Arrow's third season hasn't been without its problems, but most of them were resolved in this week's terrific episode, "Canaries." Team Arrow is working as a cohesive unit again, Laurel finally told her dad about Sara, Thea actually knows the truth about Oliver, and she responded to the revelation with love and gratitude. Yes, everything's fixed - except the worst folly of Season Three: its treatment of Felicity Smoak.
Arrow really lucked into this character. It's legend, now, that Emily Bett Rickards was intended to be a one-off role in the first season, but her performance was so fun, and her chemistry with Stephen Amell's Oliver so pleasing, that the writers kept her around. Remember Season One Felicity? Frizzy ponytail, funky manicures, frumpy office attire? And, of course, a scathing wit and awkward charm. Felicity was a new kind of character for the sidekick role: goofy, brilliant and quarrelsome. She never let Oliver push her around, and lord knows Oliver spends most of his show pushing people around.
But in spite, or because, of her occasionally truculent spirit, Felicity has always been a beacon of levity on a show that desperately needs it. She was always saying the wrong thing in just the right way, or pointing out the silliness in a situation that Oliver was almost certainly taking too seriously. Along with Diggle, she was the heart of Arrow, gently coaxing Oliver back toward his humanity with a few well-chosen words and an indomitable belief in his goodness, almost in spite of the man himself. She was indispensable to the team not only because she's one of the foremost hackers in the world, but because she's a bright light in a dour city.
And then Olicity happened.
Look, I get it. When two attractive people get along on television, the fan base starts clamoring for a coupling. And Felicity's open attraction to Oliver was a boon to the show. In an ideal world, her crush could have been left at that: Felicity has a hot boss who often trains shirtless in her office. She's allowed to ogle without falling in love. But fall in love she did, because that's what the fans wanted. And Oliver seemed to fall in love a little, too - but their prospective romance was made of nothing more than a few longing looks per season, buffered by mostly shop talk and some lovely demonstrations of friendship. It was a slow burn that could have sizzled for seasons, and it worked that way.
But then the writers must have realized that they'd backed themselves into a corner. Because of course Dinah Laurel Lance is Oliver's destiny, and much of her Season Two arc, a storyline that left Laurel a bit of a trainwreck, alienated viewers, turning them against the character. So what do you do when your audience is 'shipping a couple that isn't canon? Here's what Arrow did: they bolted from longing looks to a failed romance in the space of one episode. Somewhere between the Season Two finale and the Season Three premiere, Felicity became Oliver's love interest.
But she should be so much more than a love interest! And, worse, because Oliver doesn't feel like he can be in a relationship with Felicity and secure her safety, she's now a woman scorned. And boy, is she acting like it. As Laurel and Thea grow ever more likable in Season Three - and I'm so glad they have; Katie Cassidy and Willa Holland are crushing it this season - the dynamic is conserved by turning Felicity into something of a stern den mother. She cries and/or yells in nearly every episode. She jumped from rejoicing that Oliver returned from the dead to telling him she didn't want to be his girlfriend in one minute, flat. She's mad, she's sad - she's not Felicity. Gone are the messy ponytail and dorky work clothes, and gone are the inadvertent double entendres and goofy grins, and we're left with a sleeker, sexier, more sullen Felicity who is missing the singular coolness-meets-nerdiness we fell in love with. It's a big part of the reason her visits to Central City have been so welcome this year - on The Flash, she's the Felicity we remember. On Arrow, she's someone else entirely.
And then there's Ray Palmer. I love Brandon Routh's portrayal of The Atom. He's funny and charming and kind, and I don't mind the idea of giving Felicity another love interest to distract her - and her fans - from Oliver. But Felicity's relationship with Palmer has never felt right. When she's rejected by one salmon ladder-trained billionaire CEO moonlighting as a superhero, she immediately turns to the other salmon ladder-trained billionaire CEO moonlighting as a superhero. And we don't see Felicity falling for Ray's kindness, humor or desire to help people - instead we see her mooning over his muscles and the fact that he bought her an expensive dress. It's frankly gross, and it's beneath the character who once introduced herself as "Felicity Smoak, MIT, Class of '09," who railed against the idea of disguising herself as Oliver's executive assistant because she worked her ass off to get her job at Queen Consolidated's technical department.
So here's how you fix it, Arrow writers: drop all of this messy romance stuff. Felicity's never better than when she's befriending another woman, be it Caitlin, Laurel, Sara or Thea, and we saw a too-brief glimpse of that in "Canaries" as she comforted Laurel after she was dosed with Vertigo. Let's give Felicity a storyline that doesn't have anything to do with being Oliver's girlfriend, or Ray's girlfriend, or Barry's girlfriend. Let Emily Bett Rickards - by all accounts and based on her social media presence, a hilarious and charming individual - shine through the character the way she did in previous seasons, instead of writing her into a surly angst that the actress can't quite pull off.
And if you need a blueprint for how to handle the fun, feisty, brilliant sidekick that your audience is hoping will end up with your main character when you have no intention of allowing it, here's one: Chloe Sullivan on Smallville. She went from pining over Clark to becoming a journalist at the Daily Planet and eventually Watchtower for the Justice League, and only then - after she'd had several seasons of her own adventures and made an indelible mark on the show that had nothing to do with her love life - did she get her romantic happily ever after...which just so happened to be with Oliver Queen. I'm aware that's a little confusing in the context of Arrow.
Or even better, if you need a blueprint, just look at the Felicity of Seasons One and Two. You already know how to write that character. So do it.