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Arrow, a show about vigilante justice, used its 150th episode to argue that vigilantes are bad

The show celebrated a milestone with a documentary-style episode narrated by Kelsey Grammer.

Stephen Amell in Archer
The CW/Arrow
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 3 through February 9 is “Emerald Archer,” the 12th episode of Arrows seventh season — and the 150th episode of the series overall.

If a person were to take a shot every time the word “vigilante” was uttered during “Emerald Archer,” the latest episode of the CW series Arrow, that person would die in the first eight or so minutes.

“Emerald Archer” is the series’ 150th episode, and in honor of reaching that milestone, it’s structured a bit differently than the show’s regular installments. Half of the episode is shot documentary-style — the official title of the documentary is Emerald Archer: The Hood and the Rise of Vigilantism — and narrated by Kelsey Grammer, giving characters from Arrow’s past and present the chance speak directly to the camera and voice their philosophical thoughts about vigilantism. And of course, everyone gets to air their thoughts about the show’s hero, the vigilante known as Green Arrow a.k.a. Oliver Queen.

The other half of the episode is more typical, featuring a villain of the week whose signature crime is ... hunting vigilantes!

The gimmick is a little silly and half-hearted at times, since it turns the documentarians into a joke (there’s a twist later in the episode that sort of explains the existence of the tape, but it doesn’t logically explain why the documentary was made other than to set up that twist). Coupled with the villain, Chimera, being a convenient vigilante hunter it becomes somewhat heavy-handed. But it does try to, in its own way, present several philosophies of vigilantes, heroes, and authoritarianism, and to offer an overarching view of how superhero comic books, movies, and television shows reckon with those ideas.

“Emerald Archer” tries to explain why superhuman vigilantes would be terrible in real life

One of the more popular “takes” when it comes to superhero movies, television shows, and comic books is that their popularity helps explain the rise of Donald Trump. You may say to yourself that Superman would never separate children from their families at the border, that Captain America would never build a wall on the US–Mexico border, that Professor X would never make fun of a disabled person — and I would wholeheartedly agree.

But the takes about superheroes and Trump are less about his policies and more about the idea of authoritarianism — a mentality where people want a strongman leader to control what they perceive to be chaos, usually by way of extreme policies, force, or strength.

Iron Man, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman — they’re stronger, smarter, faster, and better than the rest of us, and that’s a huge part of why people trust them. They’re also, for the most part, good people. Superheroes show how easy it can be to trust an authoritarian who you like and whose morals you agree with.

An essential part of why authoritarianism works in superhero stories (and why it’s less appealing in real life) is what Arrow wrestles with in “Emerald Archer”: the idea that law enforcement can’t always protect the people it’s supposed to protect. So Oliver Queen’s vigilantism works in a superhero fantasy setting like Star City, because of the heightened chaos and violence that exists there.

“If the police can’t protect the people,” Thea Queen says in the episode. “Then the people need to learn how to protect themselves.”

Ratcheting up the chaos and violence in this episode is the villain known as Chimera, who is hunting down vigilantes, including Oliver himself. At one point Chimera is called an “anti-vigilante vigilante,” which is a roundabout way of saying supervillain. It’s a bit over the top, but I appreciate the commitment to the theme.

Chimera is actually a pretty fun villain who hurts heroes, and steals heroes’ identity-concealing masks to hang them up like hunters mount game. However, the episode is less about Chimera than it is about getting the original Team Arrow onscreen and meandering through various arguments about someone taking justice into their own hands.

Throughout the episode, various characters pop up and talk about the pros and cons of vigilantism and vigilantes. (An aside: watching this episode and hearing its over-reliance on the word “vigilante” prompted me to research synonyms for the term, and I found there’s no great synonym for it — so I can’t blame the writers too much for its overuse.)

Those aligned with law enforcement say that Queen and his cohort are breaking the law, while people who Queen and his gang have have praise to spare.

The documentary seems to suggest that vigilantes shouldn’t be trusted blindly. And perhaps reflexively, it also hints that Arrow’s writers’ room is thinking about big picture philosophical ideas surrounding heroism.

But the “documentary” is shot in a way that’s purposely bad (there are fourth-wall-breaking jokes about editing, jokes about cutting certain parts, camera operators who are always late to shots, and so on), so it also feels like Arrow is purposely encouraging you to take whatever it has to say about vigilantism facetiously.

Then it hits you with a twist.

This documentary is actually being watched in the future by Mia, a seemingly villainous character (comic book readers will recognize a “Mia” from the comics ) who also appeared in a flash-forward earlier this season. We see that Star City has become a dystopian wasteland — and then Mia offers us a final kiss-off as the episode ends on a cliffhanger.

“Vigilantes were the death of Star City,” says Mia. “And they got exactly what they deserved.”

That sounds like another vote against vigilantism. But as Arrow moves forward from this milestone, it seems like there may still be some time for Mia to have a change of heart.

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