Nah, this isn’t about that Circa Survive song.
So the 18th episode of Arrow aired recently, capping off an extremely long and awful run of episodes for the show. In this episode, a bunch of story lines all tie together in a somewhat eventful manner, and the audience finally learns who was in the grave that was teased in the first episode. That all sounds pretty cool, except for the fact that the show is so balls deep in its own mediocrity that I’m not sure I even care any more.
I’m not sure if this is a platitude I heard somewhere else, but my basic definition of good writing is when you’re enjoying a story – whether that’s a movie, a TV show, a video game, a book, or whatever – and you forget that the characters are fictional. When I watch Black Sails, I often forget that I’m watching a TV show and not a real event in history. The writing is so good, and the performances so hypnotic and intoxicating, that the very idea that some guy wrote this down just slips away into the aether.
And then there’s bad writing, which is when you’re all too aware of the fact that some guy is writing that shit down, and is probably giggling to himself at how amazing it all is.
See, when you’re so far up your own ass that you think things like tea and “the will to live” are good justifications for why a character can survive a stab wound and plummet to his presumed death, you have crossed the event horizon into “abysmal writing,” which is a point where nothing can redeem your story.
Case in point: Arrow. In Season 3 of Arrow, Ra’s al Ghul (a Batman villain that the writers had woven into the Arrow mythology pretty early on) reveals to series protagonist Oliver Queen that he has a “Lazarus Pit.” The Lazarus Pit is a well known thing from Batman comics, and is a chemical bath that can heal the wounded and resurrect the dead. The Pit is later used to save Oliver’s sister, Thea, from near death. This is fine. What’s not fine is that when Maseo, a character Oliver once knew, and who now works for Ra’s, saves Oliver’s life some episodes earlier, it’s done in this absurdly dumb way. I guess this was done to preserve the concept of the succession prophecy, but honestly, I think any plot line that requires a prophecy as needlessly specific as Arrow‘s is doomed to failure.
So let’s talk about bad writing. In S04E15, “Taken,” Team Arrow enlists the help of a magical super-heroine named Vixen to help against Damien Darhk, the bad guy, who has magic powers. He gets these powers from an idol, which Vixen smashes into pieces. He’s arrested and thrown in prison. Alright. Then in S04E18, “Eleven Fifty-Nine,” Team Arrow has apparently rebuilt the idol and is storing it in their base of operations. Um… why?
Let’s back up. In Season 1, there’s this guy named Malcolm Merlyn who plots to kill an impoverished section of Starling City. He succeeds, killing his own son in the process. Oliver kills him. Then, inexplicably, he’s not dead, he’s revealed to be the real father of his Oliver’s sister, and, in Season 3, crafts the most absurdly stupid plan to convince Oliver to fight Ra’s al Ghul. The plan fails, but then he helps Oliver take down Ra’s, and Oliver lets him become the new Ra’s. This character still exists in Season 4, to my complete and total bewilderment. Had Oliver had the foresight to kill Merlyn in Season 3, most of the pain Oliver suffered would have been avoided. But no, the writers like the actor, so his character persists.
So this Merlyn guy steals the re-assembled idol and delivers it to bad guy Darhk, only to discover that Team Arrow stashed the magical battery, I guess, elsewhere, forcing Darhk to activate his double agent to retrieve it. That double agent is Diggle’s brother, Andy, who had a couple of episodes of perceived redemption. I think this twist would have been more effective had the audience seen more of Andy and his relationship with his brother, but we hadn’t seen Andy in quite awhile. In fact, I kind of forgot he existed. When I started watching this episode, I was actually really confused for about five minutes, thinking that half of the beginning had been mysterious cut.
I couldn’t shake this feeling throughout the whole episode that the writer was just sitting around, plotting out this chapter, internally squealing about how “amazing” and “organic” it was going to be. Refresher here: “organic” writing is when a character does something that you could believe is a decision that they came up with on their own. If you take all the information that a character also has, and you make a decision that is reasonable, based on that information and judgement, that is an “organic” decision. When a character does something that makes no sense, that’s not organic, it’s contrived. A contrivance is something that happens because the plot requires it to move forward.
So when Diggle, a character that was once defined by his incredible pragmatism, tells Oliver that his brother is a good guy, “just because,” it reeks of absurdly contrived writing. I would just assume that a guy who once asked his friend to be suspicious of his own mother would be sympathetic to his friend’s claim that maybe a few months of love and acceptance wouldn’t change someone who has been a colossally corrupt asshole for years. Y’know, just maybe a little understanding? Because that would be organic writing. It would be organic for a character to behave similarly to how he did 17 episodes ago. Because Diggle was incredibly upset and distrustful of Oliver at the beginning of this season for what Oliver did to him in Season 3, that would make sense.
What’s not organic is when the writers decide to kill a character, but then have to invent some reason for why the previous method of resurrection wouldn’t work, and eventually settle on the solution being a potion that no one ever discussed or brought up before or since. What’s not organic is having a character find a different potion that could cure a character’s magical disease very suddenly and inexplicably. What’s not organic is having the good guys re-assemble the bad guy’s source of power for no established reason, other than that the bad guy needs it for future episodes. These are all contrivances. Contrivances weigh down the story, making if difficult to really invest in any singular character or plot line.
When people blame Arrow’s failings on Felicity, or Tumblr, Twitter, or Interns, they are all mistaking one symptom for the real disease. Arrow is failing because its writers and show runners are either stupid or apathetic. A good writer is someone who cares about their end product. A good writer does not forget a scene which aired in a previous episode. A good writer does not ignore vital elements of their story’s believability. A good writer wants to entertain people, to make them think not just about their product, but about how that product makes them feel.
If you’re looking for quality, do not watch Arrow. It is broken beyond repair. Just watch The Flash, it’s much better in basically every way.