Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Arrow reviews here.
Arrow has had a polarizing fourth season. And while I’ve fallen on the more positive and receptive side of that divide, it’s hard to deny that much like Season 3 before it, Season 4 suffered from major structural flaws. What was a very promising start in the first 9 episodes slowly turned into a meandering story overrun with side characters, with the central conflict growing less urgent and more ridiculous.
It’s only fitting then that for the second year in a row, Arrow ended a shaky season with a by-the-numbers, unsatisfying finale like “Schism”.
Structurally speaking, “Schism” was a solid finale. Star City faced a major threat, throwing the city into chaos. Oliver took to the streets and inspired his fellow citizens to have hope and unite. Meanwhile, Team Arrow tackled and defeated the threat. And it all ended with a final confrontation in which the hope that Oliver had inspired in the people of Star City allowed him to defeat Damien Darhk. It wasn’t anything exceptional, but the skeleton of a strong finale was there.
Most importantly, that skeleton was centered around the character development and thematic throughlines of the season (which is why I will always prefer Arrow, warts and all, to a show like Gotham, where things just… happen). Ollie’s inspirational speech allowed him to finally be the hero “in the light”, the “something else” he’s been wanting to become all season long, exemplified by him becoming mayor. Thematically speaking, this made Damien Darhk a perfect villain for this season, since defeating his magic was entirely reliant on Oliver becoming that beacon of hope for Star City.
So how did it go so wrong? As always, it’s all in the execution, and that’s where “Schism” dropped the ball with a dull thud.
The aforementioned character moments that should have been the beating heart of the episode were not given the emphasis they deserved. Ollie’s inspirational speech, the epitome of his character arc this season, fell utterly flat. It had no buildup, the riots were only briefly featured, and we weren’t given any time to absorb how desperate the situation was. The scene began mere seconds before Oliver started talking and ended shortly afterwards. And the speech itself was short and generic, which made the citizens’ quick turnabout very cheesy. It didn’t feel like a pivotal moment. The episode was just going through the motions.
Another such scene was the final confrontation. It was a standard fistfight while a small crowd stood there and just watched, offering Oliver no assistance beyond this abstract idea of hope. The people of Star City didn’t do anything until Darhk’s forces finally showed up, at which point they joined the fray. A scene that should have felt triumphant simply left me wondering, “Why aren’t the H.I.V.E. soldiers using their guns?”
The death of Damien Darhk was yet another moment that gave me mixed feelings. I liked the idea that, as much as he wants to be a hopeful and inspirational hero, sometimes Oliver has no choice but to kill his enemy. Oliver’s solution to the schism of light vs dark is “pragmatic light”, which is actually a good decision. Unfortunately, it was handled very poorly. Oliver didn’t kill Darhk in battle or in an attempt to save people; he killed Darhk after he had defeated him. It made this hero look like a ruthless killer.
Moreover, for a season finale that dealt with the potential end of the world, there was an alarming lack of suspense and urgency in “Schism”. I often think back to the scene near the end of Season 2 when Oliver was standing in the clock tower and looking upon the destruction raging throughout Starling City. There was a sense of danger, and a hopelessness that necessitated a rousing rally. None of that was present in “Schism”. The danger felt abstract and intangible, and the episode spent too little time making us feel any tension.
Season 4’s major misstep was the very inclusion of nuclear bombs to begin with. This show is narrowly focused on Team Arrow and Star City, which meant that the ramifications of a potential nuclear apocalypse were never addressed outside of that very small scope. It made a huge, planet-wide threat feel very small. Especially when the solution to the nuclear bombs was the deus ex machina of “hacking”. The fact that Felicity was her usual quippy self despite being responsible for 10,000 deaths only two episodes ago just shows that this was a plot device too big for Arrow to handle.
High stakes are great. But there is such a thing as stakes that are too high. Green Arrow is a street-level hero. Extinction-level events are not his forte. Arrow is best when it is limited in scope; high stakes thus come from making the conflict personal. That’s what made the first two seasons so good.
“Schism” ended in a bittersweet manner as Oliver completed his journey and became mayor, but Thea and Diggle left the team. Thea’s departure felt tacked on, necessitated by plot more than her character arc. Diggle’s departure, on the other hand, was far more earned. His storyline with Andy was one of the more successful elements of Season 4, and this was the right way to end it.
Though this comes close to “fool me twice” territory, since Season 4 didn’t necessarily return Arrow to form after Season 3, I will remain cautiously optimistic for Season 5. Making the team smaller and letting Oliver become mayor are interesting developments, and I do believe there is potential in continuing the story of this new Green Arrow.
Oh, I almost forgot about the flashbacks. If “Schism” felt like it was going through the motions, that was nothing compared to the flashbacks. Those scenes no longer serve any purpose. Can we drop the flashbacks next year and leave the rest of Oliver’s journey up to our imagination?
Rating: 3/5 (Passable)
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