Arrow: 506 “So It Begins” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
It’s been a great season so far for the CW’s DC shows, as each of the channel’s four superhero shows has found its own distinctive voice and used it to progress into some really exciting territory. And while it’s tempting to peg Legends of Tomorrow or Supergirl as this year’s most improved player so far, this week has shown that Arrow’s the most deserving of that title. In its fifth season, just as the show seemed to be sinking into creative exhaustion, it’s received a jolt of new life by returning to its past while never forgetting the need to keep striving forward into the future.
This week’s episode, So It Begins, delved headlong into the main arc of season five with truly impressive results. It’s an episode that takes all the promise of the first five episodes and channels it into a thrilling and propulsive narrative that engages with Arrow’s richly contradictory history in a way it hasn’t done in years and uses it for dynamite drama in the present. A few flaws aside, this was an excellent episode that moved forward like a bullet train yet made time for a thoughtful and multi-faceted exploration of how Oliver’s character has developed, proving just how robust a narrative the show has crafted here. Through clever construction and delayed gratification, season five is evenly pacing its big moments out for a pay-off, and in doing so it feels like Arrow has circumvented the problem of burnout that plagued season four after its strong start. If there’s one thing about So It Begins that’s encouraging above all, it’s not that it’s a great slice of TV in its own right – it’s the way in which it allows for even better things to come.
After five episodes moseying around the sidelines and dropping ominous warnings, season five’s main foe, Prometheus, came out of the shadows this week to plague Oliver and his team more directly. So It Begins wasn’t hugely revelatory about Prometheus, parcelling out only cryptic hints and clues that will clearly take a while to coalesce, but that’s clearly for the better. There’s something truly unnerving about a villain who’s dangerously obsessed with Oliver for a completely unclear reason, and So It Begins deftly captures that feeling of controlled chaos, in which actions, such as the murder of an anonymous housewife that we later learn were obsessively planned out seem terrifyingly unpredictable. In much the same way that Zoom was in The Flash at his introduction, Prometheus is threatening because there’s no discernible humanity that you can latch onto and take reassurance from – the proverbial unstoppable force that always keeps coming back. Unlike Zoom, though, there’s an evidently personal dimension to Prometheus, an unspecified grudge that makes the episode all the more compelling as it casts a shadow over all of Oliver’s past actions and provokes questions about whether they were truly moral with no easy, identifiable source for the grudge that can be traced back and understood.
Building on that, So It Begins leaves us with a final reveal that encapsulates why Prometheus makes such a strong impression as a truly threatening foe. Sure, it’s bonkers that his weaponry derives entirely from melted-down old arrows of Oliver’s, but the pathological fixation in that action is a fascinating insight into the way in which Prometheus’ hatred of Oliver has become a singular motivation that’s drained him of his empathy and humanity. Likewise, while the symbolism of Oliver’s past sins literally coming back to haunt them is hardly subtle, it’s a powerful image that effectively communicates the inescapability of Oliver’s past, building upon and deepening season five’s ongoing through-line of the constant link between past and present. So It Begins leaves Prometheus out in the wild for the time being, which is just as well – to avoid Dahrkitis (that’s my professional term for Arrow’s bad habit of over-exposing the villain too early), Arrow needs to be frugal with how it uses Prometheus in order to preserve his menace. It’s a fantastic start for the foe, however, combining visceral in-the-moment imposingness with a thought-provoking link to Oliver’s past.
Prometheus’ dredging back up of his past actions provided the trigger for Oliver to dip back into elements of his past that he’d seemingly left behind for good, and as Oliver takes a look at old actions through a new outlook, there’s a real sense that Arrow is doing it too. Arrow’s history is, frankly, a mess when looked at in the macro, full of character arcs that abruptly end, double back on themselves or just go round in circles, and season five has really been the first season to mine that messiness for legitimately compelling drama, mainly in the flashbacks. So It Begins, however, went deeper than just acknowledging that messiness and found something specific in the show’s past that has a drastically different connotation in this version of Arrow, which is Oliver’s season one lifestyle of taking down names in ‘the list’ as the Hood. Cleverly, Arrow explores this by taking what seemed like just more messiness in Oliver’s return to killing this year to make clear the points that had been bubbling under the flashbacks about the sheer difficulty of cleanly moving forward for Oliver Queen.
In season five of Arrow where we have Oliver placed firmly as the seasoned veteran and mentor figure, his killing from season one, which was never really condemned at the time, seems condemnable and wrong, a clear product of a time where Oliver was developing his identity as a vigilante. It’s clear, therefore, that he has developed from there – Diggle’s words of advice to Oliver ring true, because there’s a tangible progression evident in Oliver’s newfound ability to consider multiple perspectives opposing his own and therefore make compromises. It’s also clear that there’s a part of Oliver that can’t move on from that time as he continues to kill and continues to keep his bad habits of shutting out multiple voices in order to pursue his own dogmatic convictions. What’s clever about So It Begins is that it takes those two contradictory aspects and makes it into a compelling push and pull between present and past, healthy and unhealthy impulses that’s clearly still ongoing. It’s actually because of the way in which the episode allows for both sides of the character to equally exist that makes Prometheus work so well.
He’s a villain because his actions are evidently cruel and prey on the innocent, but he’s also, if not justifiable, then at the very least understandable in his quest because Prometheus is punishing Oliver for actions that we as the viewer can condemn, and feel that Oliver needs to be held accountable for – indirectly, Prometheus is forcing Oliver to consider legitimate questions about far he’s come and how far he still needs to go. Oliver is a messy and frequently baffling character who goes back on himself and falls into hypocrisy on a constant basis, and in previous seasons that mostly just felt like bad writing when he came across like that. Season five’s impressive achievement is to keep that portrayal and make it vital to the themes and central arc the show is exploring, directly calling out Oliver for these actions (we now have a villain who explicitly exists to do just that) and thereby making all of his past journeys crucial to this one – it’s less clean and linear than recent years, but it’s more dramatically satisfying for a season that’s all about closing off a ‘first chapter’ in the show’s history to focus on Oliver’s struggle to make a clean break from his pervasive past.
So It Begins sheds light on the tension between the old and the new by showing Oliver’s past actions reverberating and affecting the lives of a new team who hadn’t even made the connection between the Green Arrow and Oliver’s past identities as the Hood/Arrow. A pleasant surprise is that this particular conflict is used to explore an individual recruit who was being under-served week after week; Evelyn. It was frustrating that a character who came with pre-built back-story thanks to her history with Oliver as ‘the new Black Canary’ was being relegated to window-dressing in the same way Laurel was last year, but So It Begins went a long way towards remedying that, smartly building upon that established backstory and doing something new with it. Most importantly to the success of this arc, Evelyn’s position on the issue of Oliver’s killing is entirely justifiable thanks to the clear and understandable link between her back-story and present-day psyche. As someone who was explicitly prevented from killing by Oliver on moralistic grounds, it’s easy to understand her disillusionment at Oliver’s hypocrisy and the arbitrary red lines he draws to justify actions.
Evelyn’s a really interesting figure because she, like all of Team Arrow, has only been familiar with the reformed and more idealistic version of Oliver from season four, and she’s evidently been strongly influenced by those values. Therefore, her horror at Oliver’s past ‘serial killing’ provides the outside perspective that Arrow needs to really round out the exploration of the past’s inability to die that So It Begins engages in, reminding us of the stark differences that can exist between our perspective as viewers who have seen the justifications for Oliver’s actions and the onlookers who only see the product of those justifications.l It’s an arc that truly benefits her character as we learn about her staunch moralism and track her growth into a more nuanced perspective parallel to Oliver’s, bringing her up to speed with the rest of Team Arrow 2.0 as someone with her own independent reasons and morals behind her vigilantism. It speaks to the careful way in which season five has channelled the tone of season one into a drastically different set-up this year that it can return to these old ideas of the morality of killing and the right to keep secrets but make them fresh by channelling them through the new perspectives of the recruits, who haven’t been hardened by the same compromises and trauma as the old members and Oliver himself.
There’s a smaller, but potentially vital arc going on in So It Begins that deals with the episode’s central preoccupations of the past and moving forward in an unusual manner, which is Lance’s story. For the most part, it’s strong stuff – a deliberately flat, muted tragedy where the fall has already taken place before we even knew it as Lance is revealed to have continued with his alcoholism through his ascendancy into deputy mayor. It would be a depressing bummer of a story, but So It Begins wisely brings some empathy and warmth into the equation with Thea’s increasingly daughterly concern for Lance’s behaviour. There’s something potent about her unwavering faith in the potential of someone who ‘doesn’t want to be helped’ that reminds us of how Arrow’s managed to keep a strong handle on hope and humanity even as the tone has darkened.
However, if there’s one blank that the episode draws, it’s unfortunately at the end with Lance with the hints that he could be Prometheus. In all probability, this is heading somewhere interesting – the likely outcome of this cliffhanger hint is that Prometheus is using Lance’s alcoholism and blackouts as justifications in a frame job. Yet within the context of So It Begins, it’s a bit cheap and manipulative. The aggressive cross-cutting to punctuate every small revelation about Prometheus with another shot of Lance clearly shows that So It Begins wants the viewer to think that Lance could be Prometheus, and that’s just a far too unbelievable outcome to even consider. When the only potential theory that justifies Lance being Prometheus revolves around a split personality and secret martial arts skills, it’s safe to say that So It Begins was a little too keen on its own silly red herring. In an episode that’s otherwise chiefly concerned with substantial drama and powerful twists, it’s a shame that we end on a moment of manipulative tricksiness, even if it doesn’t blight the episode’s quality much.
So It Begins, as mentioned, isn’t without its flaws, but it brings together everything that’s worked about season five so far and builds upon it. It’s a carefully constructed instalment in which every plotline efficiently works towards a larger whole, ruminating on themes of past and present that finally begin to engage with how far Oliver, and Arrow itself, has come since the start. The flashbacks, which have experienced their own resurgence in quality, continue to be quietly great, slowly burning towards a fantastic final scene in which Dolph Lundgren (I’m not sure how they got Dolph Lundgren to recur on a network TV show, but I am not complaining) makes his uber-intimidating turn as flashback foe Kovar. And in amidst the thoughtful drama and intense action with Prometheus, So It Begins still makes time for joyfully silly sights like the return of the parachute arrow, or Oliver shooting into a guy’s pistol muzzle to disable his gun, reminding us that while Arrow has gone darker this year, it’s not lost any of the sense of fun from Damien Dahrk’s appearances. It’s a grab bag of everything that makes Arrow great yet feels totally cohesive, evoking the purposefulness and clarity that marked the show’s previous high watermark, season two. And given how season five has gone thus far, there’s no reason to believe that this resurgent year can’t outstrip any season that came before it.