Second season premieres are defining moments for TV shows. For a successful show*, the first season is all about getting the formula right; Arrow stuttered for its first half season, and didn’t really blossom until the cast was rounded out by Manu Bennet as Slade Wilson/Deathstroke, Emily Bett Rickards as Felicity Smoak, and Colton Haynes as Roy Harper/Speedy. The final third of Arrow’s first season was great television, consistently upping the stakes in both the story’s ‘present’ (Starling City) and ‘five years ago’ (the Island) plot lines while also tightening the connections between the various characters, with all of the opportunity for revenge, betrayal, and scandal** that entails.
Now, with everything running like a well oiled machine, it’s time to break some stuff. We saw this in the final moments of last season’s finale, as Starling City literally collapsed into ruins and Oliver Queen held his dying best friend in his hands. The first thing we see in “City of Heroes,” the second season premiere, is Felicity and Diggle on The Island, where Oliver has fled seeking refuge after he failed to save his city. The whole conceit of the first season was The List, Oliver’s father’s list of people who had failed Starling City, an easy enough rubric for Ollie to follow on his quest from playboy to hero. But already by the second season, the list has to be abandoned — it didn’t work, and Oliver has no interest in returning to Starling City to be The Hood again. He learned his lesson about vigilantism; watching his friend die, he realized that the death toll can never be worth whatever else is gained.
What Oliver can do, however, even if he won’t don his hood and quiver, is try to save Queen Consolidated. After being implicated in the earthquake that destroyed Starling City’s poor neighborhood, The Glades, Queen Consolidated is looking like easy pickings for corporate raiders. Enter Summer Glau, who absolutely can’t pull off a hard-edged, money-over-everything CEO, but she looks great not pulling it off and it’s a safe bet that Ollie will be “pulling off” her clothes within four episodes, so stunt casting is forgiven. What about Oliver’s other business, the nightclub he built with Tommy Merlyn? His sister Thea’s taken it over, with the help of Roy Harper, who buses tables in between getting his ass kicked like Kick Ass as he tries to patrol what’s left of the Glades — he’d be dead by now if not for the intervention of a mysterious masked woman (psssst, it’s Black Canary). And where’s Oliver’s mom? She’s in jail, sporting the most flattering minimum security prison duds I ever did see.
In the “five years ago” storyline, Oliver is settling in nicely to life on the island — he and Shado are in love, and he and Slade are in bro-love, and they all live together happily ever after in a bombed out cargo plane. That is, until Shado goes and gets herself kidnapped like the exact second that they step outside. Slade and Ollie track the kidnappers, and Oliver kills one of them, showing absolutely zero remorse.
Back in the present, a gang of hooded vigilantes are killing innocents, kidnapping Thea, and making it very hard indeed for Oliver to get to know Summer Glau. He hems and haws a little bit about whether to take them out — and since this show is called Arrow and not Cancelled, I think you have a pretty good idea which way he decides to go. But, he’s careful to point out to Diggle and Felicity, he’s not a vigilante anymore — what Starling City needs is a hero. Apparently, the difference between a vigilante and a hero is that heroes don’t kill, and to symbolize this new no-killing rule, Oliver’s changing his secret identity from The Hood to…well, he’s looking right at that arrow when he says it, so it’s probably gonna be, I don’t know, Arrow?
So that’s the lay of the land, the characters, premise and themes for Arrow’s second season. Just as in season 1, the showrunners will attempt to use parallel stories in the two timelines to really hammer home the point. In Season 1, it was Oliver shedding his weaknesses on the Island and trying to regain his humanity in Starling City. This time around, it’s all about Oliver’s moral code: just as he commits his first murder on the Island, he swears off killing forever in Starling City. Some hardcore DC comics fans may argue that the Green Arrow would have had a personal code against killing from the beginning — as do virtually all DC heroes in the ‘classic’ continuity. But I think showing Oliver’s moral journey only improves the character. His fighting skills and marksmanship make Oliver Queen an extraordinary individual; but applying those skills towards the pursuit of good, while always preserving life, is what makes him a superhero***.
*In this case, I mean artistically successful, not necessarily commercially successful, and by artistically successful, I mean the show is coherent with a strong voice and developed characters, not necessarily that it is some great work of genius.
**ABC drama line-up joke!
***I made a similar argument when I reviewed Man of Steel – while many viewers were apalled that Superman would even consider killing Zod, I felt that it was a necessary moment in Kal-El’s heroes’ journey, the moment when he truly decided to commit himself to the pursuit of good.