Arrow: 509 “What We Leave Behind” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Through all its ups and downs in its four years on air, Arrow has always stayed consistent in one respect: it can always come up trumps with a memorable midseason finale to catapult the season into the back half with a few revelations and an obligatory crazy cliffhanger to boot. That tradition has provided the reveals of Malcolm Merlyn and Slade Wilson, Oliver’s shock ‘death’ at the hands of Ra’s al Ghul and Dahrk’s attack on Felicity, so it’s safe to say that there was quite a precedent for the show’s fifth midseason finale to live up to.
What We Leave Behind confidently keeps up that hot streak of strong winter finales, maintaining season five’s impeccable standard with a thematically rich and compelling story that expanded our understanding of Prometheus while providing a few genuinely shocking moments, before topping it all off with a genuinely perplexing cliffhanger that upends everything once again. The episode is light on resolution, and leaves some plot points dangling that could at least have been brought to a temporary pause, but it’s a truly stellar episode nonetheless, a fitting conclusion to one of Arrow’s most consistent runs of episodes yet.
Season five has been driven primarily by questions of legacy as Oliver’s actions in the past have suddenly sparked an equal and opposite reaction in the form of Prometheus, and What We Leave Behind builds on those themes in really interesting ways throughout. One of the most interesting ways it developed the conceit of Oliver’s legacy coming back to bite him were the flashbacks to a previously unseen adventure in season one in which Oliver took down a corrupt pharmaceuticals tycoon. It’s a really clever idea to use the show’s typical flashback structure to offer a direct contrast between Oliver’s actions and the consequences four years later, and the sequences gain a lot of mileage out of the sheer discrepancy in approaches between the Hood and the Green Arrow. Throughout the action scenes in the flashbacks, it’s made abundantly clear just how brutal and unfeeling Oliver was in his approach to fighting crime, and after seeing Oliver opt for non-lethal methods almost all of the time for years, the sight of him ruthlessly offing dozens of goons with little regard is genuinely jarring, a reminder of how far he’s transformed even since he put on the hood. The brutality that Oliver of the past exhibits also offers further justification to Prometheus’ singular crusade against him – when we’re provided with incontrovertible evidence of violence that’s hard to justify, it’s hard not to at least understand Prometheus’ perspective on the issue. The flashbacks generally served as a way to tease out contrasts for viewers to ponder between the Olivers of season 1 and season 5, but they really sparked to life when they began to depict the damaging effects of Oliver’s single-mindedness in the past, and his inability to ever consider the wider consequences of his actions. What We Leave Behind goes about this in a way that’s both impressively creative and viscerally effective as the camera cuts back and forth between Oliver’s path through a building in the past and present as he walks through a recreated scene of his rampage in season one, communicating the cause-and-effect going on throughout in a way that’s a textbook example of showing over telling, gaining a lot more power through visual storytelling than exposition ever could.
The second idea here that deepens the themes introduced in the premiere is one that I suspect will be driving the second half of the season, which is the concept of two kinds of legacy, the good and the bad. It might be a little on the nose for this to be stated, but it allows Arrow to put its finger on an idea that it’s been pondering but unable to exactly articulate this season, which is the weird, contradictory nature of Oliver’s legacy, and how it’s been complicated by his shifts back and forth in character throughout the four seasons. Arrow hasn’t always been consistent with its characterisation of Oliver, as I’ve pointed out before, but to its credit, this season it’s been aware of that and has actively worked it into the story. What We Leave Behind’s introduction of the dual legacy idea illustrates that Arrow is acknowledging that there are two different versions of Oliver, the hopeful figure of inspiration who surrounds himself with friends and the brooding loner who beats himself up for his actions and that it’s somewhat hard to actually divide those two. We get both versions of Oliver here as he changes from the enlightened mayoral figure at the start to the broken man believing ‘everything he touches dies’, not without justification, and the idea that he’s contributing to these two legacies helps make those contrasts seem a lot more logical.
More practically, it serves as a neat way to develop Prometheus’ dangerous villainy, and the ways in which his fixation has blinded him to any nuance or contrasting perspective. Prometheus comes back into centre stage here, and he’s fast becoming an all-timer of a villain despite the continuing obfuscation of his identity. What We Leave Behind applies its philosophy of showing rather than telling to great effect with his character, as we learn about Prometheus entirely from his actions and how they are interpreted by Oliver and Team Arrow. Much like the terrific So It Begins a few weeks back, What We Leave Behind’s entire story in terms of its construction serves as a way to flesh out a new side of the villain – in this case, it’s Prometheus’ deeply methodical nature, and his ability to always keep stringing Oliver and co along in order to control the situation at all times. That sense of Prometheus defining the stakes is evident throughout, as the heroes are constantly scrambling to play catch up, decoding a clue while Prometheus lays another, and it makes the villain a whole lot more threatening as it shows just how dedicated he is to this quest of torturing Oliver. The fear factor with Prometheus rests in his obsession with his vendetta, his ability to ruthlessly exploit the divided attention of Team Arrow because the only thing left in his life is to map out the next step of his overarching masterplan. What We Leave Behind communicates that fixation really effectively throughout, with Prometheus shown to be practically invincible not through any lazy plotting, but simply through an ability to map out the outcome of any situation and therefore play his enemies like puppets.
This was pretty clear from his introduction, but What We Leave Behind makes it definitive that Prometheus’ threat is, above all, a psychological one. The archetype of a villain who doesn’t want to kill the hero, but instead wants to break them isn’t a new one by any means, but What We Leave Behind rejuvenates the trope by taking pains to illustrate just how zealous Prometheus can be in achieving this goal. It’s clear enough with actions such as recreating an entire old crime scene of Oliver’s, or finding Claybourne’s ashes for the team to test, but where this really comes to the surface is in Prometheus’ trick of getting Oliver to kill Felicity’s boyfriend, Detective Malone by thinking he was shooting Prometheus himself. The episode wrings a surprising amount of emotional power out of this moment despite the fact that we didn’t know Malone all that well beforehand, putting a generous focus on Malone’s good-hearted dedication and need to see justice done to make his death at the hands of someone who just wanted to prove a point sting all the more. It’s a brilliantly cruel way of getting Oliver to genuinely believe that everyone he touches dies, and establishes Prometheus as a villain to remember as someone who can get inside Oliver’s head, using his personal connections and inner struggles to defeat Oliver without shedding a drop of blood. There’s every chance that Prometheus’ threat could wear thin from overuse if he keeps pulling the same tricks, but his actions here in manoeuvring Oliver and his friends effortlessly into the right positions really took his character up a notch from an introduction that was already impressive.
As a contrast to Prometheus’ fixation on his quest and loss of anything else to define his life, What We Leave Behind offered an interesting glimpse into the wider lives of Team Arrow, showing how they come just a little closer to Prometheus as their vigilantism causes their life to shrink in scope. Curtis’ conflict is the most substantial example of the corrosive effects of a double life, as his extracurricular activities are finally noticed by his husband. Curtis has been a disappointing element of this season, mostly reduced to extraneous comic relief as the other vigilantes are portrayed as more competent and generally more complex, but his plotline here was surprisingly interesting, and gave his character a little bit more relevance in the long run. His story runs through some familiar character beats, but it runs through them with a briskness and efficiency that means the conflict has time to establish itself without getting in the way of other stories, offering a strong glimpse of how easy it is to become consumed by a quest for justice in a way that makes the line between our heroes and Prometheus just a little thinner. That’s also the case for Felicity, who has to retreat inward after failing to protect her boyfriend from Prometheus’ murderous rampage, losing an important part of life due to her inability to tamp down his single-minded desire to apprehend Prometheus.
It’s not all gloomy, however, as the episode offers a more hopeful notion that there is a key difference between Team Arrow and Prometheus, which mainly lies in the name – it’s a team of differing perspectives versus one guy defined by a personal vendetta. It’s commendable how, in the darkest episode yet this season, Arrow manages to maintain some of the optimism that has distinguished this run of episodes. For instance, when Oliver confesses about his encounter with Prometheus and accidental murder of Billy, the reaction of the team isn’t to move away and splinter as Oliver suggests, but instead is to become closer than ever, tightening their friendships at a time when they need each other. Arrow has become much more adept this season at writing healthy, rewarding relationships between characters who help each other out of inner conflicts, and What We Leave Behind utilises this cooperative and supportive new environment to make sure that there’s still hope for things to get better even after the encounter with Prometheus.
What We Leave Behind gets a hell of a lot right, but it would be disingenuous to say that this was a perfect episode. It’s extraordinarily busy as an episode, and some stories that needed more time get a little lost in the wash. The main example here is Evelyn, whose character is used a bit inconsistently here. The choice to begin with an interaction between her and Prometheus, let alone the publicity, indicates that her betrayal will be vital to the emotional story of the episode, and that her duplicity will be explored to a significant extent. Yet this falls by the wayside early on, with her betraying the team a third of the way through the episode and then vanishing for the rest, mostly forgotten by the end of the episode. It’s clear that the episode wants to focus specifically on Oliver versus Prometheus, but in that case, was it really the best idea to cram in such a major development early on when its impact on the episode’s plot and themes are pretty negligible? Evelyn’s story is sloppily done, and it’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential for this to burn slowly and then explode later on down the line in a more satisfying manner where all the ramifications of a member of the team betraying the rest could be explored.
Every good midseason finale needs a memorable cliffhanger to leave viewers in confusion and shock for weeks, and What We Leave Behind didn’t hold back with its ending. The reveal of Laurel, seemingly alive and well, in the Arrow Cave is a legitimately shocking moment, the kind of vintage ‘what the hell?’ moment that an episode as weighty as this needed. Granted, it’s not foreshadowed at all, but Laurel’s return feels apt for an episode so preoccupied with the notion of the past coming back to influence the present, with Oliver’s first love interest acting as a fitting symbol of the plotlines that Arrow has discarded in a sign that the back half of the season is gearing up for an even deeper dive into the show’s tangled past. I’m sure there are caveats here, whether it’s the involvement of the Lazarus Pit, the old ‘it’s actually an Earth-2 doppelganger!’ trick, or even the old favourite, hallucinations, but no matter what way it shapes up, it’s an expertly confusing way to leave this midseason finale. Now, we just have to wait until January to figure out what it all means…
What We Leave Behind is a fantastic midseason finale that fleshes out Prometheus as a villain to be scared of whilst deepening and complicating the season’s themes and character development. It’s overstuffed, admittedly, and can’t find room for everything to land, but it ensures that Arrow has finished its resurgent first half of the season in fine form. Let’s just hope that it keeps up the good form when it returns in 2017…