[Editorial] Arrow and Unwanted Character Death

written by Kate Danvers

Let’s get the big spoiler and the impetus of this editorial out of the way first. Arrow has been teasing a major death since the beginning of its fourth season. On the April 6th episode, after a season of near-death experiences for several characters, the big death happened.

Black Canary, a.k.a. Laurel Lance, was killed off. This will likely push Oliver Queen to break his “no-kill” rule and give him the drive to bring Damien Darhk down once and for all.

You could be forgiven for thinking some writers have a deep-seated aversion to women. Using comic books as an example (since they inspired this show), women are drawn in such ridiculously over-sexualized poses that the anatomy of it all is laughable. Girlfriends and female acquaintances of heroes are kidnapped so often it’s a goddamn trope. Relationships are either retconned out of existence or ended by the hero because “anyone who gets close to me could be hurt.” Dan Didio (co-publisher of DC Comics) has gone on record as saying “heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives”, instituting a ban on DC characters being married. There’s also the big issue, the disappointingly popular trope of Women In Refrigerators.

“Fridging” is a term usually used when a female comic character is killed, raped, depowered, maimed, crippled, tortured, etc. as a means of motivating the male hero or adding some sort of tragedy to their story. Originally coined by writer Gail Simone, the name of the trope comes from an incident in an issue of Ron Marz’s Green Lantern where new Lantern Kyle Rayner returns home to find his girlfriend murdered and stuffed into the refrigerator. Despite being the origin of the name, that wasn’t the first (by far) or last (by faaaaaaaar) example of the trope. The WiR site hasn’t been updated in several years and it was an incomplete list already. This isn’t a trend of yesteryear or a rarely used plot device, this is an ongoing problem. Male characters aren’t immune to fridging, but it’s less common and it’s often undone. For every Jason Todd, Ben Parker, or Bucky Barnes, there are many more Gwen Stacys, Alex DeWitts, and Karen Pages. Some characters have multiple fridged loved ones – in fact, Kyle Rayner could have a list of his own. Women on his list have died multiple times.

Speaking of characters with more than one motivational death under their belts, back to what originally sparked this editorial – Arrow. Now I haven’t watched every episode of Arrow – in fact, I’m only halfway through season three on Netflix and I’ve missed a good bit of season four – but even I can tell you knowing Oliver Queen is a bad time. Just from what I know so far: the sister of the girlfriend he was cheating on “died” when his yacht sank, his father killed himself to save Ollie’s life, his first mentor on the island was shot, another love interest was shot in front of him execution-style, his girlfriend’s dead sister returned and (to his knowledge) died again, a woman he was interested in turned out to be a murderous vigilante, said murderous vigilante shot (but didn’t kill) his then-girlfriend, his best friend was killed in a building collapse, his mother was stabbed with a sword and killed, his sister was brainwashed by his biological father to kill his ex-girlfriend who was also the sister of the other girlfriend who already “died” twice, his fiancée was shot and paralyzed from the waist down, his illegitimate son was kidnapped, and now his friend/ally/ex-girlfriend has been killed.

How much tragedy does Oliver Queen need?

“But Kate, all of those things just happened to those characters to further or end their plot lines. Oliver was just tragedy-adjacent.” Was he, though? He’s the main character; they were all supporting characters. No one has an arc which happens completely independent of the title character. He was tormented and wracked with guilt over losing Sara (all three times :P), inspired to be a hero and retake his city because of his father’s sacrifice and dying words, had the conflict with Slade Wilson set up from Shado’s death, motivated to be a better vigilante by seeing how bad Huntress was at it, honored Tommy’s memory by taking a “no killing” vow, brought to utter despair with a one-episode “I quit” arc by Moira’s death, forced into conflict with the League of Assassins by Merlyn brainwashing Thea, and Felicity’s injury showed him Darhk meant business…and so did Darhk’s kidnapping of Oliver’s son.

Why was Laurel killed again?

Well, one theory is that since Oliver and Felicity shippers haaaaaaate Laurel. Seriously, I read the #Arrow hashtag during an episode one week and the vitriol directed at not only the character but the actress playing her was ridiculous. This is because Oliver and Laurel were a thing previously on the show and Green Arrow and Black Canary have an on-again/off-again romance in the comics. That could threaten to get in the way of their precious “Olicity”. For the record, I don’t ship Oliver with Laurel or Felicity. I ship Felicity with Caitlin Snow, I ship Laurel with an as-yet unseen competently written version of Helena Bertinelli, and I ship Oliver with his bow (BOWMANCE!). I ship shipping fandoms in a small crate with no air holes on an extra long boat ride across the Pacific. Executive Producer Marc Guggenheim stated in an interview that the divisiveness of Laurel’s character within the fandom wasn’t a factor at all. Guggenheim says, “Every time we’ve killed off a character on the show, it’s really been for the effect it has on all the characters left behind.”

That’s what it boils down to, isn’t it? In the end, Laurel Lance wasn’t a recovering alcoholic bettering herself, a vigilante heroically taking up the name and costume of her fallen sister, or the tough DA cleaning the streets on two fronts – she was a plot device. She was disposable. Her existence and her tragic death are not her own story, but a small paragraph in the story of the male hero.

Why am I making this a gender issue? Well, because it is. As the Women In Refrigerators trope and its list show, this sort of thing happens to women characters a lot. You can argue that there are male characters who go through the same thing in comics. Why no “Sidekicks In Plane Crashes”, “Men Getting Hit With Crowbars”, or “Parents Killed In Alleys”? Because those aren’t as prevalent, there are more than enough non-tragic male characters to counterbalance, and there’s a frankly disturbing difference between how a male character dies and how a female character dies.

Let’s examine the differences between prominent male character deaths and prominent female character deaths on Arrow. Robert Queen shot himself in the head so Oliver would have more food and water, ensuring his son would survive. A heroic sacrifice and also a little bit of penance for his part in ruling Starling City. Yao Fei worked Edward Fyers in exchange for his daughter’s life and safety, but was shot and killed by Fyers when his usefulness came to an end. Tommy Merlyn rushed to Laurel’s aid during the earthquake caused by the Undertaking, saving her but getting buried in rubble and impaled on a rebar. A heroic act followed by a scene in which he reconciles his friendship with Oliver before dying.

Now let’s look at the women. Shado was executed in front of Oliver when Anthony Ivo forced him to choose between her and Sara Lance. Slade Wilson killed Moira Queen as a way to mimic Shado’s death. You could say it was somewhat heroic because she offered herself to Slade in order to protect her children, but she wouldn’t have even been in that mess if Slade wasn’t trying to get revenge on Oliver. Sara Lance was caught off-guard by a brainwashed Thea Queen who shot a few arrows into her, causing Sara to stumble backwards and fall off a roof. Finally, Damien Darhk stabbed Laurel Lance with one of Oliver’s arrows and she died in a hospital from her injury.

See the difference yet? All right, how about this? The Green Goblin threw Gwen Stacy off a bridge. Major Force brutally beat Alexandra DeWitt to death and folded her body into a fridge. Karen Page becomes addicted to heroin, contracts HIV, and is killed by Daredevil’s own billy club thrown by Bullseye. Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel) has been mind-controlled, impregnated by rape, had her own teammates congratulating her on said rape baby which then aged rapidly and turned out to be the rapist himself who admitted to the whole mind control and impregnation scheme, then the Avengers waved him and Carol off as they started their “romantic” life together. THIS SHIT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

The point is this: When men die, get injured, or get tortured in these types of stories it’s usually a heroic sacrifice. When the same thing happens to women in these stories, they’re usually being victimized to teach the hero a lesson or to temper the male hero’s resolve. If there’s no male hero to give a bump to, the female character was probably just being written out of a story. This is an argument I get into a lot with other gamers about the portrayal of women in video games. If I bring up a tragic female character death in a game I’m immediately told about the swaths of males the lead character has been gunning down for the length of the game. Nobody seems to get the difference between enemy soldiers dying in battle with guns in their hands and the protagonist’s girlfriend being shot in the head by the bad guy while she’s kneeling on the ground weeping.

But Laurel was her own character, right? Strong independent lady crimefighter dying in battle while she was fighting alongside the rest of her team? Eh…not so much. At the time Laurel was stabbed, she was frozen in place by Darhk’s powers – completely helpless. Darhk killed her because of some earlier betrayal by Laurel’s father. Making an example out of her both for Captain Lance and Oliver Queen. Okay, besides that – she’s a character, yeah? She had plans? She was going to retire from the vigilante life and become a District Attorney full-time. She said as much before going out on “one last mission” (yeah, they telegraphed the shit out of this in the episode). Surely her death can’t be only to further Oliver’s story. She had parents and a sister, and she died in the hospital so surely they got to say their goodbyes because Laurel’s death was her story, right?

Well, no. After the doctor assures everyone that Laurel is going to be okay, Laurel starts into her poignant hospital bed death scene in defiance of the doctor’s prognosis. Whom does she talk to? Oliver. What does she talk about? Well…herself at first and not wanting to give up crimefighting, but then she tells Oliver he really needs to work things out with Felicity and be with his one true love. It’s not hard to see why some fans think Laurel’s death is “Olicity”-motivated. Laurel also shares some off-screen dialogue with Oliver that I’m sure he’ll flash back to in order to motivate him in a time of great need. Quentin Lance arrives minutes after Laurel dies, and Laurel’s sister Sara is hopping around time with Rip Hunter, so they get no goodbyes. Felicity, Diggle, and Thea don’t get heart-to-heart conversations with Laurel either. Her final words are for Oliver and will likely remain with him.

Laurel had no agency in her death, didn’t die saving anyone, and her death didn’t hold meaning for her character arc or have more than an incidental impact on her loved ones – except for Oliver. I really want to drive this point home: she was a plot device within Oliver’s story. Her death is meant to impact Oliver. She didn’t die a victim of her profession, she didn’t die a hero, and she didn’t die to close her own character arc – she died to add more tragedy to Oliver Queen. Going back to the Entertainment Weekly interview, Marc Guggenheim said “We started off this year with the promise of a death and when we worked our way through our various different creative choices, we realized the thing that will give us the most pop going into the end of the season and into next season unfortunately would be Laurel.” Whether he intended it that way or not, that comes across as them planning the death first and picking who it would be second. That’s not a story written with a character in mind, that’s a story with a character used as a plot device. That’s just bad writing. But I’ve grown to expect that from the show that made Green Arrow a killer right out of the gate, turned Huntress into a serial killer sociopath who doesn’t care at all about collateral damage, and fridged one Canary already.

Tell you what, Marc. You want to shock the fans and give them something unexpected? Something that will make the show “pop”? Stop writing Green Arrow as Batman.

Arrow has become a show I have a hard time watching, and this will more than likely be the end for me. It combines the worst of comics with the worst of young adult TV dramas, and I can very easily get my superhero fix elsewhere. If you want a show that respects its source material and its characters, watch The Flash or Legends of Tomorrow. Characters die on those shows too, but not as needlessly as what happened to Laurel.

If you’re more into reading, well…I hesitate to tell people to read comics anymore because I’ve largely stopped reading them myself after various reboots and controversies. But if you like Dinah Laurel Lance/Black Canary and want to see her done right, pick up a comic. There have been many wonderful Black Canary stories, but to me she was always at her best in Birds Of Prey, which also has some great Huntress stuff once Gail Simone takes over in issue #56. The comic not only puts female heroes at the forefront, it avoid many of the tired tropes that other comics fall into like damsels, women in refrigerators, and “EHRMAHGRD I’M SO CONFLICTED BY MY DOUBLE LIFE THAT I’LL NEVER BE HAPPY!”

Incidentally, anyone want a 10,000-word editorial on why I don’t read Spider-Man anymore?

Kate can be found on Twitter at @WearyKatie.

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