Given the genre's history, one can hardly blame television viewers with reasonably sophisticated tastes to expect much from shows about super-heroes. Sure, The Adventures of Superman was fun kiddie fare and The Flash provided some reasonable action-adventure thrills. But for the most part, live-action superhero television has ranged from embarrassing to abysmal.
To my complete shock, the CW's Arrow is far more ambitious than I ever expected. The show uses a standard trope: man has traumatic experience and becomes a better person for it, vowing to fight for justice so others won't suffer as he did. And while much of Arrow does indeed focus on the crimefighting exploits of its titular hero, the show runners place as much or more emphasis on the consequences of Oliver Queen's choices, particularly in tonight's episode, the appropriately-titled "Damaged."
In "Damaged," Oliver Queen weaves an elaborate web of lies to convince his friends, family and enemies that he is not, in fact, the masked avenger killing bad guys with arrows. The scheme works, but in the process Oliver lies to his mother and stepfather, his ex-girlfriend, her father, his little sister, his best friend and, in fact, all of his peers save the one man he's taken into his confidence: his bodyguard Diggle, who he puts in harm's way to accomplish his goals.
In a surprisingly mature and moving coda to the episode, Diggle berates Oliver for his lies even as viewers are presented with a montage of scenes showing how Oliver's choices - dating back to those he made before and during his shipwreck - have damaged himself and his loved ones. Though the show's protagonist, Oliver lies without apology over and over, and he is a master of deceit, playing on the sympathies of those closest to him to hide his dark secret. Meanwhile Quentin Lance, Oliver's ex-girlfriend's father, is determined to put Oliver in jail because he rightly suspects him of being the vigilante and the murderer. Oliver even hires Laurel Lance, his ex, to defend him in court, betraying her trust in two ways - as an ex-lover and as a client.
Meanwhile we find out that Oliver's stepfather seems to be a decent man, while his mother is somehow in league with the criminals on Oliver's master list of bad guys - a very neat reversal of cliche that's wringing further emotional drama from an already tortured cast of characters.
Indeed, the tragedy approaches Shakespearean levels as Quentin is forced not only to save Oliver's life, but to drop all charges against him because Oliver's scheme to exonerate himself worked. Frustrated beyond belief and still grieving over the death of his other daughter (Laurel's sister), a death he blames with some justification on Queen, Quentin winds up mourning and drunk at a local bar and has to be half-carried home by Laurel.
None of this sounds particularly compelling when hastily summarized, nor does it capture even a fraction of the episode's pathos. This isn't drama on the level of The Wire or Breaking Bad, but for a show about a masked vigilante it is surprisingly mature and challenging. It may be the most realistic show about superheroes ever made, at least when it comes to the legal, physical and psychological consequences of vigilantism.