Arrow Season 3 Is A Series Decline, But Had Enough To Pull Through
Arrow has been a remarkable surprise thus far. The first season may have been somewhat reserved and took a while to really kick into gear, but the show moved from strength to strength and was overflowing with confidence in its second spectacular season. It was the kind of confidence that sparked CW’s The Flash series to come out guns blazing in its debut season, totally unafraid of its comic book origins. Arrow season 3 certainly raised the bar dramatically on paper by introducing one of the most famous DC villains, Ra’s Al Ghul, who was set to be the most formidable foe Oliver Queen could face. Yes, we all know Ra’s is primarily a Batman villain, but its DC’s characters and they can do what they want with them, so enough of that.
I’ve been an avid watcher of Arrow since I took the plunge a little bit into season two, and I found myself enjoying it so much that I binge watched the entire first season in a matter of days. I had no interest in Green Arrow as a character prior to the show, but the writers really adapted it fantastically and managed to give us a character who was flawed and arguably even a really shit person before his ascension to the Arrow. It was that kind of characterisation, and the lessons Oliver Queen had to learn often from those wiser than he, that made him compelling. However despite how excited I was for season 3, it was the absence of this charm and the misuse of the primary villain that had me feeling Arrow’s third season was a decline, even though it had enough to pull through in the end.
Do I even need to put a spoiler warning here? Very well. Beware of spoilers.
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To verify my opinion here I browsed through season 2 of Arrow again prior to writing this piece. The entire season builds up to Deathstroke, the ‘big bad’ of the season. The flashbacks tell his origin story, and often connected thematically to what was going on in the episode. There was a build up even to seeing Deathstroke in full costume, and the villain remained a constant oppressive presence in the season. By contrast Ra’s Al Ghul held very little presence for most of the beginning half of the season. And don’t even get me started on the flashbacks, which moved at a snail’s pace, were largely predictable and often felt very disconnected from the season itself, with only a forced bio weapon having any parallels. What started out as ways to show Oliver Queen’s five years of suffering and how they changed him into the Arrow, struggled to be relevant in Hong Kong
The season began interestingly enough with the death of Sara Lance AKA the Black Canary, and the ensuing investigation. But it was to be the beginning of Arrow season 3’s problems, as it dragged on for far too long, and left so little time to build up Ra’s Al Ghul before his eventual, disappointing five second reveal at the end of episode four. Arrow fans had been waiting since season 2 when the daughter of the demon became a consistent presence, and Ra’s Al Ghul was frequently mentioned. I won’t forget the smile that broke out on my face when Oliver Queen told Diggle “If half the stories I’ve heard about Ra’s Al Ghul are true…we’ll all pay.” But it was early days, and Arrow had already proven itself in the past, so I overlooked it. After two excellent crossover episodes between The Flash and Arrow at episode 8, the mid season finale was upon us and there was a good enough build up to arguably one of the series’ best choreographed fights, between Ra’s Al Ghul and Oliver. It was a very fitting end before the break, and it was actually the point I warmed up to Ra’s Al Ghul and thought the series did fantastically well to portray Oliver as just a kid compared to the demon, even if the eight episodes before that didn’t adequately build the villain up.
It was after the break though that I felt Arrow began its decline. My first issue with season 3 was the utterly absurd notion that Ra’s Al Ghul – the demon’s head, the freaking boss of the league of assassins, the man who has lived a hundred years (in the show) and has killed thousands of men – failed to kill a boy after stabbing him through the chest and kicking him off a cliff. While fans all assumed and anticipated the Lazarus Pit to enter the show, it wasn’t used to resurrect Oliver. Rather a couple of herbs. That bullshit aside, one of the season’s strengths was in showing Team Arrow cope without the actual Arrow, and being made to make their own decisions. It was pretty decent, even if the show was rather hasty to bring Oliver back to the team. Although there’s never a dull moment when Malcolm Merlin is around, and one of my favourite parts of season 3 was his continued involvement.
Another of my core problems with season 3 was its lack of focus, emphasis on fluff and the way Arrow was seemingly being used for too much build up. CW’s obsession with love triangles for one led to a very frustrating season with Oliver, Felicity and Ray Palmer, to the point that the once excellent chemistry between the first two completely fizzled out towards the end of the season. Too much of the season was used as build ups and setups, without actual focus on the core villain, big bad and the kind of character progression and interactions many fans have loved the series for. There was a huge emphasis on The Atom and Ray Palmer for instance, which is understandable from a business sense considering he’s not well known to the masses, there’s DC Legends of Tomorrow and Arrow is very popular, but when you combine it with Laurel’s ascension as the new Black Canary, Thea Queen’s rise to Speedy, Team Arrow’s bizarre and rushed inability to decide what they think of Oliver, and Quentin Lance’s poorly handled one-eighty on the Arrow, there was just far too much bogging the season down which gave the least amount of time to naturally build and progress the League of Assassins and Ra’s Al Ghul and the overall story.
The premise of it was there, with Ra’s wanting a successor in Oliver Queen. But Ra’s lacked the presence that Deathstroke and Malcolm Merlin had before him, and he lacked the build up and sense of threat after that fateful fight in episode nine. He also lacked the right characterisation, and began to get rather repetitive (those ancient proverbs) and like a tame bystander as the season went on. The net result of the problematic pacing was that the final three episodes of the season tried to cram a season-long story into three episodes, and it was actually depressing for me considering how much potential was buried in the rush. I remember watching the final three or four episodes wondering why none of it could have been happening weeks ago. It’s very difficult to get on board with what season 3 is selling you or feel any kind of suspense when it’s being rushed to that extent, lacked the appropriate build up and ended all too abruptly. Speaking of ending too quickly, the final fight between Oliver and Ra’s was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the whole season for me, as it was awkwardly choreographed, lacked urgency and was over much too quickly. I’m repeating myself at this point.
I’ve been criticising season 3 quite a bit with my rantopinon here, but that’s only because the final few episodes and the actual ending to the season contained so much ‘what could have been’ had the writers exercised the same kind of quality and pacing present in the previous two seasons. However in spite of my flaws with the season, there was plenty to carry it through. It was great to see the rest of Team Arrow get to step up and make their own choices, the season gave amazing characters like Malcolm Merlin and Nyssa Al Ghul plenty of room to shine, despite its drawn out nature Ray Palmer was well-setup in the season and it was also very pleasing to see the Lazarus Pit used. A highlight for me would also be the soundtrack especially during some of those last few episodes, as Arrow absolutely pulled out some of its best tracks yet. The special effects, design and aesthetics continued to be excellent, especially more so when you’re factoring in The Atom and Nanda Parbat, the home of the League of Assassins. And I did feel the actual end to the season was strong, despite all its prior flaws.
While disappointing in many ways, Arrow season 3 does present an interesting platform for season 4, considering that a number of characters will be offloaded to DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on top of other characters exiting. The fourth season may feel a bit empty or it may end up being entirely fresh with new faces, and in time we’ll hear more about that. But for a series that has surprised at almost every turn in its first two seasons, it’s a pity that it had to surprise in the wrong way in its third season. Yet in spite of that, as already mentioned, the third season had enough highs to carry it through, even if it did have a bit of a limp. The fourth season of Arrow may just be make or break as a result.