The show has a very transcendent and religious atmosphere. Was this something that interested you or did it make you go “ugh”? I didn’t perceive it as religious, as you said, but I took it as a better understanding of our world, a way to connect our daily life which we all live simultaneously. So it is a better perception, somehow. Finally a TV show that in fact really deals with the world.
I think the entirety of Oliver’s dinner monologue is crucial in two ways.
1. It puts into plain focus why Oliver fell in love with Felicity.
2. It shines a light on why such a large part of the audience fell in love with Olicity.
I know the consensus on Olicity is that it’s a happy accident catalysed by unpredicted chemistry. And that is true. There’s an intangible, lighting in a bottle quality to it that characterises so many chemistry driven fictional couples. It’s something you can’t create or design or plan for. It happens (if the writers are lucky) and it’s allowed to grow (if the writers are smart). That having been said, there’s an aspect to the Olicity popularity that I think is not quite such a mystery. And in his speech, Oliver lays it out for us.
Felicity humanizes Oliver.
I remember diligently making my way through the first two episodes of Arrow. It wasn’t that I thought there was much wrong with the show. It was technically sound, good production value for a TV show, the writing was decent, the plot relatively straightforward, the acting wasn’t terrible…notice how I never mentioned anything about how the show or characters made me feel? That’s because for the first two episodes I didn’t feel anything. All my observations about the show were almost academic and well, cold. That’s how the show came across to me. Methodical, deliberate, meticulously mapped out. Now none of the things that I mentioned about the show were objectively bad qualities, but people watch TV for subjective enjoyment. Sometimes the show you subjectively love is also objectively good, sometimes not. It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day we watch shows because they engage us emotionally in some way or the other. And that emotional engagement was what I felt Arrow was missing initially.
And that, I realised, came down to Oliver as a character. Largely because he was just that - a character. I could almost picture the character map that the writers had for him, the theory behind him, his motivations, his journey all perfectly laid out. The problem was that I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have been picturing anything as analytical as that, I should have been engaging with the person beneath the character. I should have been seeing Oliver the person, but all I saw was Oliver the character as “planned” by the writers, complicated wall diagrams and all. And for the show to work, Oliver needed to work. Arrow is not an ensemble show in the vein of say a half hour sitcom where a winning supporting cast can carry a flat main character. Arrow is an ensemble in the vein of Harry Potter where, yes, there are a shit ton of supporting characters, but everything ultimately revolves around just one. And everything that drives the plot forward is directly or indirectly related to that one character. For Arrow to work, Oliver needed to work.
Look, I get it. The guy was stuck on island purgatory, so he wasn’t exactly going to be sunshine and daisies. He was damaged and broken and dehumanized by the island. I understood it. I even sympathised in some abstract “well, you gotta feel for the guy” kind of way. The issue was that as much as he kept up a facade with those around him, too much of that facade remained for the audience. Other than being in on the secret vigilante shenanigans, I felt no closer to seeing Oliver the person than anyone else in his life was. As a narrative device, that works for a short time before getting old. Did it make logical sense that he would be this way? Absolutely. But there had to be some sort of loophole, some sort of peek into whatever humanity was left of him for the audience.
“Then I walked into your office.”
Then he walked into her office. And she made him smile. A genuine smile. Unrehearsed, unintentional, unguarded. He wasn’t smiling with an agenda in mind. He smiled because he found her amusing and endearing. She made him smile. Yes, it really was that simple. In all of a few seconds, I felt like I was finally watching a human being reacting in an innately human way. Not only did this endear her to me, it endeared him to me as a by product. Because, well, it was cute. All of a sudden he was something as mundane as “cute”. This stoic character, weaponised, desensitised, and made deeply paranoid by his time on the island, was doing something as relatable as being a terrible liar. He was doing something as normal as cracking a smile because of a funny girl who babbled about his dead father and saw through his bullshit.
“You were the first person that I could see as a person.”
Oliver began his journey of falling in love with Felicity because he could see her as a person, nothing more, nothing less. The audience fell in love with Olicity because Felicity allowed us to see Oliver as a person, nothing more, nothing less.
When I heard that line, I could almost picture the cries of anguish from the anti-fans and contrarians. But, but, what about his mother and his sister and Laurel and Tommy!?? Oh, the humanity! How dare the writers disrespect those relationships, right?? Right? Wrong. To view that statement “the first person I could see as a person” as some sort of declaration that he cared about no one up till he met Felicity, is to read something into the statement that is not there for the sake of discrediting it. It’s just hyperbolic, willful ignorance. Did he love all those other people? Of course. Was he ever anything but guarded around them? No. That’s what the “person” line was about. He felt the instinctive need to keep his walls up. And yes, Thea, Tommy et al were “threats” to him. Not in the malicious sense of seeing them as enemies, but threats to his secret identity.
Felicity changed that. Their dynamic before she finds out about the Arrow was such an inversion of his dynamic with his friends and family. With the people he loved, he kept up a facade. He loved them, but he had major trust issues. With Felicity, barely a friendly acquaintance at that point, there was no facade. He couldn’t hide who he innately was as a human being, even as he lied through his teeth about what he did. And here’s the thing about the lying. He didn’t even try. A spilt latte? Energy drinks in syringes? Scavenger hunts? Every lie he told her was so patently absurd that there was always an air of ~she knows he’s lying and he knows she knows he’s lying~, but it didn’t matter to either one of them because for reasons neither could express at that point, they trusted each other. These two people, more “friend-ish” than “friendly”, trusted each other.
He and Diggle got to that place eventually, but initially he viewed Diggle quite plainly as a threat (and possible target). Felicity was the first person he trusted right away. The first person he could see as a person. That statement was about trust. Something about her disarmed him. And something about that dynamic disarmed us.
The fact that all of this was borne out of Stephen breaking character with a genuine smile because Emily amused him, is why I will never understand the viewpoint that writers should rigidly be slaves to The Original Plan. The perception that TV shows can or should run blind to their audience is absurd. TV shows do not exist in a vacuum. They are living, breathing, evolving, and yes, reacting creatures. There are so many more variables to a TV show than just The Original Plan. TV writers absolutely have to be adaptable to survive. Chemistry isn’t just an interaction between two actors or characters. It’s also very much the interaction between those characters and the audience. The Olicity phenomenon is a result of those two factors combining to create an entirely unexpected moment of magic.
The writers could have gone one of two ways with it. Ignore it or follow through. The fact that they decided to follow through is hugely responsible for for pulling me back into a show I had all but abandoned. Felicity humanized Oliver and that in turn humanized the show. Take Felicity Smoak out of Arrow, erase her existence and what we’re left with would be a competent, but inevitably heavy, dry show. The show had intensity in spades. What it sorely needed was heart and levity. Felicity brought that out in Oliver. She brought out the person.