If there’s one thing that Arrow does good, it’s Bad. So let’s talk about antagonists.
But first this:
Community Rules: Treat everyone with courtesy and respect. Do not say somebody is wrong, say “I respectfully disagree.” Any comment that refers to anyone in a derogatory way is going to get trashed. Any comment in a sarcastic, snide, or demeaning tone will be trashed even faster. Any comment that refers to John Barrowman as “so far over the top he’s underneath” is okay.
And now, antagonists.
Antagonists are the other half of the engine that drives the story. Protagonists own their stories; their stories happen because they desperately need something (that would be their goals) and they are driven (motivated) to get those somethings. So Indiana Jones must get the Ark of the Covenant to save the world. He goes to Cairo and says, “Where’s the ark?” and somebody says, “Over there,” and he picks it up and takes it home.
There’s something missing in that story: Conflict.
It’s a lousy story because it’s one beat (“Where’s the ark?” “Over there”) that’s not developed (no reason to) and has no impact on the protagonist (“Well, that was easy”). Because it has no impact it doesn’t change the protagonist, and because he doesn’t change, there’s no tension in the story. What do you need to get a story with escalating beats in a tension-filled conflict that has such a tremendous impact on the protagonist that he changes under the pressure? Right, an antagonist.
The antagonist is not necessarily the Bad Guy any more than the protagonist is the Good Guy; he or she is just the character who opposes the protagonist and in fighting back, shapes the plot. You can start with a single premise, and if you swap the protagonist and antagonist, you’ll get a vastly different story because different people are driving and shaping the narrative.
Take the story of a beautiful girl who is abused by her stepmother and fights back to achieve a triumphant wedding with a prince, vanquishing her abusive step-family for all time. Great story. Now take the story of an embattled mother, fighting to protect her daughters against the machinations of her devious stepdaughter. Same plot points but a completely different story. All that changed was who owned the story and who opposed and shaped it.
Now let’s take that mother’s story and change the antagonist to the godmother of the stepdaughter. Now you have an embattled mother in a conflict with another mother figure who has supernatural powers, a mother figure she must defeat if her daughters are to find any kind of happiness, Clash of the Mamas, if you will. Or take that mother and put her in conflict with a rich and powerful prince, a young man who can make or break her daughters’ future. All those stories start with the same premise, involve the same characters, follow the same general plot points, but they’re all different stories because the stories are driven by different protagonists and shaped by different antagonists.
So the story happens because the protagonist needs a goal and sets out to achieve it, but the story gets its shape when the antagonist pushes back; how interesting that shape is depends on how interesting and powerful the antagonist is. The ideal antagonist is stronger, smarter, richer, handsomer, and funnier than the protagonist, which means that the reader/viewer is going to really worry about the protagonist’s chances of success, and the protagonist is going to have to change, learn, and grow to defeat the antagonist. This is why, in many cases, the antagonist is more important to the plot than the protagonist. Not to the story, the story belongs to the protagonist, but to the plot, the events in the story that are shaped by the antagonist’s push-back.
Oh, and one other thing about antagonists: They always think the story belongs to them. That is, they all operate under the mistaken impression that they’re the protagonist. (Actually, all the characters in a story think the story is about them, but we’re talking about antagonists here.) As Arrow producer Marc Guggenheim said in an interview in January:
To the extent that we have a ‘Northern Star’ on the show in terms of bad guys, it’s to always make sure that every villain is the hero of their own story. For us, that principal means that there’s no villain who feels like they’re a villain. They all think that they’re perfectly justified and everything they do is right in its own way.
Okay, enough theory, let’s talk Arrow. As a protagonist, Oliver Queen sets a pretty high bar: he’s strong, smart, rich, charming, and handsome with a dry sense of humor and truly impressive abs. Constructing the perfect antagonist for this guy could mean dreaming up a multi-billionaire of genius level intelligence, hypnotic charm, and more than movie-star good looks who kills at comedy clubs at night and routinely kicks Mr. Universe ass. Or he could be exactly like Oliver, a mirror image that shows Oliver who he’s becoming, a doppelgänger antagonist.
One of the crunchiest things about Oliver as a protagonist is that he’s not that different from his antagonists; that is, he puts on a mask and goes out at night and shoots people. This means that a lot of his antagonists are going to be his double, and that means they’re going to act as foils in the story, characters who are so like him that seeing them side by side points out significant aspects of his character, not only to viewers, but also to Oliver.
Take Malcolm Merlyn, the season one Big Bad.
Malcolm is a billionaire who puts on a hood and goes out at night, plotting to save his city from the cancer that is the Glades (aka, the Bad Part of Town). He thinks he’s a hero, so it’s a good thing we’ve got Oliver, a billionaire who puts on a hood and goes out at night, plotting to save his city from the cancer that is the exploitive one-percenters of the city (aka, the Good Part of Town). Both of them are driven by guilt–Oliver by the death of his father, Merlyn by the death of his wife–both of them were trained on faraway islands during an extended absence from family and friends, both of them favor the arrow as a means of killing, and both of them are wanted by the cops. I could go on, but you get the picture: Oliver and Malcolm are doppelgängers, two halves of the same coin. But, you say, Oliver acts to save the city. So does Malcolm. But Oliver is good, the only one tough enough to go up against the moneyed evil in the city. True, but Malcolm thinks he’s good, better than Oliver, because he’s willing to do the hard thing, the thing Oliver would never do, kill hundreds of low-lifes to clean up the streets. In Malcolm’s mind, he’s better than Oliver. Which is why it’s okay to torture him. Teach the kid a lesson. Also he can catch with one hand the arrows Oliver shoots at him and he’s willing to cross all kinds of boundaries that Oliver won’t. Malcolm may be Oliver’s doppelgänger, but he’s also faster and more ruthless and therefore more powerful, things that make him a great antagonist.
Oliver’s conflict with Malcolm highlights (the foil at work) the flaw in his own plan: he’s killing people. That’s bad. He’s killing them at a slower pace than Malcolm is, but still, he’s set himself up as the same kind of god that Malcolm has, giving himself power over life or death. The last thing Oliver says to Malcolm before he kills him (sort of) is, “Thank you for teaching me what I’m fighting for,” setting up his own turning point, paid off in the first episode of the next season: “The city still needs saving. But not by the Hood. Or some vigilante who’s just crossing names off a list. It needs something more.” Thus Malcolm fulfills the job of every great antagonist: he changes the protagonist through his conflict. (That Malcolm is played by John Barrowman clearly having a fabulous time is just icing on the antagonist cake.)
But not all foils are dopplegangers. That is, a foil is a character who highlights similarities or differences in the character he or she is standing next to, but the foil doesn’t have to be a double, it can be an opposite. Happy, shallow Tommy, for example, was a foil for his best friend, the brooding, damaged Oliver. But antagonists have to be more than happy, shiny people because they have to be stronger than the protagonist. In the case of Count Vertigo, “stronger” means “crazier with no boundaries, a creative bent, and a real head for business.”
I may lose my grip a little here talking about the Count because he’s played by Seth Gabel, who not only owned the role, he franchised it and sold the T-shirt. The Count is as colorful as a big box of Crayolas, if the box was missing a couple of crayons. He’s a successful businessman who’s designed his own popular and dangerous line of drugs, a direct contrast to Oliver Queen who’s refused to become a businessman and take over the family firm. He’s egocentric, colorful and exciting and always moving, characterized by gradiose gestures and wild laughter in contrast to self-sacrificing, mostly silent, mostly still, never smiling Oliver. The impact here is that when Oliver stands beside the Count, he looks grimmer, and when the Count stands beside Oliver, he looks crazier, and their conflict forces them both to the middle: Oliver has to go out of his restrained comfort zone to bring down the Count, and the Count has to take Oliver seriously to escape him. In their final confrontation, the Count does something to shove Oliver not only out of his grim restraint, but also out of his mask: he kidnaps Felicity and forces Oliver to come for her, planning on killing her in front of him, something that’ll put some expression on that blank face at last. And in fact, he really does inspire Oliver to express emotion by killing him three time, putting three arrows into him because he’d taken hostage part of Oliver’s emotional life. Oliver before his conflict with the Count would have finished the job efficiently with one shot. Oliver after the Count needs three arrows because the conflict has pressured him enough that he’s fighting with his heart instead of his brain. And once again a great antagonist does the job he was hired for: he changes the protagonist. (Also, please tell me somebody dragged the Count off to the Lazarus Pit. I don’t care how ridiculous the explanation is, just bring him back.)
Arrow has a wealth of fascinating antagonists to draw from in its source material (who do I have to bribe to get an Auntie Gravity episode?) and the writers have given us great ones, the Huntress, Deadshot, China White, the Dollmaker, and the Bronze Tiger, to name only a few. This season’s Big Bad is Deathstroke, aka Slade, Oliver’s comrade-in-arms from the island, another doppelgänger who thinks he’s the protagonist and who will undoubtedly push Oliver to new realizations about himself in the final episode. As Guggenheim said in the same interview quoted above:
I think heroes are born out of difficult circumstances, and Oliver will learn in the second half of this season that he can say he’s a hero, but the truth of it is that he’s going to have to become a hero through adversity.
The Big Bads shape the A plot, but the antagonists in Arrow’s B plots are just as powerful at shaping Oliver’s personal life. The B-plot antagonist I’m most fond of is Moira Queen, a woman who loves her son to death (she sent him to be tortured and then shot him, but hey, tough love), and who lies and schemes to get what she wants, defending her plots and murders as protecting her children, which they very well may be since Moira, too, sees herself as the protagonist in her admittedly fascinating life story. When last we left Oliver, he had just given his mother the old heave-ho from his life, forgetting that Moira isn’t a helicopter parent, she’s a guided missile. Slade may be Season Two’s Big Bad, but Moira’s going to be shaping Oliver’s life through conflict for a long, long time (I hope). (And a big thank you to Susanna Thompson who took what could have been a cartoon mother and made her into an implacable force of maternal nature.)
And don’t forget the antagonists in Oliver’s romance plots: Shado, Laurel, the Huntress, Felicity, McKenna, Isabel, Sara . . . when does this guy sleep?
The Arrow universe is packed with people shaping Oliver’s life, and that’s a big reason why the stories are so compelling: Arrow is full of fascinating characters struggling in complicated conflicts that fuel wonderful stories. The show may stumble, but Arrow won’t fall as long as its antagonists keep kicking its protagonist up the salmon ladder of self-knowledge and success.