As much as the current slate of DC TV (not to mention this coming weekend’s presence at NYCC) has audiences looking toward the franchise future, Arrow fans in particular can’t help taking stock of the varied iterations each season of the CW drama brings. What began as an admittedly clever Batman Begins riff soon evolved into its own, more operatic and confident engine willing to dabble in science-based superpowers, while the third season seemingly buckled under an attempt to play to both sides, while still indulging a larger universe.

This time around, as both producers and tonight’s “Green Arrow” make amply clear, Arrow strives to throw off either mandate in charting a jauntier, more energetic chapter of Oliver Queen’s journey, complete with a new name and suit to match. Mileage will vary as to how the new, similarly styled duds and unchanged voice modulator convince Star City of the change, but from an audience perspective, one need only look to the newly-solidified relationship between Oliver and Felicity. Increased energy, physicality, and even the rhythm of dialogue between Stephen Amell and Emily Rickards feel wholly fresh against last year’s heavy-handed melodrama, and Arrow feels all the lighter for it.

The CW

Of course, Arrow being Arrow, it wouldn’t take long to draw Oliver and Felicity back to Star City, now plagued by mysterious “Ghosts” thwarting the new team at every turn, but the real change lies in watching the team (or at least Thea) enjoy their work, or operate on a more even keel. Despite seeking his expertise, no one readily jumps to Oliver’s orders anymore, while the narrative grants at least two scenes to Diggle fleshing out his concerns working with their former leader, exactly the kind of equilateral perspective last season struggled with.

Compounding that, tonight’s opener takes a refreshingly unpretentious approach to its initial push as well, introducing the always-game Neal McDonough as Damien Darhk, even setting up a future mystery that doesn’t quite dominate* in the manner Sara’s death pulled focus last year. No one familiar with McDonough’s particular brand of menace will show surprise that Darhk seems at once charismatic and an unpredictable terror, though I appreciated attempts to ground the so-called “mysticism” somewhat, or at least root it in practical application. Still, the real meat to Darhk and H.I.V.E.’s introduction lay in both Diggle keeping the recognition to himself, and Quentin seemingly serving in some capacity, another refreshing change from the character’s benching last year.

*Ideally, Season 4 wouldn’t have pigeonholed itself so early on into setting up a major character’s death, particularly as Sara’s impending resurrection complicates the rules, though I suppose Barry and Oliver spoke with enough ambiguity to make anyone among the main cast a target. Also, curse lower-third credits for spoiling Grant Gustin’s appearance!

We never could have expected they'd kill off the salmon ladder.

On some level, Arrow was always built to navel-gaze, asking itself year after year what new brand of hero Oliver Queen might become. Last year seemingly struggled to pose that question from a new angle, and it helps immensely that Season 4 appears to have in mind Oliver’s place on a spectrum between light and dark. Pushing Oliver to let go of past baggage and and embrace the light seems light it might distance even further from our fourth-year flashback, but in asking Arrow to redeem itself of a stagnant presence in Season 3, “Green Arrow” has new direction in spades.

Tonight kept plenty afloat and fresh without losing sight of of its core conceits, as well establishing a number of new mysteries that should (in theory) polarize less so than last year’s opener.

AND ANOTHER THING …

  • “Felicity Smoak, you have failed this omelet.”
  • So … did Oliver really just have the dragon tattoo removed, or did make-up simply grow tired of applying it?
  • Now that we’re moving into a “Green Arrow” phase, one wonders how far we’ll go with spotlighting economic decay of Star City, after multiple mentions of the city’s worsening state.
  • I may be alone in this, but between last night’s Flash alluding to the Bat-signal, and the actual (obscured) appearance of a “Jordan” pilot in Coast City, these teases of characters we’re not likely to meet feel increasingly mean-spirited.
  • … were they certain no one else was on the Orbiter train to Star City?
  • Okay, Oliver’s back on the island. On the one hand, it made sense to change up the location in Season 3, but for a series increasingly challenged by its own format, returning to the Island (however inevitable, given the pilot) doesn’t seem ideal.

Arrow Season 4 will return next Wednesday with Jeri Ryan-starring “The Candidate,” airing at 8:00 P.M. on The CW.

Check Out 100 TV Facts You May Not Know!