Bringing myself to write this article has been more difficult than I was anticipating.
For someone that writes a weekly article on processing fictional trauma, one would think that I’d be more effective at processing my own fictional trauma, but this week was really and truly harder than most for a variety of reasons. Getting to an emotional place where I have enough of a sense of peace that I can put my thoughts together took awhile. But here I am. Finally.
I recently read that there are two types of Arrow fans… there are those that casually watch the show each week (or binge every few weeks/months), and then there are those watch the show and read every interview, analyze every episode, and discuss all things Arrow all the time. In this vein, I think that this article will be broken down into two sections, because there are two very real traumas that happened as a result of this episode: The onscreen trauma, and the trauma in the fandom.
SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 4×18
YOU WILL HEAR WHO IS IN THE GRAVE. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Last week’s episode of Arrow finally, after a season of buildup, showed us who is in the grave. Laurel Lance… The Black Canary herself… took a knee. The very idea that a television show based on the Green Arrow would kill off the Black Canary is almost unthinkable. But it happened. And as the writers have promised, this death is real.
Laurel Lance as we know her is not coming back.
I have always had a hard time helping others grieve the death of a loved one. I became a mental health therapist because helping people with their emotional problems comes naturally to me… but for some reason, when someone died, I tended to become awkward and run away from it. When I began working in the field, I quickly realized that it wasn’t just me. A lot of therapists struggle with helping others dealing with bereavement. As therapists, we are ready to help work through things and bring hope to people.
But death is different. There’s nothing to repair or to fix. All you can do is accept.
And that is no easy task.
For many, the death of Laurel Lance, and the knowledge that there is no hope of her coming back was a truly traumatic blow, fictional or not. While Laurel has been a divisive figure with fans of the show (people tend to love her or hate her), the fact is, she had an extremely powerful story. She survived massive trauma and humiliation – the death of her sister (twice), the death of her longtime boyfriend, the humiliation of their deaths happening while they were cheating on her and the hugely publicized nature of it, the death of her next boyfriend who died saving her, her parents’ divorce, her father’s drinking problem, her mother’s distance, plus a slew of near death experiences… She went through a lot. And for awhile it beat her. She resorted to drugs and alcohol because she lost the ability to cope with both her own actions and the actions of others, and as addiction is a genetic disorder, her path to the bottle wasn’t terribly surprising.
But she rose above.
Despite no one wanting her in the life of crime fighting – not her father, not Oliver, and not her sister – Laurel fought back against her addiction, and became a super hero. She may not have always made the healthiest decisions along the way, but Arrow has never been a show about super mentally healthy people. It’s about people battling their demons, and trying to channel them into doing good in the world.
Laurel went from being a drug addict to a superhero. It’s a hell of a powerful story for someone who may be struggling with addiction themselves or know someone that is. I believe that her story brought hope to many, as well it should.
But now she’s gone.
So in trying to process a death like this… the death of a character whose story had given so much hope to so many, and whose death perhaps feels like a loss of all of that acquired hope, how can people learn to cope? We can go through the stages of grief, sure, and hopefully come to accept it. But how can people come to accept? I don’t proclaim to be an expert on bereavement (remember the awkwardness I mentioned above when dealing with death? Yeah…), but I can tell you what often helps me. And that is finding meaning within the loss.
For many people, losing the Black Canary has led to profound feelings of anger. The show has never been really true to the comics, but killing the Black Canary seems to have gone just too far outside comic canon for some people to handle. I will admit that I don’t know much about comics, and so I can’t make any declarative statements there except that I know sometimes Batman’s Robins die, showing precedent even in the DC comic universe for major character death. But… none of that matters. Feelings just are, whether anyone thinks they should be or not. And anger, as I’ve mentioned in other articles, tends to be an emotion that is almost always accompanying or even masking another deeper or more personal feeling… such as disappointment, hurt, or feelings that trust has been violated (much like Laurel’s season 2 anger was masking her grief, guilt, and insecurity). And I think that for many, those are the feelings that are currently being experienced with regards to Laurel’s death. Many people expected that eventually Laurel and Oliver would find their way back together, as that’s what happened in the comics. Many people felt that Laurel, if not with Oliver, would continue on her own super hero journey alongside Oliver as part of Team Arrow. Many people trusted the writers to continue the story of their beloved character, and feel disillusioned, hurt, and incredibly, incredibly sad that she’s gone.
And that is completely understandable.
I’ve never been secretive about my love of Felicity, or of Olicity. But as someone who still can barely accept even the existence of River Song (sorry Mrs. Lance…) because of my Rose ship, I get it. It is hard when you finally fully realize that the couple you love is never going to be together, or that the character that you adore is never coming back when you feel that the story would be better if they did. I’ve been there, and it’s brutal. And this is where we come to the meaning making.
Making meaning from loss is a deeply personal thing, and so I won’t even pretend to tell anyone how to do that for themselves. But what I can do is offer some suggestions for helping to start that inner dialogue, or share my own thoughts. Any time I experience a loss, I try to think about what I have lost. What good things were brought into my life by this thing/person/etc? If Laurel Lance was an inspirational character for you, I suggest that you reflect on why. Rather than focusing on the negative emotions regarding her death, work on focusing on how her story positively influenced you. Yes, she is a fictional character, but that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t impacted your life… I know that many characters on this show have certainly impacted mine. Think about ways that you can incorporate things that her character taught you into your life going forward. Just as Laurel used her traumas to try to make the world a better place, see if you can put your fictional trauma to similar use.
Another thing to do is look at the journey her character took. I usually leave the plot/storyline analysis to the literary folks, but there was something about this episode that I found to be very profound. We’ve always known that Laurel and Oliver dated for years, and that it wasn’t a terribly healthy relationship… lots of cheating, unrealistic expectations, and general dishonesty. We also know that while the show that we’re watching is only loosely based on the comics, it is essentially the origin story of the Green Arrow. And I don’t know about you, but when watching this episode, I realized…
Laurel Lance is the origin of the Green Arrow.
While Oliver Queen and Laurel Lance, the Green Arrow and the Black Canary, will not end up together romantically in the television show Arrow, what is clear is that in this origin story, there would be no Oliver Queen or Green Arrow without her. Laurel kept Oliver safe on that island, she gave him something to strive for, a reason to live. She grounded him and reminded him of goodness in the world during those years away, even if he didn’t feel like he deserved it. Her strength inspired him, and her resilience fortified him.
Laurel’s impact on his past gave him a future. And her blessing and acknowledgement in the hospital means that he’ll be able to accept that future.
While I would never discount anyone’s feelings, I would simply say that for me, showing Laurel as very clearly being the origin of the Green Arrow, priming him to be able to find and accept the help and love of Diggle and Felicity who helped move him even further into his journey, truly honors her character and venerates her within this story.
That sounds like an awful lot of meaning for her character to me, even if they now have to go on without her.
If you’re not part of the Arrow fandom, in that you don’t frequently discuss the show with others (likely through social media), then this section may come as a surprise to you. If you are a part of the fandom, then you already know what I’m about to say.
The fictional death of Laurel Lance has brought about so much real negativity between real people online that it is truly staggering to see (and was, btw, a large reason why I had such a tough time writing this article). And this is not, by the way, only coming from one “side.” This negativity is coming from everywhere, and I think it’s time we had yet another very real, very honest conversation about it.
I am a hard core fan of Felicity Smoak, and the fact is, if Felicity had been in that box, you would’ve found me under a table sobbing with a bottle of wine and a stuffed animal, and then after I stopped crying (which would’ve taken a really long time), I would absolutely take to social media to confront the writers about the grievous mistake I’d felt they’d made because I would be pissed.
It would’ve been my right as a fan to do so, and we all have the right and sometimes even the need to express our emotions.
The problems happen when the fandom stops thinking about how to express their feelings in the most constructive and healing way, and instead just becomes plain reactionary.
Expressing your feelings is important. However, if your expression of feelings begins to involve personal attacks on other fans, writers, producers, or actors, or involves death threats, we have officially gone past the point of healthy expression and into cruelty and yes, illegal activity. Making yourself feel better by attempting to make someone feel worse is not going to get your voice heard. It’s not going to get your opinion taken seriously. And no, you can’t convince me that it really, truly, makes you feel capital B Better.
What can help is if we all, as a fandom, take a step back. Take a collective deep cleansing breath (or ten), and attempt to come back to the discussion table with the understanding that if we want our thoughts and feelings to be respected, we have to respect others’ first.
We all have feelings about Laurel’s death, and many of them are strong. I think that many – if not all – of us have that one fictional character that we really attached to, and who really helped us through a dark time. For some people, that character is Laurel. There are some people who really didn’t like Laurel, and she triggered super negative things for them because of things that they have been through with people like her. Both types of people are going to have a significant emotional response to this episode, but it’s important to try to remember that if you weren’t a fan of Laurel, you are experiencing positive emotion, while those who loved her are experiencing loss. Try to be respectful, and remember that on any given week, we might be the one to lose that character that’s near and dear. These writers have proven that nothing and no one are off the chopping block, so be kind to others. You never know when you may want that kindness coming your way.
Also remember that everyone grieves in different ways and at different speeds. Some people will move past this quickly, even if they were stunned and upset at the time, and some people won’t. And that’s okay. Let everyone grieve at their own pace, and don’t judge them for it. You never know what Laurel may have meant to them, or what internal demons they’re fight that day.
The other thing to remember is that, while it may feel like our fandom is at war, a war can only exist if both sides choose to fight. If someone posts something hateful on their Twitter timeline, there is absolutely no reason why anyone has to respond to it. Even if they hashtag it, or even mention you by name, there is absolutely no reason why a response is necessary. None. Unfollow, block, mute, report, move on. Put your energy into engaging with people that will make you feel positively, and do not feed the negativity that others are struggling with. It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t help them, and it for damn sure doesn’t help the fandom.
Finally, the point that I know is made on a regular basis, but I’ll go ahead and make it again because it cannot be stated enough: All forms of entertainment, including television, are meant to enhance your life positively in some way. If you have found that this show no longer enhances your life positively, or is making you feel so emotional or upset that it is affecting your life and/or your overall mood, it may be time to reevaluate your participation in this fandom. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a step back from this or any show, or from the fandom, or both. There is nothing keeping you here. You have made no commitment. Taking a breather or leaving entirely can sometimes be the healthiest things we can do for ourselves, both in fandom and in life. I am a hard core Whovian, to the point that I have a Doctor Who quote tattooed on my wrist. And yet, during this last season of Who, no matter how much I wanted to love it, I realized I was getting angry and upset every week. And so I stopped watching. And as much as I miss it, as much as the decision made me incredibly sad, it was the best decision for me. I will watch it when I’m emotionally ready and able… or I won’t. And in the meantime, I have found Arrow which as affected me profoundly and brought great amounts of joy to my life. Closing a door to open a window and all that. There is plenty of amazing television out there, and there are literally billions of amazing people. If Arrow no longer makes you happy, find something that will. You can come back any time you like. We’ll be here.
This week’s episode of Arrow hurt. It hurt more for some than others, and it will continue to do so. If you are struggling to accept this fictional loss, I encourage you to reach out to some safe people to help you process those feelings. If you’re not hurting for Laurel, but are struggling with the recent negativity within the fandom, I encourage you to take the time to remember that those you see expressing anger are likely actually experiencing some level of pain and disappointment, and see if that affects the way you interact with them. Remember that while reacting negatively is the easy knee-jerk thing to do, it’s not always the best thing to do for ourselves or for our fandom.
And remember that, as my boy Donnie Wahlberg always says, if you spread love, love will spread. I hope, Arrow fandom, that you’ll take that advice to heart.
Exploring and processing fictional trauma and how it related to our real lives is a topic I am passionate about, so if you’d like to chat further (or if you need a virtual hug), always feel free to find me on Twitter at @Chrisha_DWGrrl (fangirling) or @DrFangirlPhD (academics).