“We want to try to go a little bit bigger,” Wendy Mericle says of the goal for season four of The CW’s hit series Arrow. She obviously doesn’t want to tip her cards too much, but the co-showrunner wants fans to know that the plan for the upcoming adventures of Oliver Queen is to be “a little bit broader” with the agendas of the various bad guys who would love nothing more than to burn Starling City, now known as Star City, to the ground. After all, this specific billionaire playboy and his cohorts have already taken on drug kingpins, arms dealers, rival billionaires, mobsters, the Triad, bank robbers, mad earthquake bombers, murderous vigilantes, serial killers, cyber terrorists, regular terrorists, corporate spies, super soldiers, copycat archers, rogue A.R.G.U.S. agents, Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Assassins, and now Damien Darhk and the Ghosts. You know, give or take a few dozen villains.
Of course, this begs an interesting question: Why the heck do people still live in Star City? After countless attacks that included an earthquake bomb and the attempted release of a devastating virus, you’d have to imagine that people would just slap “abandoned” signs on their homes and haul ass to Blüdhaven, which might not be the nicest town, but at least they’d avoid being collateral damage for a few days at a time. Basically, if the bad guys want Star City so badly, just let ‘em have it already. Even Det. Quentin Lance acknowledged Star City’s unfortunate fate in the season three finale, “My Name is Oliver Queen,” when he told Laurel, “The city’s under attack… must be May!” So, why aren’t residents running for the hills?
“We take a lot of artistic license,” Mericle says of the creative process in saving a city that is eternally under attack. “It’s tricky. Obviously, the first time in season one, Malcolm didn’t fully succeed. They stopped two of the three and one of them went off, and obviously Tommy dying was tragic, but they were somewhat successful. It’s one of the things we’re grappling with in season four. Without tipping too much, our goal this year is to really look beyond Star City and H.I.V.E.’s agenda and Damien’s agenda… it’s a little bit broader than that.”
Broader begins with the effort to “go a little bit bigger,” and Mericle admits that she and the writers are “aware of the repetitiveness” of bad guy attacks and good guy saves. Now, as Darhk’s Ghosts have arrived in Star City and John Diggle, the Red Arrow, and Canary are trying to defend the innocent while Oliver plays suburban husband, the citizens have had enough. “We really lean into it in the beginning of season four,” Mericle says, “the reality of a city that has essentially been struck by three terrorist attacks, and what does that look like? What does that actually do to the population of the people who live there? People are leaving and that’s really where we start season four.”
Even those who are charged with defending Star City are weary of its chances for survival. Emily Bett Rickards began her run on Arrow as Felicity Smoak on a short-term basis, but she graduated to a series regular when Oliver fell in love with the brilliant computer tech. Felicity is also the reason why Oliver is busy talking about school waiting lists for the children they don’t have in the season four premiere, “Green Arrow,” instead of fighting Ghosts. Rickards also finds it a little hard to believe that Star City is still standing after three violent seasons.
“It is the most crime ridden city I’ve ever heard of and our characters have to live in it, which I find terrifying,” the actress explains. “Felicity has six different types of locks on her door, it doesn’t seem excessive. It seems normal. It’s still standing because there are these people who want to keep it strong and they’re so dedicated to not seeing it fall completely that there’s this hope. Sometimes you have to test the hope you have and you really hope you don’t have to. I think that they’re praying that they don’t have to, or they can’t lose hope on their city. And if their city goes up in flames, like it has so many times, the fact that they’re still able to live there is what’s keeping it strong. Or at least breathing.”
Audrey Marie Anderson plays A.R.G.U.S. agent Lyla Michaels and she’s also pretty fascinated by the fictional city’s improbable survival. Lyla has arguably more reason to be concerned than any of the characters, as she’s trying to raise a baby girl and she has, as Anderson puts it, “one foot in a very domesticated world and another foot in this superhero, ass-kicking world.”
“Why would you go to Starling City at this point?” It’s a question that she admits she’s been asking herself since the beginning. “They’ve told me very little about what’s going to happen in the story this season. And that’s the thing about being a guest on these shows. You’re not in the loop as much as maybe the leads of the show. I don’t know what’s going to happen with Star City but hey, it’s a fantasy superhero show so they can do whatever they want. They just have to write it [laughs]. Anything goes in these kind of worlds.”
In both the Marvel and DC universes, on the big and small screens, a hero is nothing without his city to protect, and there’s always going to be collateral damage when Iron Man and the Hulk are brawling through an African city or Superman is dragging Zod’s face across every last skyscraper in Metropolis. The hero has to challenge himself to save as many people as he can while stopping the villain of the week (or season), which makes Oliver’s job all the more difficult.
“Your hero is only as good as your villain,” Mericle says. “We all knew that going in but it’s a lesson that you constantly re-learn when you’re breaking stories in terms of creating villains and casting them and creating good agendas. Also, making them understandable. Villains are always heroes of their own stories and we really try to think of it that way, whether it’s Damien or Slade or Malcolm. Really, it’s like a good game of chess. If your opponent is really good, it raises your game and makes it that much more interesting. I would say I don’t favor one or the other. There is a tendency for Oliver to always win but on our show it’s been just as interesting and rewarding to watch him lose. It’s really about making it a worthy match and something people want to see. So that’s the challenge.”
Another challenge with running a wildly popular superhero series like Arrow is developing enough material for a 43-minute episode this week and keeping the story fresh and interesting for the rabid fans. Mericle’s early work included series like The Ghost Whisperer, Desperate Housewives, and Everwood, on which she first worked with Arrow co-creator Greg Berlanti, so she wasn’t exactly hanging out down at the comic book shop looking for inspiration. But that’s not a bad thing at all.
“One of the things I’ve been constantly surprised by on the show is the amount of story,” Mericle explains. “We always start from the comic books, but we also diverge from them. I don’t come from a comic book background. I come from a more straightforward TV background. When we first started breaking stories on Arrow we would move through story really quickly. I remember in the beginning feeling surprised by it but also concerned that we would run out of stories to tell, which is something that is constantly in the back of your mind. That just never happened on this show. In fact, we had so much stuff that we had tabled and never got to. I remember season one we had a digital comic book series that we did with DC. It was a lot of work, but it was also rewarding because we got to put into story form and visual form all this really rich material that we did not have time to get to in the 43-minutes a week that we have. And we did 23 episodes, which is more than I’ve ever done on any TV series and we still don’t have enough space for the stories we want to tell. It’s kind of amazing.”
The reason that there are so many stories to tell is because Arrow has managed to develop its characters in a way that makes them all interesting, so when Oliver and Felicity are sipping wine with the neighbors in suburbia, viewers are fine watching Canary and Red Arrow take on the bad guys, or especially meeting the bold and menacing Damien as he introduces himself to the city’s leaders.
“Obviously Oliver is the lead,” Mericle says, “but fans really love Diggle and they obviously love Felicity, and the Black Canary has a huge following. When we want to pivot off and have episodes center around what would normally, on any other show, be considered secondary characters, it doesn’t feel that way to write them and I don’t think it feels that way to watch them. People really want to know. One of the big things that fans have been saying on Twitter and at Comic-Con and pretty much since Season Four was announced was they want more stories like Dig and Felicity. What’s really exciting about that is we’ve just barely scratched the surface with both of them, and that’s been one of the fun things with breaking and writing season four is we have so much story to tell and when you start to dig beneath and go past Oliver, there’s so much more to still explore.”
“You have this superhero stuff but it’s grounded in these very human qualities and problems that people grapple with,” Anderson explains. “Problems that couples have, fiends have, and it’s a nice. It’s got a lot of colors to it. And every once in a while I get to fire a bazooka and get into a fight and it’s great. All in high heels [laughs].”
Rickards and Anderson agree that, in addition to being unique, the reason fans are so loyal to this specific series and why the CW’s own DC universe has done so well is because even when these characters are saving the city, being brought back to life, or running at superhuman speeds, they’re relatable and based in reality. Fans like them because they understand them.
“[Oliver] is based in reality,” Rickards says. “He doesn’t have a super power, although he is a superhero. He’s a very skilled human being and I think that he’s gone through hardships and this idea that you can come out stronger on the other side. He’s clearly a little damaged [laughs], but I mean, that’s what his job is and he’s fighting his demons and helping take care of his city and, he hopes, the world. But having gone through such turmoil and hardships and coming out on top and finding his humanity again is something we can relate to on a smaller scale.”
Anderson, who also played Lilly in season four of The Walking Dead, believes that Arrow’s innovation is what has appealed to viewers of all ages, and that really makes it one of a kind in terms of what the CW offers. “I meet people all the time who are my parents’ age who watch the show,” she says. “I get fan mail from a wide range of people. Whatever they’re doing, I think they’ve made a more sophisticated show for the CW. So you’re looking at your market, it’s going to be a very different market than even AMC. But for the CW it was really their first show that had reached out to a more diverse group. It’s a little darker, it’s a little more grown-up. I think they’ve done a really good job of taking the super hero world and grounding it. I think the leads of the show, they’re giving him very human problems and he’s grappling with human morals so I think people are able to relate somehow.”
It also helps that Stephen Amell is incredibly devoted to not only the role, but also his fans. The actor’s dedication to the physical side of his character even landed him in a match at SummerSlam this year, of which Mericle says, “I thought he was amazing.” While she’s not worried about the WWE poaching her star anytime soon, she believes that he does everything, from the Comic Con appearances to getting in the ring, because he’s genuine in his love and appreciation for his fans. “It’s not just a show with him. He’s genuinely appreciative of the fan base. And I felt that when he decided to do that crossover it was born out of the same genuine love just to give the fans something new and different.”
“He’s very studious and he’s very dedicated to this story as a whole,” Rickards adds. “He understands the unique mind of what happened, and what happened in one episode with this person, this character, and he knows everything very well. He’s very meticulous like that. I think that clarity on the story as a whole, not just season one and not just season two, but being able to see the arc of his character go through is why he’s so good at playing Oliver Queen and why he’s such a great actor.”
Whatever Oliver’s fate may be as the Green Arrow in season four, it’s safe to assume that he’ll have his hands full with Damien’s Jedi-like magical powers and the Ghosts, while also continuing to struggle with the ghosts of his past. Det. Lance seems to have reluctantly chosen the Darhk side in Star City’s struggle to remain anything but “a smoldering pile of ash,” but Oliver still has his team of vigilante heroes willing to fight by his side. But are these heroes enough to make Mericle want to invest in property in Star City anytime soon?
“I wouldn’t stay,” she laughs. “I’d be out of there. Central City looks a little more normal, relatively speaking.”