Arrow Season 3 Episode 21
Arrow picks up the pieces from Oliver’s acceptance of Ra’s Al Ghul’s offer and begins the long process of ascension to that throne.
Having Oliver become the villain of his own story is an interesting twist that I really didn’t expect. From earlier conversations it was set up that once Oliver became the new Ra’s Al Ghul he could do whatever he wanted with the League of Assassins but the fallout when Oliver declined implied that it would never be that easy and that was proven here.
The problem is that it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to have it done this way. Despite the mixed messages I always got the impression that Ra’s Al Ghul wanted a true successor rather than another mindless drone who would do his bidding so I don’t really understand what rationale is behind him spending all this time putting Oliver through a rigorous brainwashing ritual to make him become a willing subject? How effective can he really be as a reader if he’s completely obedient in this robotic sort of way.
It probably has a lot to do with the fact that the brainwashing sequence was painfully underdone and doesn’t give enough detail about what’s going on. I get the impression that Ra’s Al Ghul is breaking Oliver down and rebuilding him effectively in his own image but that doesn’t actually come across. Maybe if there had been an entire episode devoted to just that then it would have been better developed. The opportunity was there to really explore this deconstruction given how emotionally vulnerable Oliver has been this season. I could see the story of Oliver Queen being torn apart being really compelling so it’s unfortunate that this episode chooses to rush past it.
Having said that, when Oliver returned to Starling City to track down Nyssa I really got the impression that the man Oliver once was has been almost completely suppressed. He was ruthless and uncompromising with no apparent morality holding him back. It’s an Oliver we’ve never seen and he crosses lines that I never thought he would. The kidnapping of Lyla shows just how far gone he is and his apparent lack of remorse is at times very chilling.
Seeing the effect this has on the rest of the characters really helps to sell it. At the start of the episode everyone mourns him as if he had died and in a sense he really has. It’s the second time this season that the team has had to do this but the circumstances are far different this time. They know he’s not actually dead so that brings comfort this time but it doesn’t mean that they’ll ever see him again. The scene where they toast him as “gone but never forgotten” really sums up the camaraderie built up over the past 3 seasons.
The reaction when Oliver returns is great and unique to each character. Felicity refuses to accept that the Oliver Queen she knows could ever become what Nyssa warns them of. When she experiences it first hand she is understandably horrified and has real trouble holding it together. She can just about accept that he’s gone to join the League of Assassin’s but having him become the personification of everything he’s fought against is too much for her. There’s a bit of the “I feel the good in you” nonsense but the rest of it is played sincerely so I’ll let it slide.
Diggle’s reaction is a little more pragmatic but he’s always the guy who sucks it up and get on with it. He’s angry that his friend has turned into this and relates it to his military experience where he sees people changed by their combat experience. He finds it difficult to believe as Oliver is the strongest man he’s ever known but it doesn’t mean that he won’t fight him when the occasion falls for it. With his family threatened Diggle is willing to do pretty much anything to ensure their safety.
Thea is someone I can’t really figure out at this point. She seems to have returned from beyond the grave relatively unscathed. There’s no real indication of any significant change in her after her ordeal. She’s eager to join the team and later take down Oliver but that’s all stuff she would have happily done before. She proves instrumental to the episode as she’s the one who managed to make Oliver stop and wake up slightly. Amell played the look of anger and shock when Thea attacked him perfectly.
Stephen Amell was completely on point this week with a really unsettling performance as a servant of Ra’s Al Ghul. He is completely committed to his mission and nothing can stand in his way. Physicality has always been one of Amell’s strengths but this week he really managed to be imposing in a way he never has before. He was definitely a force to be reckoned with and nobody could stand in his way. The fact that he pretty much achieved his objective is a testament to how much of a threat he has become.
I really liked how Nyssa was handled in this episode. She hasn’t really been seen since her banishment from Nanda Parbat but the friendship she has built with Laurel is really cool to see. Laurel is teaching her to be a “normal person” while Nyssa teacher her how to fight. Laurel still really sucks in that department but at least she has her Ciscod -it should become a thing- Canary Cry to help her out in tough spots.
Nyssa was just starting to settle into her life in Starling City and let her guard down a little. The contrast between Oliver losing his humanity and Nyssa gaining hers could have been a stronger theme but it worked fine for the most part. I think with a bit of retooling this episode could really have focused on the deconstructing of Oliver and the building of Nyssa so it’s a shame the opportunity is missed.
Katrina Law got to add more shades to Nyssa as she is more relaxed in Laurel’s company. Seeing her baffled at the notion of fried food is just hilarious. Having her fall back into her “all business” persona when she needed to was great as well. She seemed like a strong enough opponent for Oliver while making her defeat seem credible. Her disgust when Ra’s Al Ghul told her that she’d be marrying Oliver for some reason was nicely played as well.
I’ve touched on this above but Ra’s Al Ghul really isn’t making sense as a character at the moment. He wants a suitable heir fine but all the rituals seem to contradict each other. Oliver was recognised because of his steely determination and skills so surely those would need to be intact for him to be that effective heir. It just doesn’t make sense that Ra’s Al Ghul would program him in this way because he’ll never be an effective leader like this.
The scene where Ra’s Al Ghul talked about how he got into the position and setting up Damien Darhk as another long lived opponent and head of the organisation H.I.V.E. worked really well. I don’t know much about this character but making him the only man who remains undefeated by Ra’s Al Ghul already bumps up the threat level. It’s also interesting to hear about a time where Ra’s Al Ghul failed to act and the consequences it had for him. I get that he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Oliver but I feel like the conversation should be had on more even ground rather than this jumped up yes man that Oliver has become.
All of these rituals seem to contradict each other in some ways. Apparently Oliver almost killing Nyssa was enough to prove his loyalty and now he gets to marry her to help with his ascension. I found myself actually saying “What?” when that came up. Fair enough Nyssa’s hatred of Oliver and Ra’s Al Ghul makes for some good drama but I don’t see what benefit this has to anyone. It’s almost as if Ra’s Al Ghul is making it up as he goes along.
The last ritual that Oliver has to observe is the destruction of his old life. He needs to remove any ties he has to it and in this case it means mass genocide of Starling City involving the Alpha Omega virus. Well, we all know that won’t be happening. I did like how it was foreshadowed with Ra’s Al Ghul walking Oliver through the ruins of his old home as well as the mention of it happening in Alexandria by his predecessor. What would Nyssa have had to do? Destroy Nanda Parbat? That’s her home isn’t it? I also wonder if Oliver is just pretending to be loyal and waiting for his opportunity to strike or we’re going to have a cheesy Felicty/Thea talks him out of it next week.
I found the flashbacks to be a little more relevant than they have been of late but they still derailed the episode in a big way. It seems to be an attempt to draw out the conflict with Shrieve’s forces as long as possible rather than actually develop characters in any meaningful way. We’re finally at the point where Maseo and Tatsu are about to lose their son so we’re slowly getting there. It was also effective to see what Starling City could soon be in for.
This episode both worked and didn’t in different ways. A clumsy handling of the main subject matter and several notable missed opportunities bring the episode down.
Oliver’s transformation into Al Sah-Him feels entirely rushed becoming little more than a short montage sequence where Ra’s Al Ghul has him brainwashed into being a willing servant. If he is to be the next Ra’s Al Ghul then I would think he should have more agency than he currently does.
The ascension rituals don’t make a lot of sense and Ra’s Al Ghul’s motivation seems to be all over the place. There are some genuinely great scenes that develop his character but on the whole I found it a bit confusing. If the episode had been devoted to Oliver’s transformation this would have come across better.
Stephen Amell does a fantastic job of portraying the singularly focused and ruthless Oliver who stops at nothing to complete his mission. There are lines he crosses that anyone who knows him could never imagine and the level of pain he causes to his team in an emotional sense is very powerful.
Felicity’s reaction being one of anger, pain and disbelief works really well. She could never imagine Oliver becoming what he has and she is unable to accept it even when she sees it with her own eyes. She was just about able to deal with him being gone but this is too much.
Diggle’s reaction is much stronger and he manages to get on with it. He no longer sees his friend and is completely committed to making sure his family is safe no matter what he’ll have to do to ensure that this happens. He finds it difficult to accept that Oliver could become this as well but he remains strong throughout it.
Thea is desperate to be useful to the point where she gears up and tries to take Oliver down. The show isn’t really doing anything with her being resurrected by the Lazarus Pit as she seems to be the same as she has always been.
Nyssa is handled really well here as Laurel shows her a bit of what “normal life” is like. After her banishment Nyssa has started to settle down a bit and enjoy her life. It’s all doomed to be taken from her when Ra’s Al Ghul sends Oliver after her but it’s good to see Katrina Law give Nyssa more depth than usual.
I’ll be interested to see how the last ritual involving Oliver destroying Starling City with the Alpha Omega virus plays out. It obviously won’t happen but I wonder how the show will approach the resolution of this.
The flashbacks were a little more relevant but seem to exist to draw out the conflict with Shriek’s forces. Seeing the virus in action gives a good indication of what could happen to Starling City though.