“The past three seasons have been very dark,” they said. “For this season, we’ll use a lighter tone,” they said. They lied. Working on the fourth season of Arrow, the writers and executive producers decided to sprinkle the show with less doom and gloom than in previous seasons. Not only did they have these self-imposed restrictions (or delusions), but they also had to create a plot captivating enough to let their audience forget the overhyped and utterly lackluster third season, with its glamorous promise of a great villain and its failure to deliver on that promise. Yet, with these high hurdles in place, nothing stopped them from creating the mesmerizing midseason finale, “Dark Waters,” and boy did I forget season three!
An origin story at heart, Arrow tells of the rise to heroism of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) in the corrupt “Star City” after having been stranded on a Chinese prison island for five years. In order to survive, he becomes a killing machine, a master of archery, and a vigilante, all of which are identities he still has upon returning home. By the fourth season, he realizes that murder isn’t the way to end corruption (go figure), and he pursues a normal life alongside his romantic interest, the quirky and lovable Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). What “Dark Waters” does masterfully is test the limits of Oliver’s personal voyage back to humanity. Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), the charming antagonist of the season, captures Felicity, trusty bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey), and Oliver’s sister Thea Queen (Willa Holland) and almost succeeds in killing them right before Oliver’s eyes, all without knowing about his superhero “Green Arrow” persona. So much for a “lighter tone.”
Sure, many superhero shows contain villains capable of endangering their enemies’ loved ones—and crowds of strangers for that matter. However, even following this trope, the writers take a risk in revealing Darhk’s schemes in every previous episode this season as a way of humanizing him in a psychotic albeit charismatic light. Structurally, Arrow has, time and time again, taken risks to portray the plot and the titular character’s backstory through flashbacks or, as they did in the season premiere, through foreshadowing flash-forwards. But nothing is more daring than splitting the tale to show the antagonist’s perspective in comparison and in contrast to the other characters’ lives. He loots screen time away from the protagonists’ storylines to make sure we don’t forget about him, and not only does it work effectively, but we also end up looking forward to seeing his playful insanity. I call it Arrow à la Daredevil. Damien Darhk’s deadly demons, previewed at the end of “Dark Waters” to the eerie tune of “Silent Night,” still remain in their early stages of being unleashed, and I can’t wait to see them.
Speaking of demons, let’s talk about the “Demon’s Head,” or Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman). It’s always been hard seeing the John Barrowman as anyone other than Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood, but he shows his versatility in a role that is central to Arrow’s universe. Disguising himself as the Green Arrow in order to do Oliver’s will in this episode, he reminded me of one of the show’s key qualities: the tendency of its storylines to cross, merge, and proceed. His origin story began when his wife was murdered and revenge consumed him, and it ended when his revenge gave way to his son’s death. Thematically, his own journey of redemption, from antagonism to heroism, parallels Oliver’s origin story, developing from his simple-minded reign of evil in season one. Since then, writers Wendy Mericle and Ben Sokolowski make sure Malcolm’s development as a good man masked by his troubled past—what can only be described as an “inverse origin story”—is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s something they remember in “Dark Waters.”
Bravo to actress Emily Bett Rickards in this episode! Her acting as Felicity Smoak is always great, but to see her act hopeless in a life-or-death situation was refreshing. While her character held unsettling faults in season three, we now find the redeeming seeds of a mature, three-dimensional character that shows that you don’t have to master the art of the bow and arrow to be entertaining. Her normal bubbly personality, still present in the dialogue, changes in a convincing way that doesn’t feel contrived. Regarding the dialogue, her most iconic scene in this episode is when she has none. Trapped in Darhk’s soundproof gas chamber as Oliver is forced to watch, she tries to mutter the words “I love you” with tears in her eyes. No language (though not for lack of trying), and yet she nails it. It’s no wonder she’s the fan favorite.
I tried not to spoil everything in case you ever want to watch all of the well-choreographed fighting scenes in Arrow on a lazy weekend and fall in love like I did. If you really want to find out what happens at the end of the episode, which is truly ominous and worthwhile, I recommend a one-hour dosage of diving deep into “Dark Waters.”
You can catch the next episode of Arrow on The CW at 8/7c on January 20. Please watch it even if you have to do something else, even if you have to be somewhere . . . else.