The CW’s Arrow ends its problematic third season, but there’s reason to have hope for the next one.
(WARNING: this might be very long, since aside from being a finale recap, I will attempt to diagnose this entire season of Arrow.)
“A man cannot live by two names.”
The third season of the CW’s Arrow has been, for lack of a better word, schizophrenic. After starting the season with a strong direction (who killed Sara?), it first became the story of an Oliver Queen on the lookout for new allies (does anyone else remember that this show had Wildcat on it? This season?) and helping build up old ones in the face of his own identity crisis. Soon after, he sacrificed himself for his sister’s safety, the allies he’d spent the first third of the season building up matured, and he became a member of the League of Assassins (and, for all the negatives of this show patterning itself off the Batman mythos without actually using Batman, having the broody hero actually take Ra’s al Ghul up on his offer was just novel enough to keep me interested in this storyline).
One of the most surprising things about this show’s first two seasons was how it used the pulpy, soap opera elements and “hot teens are sad” aesthetic of the CW to its advantage. In the first season, Oliver was a confused hot 20-something trying to find his way after five years (repeat after me, “on a hellish Island”) away with a new purpose, new friends (mostly hot 20-somethings) and a new outlook. Oliver saved his city, but at great cost. He lost his best friend, and he lost the admiration of the woman he used to love. The second season expanded those tropes by using Slade Wilson, who already sort of looks like the evil twin from your grandmother’s stories, as a conduit for a melodramatic revenge plot, but with ninjas and super soldier serums and a lot of explosions. It managed to balance the comic book tropes and the teen soap tropes expertly by realizing that they both operate on the same general wavelength: earnest pulpiness.
Season 3, despite seeming as though it would, never quite found that balance: sometimes too soapy, sometimes too confused, sometimes too beholden to franchise obligations (hello, Not Ray Palmer), and always unclear about who its villain was and what their motivations were. Malcolm Merlyn wanted to destroy the Glades. Slade Wilson wanted to destroy the Arrow. Ra’s al Ghul seemed to only want to destroy himself. Now, the endgame was finally, if perhaps a little too late, in place. The Arrow, otherwise known as Al Sah-him, is a man of many names, but until this final hour none of them were particularly Oliver Queen. He had betrayed his friends, married the daughter of the Demon and officially claimed his place as heir to one of the most sinister and destructive forces in DC Comics. In fact, for the last two or three weeks, he, the show’s namesake and central character, had been the antagonist. Despite the implausibility of this premise and the inevitability of the reveal of Oliver’s duplicity, it was potent enough to give me a clear sign of where the season was going, and what the season had actually been about all along.
After the least effective cliffhanger in the history of live action comic book adaptations, the Arrow crew wakes up, and Malcolm reveals that he subcutaneously dosed them all with the antidote to Omega, drawn from Oliver’s blood. After a brief cameo from The Flash (Tuesdays at 8 on the CW!), the crew returns to Starling City, where they are met by Oliver and Nyssa after a failed attempt to assassinate Ra’s al Ghul resulted in a brawl on a cargo plane, the immortal Ra’s leaping from said cargo plane, and the CGI crash of a cargo plane. Left alone with Diggle and Felicity, Oliver attempts to explain his plan, which was supposed to end with his death, and why Malcolm Merlyn, of all people, was the only other party in the know.
Truly, I enjoy this show’s refusal to have Diggle and Felicity, Oliver’s two most important allies, blindly accept his reasoning, sound as it might be. Just like Thea these last two years, they have every right to be pissed, and pissed they are. Strange that a show like this can make the main protagonist being punched out by his best friend such a cathartic moment, but Arrow did it. And at least it gives Diggle something to do, which is always welcome.
Soon after, Team Arrow figures out The Demon’s actual goal: to finally apprehend and destroy Damien Dahrk, his old nemesis, and it is to this episode’s credit that it does so. After sort of meandering through the season in a weird pre-retirement existential funk (he gave Felicity love advice, if you’ll remember), Matt Nable finally springs to life in the role, and Ra’s springs to life as a true antagonist as a result. After finding that Damian Dahrk left Starling, Ra’s goes full Adrian Veidt, revealing that he already put his grand plan to destroy the city in action 10 minutes ago.
After a mercifully brief Laurel/Quentin scene, Felicity confronts Oliver about his death wish, telling him that while Oliver Queen and The Arrow couldn’t defeat Ra’s, what he is now — what he has become — might be enough. It’s hokey, but it’s a vast improvement over the weeping shell Felicity has been most of this season, the cost of inheriting the “female lead on a CW show” from Laurel.
Back in Starling, Team Arrow splits up to find the four separate bio-weapons carried by the League while Oliver departs to confront Ra’s after being sent an envoy, knowing that his city will never truly be safe. After Thea, in full Arsenal gear, helps Diggle take down the first carrier, they discover that he is exactly that: a literal carrier for the virus. He commits suicide and releases the Omega weapon, causing widespread panic. After Nyssa, Laurel, and Malcolm defeat the other carriers without spilling their blood, Ray and Felicity begin working on a way to disseminate the innoculate (Ray’s words) using his nano-tech, the glorious scientific cure-all for all that ails this season (though at least it’s more in tune with the Ray Palmer of the comics and not the strange, albeit charmingly played amalgam of Blue Beetle and Iron Man Brandon Routh has been playing).
On the flashback front, things come to a head after Oliver tortures General Shrieve to near death, before Maseo finishes him and departs Hong Kong after the death of his son. While these flashbacks have been by far the weakest part of this season, they at least find some form of resolution. Maseo and Oliver are twisted into somewhat recognizable forms of the soulless husk and vengeful protector we see them as in the present day. Tatsu is left broken and in solitude, where she vows to return to in the first of the present scenes tonight. Oliver even utters what is probably, chronologically, his first “you have failed this city.” Strangely, after spending most of the flashbacks as an action prop, Oliver’s character isn’t really deepened very much. Only this last bit helps give more shade to what he was in the first season, and why he was so adamant on protecting Starling City: to stop it from being attacked like Hong Kong was. The fact that the same bioweapon is was used in Season 3 is, honestly, a weak attempt to tie these thematic elements together, but it at least gives some purpose to these flashbacks, which I’m really hoping will change dramatically next season.
Meanwhile, atop the Starling City dam, Oliver confronts (and loses to) Ra’s while Captain Lance and his men, who are under orders to take out both parties, look on. Lance, despite VERY REASONABLY hating Oliver, decides to inform Felicity, who immediately tells Ray to stop his vital work trying to save the entire city to save only Oliver. Ray, to his credit, asks what Oliver would do in the same situation. Then, surprisingly, Oliver turns the tables on Ra’s, guts him, and announces his usurpation. Ra’s smiles and congratulates him, and Oliver recites a prayer for his soul (the same prayer Ra’s offered him during their first encounter, and interestingly, one similar to what Tatsu offered for her son’s soul earlier in the episode). Ra’s dies, and Oliver is shot repeatedly by the nearby police sniper. He falls over the dam’s edge, and is rescued by the Atom. or at least Felicity in the Atom’s suit, which is a nifty compromise I assumed the show wouldn’t try.
After the break, Palmer’s nano-tech does its job, and Oliver makes a point that I think, perhaps, the show had been trying to make all season. Throughout this season, his friends had been cleaning up his messes, pointedly so during the finale, when they were busy saving people while Oliver was dueling the Demon. Oliver announces that he can no longer be the Arrow, and that the city is in good hands without him. He asks Felicity to leave with him for parts unknown, and she says her goodbyes to Ray as Oliver attempts to do the same with Diggle, who is noncommittal, but receptive. It’s an interesting way to wipe the slate clean for next season.
In the final flashback, Oliver and Tatsu part ways, with the former saying that he’s not quite ready to return to Starling, as his torture of Shrieve is proof that he’s not the man his father thought, and he’s not ready to take up the crusade to save Starling City. He boards a freighter to parts unknown.
In Thea’s flat, the Queen siblings say their goodbyes, with Thea wanting to be called “Red Arrow,” but Oliver insisting upon “Speedy.” Soon after, Oliver and Malcolm part ways as well, with the former slipping something into the latter’s hand. At Palmer’s lab, Ray attempts a “miniaturization test” which eventually blows up the top floor and inevitably sets up his tenure on Legends of Tomorrow, or whatever the Flash/Arrow spinoff is called.
In Nanda Parbat, Malcolm reveals that what Oliver slipped to him was the means to rule the League, to become the new Ra’s al Ghul. Nyssa, understandably upset, vows revenge for Sara’s death, but first, Malcolm reminds her, she must kneel. Oliver and Felicity make their way down an open highway, and Oliver says he’s…happy. It’s a cluttered, confusing ending to a cluttered, confusing season, but at least the first 45 minutes provide some thematic depth to the proceeding events. Arrow’s creators routinely mentioned that Season 3 would be to Season 4 what Season 1 was to Season 2: a building block, setting up the stakes. Oliver’s time on the Island both defined his crusade to save his city and provided him with it’s greatest obstacle. In that regard, these last few minutes are wildly successful. I want to see the show that they promise. The problem is that the show required to set them up wasn’t as fulfilling as it could have been. Sometimes too rushed, sometimes too drawn out, it was a problematic season on the whole, but not a terrible one. As our dearly (?) departed friend Ra’s al Ghul would say, a season of two names cannot live. This one died as confusingly as it lived, and I can’t say I’m entirely sad to see it go.
Finale Grade: B+
Season Grade: B