessly evading his attacks, and it’s an altogether exciting way to establish a villainous presence who directly contrasts to the well-connected resources of Church. I’m still not fully convinced that another Green Arrow dark reflection is the most original choice for Arrow, but Prometheus’ role as a vengeful lone wolf seems altogether more interesting given Legacy’s focus on crime organisations and alliances forming. Done right, he could be a chaotic addition to this set order, throwing everything into disarray with a deeply personal agenda that directly contrasts with Oliver’s other enemies.
Of course, it’s worth taking this progress with a grain of salt. Arrow has always come out of the blocks sprinting with its season premieres, with the creative issues coming up later as the season arc begins to lag. The real test will come in the following weeks when the show must take the foundation it established here and build upon it while keeping the new feel of this season exciting and original. However, on its own terms, Legacy is a very good premiere, one that shows that Arrow has genuinely decided to correct its course, taking the storytelling approach of the first two seasons and applying it to the radically changed circumstances of season five. It’s a confident and sure-handed opener, and one that would seem to point in a really exciting direction going forward. Let’s just hope it follows through…