[This is a review of Arrow season 3, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
Remember when Oliver Queen fought Ra's al Ghul (Matt Nable) in a trial by combat and not only lost the fight, but seemingly lost his life as well? As far as shocking midseason finale cliffhangers go, Arrow seems pretty confident that putting a sword through its protagonist and then kicking him off a cliff will provide the appropriate wattage to sufficiently jolt the audience.
After a week crossing over with The Flash to ratings success, 'The Climb' brings Arrow back to the task hand. In other words: dealing with the ongoing investigation of Sara's murder. That investigation took a strange but compelling leap forward when, with the help of S.T.A.R. Labs, Team Arrow found a DNA match on the arrows used to kill Sara. The culprit: Oliver Queen, apparently. It was the kind of twist that seemed to play right into Arrow's storytelling method, by underlining Oliver's history as a killer, while at the same time providing enough of a mystery that unraveling how the genetic fingerprints of the Arrow could wind up at the scene of a season-defining crime was a compelling shift.
As the investigation into Sara's murder has played out over the season, it became the through-line for many of the episodes. After all, it even worked its way into the biggest television crossover The CW has ever attempted. The concern, though, was that it would always lead to one inevitable conclusion: the culprit would be identified, apprehended, and punished. The wrinkle that Oliver's DNA posed helped the writers work their way around solving the murder, without necessarily resolving the issue of the murder. When Oliver was quick to point a finger at Malcolm Merlyn, only to discover that the individual who actually let the arrows fly was none other than his now-deadly sister, Thea, the notion of a quick resolution went off a cliff faster than Oliver's shirtless body.
'The Climb' had to do some impressive narrative gymnastics in order to make the Thea-as-Sara's-killer reveal work. That meant tying the flashbacks to the present day via a subplot about a mind-controlling substance that just so happens to grow in Corto Maltese – i.e., the location of Thea's epic summer holiday with dad. Despite the fact that whenever Arrow tries a direct one-to-one correlation with its flashbacks it's like trying to do a triple lindy on a balance beam, the series ended up scoring fairly high marks with its wildly ambitious routine.
It's hard to argue with video evidence like the kind Merlyn showed Oliver, so there was a rather potent "deal with it" vibe to the whole thing that was accentuated by John Barrowman's haughty exit after being choke slammed onto Verdant's bar. Then again, it's hard to argue with Oliver being killed by the "head of the demon," so welcome to the strange and exciting world of comic book adaptations. At any rate, Malcolm and Thea's role in Sara's death acts as the appropriate catalyst for Oliver to confront Ra's and to take the story to new heights – or lows as it turns out.
That sinking feeling is brought on by a heavy discussion of death throughout the episode. This is especially true of the B and C plots, involving Laurel telling basically everyone but her father that Sara's dead, and Ray's admission that he was helpless to save his fiancée from Slade's mirakuru warriors. The Laurel storyline still isn't going anywhere, but giving her the chance to unburden herself, just a little, lets the series crack the window and let some air in. It's a bit of a stretch that Dinah Lance would accept Laurel's "Sara ran with a tough crowd" excuse, especially when it was followed by "don't tell dad." But Dinah's urging her surviving daughter to seek justice (or revenge) does at least help drive Laurel's inevitable transformation into Black Canary.
There's another transformation going on in the episode that's far more overt, however. By having his little sister be responsible for the crime that has fueled most of the season's storyline, Arrow essentially puts Oliver in the position of being her and her father's unlikely savior. And with the not-so-subtle suggestion that Ra's al Ghul has harnessed the power of a Lazarus pit – he's looking pretty good for a man who is, by all accounts, a septuagenarian (and perhaps even older than that) – Oliver's willingness to die for Thea and Malcom's sins turns him into a fairly unambiguous Christ figure. And with the power of resurrection already having been insinuated, the figurative transformation is made complete.
Although it was a bit clunky, jumping around in time and from character to character, 'The Climb' managed to stick the landing by delivering an ambitiously staged showdown that took the narrative and its protagonist to a place it's never been – and no, that doesn't mean the top of a snowy mountain. What the ramifications of Oliver's temporary demise will be, and answers to how the implicit introduction of the more fantastical aspects of Ra's al Ghul's character will impact the larger Arrow universe (the possibility that death may no longer carry the weight it once did) will have to wait until the series returns in late January. But one thing is for sure: if the Arrow writers wanted to make sure fans returned in 2015, this is probably the best way to ensure that happens.
Arrow will return on Wednesday, January 21, with 'Left Behind' @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: