Eight seasons ago, Arrow opened with an audacious tease — a strange island, and on it, an arrow through the black-and-orange mask of Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke. In 2012, it felt audacious. A villain from the comics? Being teased this soon? Impossible. Superhero TV couldn’t just do that, let alone in the very first episode of the very first season.
Arrow returned last night to kick off its eighth and final season. It opened on that same island, nowhere near as strange to us now. There was a mask, and an arrow through it. This time the cowl was Batman’s, not Deathstroke’s. It was no longer audacious (it turns out that even back then it was not meant to be as audacious as it ultimately became). This is, after all, 2019, and things have changed.
The universe that Arrow created seven years ago is now so much weirder and crazier than a single mask held aloft by an arrow could ever be. It stands on the precipice of a crisis — the crisis. So perhaps it is fitting then, that as Arrow begins one last adventure to navigate this impending crisis, it did so with a throwback to the origins it has come so very far from.
“Starling City” is a peculiar premiere (the very last Arrow premiere, too). It has the framing device we had leftover from the climax of last season — Stephen Amell’s Oliver, having said farewell to his family, has made good on his deal with the Monitor, offering himself up to the cosmic entity’s cause of hopping about the multiverse to try and stop the coming calamity before it really starts.
The reason we find a Batman cowl on Lian Yu instead of Deathstroke’s mask is because he’s kicking off his mission on what has become a familiar pan-dimensional haunt for this universe of superhero shows Arrow spawned, Earth-2, on the hunt for material from an honest-to-god dwarf star.
This is, after all, what Arrow’s universe has become in the time since it first began, adding all these different shows into the mix. Gone are the days of failing the city and beating up low-level thugs in a dark alley. We’ve got superheroes and superpowers, multiple Earths, time travel, magic, more crossovers than we can shake a team-up-shaped stick at.
Hell, Oliver Queen has fought himself, literally, and the other self also just happened to be a goddamn Nazi.
Of course the Green Arrow is hopping around dimensions collecting bits of stars for a cosmic god to stop Crisis on Infinite Earths, one of the most iconic comic book sagas ever told, from happening.
But “Starling City,” as the name suggests — that more innocent time when Arrow tried to ground its comic roots and thought a city called “Star City” was just too weird for live-action TV, a pretense it ultimately gave up on several seasons later — is also a lovingly nostalgic throwback to that very first season of the show, when all this bonkers context we now have would’ve felt like a ridiculous, speculative theory crafted by an overexcited fanboy.
As Oliver goes about his mission, he finds that on Earth-2 — a reality where he never returned from the fateful yacht accident all those years ago — he’s thrown back to that old time when all this show was concerned about was a young Oliver Queen and his list of corrupt Starling City elite he endeavoured to bring down.
We’ve got Moira, we’ve got Malcom (and they’re married!), hell, we’ve got Tommy back again, facsimiles of their Earth-1 selves that are close enough to those selves, for the most part, that the show essentially treats them as avatars for Ollie to act out eight seasons worth of therapy out on (to great effect too, especially Amell and Susanna Thompson’s scenes together).
The entire episode is, multiversal shenanigans aside, essentially a retread of season one’s primary arc about the mystery of the “Dark Archer” — except this time it’s Tommy under the mask instead of Malcolm, much to Oliver’s chagrin. Hell, Moira even recruits a Diggle to look after Ollie again, except it’s not Diggle of Earth-2, it’s our Diggle, who’s been tracking Oliver’s self-imposed multiversal exile, because of course he has.
It’s a retread to the point that multiple moments, including the episode’s climactic duel between Oliver and Tommy, play out like shot-by-shot takes on scenes from that original season, Ollie and Malcom’s rooftop duel reborn.
This time, instead of going in for the kill, Oliver manages to pull Tommy-2 back to the light, delivering a truly hopeful speech that his season one self never could have — an earnest reminder of how far he’s come as a hero more than any absurd reminder of just how wonderfully weird the CW/DC superhero slate has become in those same years.
It should feel almost too indulgent for its own good. But “Starling City” feels like a perfect way to begin the path to Arrow’s end, and is hopefully an indicator of how this truncated final season will frame itself — an episode-by-episode playback of Arrow’s entire arc itself, as Ollie travels from dimension to dimension.
This show has had high highs, it has had crushingly low lows, veering about from season to season trying to find itself as the universe it spawned just kept on getting comic-bookier and wilder by the minute. To see Arrow now not just accept that change, but use it as a framing device to look back on its own past, is an absolutely great idea (let’s just maybe skip the universe that ends up being a retread of season four, no one wants to see Damien Darhk again).
And then just when you think something remotely happy in terms of a status quo could persist, we’re reminded that this is indeed Arrow, and Oliver Queen’s happiness is about as long-lasting as a paper bag in a downpour. As The Flash already teased, the Crisis is here sooner than anyone had predicted.
As Ollie prepares to hop away to another universe, an antimatter wave cascades through Earth-2’s reality, ripping it apart. Moira, Tommy — everyone but Laurel-2, who conveniently gets saved at the last minute so we can keep Katie Cassidy around for a little while longer — they’re all gone, dead and destroyed with their entire universe, right in front of Oliver, Diggle, and Laurel’s eyes. It’s a fascinating bit of symbolism: Oliver, try as he might, can’t go back to his past. The world has changed. The people around him have changed, come and gone. He’s changed.
The Arrowverse has changed. And how Arrow will navigate that one last time is going to be such a weirdly sad, and yet exciting, thing to see.