Partial spoilers ahead:
The problems with happy endings in the middle of a TV series are that they must, by the very nature of storytelling, be undone. Arrow’s second season ended with just such a happy ending as Oliver and company triumphed over Deathstroke while asserting themselves as the heroes of Starling City. Unlike the end of the first season which featured a team that had succeeded at stopping the villain but unable to stop a catastrophe set in motion by said villain, the second season was a victory, full stop. It’s no surprise then that the premiere is titled “The Calm”, both because it accurately describes how we find the group as the episode begins, but also because it’s all too apparent that this happy interim is bound to end sooner rather than later.
What makes this episode work, despite knowing that everything is going to fall apart, is that the calm before the storm is eminently enjoyable. Arrow can’t subsist on a team that’s working perfectly without any interpersonal conflicts for long, but seeing everyone getting along and fighting crime as a beautifully orchestrated bad guy stopping unit is exceedingly enjoyable. The first, flashy action sequence of the year lays out just how well the team functions in its new layout, effortlessly swinging from Oliver, to Felicity, to Diggle, and Roy as they handily derail an attempted shipment of RPGs through Starling City. It’s exactly the note to come back to after the summer break, the show taking a victory lap and celebrating what it has built just before it goes and tears it all down again.
And once that teardown has started it doesn’t stop until a cast member nearly loses their life. Just as it seems that Oliver is poised to begin a relationship with Felicity, get back his company, and continue on his path back to being a real person, everything starts going sideways. The new Count Vertigo, played ably by the always enjoyable Peter Stormare, literally blows up Oliver and Felicity’s first date. Then the newly introduced Ray Palmer sweeps Queen Consolidated out from Oliver’s feet, all while Brandon Routh’s delightful performance gives the theft a wonderfully cheery touch. Oliver dosed by the new variant of the drug vertigo realizes that his greatest fear is himself, or more specifically, that the Arrow’s greatest fear is what will occur if Oliver the human being returns and dulls his crime fighting skills. Then, just as everything seems to be turning around, if only ever so slightly, Sara Lance is killed by an unseen assailant. Just like that, most of the optimism and hope goes out of the episode and we’re back to the grim business of Oliver doing his best to save the city, even as doing so means sacrificing almost everything he holds dear.
Doubt and pain fuels Arrow. Oliver’s inability to see himself as a hero, as someone who wasn’t utterly ruined forever by his experiences during his five years of exile, is the defining aspect of his characterization. Even when things are good, it still takes Oliver five months to admit that it may be time to consider becoming a real person again, and when his first, tentative steps in that direction don’t go to plan he immediately pulls back into his Arrow persona. Unlike the recently premiered spinoff of Arrow, The Flash, which defined itself with optimism and a sure footed hero (it is literally impossible to write about The Flash without stumbling into a running related pun), Arrow will forever be defined by its hero’s awkward and tentative path back towards humanity, a path that is riddled with self-doubt.
It’s why Oliver’s victory over Count Vertigo in this episode rings slightly hollow, he’s able to defeat the villain, but to do so he has to wash away his sense of self. During his final Vertigo hallucinations the Arrow forcefully pushes away his mirror image, Oliver Queen, asserting the vigilante as his true identity. Sure, it’s what gets the job done and keeps the people of Starling City safe, but it’s at the cost of Oliver’s humanity. It’s a potent concept, and while “The Calm” is sometimes too busy of an episode, rushing around to set up conflicts and storylines that will fuel the third season, it’s impressive in just how effectively it hones in on the central conceit of the series and makes it feel new once more.
After Arrow’s superlative second season the series had a lot to live up to. “The Calm” manages to meet those expectations head on. It deftly establishes a new status quo, digs into the character work that makes the show tick, and throws in a shocking death to get things moving all while delivering the signature action beats that the show is known for. Arrow’s back, and once again it’s making things that should be hard look easy. This is assured, well made TV and it’s damn good to have it back on the air.