Time off is important. Whatever it is that makes up your day-to-day life, whether it’s work, school, or a hobby, nothing is better for letting you get a new perspective on your routines than just stopping them completely for a while. It’s why many first year series come back over the midseason break with a renewed sense of energy and focus. Television (in particular, network television) runs on a very rigid schedule, so when everyone’s immediate goal is to just make sure next week’s episode isn’t actively on fire, it’s sometimes easiest to just put your head down, and power through till vacation time.
Coming back from the winter holidays as well rested as I hope you all are, Arrow’s latest episode is by no means a radical departure from everything that’s come before it. It’s only been a month mind you, so we’re not yet at Smash-levels of renovation (ie; ripping out everything but the floorboards, and hoping to god people love Jennifer Hudson). The show has, overall, improved over these ten episodes, though it often felt like a two-steps forward, one-step back situation, and vice-versa. So while “Burned” isn’t nearly as impactful as the solid mid-season finale, it did a better job than the average outing at demonstrating how the show is changing for the better.
I haven’t exactly been subtle in my comparison of Arrow to the little kid who imitates his cool older brother, The Dark Knight. It’s often stumbled trying to strut around in shoes too big for its feet, but there’s an undeniable genetic similarity between the two, and Arrow has occasionally captured big bro’s swagger with enough confidence that Oliver Queen could sneak into a dive bar with Bruce Wayne’s I.D. While “Burned” draws deeply from the biggest thematic well of the Nolan trilogy, the one marked “Fear”, it also manages to take those themes, and filter them through the unique qualities of this interpretation of Green Arrow, something the show needs to start doing more.
Any other week, this A-plot would be nothing of great import, but as a follow-up to where we last left Oliver, it creates strong conflict out of a substitute villain. He’s a pretty goofy one to boot, a badly burnt former-fighter with lethal designs for the men who used to be a part of his brigade. You could tell me the exact same archetype has been the killer in a bunch of low-budget slasher movies no one has ever heard of, and I’d believe you, but he’s just a means to an end. His firebug tendencies are a pretty literal way of turning up the heat on Oliver, who’s feeling burnt out following rehab, and unsure if he’s ready for this new trial by fire (last fire pun, I swear).
In a revealing interview with Maureen Ryan over at the Huffingtonpost, showrunners Marc Guggenheim and Greg Berlanti talk about how the unique angle their version of Oliver has is that he starts the show with nothing to lose. Spending five years in the life or death wilds of a Chinese prison resort can have that effect on you, so Oliver’s journey isn’t so much about building up to the Green Arrow persona, as it is a process of refining it from the savage mound of bow skills and abs we were introduced to at the series’ start.
The key step in all that is recovering Oliver’s humanity, the absence of which was clumsily explored a few weeks back in “An Innocent Man.” Being on the receiving end of a beat-down from Dark Arrow was humanizing, in addition to humiliating, reminding Oliver that, despite his physique and past trauma, he has physical and emotional limits. Unlike Batman, this vigilante still has a family, friends, and an existence outside of the calling. Now that he’s at risk of losing them, the devil-may-care life of jumping off rooftops and fighting psychos all night has lost all of its appeal.