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After the first three years of Arrow acted as a trilogy for the Emerald Archer’s origin story, The CW’s flagship superhero series is bringing Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) closer to fulfilling his comic book destiny: He’s now the Green Arrow protecting Star City — and with this new shift comes a much lighter tone.

“Ever since Slade Wilson [Manu Bennett] came to town around [season 2, episode 15], the show has been on this very, very dark path, leading to Sara’s [Caity Lotz] death and the culmination of season 3,” executive producer Marc Guggenheim tells EW. “Our goal was to return the show more in the tone of the first season-and-a-half.”

With that said, the fourth season finds a much happier and carefree Oliver enjoying domesticity with Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards) after driving off into the sunset in the finale. “It still feels like Arrow, but at the same time, Oliver’s got a new outlook on life,” Guggenheim says. “We’re driving conflict to the show in ways that we never would have in the first three years. So it still feels like Arrow, but it’s a different take on the show.”

Meanwhile, led by Diggle (David Ramsey), Team Arrow has been “extremely adept” at keeping Star City safe — until a new threat emerges in the form of Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), the leader of H.I.V.E. and sworn enemy of the former Ra’s al Ghul (Matt Nable). “Unlike previous big bads, who were doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, there’s nothing nearly as redeeming or redemptive in Damien Darhk,” Guuggenheim says. “He’s really pure evil, and he will stop at nothing to achieve his ends.”

“We’re gonna learn that this villain has been operating in town for the past three months,” Guggenheim continues. “Team Arrow has basically been trying to keep [him] at bay, but then something happens in the season premiere that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back and it prompts Laurel [Katie Cassidy] and Thea [Willa Holland] to go find Oliver and get him to return.”

But they’ll be surprised to find a very different Oliver than the one who left. “We played him as a guy who was returning home from war with PTSD for the first three years,” Guggenheim says. “Now he’s put those demons to rest, or so he thinks, and there’s a lightness to him as a result of all the things he learned last year.” Suiting up with a new lighter costume (and fully loaded lair) to match the season’s tone, Oliver “has more faith in humanity than he did in the past,” showrunner Wendy Mericle adds. “It’s less about erasing his father’s legacy and more about establishing his.”

However, not everyone is happy about Oliver returning. “[Diggle] was the one who was most angered over Oliver’s choices at the end of season 3,” Guggenheim says. “And he’s certainly the one who’s most against Oliver returning and him being forced to work with Oliver.” But Diggle — who’s also sporting a new suit this season — is also raring to face off against Damien Darhk, whose shadowy organization put the hit out on his brother all those years prior. “It’s something that will drive Diggle in the first half of the year,” says the EP. “It’s very tied into what’s going on between him and Oliver.”

As season 3 toyed with themes pertaining to one’s identity, Arrow now aims to explore the members of Team Arrow each coming into their own. For Felicity, the show is “not defining her solely by her relationship with Oliver,” Guggenheim says, teasing that Felicity will take over Ray Palmer’s (Brandon Routh) company after his apparent death. “She’s going to encounter some unexpected challenges, but it gives us a chance to really show a different side of Felicity. She’s still her funny, quirky, idealistic self, but she’s also now the CEO of a corporation and she’s also now going to have to be strong, confident and imaginative in addition to her already wonderful qualities.”

Thea’s storyline, meanwhile, helps in bringing the show back to its roots as she faces the difficulties of being a hero. “Since season 1, we really haven’t done that much with Oliver trying to keep his secret identity secret on the show,” Guggenheim says. “But that’s something we’re going to be playing around with Thea as we get deeper into the season and she tries to balance hopefully a personal life with being a superhero — something she’s never had to deal with before.” That personal life includes a new love interest in Alex Davis (Parker Young), though Thea will also have an unexpected connection to Lonnie Machin, a.k.a. Anarky (Alexander Calvert), a psychotic criminal who poses a major threat in the second episode. (Other new Arrow additions include Rutina Wesley, Echo Kellum, Jeri Ryan and Elysia Rotaru.)

If you’ve seen the trailer, you also know that Thea’s facing difficult times ahead as she suffers from the side effects of being resurrected by the Lazarus Pit — the same pit that will be used to bring Sara back to life with the help of Constantine’s titular anti-hero (Matt Ryan). (Yes, Arrow will be dealing more with magic and mysticism this season.) “It’s a different thing than it was with Thea,” Mericle says. “To put it bluntly, she’s more dead. We needed somebody to come in and basically resurrect her and bring her soul back. We were really thrilled that we were able to get Matt Ryan. He’s the perfect character to do it.”

“[Sara’s resurrection] very much comes about because of decisions that Laurel makes and choices that Laurel will then have to live with,” Guggenheim says, also teasing a pivotal Black Canary moment in the premiere that fans will get a kick out of. “The episodes dealing with Sara’s return are amongst probably the heaviest material that we’ve had for Laurel. We’re using Sara’s return to really get underneath not just Laurel as a person, but the relationship that she has with Thea and the friendship that she has with Oliver.”

However, Oliver’s absence provides the heroine an opportunity to reach her potential. “I definitely think these past few months she’s been able to come into her own,” Cassidy says. “I feel like this is her time to shine. She’s going to do whatever it takes, especially when it comes to saving Starling City — [which is] something that she’s always done by the book. Being an attorney and working at the District Attorney’s Office, she’s been very involved on the legal side of things, and I think that this is her time to shine being a part of the A story and the action.”

As for the season’s flashbacks, Oliver is facing an entirely different criminal organization: Shadowspire, led by Baron Reiter (Jimmy Akingbola), whom Ollie will come up against in Coast City — yes, Green Lantern’s hometown. “There is a nod or two,” Guggenheim teases. “There is a billboard that people will get a kick out of, and there may or may not be a ring in the season premiere.”

Arrow returns Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.

To continue reading more about EW’s Fall TV Preview, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now, or buy it here.

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Episode Recaps

Billionaire Oliver Queen — under the vigilante persona of Arrow — tries to right the wrongs of his family and fight the ills of society.
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