Arrow contains some of the best examples of how to do superhero stories on television. The action gets more cinematic as it gets older, the stories are usually pretty compelling, and it has one of the more likable casts – par for the course when you cast John Barrowman in anything. In honor of the fourth season of the hit show, here are Arrow’s top ten episodes:
10. “The Man Under the Hood”
Slade Wilson is the greatest thing to happen to Arrow until the introduction of Barry Allen. The character brought a tonal weightiness which had only been tapped into previously in small bursts. The character saved the flashback portion of season one and elevated season two with Manu Bennett’s charismatic villain performance. It’s here where Team Arrow finally gets a slight upperhand in their battle against Slade Wilson and his super soldiers. However, the victory doesn’t last long.
9. “The Return”
This episode is definitive of everything positive and negative about Season 3 of Arrow. The material that works feels cinematic and properly shines new light on characters and certain motivations. Anything that doesn’t work falters in supporting aforementioned motivations and leaves the pacing and plotting feelings haphazard. Flashbacks feel more extraneous than usual, as this is the episode where Flashback Oliver inexplicably goes back to Starling City, and takes narrative content away from what could have been the highlight of season three. Instead we get half a bad episode and half of some of Arrow’s best material ever. The present storyline involves Oliver and Thea going to Lian yu to face their fears as Malcolm Merlyn lets Slade Wilson loose in an episode heavily inspired by The Most Dangerous Game.
Season two of Arrow remains a high mark for superhero stories on television. The big reason is the increased focus on Manu Bennett’s interpretation of Slade Wilson/Deathstroke. Much like Bane to Batman, this is a villain who lives and breathes to tear down the hero. His single goal is to destroy everything Oliver Queen and the Arrow stand for. This is the episode where Slade’s offensive tactics begin reaching peak levels of, “Holy shit how do our heroes get out of this,” situations.
7. “Seeing Red”
After Roy’s exposure to the mirakuru leaves him blind with rage, Team Arrow tries to track him down while planning to fight back against Deathstroke. Nothing goes according to plan, leaving two cops dead and blood on Roy’s hands. It’s a good episode but the climax involving Slade’s re-enactment of Sophie’s choice, one that Oliver had to make on Lian Yu five years prior, lead to an emotional gut-punch. Moira Queen sacrifices herself to Slade Wilson in order to let Oliver and Thea live. Slade’s crusade of vengeance was almost complete and it would lead Arrow into its greatest arc to date.
Taking a break from the excellent streak of season two episodes, let’s look back at season one of Arrow. Not exactly high art but it’s certainly an entertaining season. Character motivations are clear and present, people don’t act out of character like in the cursed Season 3, and it was a superhero soap opera with a ripoff of Chris Nolan’s Batfilm aesthetic. You could always count on it to be entertaining. When the finale of the season came, something happened. The show found it’s own voice. Oliver Queen fails his city, he realizes his heroic crusade isn’t very heroic, seeing as he’s a straight up murderer in the first season, and he’s in over his head. The show had a mission statement and would set the stage for a quality increase unbeknown to the CW.
5. “Streets of Fire”
CW isn’t known for being cinematic but I’ll be damned if the final episodes of Arrow’s sophomore season didn’t feel like a giant movie. Slade’s mirakuru soldiers have begun storming Starling City and citywide chaos spreads as Amanda Waller begins quarantining the citizens, AND Team Arrow only has hours before the ARGUS troops nuke the city. Whoosh. Now that’s how you set up a season finale.
4. “City of Blood”
The immediate aftermath of Moira’s death causes Oliver to go into hiding at a remote second base, an action seemingly made just in case the foundry beneath the popular nightclub gets discovered. Felicity and Diggle have to go to Amanda Waller and ARGUS for help in tracking down Oliver Queen since Slade is still out there and he promised that whole “vengeance” thing all season long.
3. ‘The Climb”
Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Assassins were sort of positioned as the villains of season three in this episode. Accidental pacing issues and incoherent plotting following this episode aside, this is how you do a literal and figurative cliffhanger. After the convoluted explanation for Sara’s death and Thea’s mindcontrol drug, or something, Malcolm Merlyn blackmails Oliver Queen to fight Ra’s Al Ghul to save Thea’s life, who was forced to kill Sara, Oliver leaves for Nanda Parbat to challenge the centuries old warrior. The fight is void of emotional stakes but the episode gets major points for action choreography and being able to trick me into thinking season three would be anywhere near as good as this episode.
2. “The Brave and the Bold”
Superhero crossovers are the stuff of dreams. We love watching these guys get together to fight bad guys, fight each other, or just sit down and have a cup of coffee. The second part of a two-part crossover event with The Flash has almost all of those things! Though nothing tops the euphoric entertainment of watching Flash and Arrow fight in the streets of Starling City, “The Brave and the Bold” highlights the different methodologies between the two heroes. They’re from vastly different worlds. Barry hasn’t avoided tragedy, but Oliver is drenched in the stuff, and his background with saving lives involves much darker methods than a man who can run faster than a speeding bullet.
Superhero finales tend to stray into the citywide destruction scenario or a fight for the city’s soul on top of a building. “Unthinkable” follows most of these similar patterns and it’s somehow better for it. This isn’t just about saving Starling City, it’s about whether or not Oliver Queen can become a hero, and without the whole “murder” thing. The emotional and physical stakes have never been higher in this show, and will likely never be topped, as Slade Wilson enacts the final stage of his plan to take away everything from Oliver, his loved ones, and the city he came home to protect. The action is visceral, the soundtrack amplifies already stunning moments, and the actors brought their A-game. Two seasons of buildup paid off with gangbusters.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Television Distribution