Arrow boss talks series finale, the episode he'd redo, and biggest writers' room debates
Warning: This article contains spoilers from the series finale of Arrow, which aired Tuesday night on the CW.
After eight seasons of Arrow, Marc Guggenheim’s work is done. And the co-creator of the CW superhero series, who wrote Tuesday’s farewell hour with showrunner and executive producer Beth Schwartz, is pleased to have delivered “an unconventional series finale by its very nature,” he tells EW.
The network-defining show’s swan song had a lot to accomplish: It had to integrate Arrow’s hero, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), into the story even though he died a couple of episodes earlier (shoutout to our old friend the flashback). It had to explain how Oliver’s death and the subsequent rebooting of the universe resurrected everyone who perished over the past eight seasons. It had to give Oliver and Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards) a happy ending (they wound up living happily ever after in a paradise dimension). And finally, it had to tie things up for every other character who was still alive and/or had come back from the dead. Looking back on the episode at a recent press screening, Guggenheim mostly likes what he sees.
“I’m proud of Diggle’s eulogy. That was hard to write but really fun to have written,” he says, referring to David Ramsey’s character. “You know, television history is replete with series finales that didn’t stick the landing, and I kind of feel like this one does.” That said, Guggenheim will never be completely satisfied, and still finds some quibbles as he watches it back with reporters. “I was watching the final five minutes [of the finale] with you guys [and] I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish I fixed that sound thing,’” he says. Then again, that happens every episode.
Below, Guggenheim sits down with EW for a final in-depth Arrow chat and opens up about the episode he’d like to revisit if he could, the story lines that stirred the most debate in the writers’ room, what it was like crafting the finale, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: To start, did you guys pitch [executive producer/co-creator] Greg Berlanti your ending? How did he react?
MARC GUGGENHEIM: Yeah, we definitely pitched it to him. He was cool with everything. I don’t recall there [being] anything specific [like], “Oh, you definitely need to do this” or “Here’s an idea for that.” It was more like, “Wow, that just feels really right.” You know, go with God, essentially. And so we did.
When we spoke way back in June for EW’s Arrow cover story, you said you’d just written the final scene after coming out of a meditation session that morning. Is that the same scene?
That’s the scene.
Did it change at all from then to now?
No. In fact, it’s pretty much word for word. On the day, Stephen and Emily may have used a different phrase here or added a phrase there, but literally it’s exactly the same scene, down to everything. It was amazing to actually get to watch it get to be shot.
Was the final scene of the show in inspired by how the Crisis on Infinite Earths comic ended, with Superboy, Alexander Luthor, and Earth-2 Superman and Lois Lane going off to live in a paradise dimension?
You know, probably subconsciously, yes. Because back in June I was rereading Crisis for the umpteenth time, so it was probably definitely milling about in my subconscious, because like I said, that scene literally came out of my subconscious. I meditate every morning, but I never come out of meditation with an idea or a scene or anything. This is the first and last time that’s ever happened to me. So I think a lot of things were roiling around in my head that particular morning.
The finale’s structure is surprising, because it starts with the documentary. Where did that come from?
It really started with a request I made to the postproduction team, which is I asked them for a reel of all the deleted scenes, including the deleted scenes that we haven’t released previously on home video. When I was watching that, I saw the scene that we shot for the beginning of 223 [season 2, episode 23]; 223 was originally going to begin with Oliver imagining if things had gone differently in 220, and if he had been able to save his mother’s life. And the moment I saw that it solved a huge problem that we were wrestling with, which was: How do we basically tell the Arrow audience what happened in “Crisis” without it being overly expositional and relying on you to have seen “Crisis”? Showing it as opposed to telling it was checked off a huge box, obviously.
Then using that to kind of segue into the documentary, and using the documentary again as a device to tell the audience the information we need them to have — again, it’s one of those things that just felt right. That said, we wouldn’t have introduced the documentary concept just for this episode. You know, it was there because of 712, our 150th episode, as a device. So making use of it here to help just get out this exposition in hopefully an artful way just seemed right.
Were there any other scenes in the episode that were recycled deleted scenes?
No, actually there weren’t. The opening of Act 2, which is the recapitulation of the pilot — the scene on the lifeboat — was originally going to be the opening of the episode. The opening of the episode was going to be like, “Oh, we see the pilot and then we realize it’s a dream that Mia is having,” but then we saw that footage from 223 and that became the opening of the episode. Then I realized, “Oh, we can have our cake and eat it too,” which I always love to do, [and decided to] start Act 2 with the way I was going to start Act 1. Done and done.
Oliver’s been dead for two episodes now. At any point in the writing process did you wonder, “Should we have not killed him off so early?”
Actually, no. It’s funny, Arrow, more than maybe almost any other show I’ve ever worked on, has always been the hardest to break, and that’s never not been true. With the finale, after eight years, it doesn’t occur to us to be like, “I wish we hadn’t done that and then it would’ve been easier,” because we know that’s a fallacy. We know that even if we had, it would still be hard to break because that’s Arrow, that’s just the way it goes. I like — I always knew Oliver was going to die [and] I always thought it would be in a series finale — the idea of him dying as part of this major event that relates to all of the other shows that this show spawned.
And I like it being part of “Crisis,” which is a bit of comic book history. Crisis had these memorable deaths of the Flash and Supergirl, and obviously we have The Flash and Supergirl, which [means] everyone knows we’re not killing them. So again, it felt right. You know, that tends to be the single barometer, it’s our gut. That gut is validated and stress-tested by conversations in the writers’ room, debates in the writer’s room, conversations with the studio, the network, Greg. None of these ideas are just something Beth and I think of and we just immediately put into practice. We’re constantly testing them with all of our various partners, and there’s an army of people to discuss it with.
Looking back at the run of the show, what plot points created the most debate in the writers’ room?
I would say in season 4, the concept of the flash-forward — knowing that there was going to be a character who is dying, [and] whether or not to even do that was a subject of debate. Who was in the box was a subject of debate. You know, we debated a lot whether or not to kill Moira at the end of season 2, in large part because we just love writing for Susanna [Thompson] so much.
It’s funny, I would say it was almost everything, quite frankly. It’s hard to come up with specifics that are particularly memorable because it’s just always been a part of our process. I think it’s good to discuss these things and also discuss, is it a good idea? Is it good for the show? Is it good for the characters? Does it make sense for the characters? I would say probably the worst or most controversial things that we’ve done are the ones that didn’t get stress-tested as much, and sometimes that shows.
Is there anything you wish you could redo or sharpen a bit?
I’ve been doing television for 20 years. There’s not a single episode of anything I’ve ever worked on I wouldn’t take back in a heartbeat. I’ll give you a specific example: I wrote 513, which was the “gun control” episode. I thought that we were taking a big enough chance just by raising the specter of the issue, no pun intended. Looking back on it, especially in light of the number of mass shootings that unfortunately happened after that episode aired, I wish I had gotten higher up on my soapbox. I had an opportunity and an audience, and I was trying to show both sides of the argument, and I wish I had basically come down hard on one particular side.
You’ve said that you always thought Oliver needed to die as the final piece of redemption for his murderous origins. What do you hope you captured or conveyed about the idea of redemption?
The thing that I’m most proud of, quite frankly, in the series is the fact that Oliver goes from being a spoiled rich a—hole to a mass murderer, to a father twice over, a husband, a public hero not hiding behind a hood, a former mayor. He goes on probably the most severe character journey of any character I’ve ever worked on because we had not just eight years — we really have 13 years of a story. But over those 13 years he grows and evolves as a human being, in a way that I’m really glad we got to tell that story.
What do you think you’ll miss the most about the show?
Well, certainly writing the show. I truly enjoy writing the show. It will probably be working with everybody. The collaborative process here has been so great, and there’s people involved in the show — in the writing and the production and the postproduction side and at the studio and at the network — who have been with this series since at least 102. Those are great relationships. I’m still going to stay in touch with everyone, but working day in and day out with them is a different thing, and I’m going to miss that.
Here’s a question I’ve had since 2014: After the season 2 episode “Birds of Prey” aired, you said you had a story line idea for Jessica De Gouw’s Huntress in season 3. Obviously, we never saw that. Do you remember what the story line was?
Oh my God, I’m completely blanking, because this was forever ago. I don’t remember. It’s possible that, knowing me, that idea became incorporated into the Arrow Season 2.5 comic that I was writing while we were doing season 3. But I will say we really actually wanted to get Jessica back for the series finale. There were a couple of actors who were either working on shows or working on movies where we couldn’t make the scheduling work out, and Jessica was one of them, which was a profound disappointment to me because we’ve been wanting to get her back ever since season 2.
But you got that nod in the backdoor the pilot.
Exactly, because I love that character and I love Jessica as an actress, and it’s just one of those things. You’d think with 22, 23 episodes a season you’d have all the time in the world, but you have all these factors that have to line up: Their schedule has to line up, you have to have the right story at the right time. Believe it or not, it’s a little bit more complicated than one would hope.
Did you watch any other series finales for inspiration?
Yes, I did, and now I’m trying to remember which ones they were. Definitely Star Trek: The Next Generation, because that is the gold standard of series finales. I am of course blanking on all the other ones. I will say that I, as a writer, have a lot more experience writing comic book last issues than series finales. I can’t speak for Beth, but I felt I was drawing a lot on that experience as a writer and ending a series of comic book runs more so than ending TV shows.
What did you take from having ended a comic book run and apply to writing this finale?
The challenge with ending a comic book series is very different because you’re not ending a series, you’re ending a run. My last issue of Blade was not going to be the last issue of Blade. My last issue of X-Men wasn’t going to be the last issue of X-Men. So the challenge there is basically in one issue, present your thesis statement of the series to the reader. The thing I struggled with was, because we knew so much going into the finale, what’s the thesis statement? What’s the theme that pulls all these things together? We know Diggle is going to find a green box, we know we’re going to have the biggest action sequence we’ve ever had, we know that it’s going to be Oliver’s funeral. We know all these pieces, but what’s the thing tying it all together? I was in the editing room watching a cut, and for the umpteenth time I’m watching the saga sell and he always says, “[I came] home with only one goal: Save my city,” and [snaps fingers] that is when it clicked for me. It’s like, he has saved the city. That provided that thesis statement. It’s like if you’re doing Gilligan’s Island, they’ve got to get off the island. If you’re doing Star Trek: Voyager, they have got to return to the Alpha Quadrant. I realized, oh, Oliver has achieved his eight-year-long goal by virtue of the sacrifice he made in “Crisis,” and then that all tied together for me.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I’m very just appreciative of all the people who have supported this show. It’s gotten incredible support from the studio, the network. You know, everyone involved with the production has worked really given their all. We’ve always said, “This has never been an easy show to do,” and it’s always been a show where everyone involved is tap-dancing on the stage as hard as they can to get the sailors to throw money. And the sailors themselves, the fans, have really been amazing. Look, it’s obviously a very complicated fandom. There are some people who, quite frankly, are very rude and nasty, but they are a very small minority of people. They are also really eclipsed by the exponentially more number of fans who are just positive and gracious — not just to us, but to each other. I interact with them at comic book conventions, and they kept the flame alive. They’ve kept the show going and they’ve inspired us to keep the show going, and I’m really grateful to them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Arrowverse lives on with The Flash (returning Feb. 4 at 8 p.m.), DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.), Supergirl (Sundays at 9 p.m.), Batwoman (Sundays at 8 p.m.), and Black Lightning (Mondays at 9 p.m.), all on the CW.