[This is a review of Arrow season 2, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
As the level of storytelling and development of character has steadily improved over the course of season 2, the ambitions of the Arrow writers rooms seems to have increased as well. And that has largely taken what was once a problematically large cast of characters and turned it into the kind of supporting operation the show has always been searching for. Sure, the show is still trying to find the right fit for one or two of the characters whose roles and purpose have changed as the series' roster unexpectedly grew between season 1 and season 2, but, seeing as how the show has risen to the challenge of surpassing what it accomplished last season, there's a better than average chance the writers will find the right fit for all involved.
In that regard, using Arrow as the launch pad for the introduction of one of DC's more recognizable heroes with the Flash doesn't just feel like a move made in the interest of The CW and their upcoming programming schedule; it feels like a part of the natural progression of a world fans are likely interested in seeing open out. Last week's introduction of Grant Gustin's very green Barry Allen was the first major step in changing everything about the world Oliver Queen and his gradually expanding Team Arrow did all of their superheroing in. And in order to follow through on that, the mid-season finale had a great deal of heavy lifting to do. But rather than feel like a burden, it began to feel like the series was officially turning the page toward something different that still managed to feel like the natural progression of the Arrow narrative.
There seems to be a trend over at Arrow where Oliver is treated to a series of unsettling visitations during the holidays, and for some reason this feels completely appropriate. Last year's mid-season finale, 'Year's End,' saw Ollie haunted by the wraith-like Dark Archer – who wound up being revealed not only as Malcolm Merlyn, but also as the primary antagonist for the remainder of the season. 'Three Ghosts' delivers much the same kind of story, in that it reveals the circumstances behind Brother Blood's desire to create an army of super soldiers is actually part of a larger plan of vengeance being carried out by none other than Oliver's former comrade Slade Wilson.
Normally this revelation would be enough to drive a single episode, but 'Three Ghosts' goes the extra mile and manages to balance out the disclosure of Slade's intent with the continuation of Oliver's battle against the superpowered Cyrus Gold (a.k.a. Solomon Grundy) – all while managing to find time to throw Roy, Det. Lance, and even Laurel into the story, without any of it feeling extraneous. Oh, and did I mention that Barry Allen makes Oliver a handy-dandy mask, and later winds up being struck by a bolt of lightning from a cloud of recently accelerated particles? It's a huge episode to be sure, as it introduces a number of compelling threads for the series to explore when it comes back from hiatus, but it also manages to give Oliver a second crack at tanning Cyrus' rather durable hide – affording the episode the opportunity to reach some sort of a conclusion, rather than existing primarily to set the table for storylines to come.
But at least those potential storylines all seem like an interesting extension of what the Arrowverse has managed to develop so far. Bringing Slade into the present makes the island flashbacks infinitely more interesting, as the character has transitioned from mentor to potential nemesis, after Oliver rushed to save Sara's life over Shado's when Dr. Ivo was threatening the two women. While Ivo's motivations for making Oliver choose, or even for wanting to kill either of the women in the manner he did were a little murky, the larger payoff of it becoming the impetus for Slade's rage makes it easy to overlook. There's a potential downside to Slade's story given that we know its beginning and where it will eventually end up, which means the filler is going to consist of the writers showing their work with some tricky narrative math, but that's essentially the entire purpose of the island flashback's anyway. Besides, this season Arrow has integrated the flashbacks into the main plot by more than just theme, so there's reason to believe that Slade's dual roles will only reinforce that as a positive.
'Three Ghosts' also took some time to expand the narratives of Roy and Felicity – though only by having the latter character openly admit to having feelings for Oliver. It's a little rote, but at least it is something for the show to build on, and a potential romantic plot between two likeable characters is fairly inevitable anyway, so pointing Felicity's character arc toward the establishment of a more emotional connection between her and Ollie could work out to strengthen the already strong bond there seems to be with the core Team Arrow characters. While, Diggle's mostly been in the background since his near-starring role in 'Keep Your Enemies Closer,' he's at least been the focal point of a storyline, so hopefully the continual examination of Felicity's feelings for Oliver will lead to a weightier narrative for her.
Finally, in an episode that didn't shy away from handing out promising plotlines like some sort of showrunning Kris Kringle, Arrow has finally brought young Roy Harper into the thick of it, while at the same time explaining the purpose (at least the narrative purpose) of Oliver putting an arrow through his young assistant's leg last episode. Apparently mistaken for little more than a thieving street rat, Roy is taken hostage by Brother Blood and injected with the super solider serum. Roy in peril and his subsequent rescue by Arrow is nothing new, but his surviving the serum injection serves as a potentially monumental game changer for the character that could accelerate his evolution into becoming the hero he's been working to become since last season.
At any rate, 'Three Ghosts' was a potent mix of fan service moments (Colin Donnell's brief appearance was a welcome sight) and table setting for the season to come. Arrow has proven itself to be more than a reliable performer this season; it seems to be interested in developing a progressively deeper narrative and mythology that gives everyone something to look forward to when the series returns next month.
Arrow will return on Wednesday, January 15, 2014 with 'Blast Radius' on The CW. Check out a preview below:
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