Defining Death: Why Arrow Learns to Love the Lazarus Pits

Arrow -- Image Number: ARR_S4_FIRST_LOOK_V4 -- Pictured: Stephen Amell as The Arrow -- Photo: -- JSquared Photography/The CW -- © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

Arrow is property of the CW network, copyright 2015. Green Arrow is a property of DC comics, copyright 2015.

(Note: the following contains spoilers for the third season of Arrow)

The TV show Arrow starts up this week, coming back for a fourth season following the superhero Green Arrow. The show has generally tried to take a realistic approach to the adventures of the Green Arrow, but there have been a few notable exceptions (even discounting the Flash). One of the most interesting departures from realism in the show is how they handle death, or sometimes lack thereof.

‘Death” generally refers to the end of vital functions associated with life, but can be further broken down scientifically and medically. Biologically dead, refers to when a body is completely “unresponsive, even to ordinarily painful stimuli, showed no movements and no breathing, as well as none of the reflexes that are usually included in a neurological examination… [and] a flat reading on the electroencephalogram (EEG) and lack of blood circulation in the brain.” Biological death can also mean “ permanent cellular damage, resulting from lack of oxygen, that is not reversible.” Beyond biological death, there is what is also known as clinical death, which is “cessation of blood circulation and breathing, the two necessary criteria to sustain human and many other organisms’ lives.” Another consideration or a defining characteristic of death is the end to all brain activity/function, including both higher functions as well as activity in the brain stem. This characteristic is important for legal terms, such as “brain dead.” Clinical death and brain death occur before biological death, and can be in some rare instances reversible.

As far as Arrow goes, there are two main deaths that play around with the notions of what it means to be dead: the death (and recovery) of Oliver Queen/Green Arrow, and the death (and resurrection) of Thea Queen. In the case of Oliver Queen, his death occurs after being stabbed through the abdomen, and falling from a large cliff. The explanation from the show for Oliver’s recovery from death is that his body fell into the snow, and was in a cold or hypothermic state of preservation. In addition, “healing” herbs are given to revive and restore Oliver to health. It appears that in this case, Oliver could be in a state of clinical death, and his recovery, while improbable, has at least some basis in science.

It has been shown that the application of cold and anesthetic can preserve brain function and prevent the decay of neurons of the brain, even after blood flow slows or ceases. Resuscitation after clinical death can occur if the conditions of death allow and treatment is applied promptly. So Oliver’s recovery from his death is possible, though does push the boundaries of possibility.

Thea’s recovery from death is another matter though. The legal definition of biological death includes (in part) that the cease of vital signs have occurred for 12 or more hours. In the show, Thea is killed, and then after an indeterminate time, her body is flown across the ocean to Nanda Parbat to the mythological Lazarus Pits. During this time, it appears that the body is kept at normal temperatures and no special preservation methods are used, meeting the legal definition of biological death.  When the body is placed into the Lazarus Pits and Thea is revived, with only psychological side effects remaining from the period of death. So this places this death purely into the realm of “comic book” death.

Arrow tries to take a more grounded approach to the adaptation of the comic book source material than many similar television shows or movies. In these instances however, the show is more true to its comic book roots.  Death serves as a challenge to be overcome, or an instance to show how vital the main character is to the setting of the show. It will be interesting to see how the show handles death and other aspects, as it draws upon more fantastical elements of the comics with an expanding universe.
The fourth season of Arrow premieres tonight.

The Author:
tyler_pictureTyler is a PH.D candidate studying biochemistry and gene therapy. In addition to science advocacy, he is interested in biotechnology/biomedical industries, and how they can be related to public health.

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