At this point, It’s fairly accurate to say that Arrow has righted its ship and gotten back on course.
After an uneven season that frustrated fans with its supernatural focus and the somewhat polarizing Olicity relationship, the show did a reset of sorts, and went back to what made it a hit in the first place: a gritty vigilante story that takes place in Star City’s dark alleys and corners.
As The CW’s flagship superhero show enjoys its winter break, we had a chance to talk exclusively with Arrow executive producer and showrunner Wendy Mericle. She took time out from shooting episode 5.14 to chat with us. We covered a lot of ground, including Oliver’s ongoing struggle to change, what’s next for Olicity, and whether we’ve seen the end of the fallout from Flashpoint.
(Note: this interview was conducted before Arrow’s winter finale)
This Season has seen a "back to basics" approach in many ways. As the showrunner, are you happy about bringing the series back to the more street-level stories after last season’s more otherworldly plots?
Yeah, I mean, I absolutely do. I think the show lives in … Star City, it lives in the underworld of crime we established in Seasons 1 and 2. We necessarily went towards R'as al Ghul and the League of Assassins and then magic and Damien Darhk in Seasons 3 and 4; this season is a "back to basics," as you said, but I think it has more resonance [now] because we did move away from it in past years. For as much as we really enjoyed it, but if we would have stayed [with the same approach] through Seasons 3 and 4, then it wouldn’t be a return now. It would just be the same thing we had been doing. It’s been really fun to go back to this style of storytelling, but it was fun to explore other areas as well.
Oliver has had a challenging time this season trying be a mentor to the new members of the team, especially Wild Dog. Is it going to get better for him? He seems to struggle with playing the mentor.
(laughs) It’s true. I think he’s done it in the past very reluctantly. Even when he took on Sara and Roy, it was never something I think he willingly did. especially since, when he came back to Starling City in the pilot, this was his mission. It started with his father, it was very personal, it was about his family and his legacy. So for him to bring someone else into this world, I think for him it feels … wrong, and it feels dangerous. It speaks to the reality of what he does on a day-to-day basis. One of the things we’re really excited about this season is evolving [Oliver’s] character. It’s not going to necessarily get easier for him, but its definitely … there’s a certain level of growth he takes on, and it’s a role that he’s going to grow into, in a positive way, throughout the season.
It’s interesting how his past actions when he was The Hood and was killing the people on his list have come back to haunt him. Why was it important to make that a key element in Season Five?
We’ve been talking about legacy and now in Season 5 the show is becoming reflective a bit. The creators have always kind of known where we were going by Season 5. Oliver is definitely taking stock in terms of his life. It also points out that the show, at its core, is about a guy who puts on a mask, and goes out and acts like judge, jury and executioner in terms of fighting crime. And in terms of the real-world context, that has real consequences. We felt collectively and morally, we shouldn’t shy away from it.
One of the great hallmarks of the show is that are several strong female characters, such as Felicity and Thea. I love in particular how, even though she’s not in costume much anymore, Speedy is still such a key part of Oliver’s life and the show. Are there plans to have Thea suit up more in the second half of Season 5?
She will definitely be in and out of costume a few times this season, which I think is fun. It’s a role [Willa Holland] knows how to play and those are skills she’s not letting atrophy. I will say something that’s always been true on Arrow from its inception is … one of the biggest and best moments in the pilot was when we learn Moira Queen had her own son kidnapped. She was the one that was capable of this kind of malevolence and darkness. In a lot ways that was the seed for a lot of these strong female characters.
You talk about Willa, and we think she’s been amazing as Thea in the mayor’s office. We really like her in that role. She is really Oliver’s only remaining family member, and that gives her a certain level of gravity and emotional importance that is ... that will keep her on the show … we want to write to her because she has so much significance for Oliver.
Do you think Oliver and Felicity are better when they’re not together?
(laughs) That is like the most loaded question!
Because they’re such great friends and teammates, and we’re reminded of that again this season.
We are. We made a choice at the top of this season not to … not to get them back together right away, for sure. And to leave that question up in the air. Which I think is a really real thing to happen. Going back to the real and roundedness, these are two people who have been thrown into this mission, and it’s not really a traditional workplace, so to speak. It’s a very unique situation. And we wanted to honor the reality of, it’s always hard to work with somebody you really care about. In season four, we saw them work together while trying to maintain a relationship. Now, they’re working together in the context of not knowing what their future is, romantically.
I think both sides provide — having them together and apart — certain types of storytelling opportunities. This season has certainly given us different ones. But I think ultimate the key thing, and i think is true for so many series, especially ones where you’ve been fortunate enough to go to 100 episodes and beyond, that you have that central core relationship and as writers you have that opportunity to explore it. And you can take it many different directions. We definitely have some ideas about where we’re headed in Season 6. We’ll see where that goes.
Do you still love writing John Diggle? This season has really provided David Ramsey some good material to work with.
That’s a great question! I do love writing Diggle. He’s very straightforward and plainspoken, which I really admire. But I also really enjoy writing Wild Dog this year. He’s a close second right now. I think Rick Gonzales is tremendous and versatile. He’s a blast to write for. The character has a very specific point of view, which is always fun to tackle as a writer.
He also gets the best one-liners.
We do like to give him those little jabs. He’s just really good at them. That’s the thing about Rick, not that … the whole cast is great. But he just brings a different energy and a different tone, and he nails that stuff. He’s amazing.
Have we seen the end of how Flashpoint impacts Star City, or is there still more to come in the second half of the season?
I think so. It’s one of those things … and speaking as someone who doesn’t come from a comic book background or even much of a sci-fi background … that is a tricky thing to talk about.
He’s reset reality on another show! I think for us as storytellers on Arrow, where we try to stay more grounded and not try to veer too much into that territory, I think I can’t say that it’s over, but I will say that anything we would do in the future we would try to keep as grounded and … contained as we have this season, with respect to … especially with Digg and his son.
That was very well said. You danced around that expertly.
(laughs) Well, thank you.
Speaking of Flashpoint, I don’t think people really appreciate the gargantuan effort it took to pull off the four-series "Invasion" crossover. My head hurts just thinking about the story meetings you had. Was it as complicated as I think it was to make it work?
And then some! No, what’s interesting about it was … we knew fairly early we were going to do ‘Invasion’ and we knew it would be aliens and we knew a piece of it would be on Supergirl. [After that] it’s always a headache purely in terms of scheduling. It’s one thing to craft the story, but everything is very theoretical on the page. Once it’s on the page it become a production problem and a reality problem. Stephen can’t be on five sets at once. Neither can Grant, neither can Melissa. So it becomes a juggling act and that has direct impact on the stories you can tell.
But it was such a fun and scopey thing to pull off, and we really were so excited. We knew we had something very cool and emotionally compelling to honor the 100th episode. We knew in concept how we were going to handle that. There was a lot of enthusiasm about it. We broke that episode in the Arrow writer’s room. And then you get down to the nitty gritty of making it happen. And i have to give props to all of our line producers, Todd Pittson, Vladimir Stefoff at Legends of Tomorrow, Jaime Paglia over at Flash, Hilton Smith over at Supergirl. And Marc Guggenheim was really the point person for all the shows to make that schedule work. Everyone got together for the story meetings and everyone was an equal partner, but in the end, Marc was the guy who has the brain to put it all together. It’s a real testament to all our producers and to Marc.
So has Marc given you a deadline for when you have to have the MacGuffin for next year’s crossover yet?
(laughs) We have some ideas. We actually sort of do, believe it or not, have a concept for what we want to do for next year’s crossover. It’s crazy.
Regarding the Bratva flashbacks, what can you tell us about what’s coming up this season? And will we see flashbacks of Oliver in other places besides Russia?
Yes and yes. We’re definitely … we’re having so much fun in Russia. It’s been one of my favorite seasons of flashbacks, being in the Bratva. It’s something we’ve long wanted to tell and I think it’s very compelling and different. We’re not on the island. That said, we know we’re going to sync up with the pilot at some point so I can definitely tell you we’ll be back on the island. Can’t say for how long but we will definitely be back there at some point.
Regarding other flashbacks … yeah. On the island and … maybe a few other places, but I can’t tell you where or when. They may or may not be four years ago. They might be a bit more recent than that.
Last question. There’s a great line in Hamilton where the main character asks, "What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” In terms of your show, is there something in particular that you’re particularly proud of that points to Arrow’s legacy?
I would say, one of the most interesting and most challenging aspects about the show is that we didn’t allow it, from the get-go, the show was never one specific genre or type of storytelling. And that makes it very hard to break and very challenging to write., but I think that’s what keeps it interesting.
We have so many elements coming into any given episode. There’s the procedural element, the superhero element, the fun of that. We always have an emotional core to the storytelling. and I think that’s a good part of the secret sauce. Always making sure we know why Oliver’s punching someone in Act Five. It’s not just about the action. It’s about his emotional story for the episode. and his larger emotional arc. And for me, that’s what set it apart. Coming on from the beginning, as I did, it was mind-blowing. That was very different for TV at that time. Previous shows I worked on, you always knew what you were doing. It was a law show, or it was Desperate Housewives, there was a template for how this stuff had gotten done.
For this show, there was none. There was no template. We were constantly reinventing the wheel. That makes I think, for very compelling storytelling and people staying interested. You don’t know what you’re going to get.
What do you think of Season 5 of Arrow? Weigh in on the season’s first half in the comments below!