Arrow: 513 “Spectre of the Gun” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Superheroes and social issues go together far better than they have any right to. It might seem ridiculous to rip stories out of the headlines for fantastical characters who live in a world entirely separated from ours, but the heightened, idealised nature of comic-books has made them uniquely placed for principled commentary on the issues that dominate our society. This season alone, Legends of Tomorrow has tackled America’s queasy relationship with slavery, while Supergirl has thrown itself into an exploration of immigrants and the prejudice they face. The Green Arrow himself comes from a rich tradition of social consciousness, having been comic books’ first port of call when the creators wanted to take a liberal stand on social injustice. Spectre of the Gun, and its intent to dive into the subject of gun violence, looked like an auspicious opportunity for a boldly political kind of Arrow.
Here’s the thing, however. The CW superhero shows have explored their social issues from one perspective, making the case proudly for a particular point of view, and they’ve been successful because superheroes work well as embodiments of ideas. Spectre of the Gun, conversely, takes on the whole scope of the discourse around gun control. That’s far, far more ambitious, and while the intent is admirable throughout, there was no way that the episode was going to successfully accomplish its goals within a neat 45 minutes. The episode is too tightly wound around its own standalone narrative to incorporate the complicated history that could have informed the debate so much here. And while its open-hearted desire for a more open and civil discourse with compromises that centre on the facts of saving lives is certainly something we need more of in television, in execution, that means the episode ends toothlessly, magically resolving the debate with a substance-free quick fix.
Truth be told, this is one of the rare episodes of Arrow where it’s an acutely different experience watching it outside the US. If Spectre of the Gun is consistent about anything from the off, it’s that gun control is a polemical subject that has powerful and convincing arguments for either sides. In short, as Oliver says, it’s complicated. It’s easy, as someone coming from a different political climate where the gun control debate is far less prevalent, to feel that the episode is strangely conservative, keen to dog-whistle to the red state viewers in its insistence that guns rights are somewhere up there, if not totally equal, with abortion and freedom of speech. I think that’s the wrong way to watch this episode, because Arrow has no responsibility to cater to international viewers, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t my first reaction.
Instead, it’s best to probe deeper. Regardless of any viewer’s politics, does Arrow make a balanced debate around the issue? The answer is, again, complicated. It’s true to say that all three sides of the debate – pro, anti, and ‘please stop arguing’ are all represented with characters we’ve gotten to know, and that each character does learn to put sense before naked ideology by the end of the episode. The problem is that Arrow isn’t sophisticated enough in weighting each viewpoint equally. To give it credit, it gives the pro-gun viewpoint, something that could so easily be delivered through a raving strawman figure, to Rene, who makes his case reasonably enough, and incorporates the formation of his argument into this week’s flashbacks. Those flashbacks are kind of blandly functional, throwing in a lot of working-class clichés (the junkie mother and the loyal father dynamic is a tired one), but the central issue of Rene’s gun, and the role it could have played if he had it earlier, is set up and paid off effectively enough. His argument doesn’t fully stand up to logical scrutiny – the man who killed his wife had a gun too – but it makes emotional sense for someone who’s driven more by his passionately-held beliefs than cold, hard facts. Coupled with Rene’s copious usage of firearms in his everyday vigilantism, and it’s believable that he would feel as strongly as this – the viewpoint that guns save lives has basis in more than just an obligatory soundbite.
Spectre of the Gun is most interested in the middle ground, and that’s where things begin to get thorny. The episode does have some insightful things to say about the need to take ideology out of some debates such as the scene with Curtis and Felicity that skewers the current polarised, adversary climate that’s prevented any meaningful debate from occurring. And it’s possible to see the originality and thoughtfulness in the idea that Oliver has to clean the issue up politically with compromise and negotiation as opposed to blunt violence. It allows Spectre of the Gun to present a more morally complex worldview where blunt force of will has its limits, and that’s the right choice for an episode that decries people who can’t accept the merits of the opposing side of an argument. The problem with the middle ground, however, is that it can end up feeling safe. You can please everyone if you stick to the middle ground and issue bland platitudes that it’s almost impossible to disagree with. Ultimately, Spectre of the Gun wants to please everyone, and in doing so, it picks the safe option to a dispiriting degree. That’s shown most clearly in the episode’s treatment of Oliver, who becomes by far the least interesting central character in an episode where he should be dynamic and informed by his own experiences.
There’s a scene in the Netflix show BoJack Horseman where the lead character is asked a bafflingly controversial question during a routine Q and A about a book by someone who’s evidently wanting to pick any kind of fight. The joke is that the lead character responds with the most respectable, common-sense opinion possible, so that the asker can’t help but retreat because he can’t find a way to pick it apart. That’s Oliver this episode. He believes in Second Amendment rights, but also wants lives to be saved, which is the kind of opinion that Siri might respond with if you asked – completely acceptable to both sides of the aisle. That wouldn’t be a problem if Oliver were a supporting figure in the episode, but he’s not – he’s right there at the centre of both mass shootings, talking down the villain of the week and coming up with the compromise that summarises the episode’s stance. It encapsulates things when he comes up with a piece of legislation – complete with inoffensive random-generator name – that appeases both sides, to bring the fierce argument to the end. What’s particularly frustrating is that Spectre of the Gun comes so close to making this work.
A respectable compromise is the only place this episode could have come to, and there’s an opportunity for the same passion and principle to be put into the ending message as there was for the more ideological social issues episodes of Supergirl and Legends, because putting aside personal convictions and finding consensus is just as controversial in this debate as picking an extreme. But Spectre of the Gun fails to stick the landing because it refuses to engage with the subject. We’re told that the legislation appeases both sides, but we don’t hear what it is, or how it could accomplish such a miraculous bridging of the divide. Just when it’s about to take a stand on something, the episode reverts back to its chronic need to please everyone, and it takes all of the sting out of the ending. Even a few lines of dialogue detailing the actual policy behind it would have made all the difference here.
Spectre of the Gun wants to place itself in the real world, but flees back to fantasy territory at the end where all of the complexities are boiled away to leave a catchy soundbite as Oliver’s supposed inspiring message for the city. The episode’s concluding message is, essentially, that guns can be good, but also can be bad, and well… you could get a lot of retweets for that. As the moral of a supposedly hard-hitting episode, however, it comes across as disingenuous and naïve, undoing a lot of the fine work done engaging with the ins and outs of the debate in the rest of the episode. Perhaps trying to wrap up the entire debate within such a tight timeframe was too ambitious an ask here, showing the limits of these kinds of standalone, close-ended ‘very special’ episodes.
It’s also problematic that Spectre of the Gun purports to give both extremes a say, but then loses interest quite rapidly in the anti-gun side of the debate. There’s a lot of potential for Curtis to make a strong case for gun control, and that potential is shown briefly when he mentions his race as a defining factor – a sign of a greater grasp of the complex dynamics that underpin gun violence that this episode so often fails to understand. But gradually, Curtis is pushed to the side. His arguments don’t have a basis in his personal life like Rene’s, and aren’t set out with the same sophistication as the councilwoman’s arguments with Oliver, so the episode implicitly ends up giving less credence to his argument than the other side, creating a decidedly uneven debate. By the end of the episode, his vehement opposition is subsumed into the centrist compromises of Oliver, who ends up forming the other half of the think-tank with Rene on the gun control legislation instead of Curtis (okay, Curtis is not exactly a qualified policy-maker, but neither is Rene), and he apologises for Rene for doubting his arguments. Spectre of the Gun was written by Marc Guggenheim, and a quick search of his Twitter will tell you that he leans leftwing politically. I wasn’t expecting this episode to reflect those liberal beliefs – it’s not the writer’s place to turn every character into their mouthpiece, but it’s somewhat strange that a viewpoint he would be closer to, politically, feels like much more of a strawman argument than the conservative view. Spectre of the Gun’s success is contingent on fleshing out every side of the debate, but with Curtis’ anti-gun views, it fails that test. It does feel like a strange choice to make Curtis, someone who has had no real experience with guns, the main mouthpiece for the issue, as opposed to Lance (who briefly voices his opposition… in one line of dialogue), or Felicity, who was the victim of a gun attack from HIVE, and while Spectre of the Gun does well in linking Rene to a position that fits his character, Curtis’ characterisation comes across as arbitrary and contrived to fit the episode’s view.
The idea of Spectre of the Gun is a truly great one. In this politically fractured time, it’s the responsibility of art to commentate on these issues and offer a better way forward for us all. And the episode’s wholehearted commitment to exploring the debate – there’s no attempts, aside from a weird, brief cameo from Vigilante, to jam in progress for the arc plot that would dilute the moral uncertainties of it all. I would definitely prefer an ambitious episode like this to a paint-by-numbers slice of filler that does the job but with no imagination, so it’s a smart way to plug the gap in between major stretches of episodes. Just because this experiment didn’t come off doesn’t mean that Arrow shouldn’t try it again.
But intent is one thing, and execution is another, and the latter was unfortunately poor here. There’s flickers of powerful insight and thoughtful originality here and there, but Spectre of the Gun packs far less punch than it initially seems. It’s lazy in delivering in its promise to give every viewpoint value, and offers a strangely contradictory villain whose motivations are almost entirely nonsensical (if there was a sense that he wanted to force the city’s hand to pass legislation, it’d be fine, but he’s characterised as a desperate man lashing out in a way that contradicts the slight done against him). And it’s hard to look past the cheap cop-out at the end with the ‘Firearms Freedoms Act’, which delivers a bland and shallow message that belies the episode’s stab at genuine moral complexity elsewhere.