From the title, you’re probably guessing that this piece is about John Diggle or Felicity Smoak, or maybe even Roy Harper. Sorry to disappoint you. In actuality, this piece is about a character that has been in every episode of the series. It’s about Starling City.
Before we go any farther, I should say that though it’s been a significant step down from season 2, I’ve quite enjoyed season 3, even as its labyrinthine, shaky plot twists have piled up on top each other in increasingly ludicrous fashion. But that step down can’t be ignored, and a large part of its cause is how Arrow has lost sight of its setting.
I like to think of a show’s setting as one of its characters. Its appearance is its streets, buildings, and landmarks. Its personality is the people who inhabit it. It develops and changes through its interactions with the show’s human characters. The recently-ended Parks and Recreation provides a nice illustration of this. Pawnee, Indiana appears to us a small to mid-sized Midwestern town. Its personality is irrational but well-meaning, just like the people who inhabit it. Over time, it becomes a better place to live, thanks to the tireless work of Leslie Knope and her friends.
Starling City is a mid-sized American coastal city (not to be confused with Coast City). In Arrow’s early going, it was portrayed as a haven of lawlessness with a large gulf between rich and poor. (Arrow’s Robin Hood-esque iconography is no coincidence.) The first two seasons of the show took special care in developing Oliver Queen’s relationship with the city, showing us his quest to clean it up while also showing us how the city increasingly accepted – and even welcomed – the presence of a vigilante. The city reacted to what Oliver did, and Oliver reacted to events in the city.
Not so with season 3, which seems disconnected from its setting to an alarming degree, and not just because I can’t recall a single instance of Oliver saying, “You have failed this city.” With a few exceptions, Oliver and Starling City no longer seem to react to each other.
Part of the problem is season 3’s choice of main plot, driven mainly by the League of Assassins, who for obvious reasons are not headquartered in Starling City. Season 1’s plot centred around the List and the Undertaking, whereas much of season 2 was driven by Sebastian Blood and the mayoral election. The Glades – Starling City’s most crime-ridden neighbourhood – played a large part in both seasons. Season 3, by contrast, is fuelled mainly by an organization that resides outside of Starling’s geographic borders – one that doesn’t play by its “rules.”
It might have been interesting to see the contrast between the League and the Starling criminal underworld, but that has been underplayed this season, and with good reason. Seasons 1 and 2 were largely meditations on heroism and justice. It made sense that Oliver felt an obligation to the city (even if he didn’t up vocalizing said obligation until the third season, at Felicity’s prompting). But by the end of season 2, those issues were resolved. So season 3 moved on to new ideas: those of personal identity. Such ideas necessarily lend themselves poorly to being examined through the lens of a city and are more easily dealt with through the lens of interpersonal relationships. Thus, out of necessity, Starling City receded into the background.
The problem is that Starling City has receded so far into the background that it has nearly disappeared. Aside from a brief arc with Brick in the Glades, it’s as if the show could have been set anywhere. That has resulted in some oddities in how the city reacts to the Arrow – the shift from celebrating his return in “Uprising” to the police hunting him down in “Public Enemy” is jarring. It’s telling that the residents of Starling City’s reaction to the events of “Public Enemy” is barely depicted on screen – Why aren’t they protesting against Captain Lance? Are they just taking him at his word?
The end result is that Starling City doesn’t feel like the living, breathing place it once was. It’s any one of a dozen interchangeable fictional cities that could serve as a setting for a superhero show. Heck, the most recent episode, “The Fallen,” took place mostly outside of Starling. Here’s hoping that Oliver Queen reconnects with his city in season 4.
Arrow, you have failed this city.