[This is a review of Arrow season 3, episode 12. There will be SPOILERS.]
One of the more substantial takeaways from ‘Uprising’ isn’t the fact that Oliver Queen and his hooded alter ego are finally back in Starling City, or that Malcolm Merlyn may be the key to defeating Ra’s al Ghul. Maybe it’s that, after the Arrow seemingly rises from the grave, his homecoming is met by Felicity with intense skepticism and doubt. But Felicity’s incredulity doesn’t stem from Oliver’s unlikely recovery from horrific injury; it stems from what she perceives to be a lack of character on his behalf with regard to the proposed allegiance between the Arrow and the Dark Archer.
Felicity’s distrust and disappointment stems from her personal feelings for Ollie – and, to a certain degree, a fear that she’ll end up like Thea, or worse, Sara. But her response also comes from the kinds of tough decisions the team had to make in the weeks Oliver was gone. If her reaction to Roy’s suggestion that Malcolm Merlyn isn’t as bad as they’ve been led to believe is any indication, Felicity’s unwilling to compromise Team Arrow’sprinciples, in order to overcome a great obstacle. And if Tatsu’s warning to Oliver is any indication his principles may be that which he must be willing to sacrifice in order to defeat the world’s greatest assassin.
For an episode that sees Brick’s siege of the Glades and Malcolm Merlyn’s story each reach a decisive turning point, and feature the return of the Arrow, ‘Uprising’ is a lot like last week’s episode, in that the hour moves at a surprisingly fast and effective pace. The series has been more successful lately at weaving different threads together and having them make use of the major themes in different but complimentary ways – and the last two weeks have certainly raised the bar along those lines.
The focus on an Arrowless Team Arrow’s tough decision on whether or not to use Malcolm “like a loaded gun” against the most formidable enemy they have faced blends well with the flashbacks of Merlyn’s past and the potentially dark road that lies ahead for Oliver. And even though the discovery that Brick was the party responsible for the murder of Merlyn’s wife raised way too many coincidence alarms, the end result of that inevitable confrontation mitigated that problem considerably. After all, it was a foregone conclusion that Brick would be brought to justice one way or another, but allowing his apprehension to open up a new avenue for the Dark Archer (aka the Magician) to explore is far more interesting and worthwhile tradeoff.
And John Barrowman proves the decision to focus on his character was correct, by helping give the audience a reason to think Oliver’s choice at the end has a chance at becoming something more than a fateful deal with the devil. Barrowman bounces back and forth from rage-filled victim to cold-hearted killer (thanks in large part to Arrow‘s belief that there can be no flashback without a considerable contribution from the show’s wig department) several times throughout the episode, leaving both sides of Merlyn exposed. Yes, as he says many times throughout the episode, he’s a killer, but Malcolm wasn’t always like that. And if anyone knows what trying to erase the stigma of being a murderer is like, it’s Oliver.
In that sense, the manner in which the episode uses Oliver’s return to walk around in some of the murkier aspects of the street-level superhero universe is an unexpected choice. But it is one that works, both by being a surprising choice in an episode that might otherwise have been marked by great celebration, and by how successful the decision was in terms of producing an engaging narrative that opened up the next chapter, while bringing the current one to a close.
Much of what makes ‘Uprising’ work is the way the supporting cast comes together when they find themselves taking on the leading role in a collective fashion. Roy and Laurel are a surprisingly dynamic duo, making for an exciting opening sequence that finds time for a little coy network synergy with a well-timed Flash joke at Roy’s expense. But when two masked avengers aren’t enough to topple Brick’s army, the idea of collectively tackling the problem takes on a surprisingly literal connotation, as Black Canary and Arsenal use their connections (like Ted Grant and Sin) to raise an army of their own. It’s another “the people rally behind the heroes” scenario that borders on being too familiar, but the way the episode stages a massive and well-executed street brawl – a la Gangs of New York – becomes further evidence of just how well directed and organized this series has become.
Of course, there are matters of importance that go beyond the return of the Arrow and how his arrival at the episode’s end is marked more by a symbolic contribution than the physical one he usually brings. Captain Lance is now aware the woman behind the Canary’s mask isn’t Sara – and after the lengths to which the team went to convince him it was, it seems likely that some very tough choices lie ahead for Laurel.
There will be tough choices for everyone on Team Arrow, now that Oliver’s mission is to prepare for the inevitable arrival of Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Assassins. As the episode was so eager to suggest, the battle that lies ahead isn’t just for the lives the League may see as forfeit, it is also a battle to see if Oliver and Malcolm can ever truly erase the stigma of having been killers.
Arrow returns next Wednesday with ‘Canaries’ @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: