The third season of Arrow has struggled to figure out exactly what it is. This season has introduced plot after plot and has found itself lacking coherence due to this fact. There have been standout episodes of course, the crossover with The Flash and the mid-season finale for instance, but the show has yet to demonstrate precisely what its larger plan is. “Left Behind” takes at least one or two steps forward, but in doing so it introduces yet another ongoing thread that will last at least a few more episodes. So while this mid-season premiere showcases more than a few glimmers of hope, there are still some of the same worrying tendencies on display that made the first batch of season three episodes so problematic.
What does work here is the central storyline. With Oliver missing for days after his confrontation with Ra’s al Ghul, Team Arrow is left to pick up the slack. Roy’s still out there in his red Arsenal outfit and Diggle is intermittently filling in for Oliver in the Arrow’s green duds. This is the kind of useful shakeup that the show needed, allowing the lead characters to subtly reposition themselves as well as react to the traumatic loss of Oliver.
This newly restructured Team Arrow squares off against Vinnie Jones, who is ever so adept at playing larger than life villains. Here he takes on the role of Brick, an intimidating bruiser who seemingly has the brains to go along with his brawn, setting up a plot to both free all of the criminals that Team Arrow has caught over the last year while also gathering ammunition to use against the criminals should they refuse to aid him in his efforts to take over The Glades.
It’s not the most revolutionary plot, and it would be hard pressed to do much other than hit the most basic beats since large swaths of “Left Behind” are logically devoted to the main cast and their varying emotional reactions to Oliver’s seeming death. What is here though works nicely. Jones is suitably frightening and a believable threat, and coupled with Arrow’s always strong action sequences, Brick makes an impression and gets a strong showcase when his gang robs the evidence lockup where all of the incriminating proof of the criminal’s misdeeds is kept.
While Brick is an enjoyable new foil for the team, it’s also simply exciting to see Roy and Diggle in action sans Oliver. The action sequences don’t necessarily function in any different fashion than an action sequence with Oliver would, but it’s still unique to watch Roy and Diggle step up to the task of leading the charge without their former leader and the fight choreography pulls out a few new moves to lend to Roy, utilizing some clever wirework to help him bound around the set.
What’s less effective here are the flashbacks to Oliver’s time in Hong Kong. These flashbacks have been a problem almost all season long. While they’ve made their usual contributions to the thematic work in certain episodes, their purpose has been oddly opaque. It’s been clear that Maseo and Tatsu were important, and comic fans are well aware of the identity of at least one of these characters, but the reasons for why this precise story was being told were unclear. That it also failed to be engaging, glacially moving forward while doling out only the slightest of hints as to its larger purpose, was its greatest flaw.
“Left Behind” at least points to one reason why this story is being played out in the background of the season, giving Maseo a reason to betray the league and rescue Oliver from death after his defeat by Ra’s al Ghul. Clearly there’s more history that we’ve yet to see, but Oliver’s decision to disobey Waller in an effort to rescue Tatsu from China White goes a long way towards justifying this plots existence, at least on a functional level.
It is slightly surprising though that the show walked Oliver’s seeming death back so quickly. While there was never a real chance that Oliver would die, the mid-season finale put such an emphatic punch behind his death it’s unexpected that the show wouldn’t at least pull back from featuring Oliver for an episode or two. Small snippets of Maseo’s rescue are threaded throughout the episode, and while the grief of the main characters is palpable enough to sell their emotions, this decision undercuts the gravity of what they’re feeling.
Sure, the viewer knows from the get-go that Felicity is unnecessarily tormenting herself, as it would be tough to have a show called Arrow without the man who has taken that title, but by showing the viewer explicitly that this is the case it can’t help but lend her worrying a frustrating air. Rather than leave any doubt in the viewer’s mind as to whether Oliver will return the show clearly points out that it’s only a matter of time before he comes back, shattering any illusion of his death. No matter how paper-thin that illusion may have been in the first place, it still feels like leaving it in place for just an episode or two longer would have worked wonders in animating the central emotional content of this episode.
It’s this misstep that highlights what’s been frustrating about Arrow this season. It’s still a very enjoyable series, but it’s been having trouble sorting out how to tell its story. It’s moving in fits and starts, heading one way and then doubling back in another direction without truly committing to one idea or another. While there have been episodes that have worked quite well despite this uncertainty, the season has lacked structure and that lack of structure is undermining much of what is still very good about the show. A lot of the individual pieces still work, but there are just a few too many of them at this point, and when they all come crashing together it makes it hard for viewers to understand just what Arrow is trying to do. These are the kind of problems that can be fixed quickly if all the plots swirling about suddenly snap into place once the season’s long game is revealed, but for now it’s hard not to feel adrift while watching Arrow, unsure of just how all these puzzle pieces fit together.