[This is a review of Arrow season 3, episode 21. There will be SPOILERS.]
Over the past few weeks, as Arrow has been busy shifting around the pieces of what will ultimately become season 3's endgame, the individual episodes have felt somewhat disjointed. There were segments that seemed momentous, but also seemed to go by so quickly they failed to be as emotionally resonant as they had intended to be. Roy's incarceration and his subsequent faked death would be a prime example, while Thea's near death and resurrection after being dipped into the Lazarus Pit would be another. Couple that with the Oliver/Felicity/Ray love triangle, Ollie's decision to accept Ra's al Ghul's offer, and the seemingly disparate flashback storyline of Oliver, Maseo and Tatsu, battling Gen. Shrieve, and you have one very crowded storyline.
What 'Al Sah-him' manages to do, then, is to take all those elements and put them into a far more coherent package - one that has the various threads compliment one another, rather than push and pull in opposite directions. The episode does this by splitting its time between what's left of Team Arrow, trying to come to grips with Oliver's decision, and, naturally, Oliver himself, as he begins his training to assume the mantle of head of the demon. It even manages to make the flashback sequences more relevant to the plot at hand.
This marks the third time Starling City has been targeted for destruction by a super villain. It certainly makes sense to do this from a structural point of view. Not only does it make the bioweapon flashbacks necessary in terms of creating context, but it also raises the stakes of the present day storyline. This isn't Ra's al Ghul asking Al Sah-him to execute one of his friends; it is Ra's ordering his heir to destroy the city he once swore to protect. Those are some high stakes indeed, but considering the theme of sacrifice and love running through the second half of the season, one has to wonder whether such an amplification of the scope was really necessary, or if the personal implications of Oliver losing himself completely would have been not only enough, but also more satisfying.
Regardless what comes of the final two episodes, 'Al Sah-him' works because of the way it zeroes in on the season's thematic arc of identity by depicting Oliver's transformation into a singular entity – one who would murder Diggle on Ra's command, and return to Starling in search of Nyssa without bothering to so much as update his Facebook status to let Team Arrow know he's back from his extended stay abroad. And even though the final leg of Ollie's training/brainwashing is revealed to be a clever ruse – thanks to the potent herbage Nana Parbat has on hand, Oliver only thinks he's killing Dig – the end result still packs a punch, as it shows us an Oliver who is not only willing to kill once more, but is willing to kill a friend.
It's sort of a cheat to use drugs and brainwashing techniques off screen to bring about this change. Wouldn't it have been more satisfying to use the last few episodes to depict Oliver's transformation more gradually, to see him wrestle with the implications of giving himself over completely to the league, and maybe – in a moment of human weakness – see it as a form of welcome relief? Instead, it's a little like flipping a switch, making the new Oliver – or Al Sah-him – feel a little too removed from what we know, a little to conveniently robotic. It also lets Oliver off the hook for all of his actions during the episode, which might make for an easier return to the status quo - but it weakens impact of his transformation
The episode does set up an interesting contrast between Oliver and Nyssa that it attempts to explore through her relationship with Laurel. Again, it might have been to the season's benefit to stretch the Nyssa-Laurel partnership out over the past few weeks, but the hands-on training sequence in the alley does an adequate job of yadda-yadda-ing over that aspect of their relationship. Besides, the real payoff comes from Laurel introducing Nyssa to junk food. There's something charming in the way the two talk with one another over some burgers and milkshakes that humanizes Nyssa and Laurel, showing how both are more than what's under a hood or mask. The moment also effectively reminds viewers of Sara, without actually having to refer to her by name.
Those kind of precise character moments are important when setting up a finale, and they're especially important when Ra's reveals that his intention for his daughter is not to have Al Sah-him execute her, but to marry her. Ra's patriarchal machinations make sense in terms of where the storyline might be heading resolution-wise, but that does little to assuage the sense that the situation is leaning a little too much on convention. What's worse is that it puts the series in a position where it should address the larger cultural, sexual, and political notions this plot development cannot help but touch on - and with everything the story is trying to achieve, it seem unlikely those aspects will get the attention they deserve.
Aside from Oliver and Nyssa's pending nuptials, and Ra's plans for Starling, the episode did manage to deliver some interesting and some not so interesting character moments. Thea goes to Malcolm for help, and gets to suit up and fire an arrow though Oliver's forearm, suggesting maybe the Lazarus Pit had more of an effect on her than previously thought. While that gives Thea some direction (along with learning Roy isn't dead), the same can't be said for Felicity, who is once more tasked with crying over Oliver. It's another tip of the hat towards convention, when the series would be better off going in another direction.
A Very Special League of Assassins Wedding isn't necessarily where this story seemed to be headed, but at least the season has a destination in mind - and is approaching that destination with conviction.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with 'This Is Your Sword' @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: