The popular CW superhero drama concludes its second season tonight. TIME talks to one of the men in charge about what to expect in the finale, where the show goes from here and how Arrow fits in the DC Comics universe
This month’s upfronts season has ushered in the rise of the superhero era on television. From Gotham to The Flash to Agent Carter, broadcast networks are nearly as keen to bring masked heroes to TV as studios have been to bring them to the big screen. For now, however, the king of the genre is CW’s Arrow, which wraps up its second season tonight. Once again, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) must save Starling City while facing a seemingly unconquerable foe, this time in the form of friend-turned-nemesis Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett).
TIME spoke with co-creator Marc Guggenheim about what to expect in tonight’s finale, whether we might see any more shocking resurrections and where Arrow goes from here:
TIME: Were there different sorts of things you wanted to accomplish with Season 2 compared with Season 1?
Marc Guggenheim: Yeah, great question. Well, our goal, you know, sort of on a meta-level was our goal is to top ourselves from season 1. I think that’s probably fairly obvious, or that’s an obvious call that I think any second season show should have. We went in, we knew we wanted to tell a very concrete story with respect to Oliver making a journey from vigilante to hero. And we knew we wanted to center the evolution around this idea of him giving up killing as a means of accomplishing his ends. So we knew we had that sort of core dynamic to play with. The other thing we sort of wanted to accomplish was we wanted to focus the storytelling a little bit. You know, in 1, we were still figuring out a lot of things with the show, and we sort of felt that there were times where certain characters would get siloed off in their own stories, and those stories wouldn’t feel connected to the main narrative. You know, we have a big ensemble. We have a large group of characters and to a certain extent you’re always going to have to have some of these sort of adjunct stories, just to move plot forward. But one of the things we decided to do in season 2, and I’m reasonably happy with the way it worked out, was even when you have those adjunct stories, they either spin off from or eventually connect to the main plot of the episode. So the adjunct stories don’t feel as siloed off as they did back in season 1. And that was very important to us going in.
TIME: At the end of last season, obviously the two big deaths — or so it appeared — were Tommy and Malcolm. Was it hard letting those characters go, and did you know at the time that you were going to be bringing Malcolm back?
Guggenheim: Well, it was easier to let John Barrowman go only insofar as we didn’t have him under contract, and he’s a busy guy. So our attitude with John has always been, you know, we love having him on the show for as much as we can have him on the show. It was very difficult with respect to Colin [Donnell] because Colin was a series regular on the show, you know, had sort of signed on for the long haul as it were, and is just an incredibly nice guy to boot. So it was a difficult and painful decision for us. We didn’t know at the outset that we were going to kill Tommy off. That was something that really we only came to realize around Episode 18 of Season 1, you know, very late in the season. As we started to sort of plot out our end game in greater detail for Season 1, we came to realize that if we were going to sort of honor these themes of sacrifice that we had set up with the pilot and then we had threaded throughout season on, someone needed to make a sacrifice, and we thought about which character’s death would actually impact the most number of the remaining characters. And when we sort of did the math on it, we realized that Tommy, his death really touches everybody. And that would not have been the case if we had picked a different character. So that was sort of an unfortunate realization on our part. It’s just a weird thing creatively to be a show-runner and decide to write a character out because you basically feel like you’re firing someone because there is an actor and they are getting paid to do this job and then they’re not going to be paid anymore. And you feel like you’re firing someone even though you’re not firing them for doing a bad job. You’re ending the position because you feel like it’s of the greatest creative benefit to the show.
TIME: Was that a similar sort of process for Susanna Thompson’s character or was that something you knew was going to happen early on?
Guggenheim: No, actually with Susanna’s character it was very, very similar to the point where we didn’t know originally where Moira’s story was going to take her. You know, that was sort of premised on, A, partially realizing the importance her death would have to Oliver’s season-long arc; and also the reluctance on our part to give Moira another secret. You know, we sort of felt like we had — Moira functions best or functioned best when the audience loves and hates her. And part of her appeal is when she’s got a secret to keep. And in Season 1, she was part of this grand, overarcing conspiracy, and that was cool and mysterious. And then in Season 2, we had given her the secret of knowing Thea’s true parentage. And we didn’t want to come into Season 3 and be like, “Oh, now she’s got this secret!” It just starts to strain credulity a little bit, and we felt we owed Moira better than that.
TIME: Obviously Tommy’s death had a big impact on Oliver heading into this season. Can we expect Moira’s death to have an impact of similar magnitude?
Guggenheim: No, I think one of the things that I think the show does well is it honors the dead very well. You know, in Season 1 when everyone thought Sara was dead, you know, we kept Sara alive. She was present in a lot of scenes, even though the character was someone everyone thought was dead. You know, certainly Tommy resonated throughout Season 2. I fully expect Moira to resonate throughout Season 3. You know, she’ll resonate in a different way than Tommy or Sara did. That’s very much the point. But the idea is that these characters are gone, but they’re never forgotten.
TIME: Right. And is there any sense or is there any chance that we could see Tommy or Moira return in the way that Sara and Malcolm have? Or have you pretty much closed the book on the two of them?
Guggenheim: I would say — you know, you learn never to say never. But I think if they were to return in the way Sara and Malcolm have, it would — they’re very different kinds of characters. You know, Malcolm and Sara sort of traffic in a more heightened world than Tommy and Moira did, and I think their spontaneous resurrection would feel wrong. I think in part also because of the way in which — the other distinction is Malcolm, but certainly Sara, died in a way that left open the possibility of her not being dead, whereas, you know, not by design, but both Tommy and Moira died with sharp objects through their torsos. It’s very hard to sort of buy that back.
TIME: Was bringing Sara back something that you always knew you were going to do ?
Guggenheim: That was part of the design of the series from day one. It’s actually in the original series document that we had sent to the studio network right after we finished the pilot. And it was something that we always thought if we get to Season 2, this is a story we’ll tell. And we were very fortunate to get to Season 2.
TIME: At this point, basically all of the major characters except for Detective Lance and Thea know Oliver’s secret identity. Do you ever worry that too many people know, and how do you go about maintaining that balance of those who do and don’t know?
Guggenheim: Right. Sometimes it seems like all of Starling City knows. And it’s funny. We’re aware of the internet, and we’re aware of Twitter and we’re aware of people having an opinion that, “Oh, too many people know” and even sort of wrote a nod to that in Episode 2.12, you know, where Roy asks “How many people know your secret?” and Oliver just says, “Too many.” You know, that said, that was sort of me not quite speaking my mind because the truth of the matter is that we tend — we always gravitate towards what gives us more story, not less, and what is more interesting, not less. And at the end of the day, a character finding out Oliver’s secret and going forward knowing his secret tends to be more interesting than them not knowing. And if you actually look at like the Chris Nolan Batman movies, a whole host of people knew that Bruce Wayne was Batman: Alfred did, Lucius Fox did, Rachel did. You know, it is sort of part and parcel of the world. But that will be something that will remain fluid of the duration of the series as people come in and out of Oliver’s life and discover or don’t discover his alter ego.
TIME: Is there anyone that you feel like it’s crucial that they not know his identity?
Guggenheim: You know, that’s a great question. It’s funny. Even when I think that there is like a sacred cow topic, that opinion gets changed. One of the things that I think we’ve learned as we go through writing and producing the show is that the show can go in a lot of — the show is constantly surprising us in terms of the directions it can go in. And as a result it’s very hard to say, “Well, this will never happen” because we’re not the first audience, but we’re the first people who need to be surprised. And sometimes the unthinkable is the most interesting story.
TIME: Shifting gears a bit, there were a lot of reports out there that indicated that the Barry Allen character was going to get its own backdoor pilot in one of the later episodes this season, and obviously that’s not quite how things ended up working out. Was it problematic at all for you all to have to change gears on the fly?
Guggenheim: It’s a great question. The only, quote/unquote, problem that it caused for us was we didn’t have a director slotted for the episode because David Nutter who was directing The Flash pilot and who did direct The Flash pilot, he was supposed to be the director of Episode 20, the backdoor pilot. The great thing about that is, you know, what could have been a real disaster, because, you know, coming very — that decision came pretty late in the season, and we didn’t have a director for an episode. But as luck would have it, we ended up getting a guy named Doug Aaroniokoski to direct Episode 20. And he did a phenomenal job. I mean, he quickly became one of our favorite directors by just doing such terrific, terrific work on that episode. So sometimes even the unexpected can lead to something that really helps improve the overall series.
TIME: How far out do you have the show mapped at the moment? Is it mostly a season-by-season thing?
Guggenheim: We tend to do it season by season. We’re right now in the middle of sort of a four-week boot camp where we figure out the entire season in broad strokes. But we also can help ourselves. We have ideas that we go, “Okay, we can’t do this now because the pieces aren’t in place, but in Season 4 we can do X, Y or Z, and Season 5 we do X, Y or Z. For example, the ending of the Season 2 finale is something that we had in mind ever since the pilot. So I would say it’s kind of like looking down a long road. We have am great clarity of vision with respect to the season that’s right in front of us, but we can also glimpse ahead and sort of see what Seasons 4 and 5 and beyond look like.
TIME: Have you been given any sort of sense of what sort of role the Arrow might play in the larger sort of DC comic universe, whether films or other television shows. Is that something that people have spoken with you about?
Guggenheim: No. [Laughs] No. The one thing I can say with certainty is I will be among the last to know.
TIME: Obviously The Flash story sort of originated within your series. Is there any potential for crossover?
Guggenheim: I think there’s absolute potential for it. I’m a huge fan of The Six Million Dollar Man and I love the episodes where they would cross over with The Bionic Woman. So again, I would never say never. We’ve been so sort of deep into the planning process of Season 3 in terms of the story that we’re telling vis-a-vis Arrow that we haven’t yet gotten to the question of, “Okay are we going to cross over with Flash? How are we going to do it?” et cetera, et cetera. I imagine that time will come because it would be a lot of fun, but we haven’t done it yet.
TIME: There are rumors that another DC Series, Gotham,might only have 13 episodes a season. Is it tough to fill a full 23-episode order every year or is that an amount that you prefer?
Guggenheim: 23 is hard. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s brutal. And yes, every time I hear about a shortened order for a show I get very jealous. It’s funny. I will say, apart from jealousy, my thought process doesn’t extend beyond that because at the end of the day, the network orders the number of episodes they want. And truth be told, I would be very happy to at this point settle for 22 episodes versus 23. At least that way I could get a little bit of a vacation. But again, that decision also gets made way above my head. There are so many — I will say like day in, day out when you’re running a show like this, there are so many decisions that have to get made, you’re actually quite grateful for the decisions you’re not responsible for. So there are plenty of things that are out of my hands, and the number of episodes is certainly one of them.
TIME: And are there any other shows out there that you really enjoy or take some sort of inspiration from?
Guggenheim: Oh, yeah, definitely. Let’s see, we reference Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel quite a bit in the writers room, the way those seasons are constructed has been a strong point of inspiration for us. The X-Files. Andrew Kreisberg who runs the show with me is a huge Dr. Who fan and is constantly talking about that show in the room. Let’s see, what else? In terms of current shows, we talk a lot about like Breaking Bad and Walking Dead in the way they sort of construct their story arcs. I’m a huge fan of the TV show, Wiseguy and I’m very fond of the way that show portrayed its villains in a way that made you occasionally sympathetic to their cause, in addition to — you know, that was really in my mind the first show that actually had multi-episode arcs and bringing things to a satisfying conclusion, as well as a morally conflicted protagonist. But it’s like we always begin the day talking about what shows people have watched the night before. We’re huge fans of Game of Thrones for example, Orphan Black. And even though those shows don’t necessarily correlate directly with Arrow, I’m a very big believer that writers are the product of their inspirations. You do think a lot about what shows you’re gravitating towards. I would also probably be remiss If I didn’t list Lost just as a great example of a show with a nonlinear structure and mythology and great character moments. You know, that’s an influence on Arrow, as well.
TIME: Tonight’s finale looks like it will once again require Oliver to save Starling City, albeit from a very different kind of threat than the one he faced last year. Are there any particular differences that you focused on while constructing the episode?
Guggenheim: You know, it’s interesting because on the one hand, you think, okay, well in both finales Oliver’s punching a guy, and in both finales, the city is in flames. And yet at the same time I would say that the Season 1 finale and the Season 2 finales are so remarkably different on a lot of different levels. And you’re correct to point out that one of them is that Malcolm is a very different character than Slade, that for one thing with Slade it’s personal. These are two guys who have years of history together, and it completely changes the dramatic nature of those fights. One thing, just to quickly digress, one thing we discovered very early on in the show is it didn’t matter how amazing the stunt sequences were and how incredible the action was: If we didn’t care about what was going on it didn’t matter. And again, like in both finales, Oliver’s punching a guy. But the guy’s he’s punching or the guy who is punching him, those two men could not be more different. And it’s in that difference that the — you know, we’re telling two completely different stories. So part of it’s just the personal connection he has with Slade. But part of it also is that in Season 1 he was able to defeat Malcolm by essentially killing him, even though we subsequently learn that that death didn’t take, Oliver stabbed Malcolm with the intention of ending his life. And in Season 2, the big dilemma for Oliver is, you know, is he willing to break his vow against killing in order to stop Slade’s reign of terror. So there’s a moral dilemma at the center of the second season finale that wasn’t present in the first season finale.
TIME: On a slightly more micro scale, should we expect more of the Anatoli and Bratva backstory to come back into play in the future?
Guggenheim: Well, I will say this: We know that Oliver has to get the Bratva tattoo in some way because he has that on his chest. And David Nykl, who plays Anatoli, is such a phenomenal actor. We will definitely see him again. I can’t say whether or not that will be in the flashback or the present day, but we do have a tendency to write for the actors who we love. And David is really, really terrific as Anatoli. So you haven’t seen the last of him.
TIME: Do you have a personal favorite character to write for or personal favorite episode of the show?
Guggenheim: Hm. Oh, good question. You know, it’s hard to pick a personal favorite because they’re sort of like children and you tend to love the youngest. So right now I’m really enjoying the second season finale, but that just sounds really self-serving. I will say I’m particularly proud of Episode 20, which was when Moira was killed. And it’s funny. I would say that Felicity is probably the easiest to write because she’s fast-talking and witting and probably closest to my personal voice. At the same time, I’ve really — in a way I never expected to because both these men are so — both these characters are so taciturn and not talky. But I’ve really come to enjoy writing the Oliver-Diggle relationship. When we first started working on the show, Andrew, Greg and I, we all write these sort of very witty, verbose characters, like sort of all of our characters are like Felicity. And we had to change our writing style to write the pilot of Arrow, you know, particularly Oliver. We had to change sort of how we wrote as writers because Oliver Queen is not a quippy guy. And we always say like he’s not even a very self-aware guy. And it’s been an interesting journey as a writer for me to work on a show where literally the protagonist is — his voice exists outside of my wheelhouse as a writer and yet I really — I’ve come to enjoy writing him a great deal.
TIME: What sort of influence do Stephen [Amell] or David [Ramsey] or Paul [Blackthorne] have in the development of their characters or what their characters say?
Guggenheim: You know, I will say like with each individual episode, and the actors all have different ways of communicating with me and Andrew, the actors will sort of make their feelings known about, “I don’t think I’d say this,” or “Can I say that instead?” And, you know, sometimes it’s a phone call, sometimes email, sometimes a text, you know. Like I said, everyone’s got their own sort of process. And then with respect to sort of all the cast members, the way it’s evolved is we’ll — sometimes we’ll get on the phone because we shoot in Vancouver and the writers are in Los Angeles, but I would say that the stuff that I really cherish is when we’re up on the set and during lighting breaks we’re just talking with David, Stephen, all the cast, about their characters. And sometimes it’s us just telling them, “Oh, this is what’s coming up for you.” Other times they’re saying, “Oh, you know, it would be a lot of fun if we — if this, this, or this happened.” And I personally find that I get a lot of ideas just from having those discussions. So their input is just very organic. It’s not like, “Hey, I really want to do this.” I will say this: We have the most selfless cast in television. No one’s saying, “You know what I really want to do? I really want to —” Like Diggle, Dave Ramsey didn’t say, “You know what? I want to have a whole episode centered around me,” you know? And we did that twice this year. We did this in 2-06 and 2-16. And that’s an actor who sometimes he only has to say like “Think about this, Oliver.” And he always does it with a smile on his face. That’s the thing. We have such a big ensemble. Everyone is so selfless. They know that they are sometimes going to be at center stage and other times they’re going to be very deep in the background because that’s the only way you can tell a story with such a large ensemble. And everyone does it without a complaint. They do it happily. They do it with pride in the show. Like Colton Haynes — God bless him — he showed up to the table read for Episode 2-20 even though — and Roy’s obviously all over that episode. But he shows up for the table read even though he didn’t have a single line of dialogue. So everyone on the cast — and Stephen sets the tone — everyone on the cast is just incredibly selfless. They’re all team plays and they’re all — you know, no one’s going “Me, me, me.” They’re all going, you know, “What can I do to help the team win?”
The season finale of Arrow airs tonight at 8 p.m. EST on the CW.