(Spoilers for Arrow episode 4.18, “Eleven-Fifty-Nine.”)
It’s a familiar refrain for me by now. “That female character deserved better.” From her series, her writers, the fans. The disappointment never seems to end in that regard, and it’s been one hell of an awful year already for LGBTQ, WOC representation on TV: Lexa from The 100, Rosa from Jane the Virgin, Denise on The Walking Dead, Mary Louise and Nora on The Vampire Diaries, and a casualty on The Americans just this week.* No female character, it seems, is off limits.
So when Arrow killed off Laurel Lance after months of teasing who was in that damn grave, part of me wasn’t surprised. The show’s killed several main women characters already; what’s one more?
The other half was stunned. Heartsick. Nauseated. They killed the Black Canary, the most famous character from the Green Arrow mythos despite Oliver Queen himself, one of DC’s leading heroines, a year away from her 70th anniversary in comics.
I always strive for a balance between storytelling objectivity and my emotional response to the material, but. Fuck. That. Noise.
I’ve loved Arrow from day one, flaws and all. It was flashy escapism with a through-line of impressive depth, thanks to a stellar ensemble cast of engaging characters and a complex protagonist who had genuine interior conflict beneath his brooding mask. Sure, there were missteps in pacing and character development, but the writers seemed willing to correct their slip-ups and improve weaker elements. It matured in its dramatic ambitions without losing sight of how marvelously fun it could be as a superhero show: Team Arrow brightens every scene with clever quips, but from the moment Tommy Merlyn died in season one its stakes were as high as a cable drama. That balance was awesome.
Few things are more frustrating than a main cast safe from harm in a narrative that the creators specifically chose to be a life or death one. That lacks tension on a essential level. And Arrow is about death, in a way. The immature playboy version of Oliver Queen has to “die” for the reformed Arrow to be reborn. Almost every character has a metaphorical phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes moment, if not literal, in the case of Sara Lance’s dead-reborn cycle. And unlike Sara, most deaths stick. Moira, Shado, Sara (temporarily). I never approved of their deaths, but I applauded the effect those deaths had — the characters weren’t forgotten, suddenly dead one episode for shock value and dismissed as if they’d never existed the next. The loss carried through seasons, actions, and choices.
Although very, very few female deaths are okay, because we haven’t gotten to the point of equal, varied representation where the loss of a female character (or an LGBTQ character, or a POC character) can be okay, not every death is necessarily a bad one. When characters die, sensible writing dictates the other characters, and the plot, are affected, and women shouldn’t be off-limits just because. The problem is the pattern. Moira, Shado, and Sara all died to make Oliver sad and motivate him into action. Thea was brutalized for the same. Felicity was gunned down and (briefly) paralyzed. The brutal murder of Malcolm Merlyn’s wife served as his origin story. Shado was executed in a dick-measuring contest and then used to instigate Slade’s path to vengeance. Amanda Waller wasn’t a fridging, but still unceremoniously shot in the head.
Yet because most of those women, Felicity especially, had individual arcs separate from Oliver, and their deaths were handled with such emotional intensity (more than most shows), I didn’t so much forgive the obvious fridging as approach it through the lens of a wider story — problematic, and wished it were done differently, but nevertheless effective. People die, villains succeed, etc, there’s still enough I love.
But enough is enough.
Let’s be clear that I would’ve mourned Laurel’s loss no matter how it was handled, but it could have been executed well. Instead we got a hack mess after an established history of troublesome female deaths.
The writing team had already mishandled Laurel prior to this disaster; her trajectory from an idealistic lawyer to a superhero vigilante was riddled with problems. Even though she lost her fiancé and her sister (twice), overcame alcoholism, depression, and drug addiction, found her calling by assuming her sister’s mantel as a costumed protector, and overall became a better person after the endless, almost sadistic levels of suffering she endured, the writers never knew what to do with her. And it showed. Her law career faded into the background as seasons progressed, only popping up when convenient for the plot’s sake. She suffered new trauma after new trauma, her heart riddled with arguably more wounds than Oliver. When she chose to grow into her role as the Black Canary she was constantly berated by her former boyfriend as not good enough, of going against his choices for her life — like that was some unforgivable, foolish crime.
Dinah Laurel Lance was a survivor, a fighter, committed with all her optimistic, passionate heart to helping the helpless, but instead of having a clear arc she became inconsistent and purposeless. And just when she began to hit her stride as the Canary (she only donned the costume last season, we waited over two years for that moment of inheritance), she was discarded like a game piece to further everyone else’s storylines.
Was it too much to ask that Arrow develop two, even three main female characters simultaneously? Felicity Smoak is a gift to the world, but why can’t the show devote equal time to her and Laurel and Thea? You can’t argue cause it’s Oliver’s show; most of the supporting cast were allowed to flourish beside him, beyond him. Just not Laurel, apparently.
I can’t stand it when fictional deaths are overused to surprise your audience and twist your story around. It’s a cheap, uncreative move with hollow emotional impact, and there’s no more egregious insult to both your character and your viewers. The Arrow writers wrote themselves into a corner by planning a death but not knowing who, and this is the result.
Yes, Damien Dahrk threatened Quentin with Laurel’s death. That threat came full circle. But I don’t care. It’s still awful. Just like I have no doubt Laurel’s death will resonate with lasting consequences, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a shit job. The plot didn’t motivate it, her arc didn’t demand it. She couldn’t even go out with satisfactory grace under her own agency by heroically sacrificing herself for a loved one, bringing her story full circle — it’s punishment against Quentin. She seems to pull through, then dies in recovery from some random, inexplicable seizure. On top of that, her last words are accepting she didn’t have a place in the story as Oliver’s true love, but Oliver will always be her true love; despite her relationship with Tommy, or how Oliver routinely demeaned and verbally abused her even after he returned from the island. The two most important people in her life, her father and sister, aren’t there. Her last words are about a long-abandoned romance. That’s pathetic and insulting.
She doesn’t get to fake her death and start life anew, like Roy Harper. She can’t survive a sword through the abdomen and a topple off a cliff, like Oliver. And she can’t be magically revived through the Lazarus Pit, like Sara. Laurel must stay dead, in a fantastical world of time travel, alternate universes, and resurrections. I’ll pass judgment on Sara’s reaction when I see it, but I know for a fact Sara Lance wouldn’t rest until she stole the Waverider and found a way to save her sister. She’d never let Laurel go.
Women aren’t props. We don’t exist to die for, well, some reason, we haven’t decided yet. Throw in the fact the CW Network caters to women — specifically young teens in the midst of forming their senses of self. What happens to these girls when they constantly see their heroes, their role models, killed off? How does that empower her?
It doesn’t. But it’s a “creative pop,” I guess, whatever.
Newsflash: it’s not groundbreaking to kill a female character for shock value. It’s a well-established, much-despised trope, and a lazy cop-out when a showrunner can’t dream up anything better for that character than to die.Arrow’s never adhered to the demands of its comics history (borrowing Batman plots, Oliver and Felicity’s relationship), and I appreciated that creative freedom, but killing Laurel Lance in such an infuriating way goes a couple thousand steps too far.
Actress Katie Cassidy was harassed by fans, but cried with happiness when she first wore the famous jacket. She won a Prism Award for portraying Laurel’s battle with alcoholism. She even became an ambassador against cyberbullying. She devoted herself to the iconic role, shouldered the honor and history with pride, but through no fault of hers the Black Canary’s legacy on Arrow is one of frustration and missed potential. That really hurts. And I’m not the only one who feels so.
Laurel was complex, fearless, with staggering inner strength. A lawyer by day and a vigilante by night, who wore Converse sneakers at home. She was beautiful, and bold, and so very human. She was the hero Star City deserved, and she deserved so much more.
* At the time of publishing, I’d just learned that Abbie Mills, the only reason I started watching Sleepy Hollow and the marginalization of her the reason I stopped, was killed off for their third season finale. I’m so furious I’m shaking. There’s no excuse for this.