The CW’s Arrow closed out Season 3 this past week with the surprisingly final “My Name is Oliver Queen,” but for many a creeping sense of indirection has permeated the emerald archer’s arc this year. Now, we attempt to pinpoint where Arrow went astray, including a character absence that may surprise you, and what hope we might find for Season 4.

I shouldn’t have to tell you to beware Arrow Season 3 spoilers from here on out, but I will! So there’s that. In any case, I don’t feel entirely alone in my assessment that Arrow went a bit off-base this year, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the blame lies. I’m going to steer clear of some of the more individual character failings, like Roy or Felicity (though there are some great write-ups around the web), and instead concentrate on a few key aspects that had Arrow feeling decidedly unconnected with its roots. That said…

The Flash Isn’t To Blame

Arrow Season 3 Review The Flash

It’s easy to sit back and draw connections between Arrow’s decline in Season 3, and the near-universal praise for The Flash’s first run, and certainly possible that division of creative minds between the pair left Arrow a bit exhausted this year. It’s a sentiment that often follows parents and children, that Arrow giving birth to a spinoff relegated the CW superhero drama to a support system for its flashy successor, though The Flash was always destined to distinguish itself from Arrow with a weirder, wilder tone, rather than eclipse it.

If anything, an aspect of The Flash that could be put to blame for Arrow’s suffering this year might lie in Barry’s adventures warping the internal reality that Arrow took two seasons to build. Arrow tended to approach this in two ways, whether directly testing Oliver against a metahuman threat, or indirectly ignoring the consequences of Central City’s heightened reality.

Death in particular proved problematic, as where we can attribute something like Malcolm Merlyn’s Season 2 survival to the then-unknown “other” of Nanda Parbat mysticism, mortal wounds in Season 3 proved of little consequence. It wasn’t that Caitlin and Cisco popped over with outlandish weekly inventions to stem mortal threats like Oliver’s mountainside ruin (though Ray Palmer’s nanites teetered dangerously close), but rather that Oliver could simply “will” himself to survive, and all this before any introduction of a magical healing hot tub.

In a world where Starling newscasters should nightly scream bloody murder at the supernatural goings-on a few towns over, Arrow forgot how gravely to respect injuries or any lasting limitations. The Flash regularly makes its outlandish scenarios a wonder to each character, where Arrow seemed more distracted by the supernatural than finding a grounded perspective on it.

Here’s Looking at You, Ray

Arrow Season 3 Review Ray

The same trend of valuing concept over character held especially true of Ray Palmer, introduced as a bubbly combination of Felicity and Oliver, (or Barry and Oliver, according to Felicity), and new owner of Queen Consolidated. The problem with Ray’s presence in Season 3 lay mostly in the inability to connect Ray and Felicity’s interactions to the other characters early on, but also that Arrow couldn’t decide how to view the character. Billionaire, genius and philanthropist, but one who’s construction of the A.T.O.M. suit seemed entirely free of scrutiny, positioning him ambiguously as both hero and foil to Oliver, and only landing on one when the third act demanded it.

The Demon’s Head

Arrow Season 3 Review Ras al Ghul

That absence of clear antagonism also helped cement Ra’s al Ghul as the meat of Oliver’s arc, though Ra’s’ execution rang false for different reasons. Exciting though it was to see such a major comic figure realized onscreen, and after two seasons of teasing, it felt more as if Arrow believed the hype itself strong enough to eclipse Slade Wilson in the canon of Arrow baddies. Not to mention, the fluid distance between Starling and Ra’s Nanda Parbat stronghold (again stretching the inner reality) made the villain’s presence even murkier.

For the first half of the season, Ra’s menaced Oliver and co. over the blood debt owed by Malcolm, a convoluted arrangement that regrettably pulled Sara down with it, but also one that Season 3 never rationally attempted to resolve. Whether or not Ra’s would have recognized Thea’s innocence in the ploy, Ra’s agenda shifted in the second half to making Oliver his heir, an equally indecisive arc that only served to put Starling City in ecological danger once again.

Where Slade had reasonably straightforward motivations of revenge, Ra’s only grew more vindictive toward placing Oliver in a position of ambiguous power. Could Oliver simply disband the League, or absolve his force marriage to Nyssa upon the ascent, and Matt Nable’s exit? These and more questions were never answered, leaving Arrow to cover by making Starling’s destruction a late-in-the-game condition, a lazy moral absolute to conquer, rather than invent around.

The Kids Aren’t All Right

Arrow Season 3 Review Moira

In earnest, the biggest failing of Arrow Season 3 overall isn’t an obvious one, but rather an absence, a tether that helped keep its increasingly superpowered world in check. Legacy, and the wisdom of adulthood were nowhere to be found this year, and may in fact have died with Moira Queen. Arrow’s first two seasons painted it as an intensely personal quest for redemption, one increasingly complicated by revelations of family, and sins of the past. Slade brought this motif more directly as a remnant of Oliver’s own past, but one that dovetailed nicely with the series’ overall sense of familial tragedy.

This time around, Arrow began on a carefree note of Oliver enjoying the spoils of his crusade, apparently released from the burden of his family’s legacy, and ruminating on his path as a general hero. Trouble is, the absence of Moira or any other general “adult” voices this year stripped Arrow of its sense of history. Gone too were the Queen Mansion and company holdings (another unresolved aspect of Season 3), as Arrow seemed to abandon its past, and dive headfirst into a new mission of fleshing out the larger universe.

A grounded perspective gave the first seasons of Arrow extraordinary focus, cemented by adult characters like Moira or Quentin Lance. In losing Oliver’s mother and sidelining his surrogate father figure, whether by a desk job, or ignorance of Sara’s death, Arrow Season 3 lacked the sense of lived-in history that made its costumed characters so worthy of awe to begin with. Instead, this year kept its gaze on exaggerated and inaccessible adult figures like the immortal despot leagues away, a slimy survivor of seasons past, or yes, even a cocktail waitress uncertain how to relate to her daughter.

So, What Now?

Arrow Season 4 Review

There are a number of other avenues one could take in dissecting Arrow Season 3, whether the difficulty connecting Oliver’s Hong Kong flashbacks to the present day, or the indulgence of past cameos like Tommy or Slade, but the question stands: Where does all this leave the DC drama in Season 4? Certainly Legends of Tomorrow will end up compounding Arrow’s issues with stolen focus, as will Oliver’s apparent decision to leave the life behind entirely, but a soft reboot might actually end up doing the series some good.

The double-edged sword of Season 2’s intensity burned through a lot of Arrow’s core concepts, unfortunately leaving Ra’s al Ghul the only viable option to inflate Season 3’s sense of scale. That might actually allow Season 4 to pull back with a smaller focus on Damien Darkh, and presumably H.I.V.E., which itself would return a bit of the “legacy” focus through Diggle. If nothing else, the wealth of heroes established over Season 3, whether Black Canary, Speedy or even a masked Diggle should allow some breathing room for Oliver’s next arc, leaving Season 3 a muddled, if necessary transition period.

Well, did Arrow Season 3 live up to expectations, suffer against The Flash, or damage the series beyond repair? Could we see Season 4 returning the series to its past heights, or will The CW’s expansive DC roster only complicate the story? Stay tuned for the latest on all three series, and don’t forget The Flash‘s first season finale next Tuesday!

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