Synopsis of 4×23: Oliver tries to bring down Darhk as Star City is evacuated. In a final street fight, Oliver kills Darhk and the team splinters.

Rating: ?????

“Schism,” the fourth season finale of Arrow, ends with Oliver and Felicity, staring at what remains of the team and legacy they’ve created, now shattered by guilt, loss and uncertainty. It’s an apt, if unsatisfying ending, to a season that suffered much of the same sense of unease and internal failures. If anything, Season 4 was controversial.

The death of Laurel, the biggest sticking point for fans of the season, as well as the combustion of Felicity and Oliver’s romantic relationship, were lightning rods for fan reaction but were only a small part of a series of episodes that felt directionless, overly loose and barely representative of the show that had came before it. It’s hard to argue that the fourth season of Arrow was anything other than a failure but it was an ambitious one and as the smoke clears, it’s easy to see what went wrong, how and why.

[The CW]
[The CW]

“Schism” is all fall-out from last week’s penultimate episode, “Lost in the Flood.” An enraged Darhk decides to unleash nuclear armageddon, at least partially out of revenge for Ruvé’s death and Felicity and Michael desperately try to stop the bombs from falling. Much of the meat of the plot focuses on Oliver rallying Star City’s people against fear and instilling a sense of pride in their home before he goes in to a knock-down drag-out street fight with the de facto leader of HIVE.

It’s a decidedly low concept episode, satisfying and a little silly in equal measure. I’m a big fan of whenever large scale superhero battles end in ground level fisticuffs, like the battle between Nuke and Daredevil in the finale of “Born Again” or the construction site smackdown that serves as the climax of the epic Green Lantern storyline “The Sinestro Corps War,” so it’s at least somewhat satisfying to see here.

Still, there are problems. The fight hinges on the idea that Oliver’s able to resist Damien’s magic because the people of Star City believe in him after his impromptu speech on the hood of a car. It’s winning by the power of friendship writ large, which would feel more at home on Flash or Supergirl but here it feels a bit wonky.

It also has the same problem of many a piece of superhero media before it in that it features a massive fist fight between two sides armed with guns for no reason other than, well, there’s 10 minutes of this episode left and a fistfight lasts a whole lot longer than a gunfight.

[The CW]
[The CW]

While the fistfight is noteworthy, the problems stemming from Damien’s powers deserve a little more attention. Darhk was far from an ideal villain for Arrow to base a season off of and as the show went on this year, it seemed like the writers tried just about everything to make him fit. He was cast as a political climber one minute, a puppet being played with by his manipulator of a wife the next, a man controlled by an evil bureaucracy an episode later and a deeply protective family man the next.

Compare Darhk to the second season’s Deathstroke storyline and the problem becomes immediately clear. Season 2 was entirely built around the idea of the truth as Oliver had constructed it. It’s about the casualties of our own narratives, how we twist our lives and rationalize our choices so we always feel like the hero of our story and how those decisions create villains.

Slade’s plan, from murdering Oliver’s mother to holding Starling City hostage is all about reasserting his actions in the origin story of Green Arrow, forcing Oliver to confront both what he did and what he didn’t do to escape his own personal hell. It’s a rich, thematically engaging storyline that condemns Slade’s horrific actions, casting him as a madman that must be stopped, without letting Oliver off the hook for his many sins. It both compares and contrasts the two’s approaches to justice and compromise while examining how two men used, destroyed and attempted to dispose of each other.

[The CW]
[The CW]

By comparison, there just wasn’t a thematically consistent hook for Darhk all season, which left him serving as little more than a magic challenge that would have to be solved at some point. The closest he got to being a thematic counterpart to the hero is when he kidnaps Oliver’s estranged son, linking the two with their connection to families.

It’s the most compelling the show was all season but, for whatever reason, it didn’t stick around for longer than a handful of episodes, seeming to abandon Darhk’s children again until they’re briefly relevant again at the season finale. Ultimately, it ended up feeling like there had to be a more thematically appropriate villain for the season or a better way to rework the one that was chosen to closer tie he and Oliver together.

Without a clear tie to the villain, Arrow built its emotional and thematic arc around something of a twisted hero’s journey. I’ve written in the past that Season 4 was structured to show the Rise and Fall of Oliver Queen, going from a suburban would-be husband to a politically relevant hero, to a civic leader before plummeting into being hunted by his city, losing his support network and losing the faith of the people he was sworn to protect.

It’s a lot to hang on a show entirely about a guy who kicks a disproportionate amount of ass every week but the show mostly hit the important notes of that structure up until cheating a bit in the finale. The real problem was the show’s moral code.

[The CW]
[The CW]

Much was made in the early days of Arrow about Oliver’s extreme homicidal streak and Season 3 and 4 both tried to rein this in, casting the show’s troubles as Oliver’s troubles. He struggled with the simplicity of a kill versus the difficulty of controlling his rage and desire for revenge in a compelling way but this year’s episodes pushed things further.

The idea that Oliver will be forced to kill Darhk is brought up in the season’s first episode, as he realizes he’s going to have to break his code in order to avenge Laurel’s death. That threat has hung over the show all year and is satisfied here with the cold blooded murder of Damien.

In order for that threat to work and in order for the audience to buy into the idea that Oliver’s breaking his code in order to do what’s right, we have to really believe murder is the only acceptable solution and I don’t know that the show really proves the answer it gives. Damien’s death is played as if it’s the result of a taunt. He’s not threatening to kill again or take another shot at nuclear annihilation so much as he taunts Oliver for not killing him.

Maybe this will play different for different viewers, but it hardly seems essential for Oliver to kill him. There’s an argument to be made, I guess, that after his breakout from prison earlier in the season, it’s impossible to rehabilitate or lock up Dark, but that all has to be established without the help of the episode itself. “Schism” weirdly seems to ignore the show’s history at every turn and it’s never more clear than when Oliver stabs his enemy to death.

[THhe CW]
[The CW]

There’s a case to be made that the show’s not supporting Oliver’s decision. The scenes in the Arrow Cave as well as Felicity and Oliver’s discussion at Laurel’s grave establishes that his crime characterizes Oliver as a morally compromised character, capable neither of pure good or the darkness he sees within himself.

In my opinion, it lets Oliver off the hook a little too much. There’s a lot of blood on Oliver’s handstand the crimes he’s committed vastly outweigh the amount of good he’s done without taking a life.

Some of this is just going to come down to personal tastes. I’ve gotten a little sick of the main question being asked in genre media being “is murder necessary?” It’s formed the crux of so many superhero shows late and it’s rarely addressed with much more nuance than “murder is bad except when it’s ok, I guess.” Arrow falls on this side of the spectrum in “Schism” and that failing is entirely on the show’s structure and plotting.

A better, stronger attempt at characterization and theming could have painted a much more compelling, richer portrait of its characters, world and conflict. However, those failings end up tarnishing the season, bringing the flaws of the show into a starker focus and revealing just how far the show’s fallen in a short time.

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