With their frequent talk about power and responsibility, obligation, or in this case, making a sacrifice, superhero stories can occasionally come off as being a little too familiar. And there were plenty of those customary tropes, magnified characterizations, and familiar plot devices being thrown around in the Arrow season finale. But for a series that’s put forth a significant effort to distinguish itself as a fresh take on familiar character, ‘Sacrifice’ managed to gleefully convey the superhero elements, while offering up a few genuine surprises as well.

To end the season on something akin to abject failure for the heroes, and what may amount to be the lowest point for each of the show’s extensive cast of characters, was a decision that helped make ‘Sacrifice’ a more memorable season finale than what was expected, and one that bodes well for the storyline when the series returns in the fall.

This was an episode that had a great deal of heavy lifting to do, and it only had the span of a network television hour (about 42 minutes) to do it in. When you stop to consider the effort put forth to not only give each character a brief moment all to themselves, but also to connect each storyline to the overarching theme and an action-packed island flashback sequence, the finale delivered in spades.

What really stands out, though, is – with the possible exception of Slade and Shado – each character wasn’t just inserted into the plot for the sake of some face time before the series signs off for the summer. Instead, the writers were able to find an angle that made each arc feel legitimate, especially in terms of characters and relationships that were otherwise relegated to the sidelines, or in the case of Oliver and Laurel’s relationship, felt forced upon the narrative at an incredibly late stage of the game.

For starters, Moira’s confession in regard to her complicity in the Undertaking, and her subsequent arrest, both go a long way in showcasing the Queen family’s penchant for protecting loved ones by obscuring the truth and then coming clean and engaging in some kind of extreme behavior. In a way, Moira’s public declaration of guilt mirrored Robert’s actions on the lifeboat. Robert took the life of another man and then his own so that Oliver would have a better chance at survival. This time, the stakes were the lives of everyone living in the Glades, but the message was still the same: a hero (no matter how flawed) will sacrifice his or her own wellbeing for the greater good.

Moreover, the whole scene sets off the calamity in the Glades and puts Thea on a collision course with Roy Harper.

And as far as Roy goes, the Undertaking finally grants the character a chance to move beyond simply searching for the Hood in some unclear mission to prevent losing someone close to him again. Instead, Roy makes the conscious decision to confront a trio of thugs attacking a helpless man, and to stay and help a bus full of strangers in part because he knows that is what the Hood would do, but also because the show wants to demonstrate Roy has decided what kind of person he wants to be – that person just happens to closely resemble the Starling City Vigilante.

But the finale really belongs to the Merlyns – and not just because it looks like neither John Barrowman or Colin Donnell will be returning to the series in season 2 (but if death is as impermanent on this show as it is in the comics, it may be too soon to rule anything out). While Tommy’s final, heroic effort proved to be fatal, it helped to justify the existence of a character that the series never seemed quite sure what to do with. Arrow could have groomed Donnell to take over as the Dark Archer (and perhaps they still will), but choosing instead to have his death punctuate Oliver’s inability to completely prevent the Undertaking feels like a far more poignant and interesting approach in terms of the series’ future and Oliver’s development as a hero.

Which brings us to John Barrowman’s portrayal of Malcolm Merlyn. In many ways, Barrowman’s effort in ‘Sacrifice’ sums up Arrow‘s first season. At times it was pitch perfect; it struck all the right chords and fully engaged the audience. And yet, it also occasionally felt overblown and exaggerated, and when those larger-than-life elements didn’t quite deliver, it was a noticeable drain on the proceedings.

Thankfully, like Barrowman, the series found a way to deliver when it mattered most. In that aspect, Malcolm Merlyn went out on the same high note that the season did. And although it looks like Barrowman won’t be around in the fall, ‘Sacrifice’ offers plenty of reasons to be glad that Arrow will be.

Arrow will return for season 2 sometime in the fall of 2013 on The CW.