[This is a review of Arrow season 3, episode 20. There will be SPOILERS.]
After a few weeks of table setting, Arrow has pushed Oliver and the rest of Team Arrow as close as possible to Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Assassins. The result moves the plot to a place where it can examine the impact of Oliver fulfilling his supposed destiny as the heir to the demon, and to eventually assume the title currently held by the man ruining his life.
But more than move the plot forward, the events of ‘The Fall’ help bring the season’s thematic arc of Oliver’s duality back into focus in a more propulsive way than his complicated romance with Felicity had been able to offer. By the episode’s end, Oliver is being branded by Ra’s, clad head to toe in League of Assassin gear, and anointed Al Sah-him. The title is meant to be all he is, as the Oliver Queen persona must be shed as part of the cleansing ritual that included the aforementioned brand – making Ollie’s torso even more of a roadmap of pain.
Ra’s describes the events as something of a turning point for Oliver. He practically insists things will never be the same. And it’s easy to see why. In an episode that started with Thea being placed on life support after her bloody run-in with Ra’s, and eventually grew to Felicity and Oliver consummating their relationship on the eve of his “ultimate sacrifice,” things sure looked like Arrow was taking the character well past the point of no return.
But really, after all that – watching Thea be saved by the Lazarus Pit (a.k.a. the “magic hot tub”), listening to Malcolm’s protestations about what the pit will do to her, and seeing Oliver and Felicity (a.k.a. Olicity) finally act on their attraction to one another – seeing Oliver join the league, felt more like the beginning of a journey, and less like the turning point of the season. And with just three episodes remaining in season 3, that may be something of an issue.
The issue stems from the notion that, as they’ve been painted, the League of Assassins is actually a fairly interesting group. They walk the line between hero and villain rather well. If what Ra’s said earlier in the season is true, then the league answers to the will of the person leading it, meaning: they could be a force for good just as easily as a force for evil. That duality isn’t too far removed from the one Oliver has been battling since he pulled on the green hood and started “saving” Starling City. Oliver killed to send a message about crime and corruption; it was a message of fear that only went so far. And soon, Oliver found that the message was far more persuasive when it took on a more inspirational tone – one that encouraged others to take up arms against the lawless and saw his group swell to the point he was no longer a single vigilante but the leader of a team – doing a version of what the league does, just on a much smaller scale.
That’s why Oliver’s initial refusal of Ra’s offer (or demand, apparently) was so vexing. At the time, he’d rebuffed Felicity’s advances because he was convinced he could only be Oliver or the Arrow – not both. By retreating from a romantic relationship with the woman he loves, Oliver was ostensibly consigning himself to a life of being just the Arrow. Which means the conditions were perfect for him to accept the offer. And while there were interesting challenges in seeing Oliver combat the bad PR campaign Ra’s waged against his green-hooded alter ego, the fact that the storyline didn’t give the audience the final moment of ‘The Fall’ until now feels like a substantial storytelling opportunity was missed.
What might a league run by the Arrow have looked like? How would he handle having that much authority? Would he bend it to his will, or would he succumb to the corrupting influence of power? How would that have led Oliver to some sort of higher understanding of the necessity of balance in his two identities? These questions were likely on the tip of every fan’s tongue when Ra’s first made his offer. But more than being just questions, they present an outline that might have given the season more of a cohesive and propulsive through line, instead of the start and stop journey that was delivered after what looked like Oliver’s death.
And while the weight of Oliver’s decision is made clear (when what remains of Team Arrow returns to Starling), the sacrificial aspect of it is diluted, considering the position he was in. Sure, having Ra’s force Oliver’s hand in such a dramatic fashion demonstrated the lengths to which the antagonist would go in order to achieve his goals, but it puts a character who should be in the driver’s seat in a far more passive role. Oliver doesn’t make the choice to join the league on his own; he is forced. It’s an impossible situation that keeps the character ostensibly perfect – i.e., he makes a momentous personal sacrifice to save his sister’s life – when watching him be imperfect, and perhaps make the wrong decision for what he thinks are the right reasons might have yielded more compelling results. After all, one of the main attractions to Arrow during its first two seasons was the idea of watching a deeply flawed hero, one who actually began his career by choosing the wrong path.
It seems as though Oliver is on the wrong path yet again, but this time, rather than learn from it, he must bide his time until he can escape it. This will likely generate some action-packed results, but putting Oliver in impossible positions, where external forces dictate his decisions, will never be as interesting as the decisions he makes internally. With just three episodes left, lets hope the season focuses more on exploring the man Oliver is, and less on the circumstances forcing his hand.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with ‘Al Sah-him’ @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: