“What We Leave Behind”
Original Airdate: December 7, 2016
Throughout our lives, we all make seemingly insignificant decisions that can have unintended consequences. Some are good, and some are bad. Whether you call it coincidence or fate or divine appointment, each of us has done something — or failed to do something — that has resulted in a ripple effect, much like throwing a rock into a still pond would. As a type-A planner, I want to always know the next ten steps. I want to know whether or not that thing I said yesterday will actually affect someone for years to come, or whether the project I’m working hard on will reap the benefits I hope it will.
We all reap what we sow, eventually — it doesn’t matter if the consequences of our actions occur immediately or years down the line. The truth is that what we do matters, and it’s foolish to think otherwise. When Oliver Queen returned from Lian-Yu on his one-man mission to play judge and jury, he didn’t care what the consequences of doing so would be five years down the line. All he cared about was the job he needed to accomplish in the present. And Oliver’s myopic vigilantism turned out to have some consequences in “What We Leave Behind.”
This episode was something. And not a good “something,” either. It seemed fitting of the first half of season five for the show to end on a note that was confusing, depressing, dark, and also grossly misaligned with the characters we’ve come to know and love. I’ll talk more about this as the review progresses, but not a whole lot made sense in “What We Leave Behind,” and I’m not extremely hopeful that the back half of the season will make up for the first half’s mistakes. While the idea of legacy was tied in really nicely, and not shoehorned in as a “moral of the season” generally is for Arrow (and props for the show letting Thea be the one to deliver the moral to Oliver for once because, you know, men are stubborn), the execution was nothing short of sloppy. I spent the majority of last night dreading writing this review because I’m not sure how many more times I can retread the show’s missteps before it actually learns from them and changes course.
But that won’t stop me from talking about Arrow’s problems. If you all have been around with me for a while and have read any review I’ve written — whether for this show or another — you know that I don’t criticize shows because I hate them; I criticize them because I love them and believe they can be better. Arrow has always had potential to be something great. And the first two seasons were, really. But as the show’s progressed, it’s seemed to have difficulty focusing on characters over plot, and often in the process of that, winds up regressing the aforementioned characters. If you’re looking for a quality Arrow midseason finale, “The Climb” is an example of this. That episode wasn’t perfect (I mean, we all knew Oliver wasn’t dead so a fake-out was a little wasted on us), but the story was in tune with what we know to be true of the characters on the show.
“What We Leave Behind” feels like an episode that tried too hard to be something it wasn’t in a season filled with episodes just like that. And the fake-out at the end? Absurd. The death of Billy at the hands of Oliver and Felicity’s immediate forgiveness? Not unbelievable, but also not entirely believable. Prometheus’ outsmarting of Oliver at every turn? Yawn. The potential for him to be a character we don’t really know or care about? Consider my interest waning even further than it already was with this Big Bad.
So let’s talk about what went wrong (and the few little things that went right) in this midseason finale, shall we?
THE DARK PART OF THE LEGACY
This is the one element of the episode I really enjoyed — the discussion of the fact that a legacy is comprised of two different parts: the good and the bad. I think that people often believe legacies are only positive, filled with good things and happy memories. But Thea makes a valid point when she tells Oliver that you have two different kinds of legacies, and Oliver only seems to ever focus on the bad part of his. That is intriguing. If a legacy is supposed to be comprised of the good and the bad, how do we live with the bad parts while trying to further the good parts? If we only focus on the bad, do we actually make our legacies worse? Oliver has to deal with the fact that his past is littered with bad stuff he’s done, even if it was well-intentioned. He was trying to honor his father by picking off the people on the list who were hurting others.
Unfortunately for Oliver, the past comes back to punish him in this episode. Prometheus and Green Arrow have a showdown in which Prometheus tells Oliver that everything he touches dies, and everyone close to him is essentially doomed. It’s not an unfounded statement, but it also doesn’t mean that every death is a direct fault of Oliver’s. And I think that’s where he confuses the two things. Yes, people die around Oliver with frequency. But that doesn’t mean they’re all his fault. Still, Oliver blames himself enough as it is without having a Big Bad tell him what he likely already tells himself. After five years of this crusade, has the world gotten any better?
Evelyn Sharp would beg to differ. If you’ll recall from the episode before last, Evelyn is working with Prometheus to take down Oliver. While she’s thirsty for revenge, Prometheus is more inclined to torture than anything else. He tells Evelyn that his plan isn’t to kill Oliver — it’s to make him wish he was dead. I like that Big Bad tactic, since so many of Prometheus’ predecessors have basically just tried to kill Oliver. This torture feels more mental and emotional somehow, rather than physical. And we all know that on any given Wednesday, Oliver tends to teeter on the edge of mental and emotional sanity as is.
The problem I have with this is that Prometheus’ assumed identity is such an insignificant part of Oliver’s past that it seems like it has to be a fake-out. And I don’t like feeling faked-out on a show when I KNOW I’m being faked-out. The team jumps to the conclusion that the Big Bad is the son of a guy that Oliver killed (we see that in flashbacks and holla, season one flashbacks!). We’re meant to assume that some rando has taken on the identity of the most body-dropping Big Bad in this show’s recent history (minus Malcolm because of the whole Glades thing) and I’m not buying it. So the lack of payoff from seeing Oliver in a semi-showdown with Prometheus was really the tip of the disappointing iceberg. From there, it was all downhill.
AT WHAT POINT WILL ARROW STOP MAKING EXCUSES FOR OLIVER?
Evelyn Sharp tells Oliver that the city needs saving — from him, not by him. What happens when the hero of the story inadvertently becomes the villain? I’m not saying that Oliver doing bad things: running amok and killing at will. But in season one, he kind of did that. He wasn’t a hero; he was a vigilante. There was a difference. Oliver didn’t really live by a code for a while — not until he had accountability in the form of Diggle and Felicity. Even then, he sometimes went against their judgement in order to do whatever he wanted. Now, years later, I’d like to think that he’s grown up a bit and matured and learned from his mistakes. He at least feels remorse for most of them and is trying to be a leader.
But when will Arrow stop excusing everything Oliver does?
When Green Arrow fights with Prometheus, Oliver realizes one second too late that he wasn’t actually battling the Big Bad. Billy, Felicity’s bland but valiant boyfriend, was kidnapped by Prometheus, forced into an outfit with a weapon, and then ended up being shot by Oliver. (For the record, as soon as Oliver fired those arrows, I knew it was Billy in the hood. Also I know it was a little bit dark, but why did we need a flashback from earlier in the episode as to what Billy looks like?)
When he returns to the Arrow Cave, Oliver is forced to confront Felicity about what he’s done. The entire team is there, of course, and it’s a powerhouse moment of acting by Stephen Amell and Emily Bett Rickards. They could sell me the phonebook, and I would buy it. So my frustration regarding the scene itself has less to do with their performance and more to do with the writing of the scene and everything that follows. Oliver explains to Felicity what happened, telling her that he couldn’t have known Billy was being disguised as Prometheus.
(I mean, I get that he couldn’t have known but did you really think it would be that easy, Oliver? When has it ever been that easy? Getting caught up in the moment aside, it feels like tactically Oliver should have been more aware of what was happening. But I digress.)
Felicity is upset, as she should obviously be. Even if we didn’t care about Billy, she did, and Rickards makes sure that we feel the depth of her pain in this loss. Then, she does something remarkable: she tells Oliver that this was all Prometheus’ fault. Which... okay, sure. She kind of did the same thing last year when she was paralyzed and Oliver blamed himself. Felicity shifted the blame to where it actually belonged: Damien Darhk.
But, uh, Felicity, this time Oliver ACTUALLY SHOT YOUR BOYFRIEND. It feels like the show should have spent time on her conflicted emotions regarding that fact. But instead, Felicity’s pain is glossed over (like usual) to make way for the King of All Man Pain to wax poetic about how he’s dangerous and everyone should stay away from him. Diggle places a hand on Oliver’s shoulder and tells him they’re all right where they need to be.
Everyone moves to hug him, with only Thea lingering on Felicity. And that support of Oliver would have been really great and moving HAD FELICITY NOT JUST LOST HER BOYFRIEND. YOU KNOW, A GUY SHE ACTUALLY CARED ABOUT. BECAUSE OF OLIVER. The show always does an excellent job of making its female characters strong when they want to, but then diminishing them for the sake of shoddy plot. Instead of building up Felicity, this scene build up Oliver.
Instead of the team focusing on comforting a grieving Felicity, a grieving Oliver took precedence.
I’m kind of tired of mopey, self-sabotaging Oliver. I know those traits are part of his character. I know he’s kind of characterized by how dark and broody he is. He’s not the golden labradoodle that Barry Allen is. But man, it would be nice if for a little while we could focus on another character’s — a female character’s — pain and not MAKE EVERYTHING ABOUT OLIVER. Furthermore, when is the show going to stop excusing his actions and having the characters excuse them? I’m kind of tired of everyone eventually apologizing to Oliver for something they did that was justified. And I’m definitely tired of Oliver returning to his former ways because something in his life goes awry. I really am. I get that occasionally we all backslide, but it feels like that’s all Oliver does. He messes up, self-sabotages, and then corrects his mistakes before promptly repeating the cycle over again. At least in other shows I watch, characters seem to learn from the errors of their ways and take small, progressive steps.
Oliver just seems to be on a hamster wheel to nowhere.
WHAT SHOW AM I ACTUALLY WATCHING?
The episode ends with Oliver predictably going to Annoying Reporter Chick’s place because he needs some lady action and the woman he wants to be with is grieving because HE JUST KILLED HER BOYFRIEND. (I’m going to continue to emphasize this so we all remember it. I don’t care that it was technically Prometheus playing mind games. Oliver literally shot the two arrows and I don’t want us to forget that this has to carry some weight down the road.)
She pours him a drink and we spend an awfully long time looking at the bottles that she’s pouring from. (Keep that in mind, because we’ll return to it momentarily.) The two talk about stuff and Oliver vaguely tells her about his darkness and how he’s bad and everything he touches is bad and blaaaaaaaaah. It’s basically your typical Oliver Queen Sad Monologue™. Annoying Reporter Chick tells him how she doesn’t believe that everything he touches is doomed to death (I think, maybe Oliver is right and maybe Annoying Reporter Chick is the next to go), and then kisses him because of course.
The next thing we know, Oliver is back down in the Arrow Cave and startled by the presence of someone there. The figure turns around, and it’s a smiling Laurel Lance who bids him hello. That’s how the episode ends, and I have issues with everything about it.
For starters, it feels like Arrow is just baiting Laurel Lance fans, only for them to get their hopes dashed again. I was telling my lovely friend Jen last night that if the crossover hadn’t just happened last week, this might have been an interesting end. It wouldn’t have been great, by any means, because we know Laurel has to be dead. But it would have been interesting. But given the fact that we JUST saw Laurel last week, it feels like an overkill of mighty proportions.
Oliver and Laurel had a really great goodbye scene last week. I don’t normally feel things when Stephen Amell and Katie Cassidy are together on screen (sorry, just a personal preference), but their goodbye brought a few tears to my eyes. It was faithful to who the characters were and who they might have been, had Oliver not gotten on the boat that led him to Lian-Yu. It was a fitting way to say a final farewell to Laurel.
… And now, this? We literally JUST said goodbye to her in “Invasion!” so her presence at the end of the episode not only feels awkward, but also just groan-inducing. How many times must we say goodbye to Laurel? Let the woman die in peace so that her legacy can continue! The whole first half of the season has been structured a lot around Laurel — what she would say, how she would act, why the characters are behaving the way they are because of her death, etc. To an extent, I get that. I get that she was important to Thea (they were practically siblings when Oliver and Laurel were first dating, I assume) and to Oliver. But it feels like the show doesn’t want to, or know how to, let her go in a meaningful way.
You can’t keep bringing back ghosts and expect them to carry weight.
Laurel’s back-to-back presence is really frustrating, baffling, and most of all just bait-inducing. Kind of like what the writers did to the Olicity shippers earlier in the episode! (At least you can say the show is an equal-opportunity baiter.)
In a flashback earlier in the episode, Oliver and Felicity have a conversation where she’s holding her infamous red pen and writes down an address for Oliver. It’s back when Felicity had that pink shirt, her long ponytail, and babbled like no one’s business. When Felicity drops the pen, Oliver picks it up and the way the shot is framed has him on one knee, holding the red pen in his hand. Since they previously had a conversation about whether or not magic existed, Oliver then tells Felicity that he believes in magic.
It would be a really sweet moment... without the context of the episode or the season.
Within the context of the episode and the season, it’s just a way for the show to bait shippers into sticking around. It’s a scene that can be read into (and will be read into) by a lot of people: the red pen represents the depth of Oliver’s love for Felicity, and it’s like he’s proposing to her with that, etc. etc. But for me, the scene is just bait. I’ve seen it done before on shows, so I know how to spot a dog bone when I see one. The scene was a way for the writers to “reward” shippers who have stuck around throughout the baby mama drama and new boyfriends and limited Oliver/Felicity stories. But that’s all it is — it’s a surface-level scene that will have no real significance moving forward. It’s just a nice, patronizing way to pat shippers on their heads and tell them to make pretty GIFs and keep on keeping on.
Maybe that sounds pessimistic, and I’m sorry if you feel it is. But I’ve been a part of fandom for almost 14 years now, and I’ve watched a lot of shows take similar paths (most recently, Community) with their ships and writing. The writers have clearly decided that they have time for Oliver and Felicity’s relationship when they want to make time. And in lieu of writing difficult, complex stories, they’ll write in one-off scenes to placate shippers and distract them, momentarily, from all the other junk that’s happening.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
So what’s next for this show? I’m continuing to watch it to review and process for you all, but I’ll admit to something right now: my whole heart isn’t in the show like it used to be. And I suspect you’re probably feeling the same way. I think that, again, this show has potential and I’m hopeful it’s going to realize that and change trajectory... but that doesn’t appear likely.
When Deb and I reviewed Community’s sixth season, we had similar feelings. We were frustrated with the writers and showrunners dismissing our characters and ships. We were tired of the feeling of being on a hamster wheel to nowhere. And we were, admittedly, cynical about the show’s future. But the reason we continued to review is because we cared about the show.
If I cared less about Arrow, I wouldn’t be writing about it. I wouldn’t be talking about it. Because I care, I’m going to continue to write 3,000 words about what needs to improve and I’m going to continue to examine the plot and characters critically. Because I choose to believe that these pieces aren’t just shouts into the void. Maybe it’ll never get read by a writer or producer for Arrow, but if nothing else, you — the fans — are reading. And maybe this will give you hope for the future. Or maybe you’ll disagree with everything I just wrote.
But the beauty of this all — this critically-examining television thing — is that we all have the space to share our opinions and learn from one another. If nothing else, Arrow has given us that.
Observations & favorite moments:
- So there’s a theory someone tweeted to me that Annoying Reporter Chick may have drugged Oliver and that he’s hallucinating Laurel. It would make sense, given the lingering camera shot on those bottles AND the fact that Annoying Reporter Chick still has dirt on Oliver (we didn’t forget that she knows about him not being on the island, right?). Maybe she wants to get information from him. Maybe she’s working with Prometheus or The Vigilante (I think I would like her more if she was). Whatever the case, this is one theory for why Oliver sees Laurel. Shout out yours in the comments below!
- Did everyone notice that on Prometheus’ board, Quentin’s face was crossed out? WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!
- “I don’t like rules. Or listening.” Rene is slightly growing on me.
- In related news since he had a few scenes with Rene, Rory continues to be the most underappreciated character. He’s such a delight to watch.
- Curtis and his husband are probably now separated, since Curtis told him he works with the Green Arrow and was given the ultimatum by Paul to choose that life or their life together. This all makes me sad, because Curtis just can’t seem to get a win these days.
- Felicity made a meta joke about Wednesdays. It was predictably adorable.
- “You’re the smart one, remember?”
- Somewhere along the line, Thea became my favorite female character on this show. Thank you at least for that, writers. I’m so proud of what she’s become and how she’s evolved. That is one thing the Arrow writers have really done right.
- I still don’t understand the ending few scenes in this episode. They’re all so dumb.