After twenty-three episodes that ranged from the very high highs to some very low lows, the third season of The CW’s Arrow came to a very definitive close with “My Name Is Oliver Queen” on May 13. Now, with five months of hiatus until the premiere of Season 4, fans are left trying to make sense of nearly two dozen episodes that changed the foundation of the show forever. For better or worse, there’s plenty of material to consider; therefore, in the name of ongoing examination, rumination, and extrapolation, each Wednesday will feature an in-depth look back at certain elements of Season 3. This week’s installment will examine what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to happen next for Laurel Lance as the Black Canary.
What Worked: After the introduction of the Canary in Season 2 with Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance behind the mask, viewers discovered what they were missing in an effective female vigilante on the streets of Starling City. Sara wasn’t around all the time, but she brought a refreshing element to the stunt sequences with a distinctly different fighting style than that to which viewers had become accustomed after a full season of Oliver as the solo masked marauder of the series. For a secondary character, the Canary became an unforgettable aspect of the vigilante scene in the CW comic universe. Sara’s untimely death in the beginning of Season 3 was a blow to the status quo of the good guys, and the lack of a female vigilante fighting for the rights of women was going to be missed.
In that sense, the prospect of a second Canary-esque heroine was genuinely exciting.
As much of a stretch as it may have been for Sara’s sister to step in as Canary 2.0, the incorporation of Laurel into the main storyline of the show was necessary if her character was going to remain relevant. Part of what has given Laurel so many detractors over the years has been her isolation in storylines that were independent of the hero and therefore felt somewhat superfluous. Her purpose in Season 1 ultimately proved to be as a love interest for more developed male characters, and her purpose in Season 2 was to try to find a reason why she should continue to receive airtime when she and Oliver were so disconnected. Finding a way to incorporate Laurel into the main arc had the potential to save her character for even her harshest critics.
It was also a relief to see Laurel being proactive in Season 3. She spent most of the previous two seasons reacting to the actions of the vigilante and to her love interests and to her own internal strife. By reaching for the mask, Laurel was trying to change the course of her life rather than following the current and attempting to stay afloat. It was encouraging to see that the show was making overtures toward giving the character a meatier plot. Progress had been made behind the scenes, and Laurel could finally move forward in an organic way.
What Didn’t Work: Unfortunately, Laurel did not move forward in an organic way. Instead, the character all season was written as though the destiny of her comic counterpart was sufficient to buckle her into a set of leathers and stick her under a wig and mask to hit the streets.
Warning to unconditional fans of Laurel Lance as Black Canary: you may want to skip ahead to the “What Needs To Happen Next” segment.
Warning to unconditional fans of Laurel Lance as Black Canary who choose to continue reading this segment: I’ll ask that you consider the evidence of my argument before assuming that my points are driven by bias against this character or for any others. The article is about Laurel Lance and her vigilante journey; if I intended for factors such as romance or family drama to intrude, I would have titled the article as such.
The show failed the character of Laurel from the moment that she instinctively reacted to Sara’s death by wanting revenge. Laurel’s mourning consistently fell within the scope of fury rather than grief. There’s nothing wrong with feeling anger after her sister was murdered, but her immediate quest for vengeance gave the sense that Laurel was not so much angry that her sister had been killed as much as angry that Sara had been taken from her. It reminded that their relationship had always been more about the men in their lives than one another, and it implicitly sabotaged any sense of altruism in her journey toward the mask.
The show choosing to use anger as her primary reaction also had explicit consequences. Despite her subsequent protests that she had taken up the mantle of the Canary to honor her sister, Laurel’s path to vigilantism was always framed in terms of her addictive personality. Laurel herself proclaimed that she only felt the fire inside of her die down when she was beating on a thug with a baseball bat, and the show’s resident expert in all things vigilante came out and told her to her face that she had chosen street fighting as a substitute for alcohol and pills. She had the hero’s very firm stamp of disapproval.
To be fair, Oliver had an unhealthy fire within him back in Season 1 when he chose to face his trauma by going on killing sprees. The key difference between Oliver’s first steps toward heroism and Laurel’s is that Oliver spent an entire season working through his demons as the Hood. His darkness was addressed and dealt with before he was able to move on. Laurel skipped a few too many steps, and so her demons were never exorcised. In-text, Oliver is no longer a serial killer. In-text, Laurel is still an addict with a pair of billy clubs.
Motivation aside, the narrative didn’t give nearly enough justification for why Laurel truly belonged on the streets as Black Canary.
Laurel has always been sold as an intelligent character. She has perhaps not always been the most perceptive or sensitive or skilled at recognizing loved ones when their cheekbones are covered by domino masks and/or greasepaint, but the woman got into and graduated law school. That’s no easy feat. Even if she did not instinctively realize that all of the vigilantes whom she has encountered are basically tortured souls living unhealthy lives as they wait to die, the first time that she was walloped on the streets by a common wife-beater should have been a wakeup call that she was not cut out for the life. Her mettle had been tested, and it landed her in the hospital. Laurel should have been allowed to embrace her presumed intelligence and realize that vigilantism would not be a natural course for her.
Coming to such a realization wouldn’t reflect badly on her or label her a quitter in any sense. Just as people who fail chemistry aren’t meant to be doctors and individuals with poor grammar aren’t mean to be writers and students who hate math aren’t meant to be engineers, a 30-year old lawyer with basic self-defense training and a self-professed desire to pick fights to quench a fire within her is not meant to be a vigilante. If anything, the realization would reflect well on her.
Even if Laurel was not going to be permitted to see sense and give up on vigilantism before she was in too deep, the show really could have made her decision far more smooth. It wouldn’t have even taken too much effort. If Laurel had shown some frustration with a corrupt legal system that allowed bad guys to go free, taking the law into her own hands would make sense. If she had begun training to feel stronger after losing Sara and then saw a woman mugged or was mugged herself, Laurel would have less unhealthy cause to pursue following in Sara’s footsteps. If Laurel had seen the city actually suffering without the Canary on the streets, putting on the mask and making appearances would have actually been arguably commendable. There were so many better ways for the show to have handled the birth of the Black Canary instead of relying on comic destiny.
The show may not have been willing to put in the effort to line the road to vigilantism with anything more effective than vague good intentions, but it really needed to allow more time for Laurel to become Black Canary. If it was going to happen and she was going to wear that mask to seize her comic destiny no matter what, it needed to be handled carefully. This is Laurel’s big arc, likely of the entire series. It did not need to be sped through in a span of seven episodes.
Seriously, it was seven episodes. Laurel first decided to try her hand at vigilantism in the third episode of the season. She was bedecked in leather, quipping, and pounding on thugs with Sara’s bo staff at the end of the tenth.
That’s not bias, folks. That’s math.
The fact remains that the character of Laurel Lance was even more physically unprepared for the role of Black Canary than she was emotionally. The rush was made all the more ridiculously blatant when her accelerated physical progression was shown on screen. In a moment that was satisfying at the time to those who had been concerned at the pace with which Laurel had been evolving into Black Canary, she slipped and fell when trying to drop down onto the roof of a van. It was a wonderful note of realism heretofore absent from her arc, and it gave hope that she could be grounded enough to fit into a show where the hero was covered in scars and earned himself a bad knee for his efforts as a vigilante.
Then, twenty minutes later, Laurel as Black Canary landed a blow on a villain that even Diggle had failed to fell, leapt through a closed window, and heroically grabbed onto a ladder dangling from a moving helicopter.
Oliver could not have believably pulled off that stunt.
As desirable as it would have been to see Laurel’s progression toward her mask on screen so that viewers could witness her earning the right to wear it, accepting that it was happening gradually offscreen would have been preferable to immediate Action Hero Laurel. Even if Katie Cassidy had been the most built and skilled martial artist to have ever been cast on Arrow, the character was not. It would have been the same if Caity Lotz were playing Laurel as written or if Stephen Amell were packaged in drag to play Laurel as written. The performer’s body is irrelevant if the character’s skills are not validated. That’s what stunt doubles are for.
Not that Arrow was particularly careful with concealing Katie Cassidy’s stunt double. Even if viewers could overlook differences in body shape, Cassidy’s double’s face was clearly visible more than once in Season 3. It was as though the show had given up on suspending audience disbelief.
Conversely, it wouldn’t have mattered if Caity Lotz had frequently needed a double as Sara and Stephen Amell had frequently needed a double as Oliver. Their characters’ immersive crucibles that had cost them their health and their futures and their souls had left them with a variety of fighting skills perfectly suited for vigilantism in an urban environment.
Sara spent half a decade training with the League of Assassins. Oliver had trained with Slade Wilson and Shado and Maseo and whoever puts him through his next fresh hell to forge him into a weapon. They spent time starving and sleepless and running for their lives in ratty duds and awful hair. Doctors in Starling have testified to the facts that their skeletons and bodies are basically messes of flesh and bone that will ultimately fail them spectacularly one day because of all the physical stress from their crucibles.
Laurel…took boxing classes in a gym in her free time after work in trendy exercise gear. Her coach took her out for tacos to replenish her protein after a session. She sprained her wrist once, and it totally detracted from her supermodel look at her friends’ wedding.
Laurel surviving as a fighter on the streets – even with field agents of Team Arrow rescuing her about as many times as she actually provided any assistance – completely marginalizes the journeys of Sara and Oliver. It’s offensive to a dearly departed character who paved the way for female heroines in the Flarrow universe, and it’s insulting to the ongoing hellish flashback journey of the main character as he fights to keep his humanity. When viewed outside of a Laurel-centric vacuum, Laurel Lance becoming Black Canary in Season 3 just didn’t work.
She wasn’t helped by the fact that she was an unnecessary addition to Team Arrow. Between Oliver, Roy, and Diggle, there was already plenty of trained muscle. They’re bigger, stronger, and smarter as fighters. Laurel is so much more valuable as an Assistant District Attorney within the Starling City justice department. Her most impressive moments came when she was able to stop Ray Palmer from exposing Oliver and then working to free Oliver from being unlawfully detained by her father at the SCPD. Laurel should have been allowed to remain a hero in her own arena rather than forced into one in which she was not needed.
What Needs To Happen Next: Despite all of the concerns about the ways in which Laurel’s journey to vigilante was handled, it’s clear that Black Canary isn’t going anywhere. Katie Cassidy is still the female lead and second-billed. Arrow isn’t just going to throw away her Season 3 arc for the sake of Season 4. Nevertheless, Season 4 really needs to remember that Laurel is more than just her mask. She’s an ADA, and showing the struggle between keeping her day job while working as Black Canary at night could add some much-needed nuance.
Arrow needs to remain the Flarrowverse show on The CW based in realism. Laurel takes her lumps on the streets; even just showing her applying extra makeup to cover up black eyes or forgoing the heels because of a tweaked ankle would be great. Team Arrow in Season 2 was entirely devoted to fighting crime, and both Oliver and Diggle in Season 3 didn’t have time for day jobs. Laurel should not be freed of the same struggles just because her name destined her to wear a mask.
Something needs to be done about that Canary Cry. Effective it may be, but it looks ridiculous for poor Katie Cassidy to have to dislocate her jaw like a python in a scream to make it work. She can keep the sonic technology just…come on. It’s pretty bad.