[This is a review or Arrow season 3, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
At one point or another, most stories on Arrow find a way to revolve around secrets and lies. It’s an inevitable facet of a show where the central protagonist spends a sizeable chunk of his time running around a city in a mask and a hood. The concept of a “secret identity” pretty much necessitates the need for near-constant deception. But as the list of people who know Oliver’s secret grows, those who remain in the dark take on a different kind of role, wherein their relationship to either Oliver or the Arrow exists in a precarious state of the audience wondering when the other shoe will drop.
In season 2, the series found great results in bringing Det. Lance into the fold as an ally to the Arrow. The catch being that Lance remained blissfully unaware the secret underneath the vigilante’s hood.
As the series continues its investigation into what it means for Oliver to balance the two sides of his identity, and whether or not there can ever truly be two equal and separate halves, it has found a fascinating outlet by which it can flip the script and examine what it’s like for other characters to keep Oliver (and the rest of Team Arrow, for that matter) in the dark about their own double lives.
The idea that Thea would get to have a secret from Oliver levels the playing field in their personal dynamic. In terms of how deep the deception actually goes, Thea’s alliance with Malcolm Merlyn gives the character a newfound purpose and direction, validating the ways in which the events of last season (i.e., finding out Merlyn was her father, and, certainly, the death of her mother) had an impact on her. These were not just things that were meant to be important simply because they happened and happened to be surprising; they’ve shaped Thea into a different individual whose path, for the first time, is more unpredictable and fascinating.
To a certain degree, the same can be said of Laurel in the wake of Sara’s murder. There’s legitimate change taking place that gives her a more distinct arc – one that, unsurprisingly, is reminiscent of Oliver’s when he first returned to Starling City. That parallel raises an interesting question that adds a layer to the mystery of Sara’s murder beyond answering the question of who was responsible. And if the series is going to continue using the character’s death as a catalyst for its storylines, acknowledging the impact of Sara’s demise in ways that alters the foundation of those left behind has so far yielded positive results.
The trick of ‘The Magician’ then is to find a way for Sara’s death and Thea’s transformation to travel the same path, so as to not seem entirely incongruous. This raises an interesting question as to how close these two threads even need to come to one another. They are both clear and distinct enough in their function and purpose that they can satisfyingly exist apart. But the episode merges them in a way that not only successfully elevates the tension surrounding the lies Oliver and his sister are telling one another, but also provides the first plausible explanation for who killed Sara.
When Nyssa al Ghul rolls into Starling City, the episode wastes no time in using her as a catalyst for Oliver to be reacquainted with Malcolm and in doing so, force him to evaluate his vow not to take another person’s life. Naturally, being surrounded by killers and the vengeance-minde (see: Nyssa, Malcolm, and Laurel), Oliver’s vows are seen as a sign of weakness – juxtaposed nicely by the series’ insistence that they are, in fact, a primary indication of his strength. And after hearing the theory that Ra’s al Ghul was behind Sara’s assassination, Oliver’s decision to place Malcolm Merlyn under his protection may well prove to be the test on which the season’s storyline hinges and is ultimately elevated above the otherwise simple prospect of finding Sara’s killer and bringing him or her to justice.
‘The Magician’ doesn’t just aim to expand the ramifications of a murder mystery by introducing Ra’s at the end and having him proclaim war on Starling City, it also deepens the dynamic between Oliver and Malcolm in a way that goes beyond base conflict or divergence of ideologies. One of the things the series has done so well this season is to develop the moments between characters by examining their actions and motivations beyond their importance to the plot. This is seen most plainly when Malcolm confronts and convinces Oliver of his innocence regarding Sara’s death by using their shared connection to Thea and, interestingly enough, Starling City. Malcolm and Oliver think of both as theirs to protect; the only difference is in the lengths to which they’re willing to go in order to do so.
As Malcolm confirms, he’s a killer and he knows it. That’s who he is. It is the one thing he has in common with Nyssa and the League of Shadows as well. Oliver seems to know who he is as well, but recent events have tested that. And for a season that wants to dabble in themes of identity, having the protagonist take a provocative stand that could prove deadly is a great way to make that theme resonate.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with ‘The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak’ @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: