Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Arrow 3x01 "The Calm" (... In The Middle Of The Storm)

"The Calm"
Original Airdate: October 8, 2014

In the fall of 2004, I was a sophomore in high school. I remember this because I was a part of the newspaper staff that year and wrote a story about Hurricane Charley. I live in central Florida and that was the first and only bad hurricane season my family and I had experienced since moving to the state two years prior. I remember us all huddled in the hallway between my bedroom and the first-floor bathroom, listening to the howling wind, the ominous crashing, and the rain. We had our radio with us, a mattress dragged into the bathroom in case we needed to place it over ourselves for protection or a barricade, when suddenly, things began to still. We listened but there was a calm outside. It was dark, the windows nailed shut with plywood, so we couldn't see anything. And then the radio announcer noted that the eye was passing over our city at the moment. It was the calm in the middle of the storm and it was dangerous for that very reason: everyone believed themselves to be safe, for the storm to be over. And indeed, while a large portion of the storm had blown over us, more of the storm was coming. The calm that exists in the eye of a storm - any storm - is deceptive because it makes us feel safe, makes us feel invincible. So is the calm that settles into Starling City and Oliver Queen's life during the season three premiere of Arrow, aptly titled "The Calm."

Season two of Arrow concluded with Oliver Queen/The Arrow saving Starling City from Slade Wilson and his army of Mirakuru-laced warriors. The season three premiere finds our party boy-turned-vigilante-turned-hero on cloud nine: he and Laurel are putting away bad guys left and right and this calm - that calm in the eye of the storm as I noted above - pacifies Oliver and makes him contemplate who he really is and what he can be if the calm continues. (The key word there, of course, is "if"). So "The Calm" finds our central characters grappling with their identities in the wake of this mellow period in their lives... and also finds them bracing for impending storms.

Oliver Queen/The Arrow

One of the most complex elements of Oliver Queen's character is the fact that we don't know WHO he is at the present moment in Starling City. Let's think about it this way: we've seen Oliver pre-island (a rather reckless, selfish, stupid youth), island (terrified young man turned survivor and killer), season 1 (ruthless and dark vigilante), and season 2 (guilt-ridden vigilante turned city hero). We know a lot about different stages of Oliver's life but when we try to reconcile those pieces together, they fit a bit like a disjointed puzzle. The theme of identity is one that will be a central focus in this season of Arrow and "The Calm" set us up beautifully to explore that theme. The question in the premiere is this: "Who is Oliver Queen, really?" And the follow-up question is this: "Can Oliver have a life apart from The Arrow?" But this particular question is more complex than whether or not Oliver can wear both green hoodies and business suits: it's a layered question of whether or not he can separate himself from his alter ego; whether or not there IS any him without his alter ego. In "The Calm" we see that a new strain of Vertigo causes some less-than-welcome side effects, the chief of which is that the user will see what they fear most when they take it.

Oliver sees himself.

That's so amazingly complex and symbolic because it reminds me - the viewer - that just as we struggle to define Oliver Queen, he struggles to define himself. Ever since he's returned to Starling City, he's been labeling himself as either a vigilante, a killer, or a hero. (And everyone else from Quentin to Tommy labeled him, too.) Present-day Oliver tries to forget the horrors of the island and Hong Kong. And the Oliver Queen before all of that? Well, he's now so far-removed from the present-day Oliver Queen that the child he once was -- the young man who hurt those he loved with his selfishness and only cared about parties and sleeping with women -- is laughable. What terrifies Oliver Queen more than any villain ever could... is himself. He doesn't know what kind of man he is, what kind of man he could be, and what kind of man he will be and that is utterly terrifying to anyone, but especially to him.

Deep down, Oliver Queen hopes he can be the man who lives an existence as both The Arrow and a CEO; of a city hero and the man who loves Felicity Smoak. And what scares him to his core -- the thing he fears the most -- is that there is some part of him, some facet of his personality like the ones I noted above, has yet to be unearthed. He's terrified that he will be the one to destroy everything (his company, his city, the love of his life, the memories of his friends, his family) and that he will be forced to watch himself do it. That's why he makes every decision that he does in the premiere -- he bases all of his reasoning on the fact that he doesn't know who Oliver Queen really is and it terrifies him. He tells Felicity: "I think I'm scared of what might happen if I let myself be Oliver Queen." To live in constant fear of yourself is one thing... but to live in constant fear that you might hurt someone else in the process is another entirely.

Oliver has always known (at least in the last few years on the island and in Hong Kong) that happiness is weakness -- it's like the eye of the storm: the calm before the impending doom and an indicator that things aren't the way they should be. Everyone in Oliver's life tries to convince him that happiness is within his reach. Diggle vocalizes it. Felicity vocalizes it. Sara vocalizes it. Oliver internalizes it and the moment he allows himself to experience happiness, it's taken away from him. One of the most telling moments (which I'll discuss more in-depth soon) in "The Calm" occurs at dinner when Oliver tells Felicity that he's been thinking a lot about Hong Kong -- about how trust is so difficult to come by and he's consistently been unable to allow himself to feel happiness, to feel trust, and to feel LOVE again. ... Until he met her. And then, things began to change, slowly.

"The Calm" sets up some (angst-ridden) potential for Oliver Queen this season, as he makes a decision at the end of the episode: he cannot be Oliver Queen and The Arrow. He may never be able to separate himself from either identity completely. He may never know who he truly is. And the irony is that the most powerful and telling line of the episode was delivered by the villain to Oliver. "You have given it [fear] the power," the newly revived Count tells Oliver-as-Arrow. "Don't you see? Don't you see?" Because the very moment Oliver allows himself to be afraid -- afraid of who he is, afraid of hurting Felicity, afraid of losing love -- is the moment that fear latches onto every facet of Oliver's personality and life and grows like a weed. It is not Oliver that destroys people. It is not The Arrow who will get Felicity hurt.

It is the fear.


Cuteness, angst, and chemistry aside (and they ARE cute, the ending WAS angsty, and they DO have intense amounts of chemistry), the Oliver/Felicity within "The Calm" was pretty indicative of what is to come this season. Identity, as I noted above, is the primary theme this season. In that vein, Oliver and Felicity identify their relationship in "The Calm."

Before I tackle that, let's talk, for a few moments, then about identity as it pertains to the women in Oliver's life, especially Felicity. You see, Felicity doesn't remind Oliver of who he was (like Laurel and Sara do -- and that is not a negative thing, really) but of who he IS and who he can become. I think Oliver loved and needed and still needs Laurel and Sara for reasons that differ from the reasons he loves and needs Felicity. Laurel knows the Oliver who existed before the island and he NEEDS a person in his life who remembers the core of who he is, even if he's forgotten. Sara knows the Oliver that was on the island: the one who went through the same heartbreaks and struggles he did; the things only he and she can understand. She knows why he's become who he is because she saw that happen. He needs the reminder of who he was on the island from someone whose memory isn't clouded with guilt or regret, right? Sara and Laurel remember the Oliver Queen they met and loved so very well. But Oliver needs and loves Felicity for another reason. As Sara said, she is the type of person who can "harness the light" within him and show him who he is, right in the present moment, and who he can be. Felicity doesn't wear a mask and Oliver needs that. Felicity doesn't know the Oliver of the past like Laurel and Sara do, and that's perfectly fine because he doesn't love her any less for that. He loves her because she reminds him of everything that is good about the present and everything that can be good about his future. Felicity is the light (no, literally, her name means "intense happiness" and "the ability to find appropriate expression for one's thoughts" and maybe someday I'll write a novel about the significance of that, but I think it's pretty clear to me. How about you?) in Oliver's life in "The Calm" and that light, much like someone who has spent the majority of their life in darkness, is both inviting and also scary.

That's the thing about light: you never realize how much you need it until you've been in darkness and you're never more terrified than when that light could be taken away from you again. Oliver and Felicity go on their first date in "The Calm," and it's about as awkward and babbly and adorable as you would expect. (Oliver being extremely nervous was adorable and wonderful.) But it was also extremely telling, as I noted above. Oliver admits to Felicity that he's been thinking a lot about Hong Kong and about what it did to him. That experience made him see people as targets, as missions... but when he met Felicity, that changed. She was the first person post-island that he saw as a PERSON. In the first season's episode "Vertigo," Felicity wondered aloud - to Oliver - whether or not she could trust him and expressed the fact that she felt like she COULD. That is what Oliver expresses right back to her in "The Calm" -- he has always seen HER. He remembers the colored pen she was chewing on in their first meeting (red) and remembers these minute details about her because the thing is, you remember the moment your life starts to change. You remember the light. Because when you're in total darkness for so long, sometimes you forget how powerful that one fleck of light is until you see it. And then, even if it is small, it gives you hope.

"The Calm" is riddled with angst, though, because just as Oliver and Felicity's date is going well, an explosion rocks the restaurant, and it's because of The Arrow. So Oliver does what he does best, what he's always known to do -- push others away. He thinks he's doing the right thing, he really does. But as Diggle reminds him in the foundry, the fact that Oliver and Felicity are still breathing and alive is the reason they NEED to keep each other close. Diggle spouts some sage wisdom throughout the episode to Oliver about his love life and relationships (as does Sara when she tells him that he needs people in his life who don't wear masks around him, who are open and good and honest and vulnerable). But when Oliver and Felicity finally decide to talk at the episode's end, the latter knows what's coming. She's astute. Moreover, she knows Oliver.

After Felicity nearly gets blown up at the date, Oliver begins to push her away (not before comforting her when she awakes on the foundry table by softly saying "Hey. Hey. You're safe. I'm here," in the same way he said "Shh, shh shh. You're safe" after she nearly got killed by The Count. FEELS) and the two put off having the conversation they need to have about their relationship. Felicity isn't eager to have the conversation, postponing it until after a board meeting, which I found interesting. After the two visit Lyla, Diggle, and the new baby in the hospital, they have "the talk," and Felicity is scared. "As soon as we talk, it'll be over." The blonde wants to hold onto those final moments -- the memories of the date, of how he smiled at her and babbled when he asked her to dinner, how he opened up to her, how he comforted her, how it felt when he hugged her -- for as long as possible. She knows without a shadow of a doubt that once they talk, she will lose him. And she cannot bear to do that.

But they do talk and Felicity begs him to tell her that they will never be together. "Stop dangling maybes," she insists. "Say it's never going to work out between us. Say you never loved me." That would be less painful for Felicity, bundle of light and joy and happiness and HOPE. She loves Oliver. She has loved Oliver for a while and she knows him better than anyone. But what Oliver does next is so utterly painful: he kisses her. He holds onto her face as he does so, and I think it is intensely symbolic that there is light pooling through as Oliver gently spins them around. Light breaks through. That love, that hope, that felicity highlights their intimate moment and for a second, there is no darkness, no danger, no complexity, no fear. Their lips hover inches apart from each other and I think that there is nothing more either Oliver or Felicity wants than to stay in that moment. Because the second that one of them steps away, it is over: they are over.

And when Oliver replies to Felicity's earlier demands, he says: "Don't ask me to say I don't love you." It's a superhero cliche, really: superheroes push people away because they don't want them to get hurt by villains. Spider-Man has done it. Superman has done it. But the one thing Oliver Queen will not do to Felicity that those superheroes have done is this: he will not lie to her anymore. He did, at the beginning, when she was just some IT girl who made him smile. But now? Now Oliver practically begs Felicity to not make him lie. He cannot tell her that he doesn't love her. He cannot push her away by saying those words because they would be completely untrue. And that, I think, is what hurts Felicity the most: that she knows they cannot be together and that he loves her.

So she does the only thing she can do in order to numb the pain. She walks away.


Diggle's identity changes in "The Calm" when Lyla gives birth to their daughter. And he thanks Oliver - genuinely thanks him in the hospital room - for forcing him to stay behind during a particularly dangerous mission. Everyone is changing in the season premiere, and Diggle acknowledges that there's a moment where his entire world changed and that moment (you guessed it) is the moment his daughter is born. Diggle, throughout the premiere, serves as the voice of reason and of wisdom. He knows Oliver very well -- he's been with him before Felicity, after all. And he sees more in Oliver than Oliver can see within himself. And I think that sometimes we forget the fact that Dig was a soldier for a very long time and has a soldier's mentality,

He knows the value of time. He knows how short life can be. He's watched people die, lives changed within seconds. And he knows exactly how Oliver feels. Oliver needs Dig -- needs him there to keep speaking truth into his life. Oliver needs to be reminded that a life in fear is not a life worth living. It is one devoid of love and happiness and the reason that Oliver is unhappy is because of Oliver and his choices. I love that Dig isn't afraid of Oliver and certainly isn't afraid to speak his mind. But Oliver also is right in "The Calm": Lyla needs Diggle to be beside her and sometimes being the best soldier you can be looks like standing beside someone else who needs your help just as much.

I'm so excited to see how Dig's new identity as a father shapes his role on Team Arrow this season because I feel it's going to be ripe with potential.

Team Lance (Laurel, Sara, Quentin)

The last forty seconds of this episode aside, let's discuss Team Lance. Quentin is back in the field and he shouldn't be. He's hurting, terribly, but he does what he can to support The Arrow (remember when he was staunchly against the vigilante only a few years ago?) by disbanding the anti-vigilante task force. He returns to the field even though he shouldn't to help The Arrow take down bad guys. Laurel and her father make a great team, but before she sees her father as a hero, Laurel sees him as her daddy -- the person who she needs to be around, to be okay. Team Lance is another kind of heroic team: they've always been dysfunctional and more than a little broken, but the most important thing to them has always been each other and fighting for justice. This is a family that prevails and perseveres in the face of adversity. It's a family that is strong and loyal to each other, even when they royally screw up their lives. Seeing Laurel and Sara acknowledge each other as heroes in their own rights and seeing the reverence in Laurel's eyes as she watched her father deliver a press conference demonstrated that their love for doing good in the world is the one thing that holds them together.

And that sadly brings me to the last forty seconds of the episode: Sara's death. I'll admit it: I was stunned. Sara has always been, next to Felicity, one of my favorite characters on this series. As I wrote in my Strong Women Series kick-off post, she is strong: she is loyal and brave and even when she thinks she is at her worst, she is still a hero. Sara's final conversations with Oliver and Laurel exemplify the depth of her understanding and her personality: she sees the good in others and the dangers that accompany heroism. She may not believe that she is good, but she believes in goodness. And she may not see herself as a hero, but she sure as heck knows that the world needs people who stand up for others, no matter how big or small the cause. Sara Lance is -- was -- such a beautifully layered character and this death is heartbreaking as someone who admired her and Caity Lotz's portrayal on Arrow. I will be interested (through my tears, mind you) to see exactly how this tragedy affects everyone on Team Arrow and Team Lance.

If this season of Arrow is all about identity, then we've already seen the beginnings of the breadth of that theme in "The Calm." For no two things define our identities in this world more than love and loss.

Observations & favorite moments:

  • Welcome, everyone, to the first installment of my weekly Arrow reviews! I'm so excited that this show is back and I can't wait to write for you all. :)
  • I'm just going to keep repeating "no, no, no, no, no" over and over to myself regarding the end of that episode until it undoes itself. NO. Sara Lance is one of my favorite female characters and I cannot even express how much I will miss her.
  • They were not in the premiere, but I can't wait for Malcolm/Thea stories this season. Thea's arc into darkness is going to surely be epic. Also, I didn't really talk about Roy but he was good in the premiere as Oliver's new right-hand man in the field. I know we will see a lot more of him this year and his evolution as a vigilante, too.
  • "Copy that. Or is it Roger? I never know the difference."
  • There's a new arrowhead in the credits this season! I don't know if I'm impressed or scared that I know that...
  • I'm glad other people on my Twitter timeline said: "It's a love fern!" when they saw the plant Felicity bought Oliver. Bless you, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
  • "Usually I'm the one talking in sentence fragments."
  • Ray Palmer basically has his own superhero music in the conference room scene and though I kind of hate him, I also kind of love him?
  • "Believe it or not, I've had worse first dates."
  • "...... oh, frack."
  • I'm still not over the Oliver/Felicity adorableness. Stephen Amell wasn't lying when he said that Oliver smiled a LOT in the premiere. I'm also still not over that first (and not last) kiss.
Well, there you have it, folks. Sorry this was so long! The reviews will probably be shorter in the future. (Though I cannot make any promises.) So until then, folks! :)


  1. Great review! I've recently read a few and though most of them were good, yours captured perfectly my thoughts and reactions about the premiere :) I've watched Arrow since season one's pilot episode and really LOVE how each season has developed the arcs and the characters, specially Felicity and Oliver's (yes olicity shipper right here hehe), and just can't wait for all the great stuff that is about to happen in this one (if judging by the look of things). The only aspect I think it's worth mentioning that I haven't seen so far in any review, is how Oliver is looking right at Felicity, with a look both of realization and sadness, when Dig talks about the first time he saw "her" and how it changed his whole world (even though "her" in Dig's case is obviously his daughter), that scene lit up my face and broke my heart at the same time! Sorry for any spelling mistakes or somewhat, english is not my first language and also thanks for putting into words what us fans felt for this amazing ep!

    1. Emily -- Thanks for your comment! I'm so glad that I was able to articulate what you were feeling about the premiere, and especially what you felt as a shipper of the two. I definitely noticed that moment in my viewing and reblogged a GIF set of that moment. Stephen Amell was fantastically nuanced in his facial expressions this episode, whether he was smiling, pining, or brooding. And that moment is such a great one because obviously there's the subtext of Dig saying that the birth of his daughter changed his entire universe, and you see Oliver's eyeline and it's on Felicity and he KNOWS the feeling that Dig is vocalizing but he also knows, I think, in that moment that he can never have what Dig has even though he wants it. It was this mix of tenderness and angst that Amell does so well with.

      (Wow, your grammar and spelling is really quite good for a non-native English speaker!) And thank you so much for reading the review. I can't wait to write more about Arrow this season. :)

  2. "Oh, frack." It's a total nerd-ism from Battlestar Galactica...

    1. Fixed! Totally thought she said "frick" on my original airing but I was wrong. Non-BSG fan here didn't catch the reference, haha.