After eight episodes that have ranged from nerve-wracking to nonsensical, Arrow heads into the winter hiatus after the airing of “The Climb” on Wednesday night. Coming on the heels of last week’s stellar two-part crossover event with sister show The Flash, fans everywhere had some pretty high hopes for the midseason finale.
We can only hope that some of those fans are still alive.
The real identity of Sara’s killer was revealed. Malcolm Merlyn showed his true colors. The League of Assassins came to Starling City. Ray Palmer has plans to go high-tech vigilante and wants Felicity’s help. Thea has been brainwashed. The flashbacks had organic relevance to the current story. Women fought with katanas.
Oh, and Ra’s al Ghul ran Oliver through with a sword and kicked him off a cliff in a scene complete with elegiac background music and a tear-jerking death montage.
It was kind of a big deal.
So much happened that it was very nearly too much for a single episode in a season that has so far suffered from serious pacing issues. Somehow, however, “The Climb” worked. It was an exhausting hour of television in all of the best ways, and what shortcomings there were in basic execution were overwhelmed by the emotional resonance of the episode as a whole. It was not perfect, but it was well enough balanced that “The Climb” will undoubtedly go down as among best installments of the series as a whole and certainly one of the best of Season 3. So, here is what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to happen next after the midseason finale of Arrow.
What Worked: Ever since the devastating Season 3 premiere, the main arc has centered on the death of Sara Lance. There have been missteps along the way, and the mystery has lacked a sense of urgency as Team Arrow consistently put the murder investigation on hold to deal with the Catastrophe Of The Week. “The Climb” finally gave us some forward movement and a definitive answer: Thea Queen killed Sara. Granted, she was brainwashed by a South American drug slipped to her by her diabolical biological dad, but the arrows embedded in Sara’s abdomen were loosed not from the bow of the father but of the daughter.
It was a shocking reveal, made more so by the fact that even casual viewers would know enough to realize that any plan to use Thea as a patsy would have to be fundamentally rather ridiculous. Fortunately, Arrow could draw on the crazed charisma of John Barrowman’s Malcolm Merlyn to sell the twist. Sure, the scheme to manipulate Thea into murdering Sara so that Oliver would take the blame to spare his sister the League of Assassins and best Ra’s al Ghul in a trial by combat in order to erase Malcolm’s blood dead was a smidge convoluted, but Malcolm has always had such an air of unhinged confidence in himself that we could believe that he really thought that this was the best plan to remove the League as a threat to his own survival. This is the man who orchestrated the Undertaking to level an entire section of the city as vengeance for the mugging of his wife twenty years prior; Malcolm would try something like this.
The reveal that Malcolm used Thea to commit murder casts their relationship in a new light. John Barrowman always managed to sell that Malcolm did love her in his own way, and any future interactions between the two will be colored by the events of “The Climb.”
And theirs is not the only one. Although the disconnect between Oliver and Laurel continues without any detriment to the show, the other main relationships of Arrow had moments in the spotlight to remind us of why Oliver both needs and wants these people in his life. His farewells to his loved ones as he set his affairs in order were so surprisingly simple and true to the characters that they were more effective than any theatrics. Oliver was not purposefully marching to his death as he had planned in the final episodes of Season 2; Oliver was leaving for a fight, and he intended to come back.
While each of his four farewells was touching in its own way, Oliver’s last scene with Felicity deserves special mention. She was angry and desperate and scared as she told him to break his own vow and kill Ra’s al Ghul. Oliver was sad and certain and trying not to scare her as he prepared to leave. Felicity had seen him survive gruesome wounds and come back time and time again against astronomical odds, but this did not feel like a battle from which he could return whole. Oliver had suffered and bled and broken, but he had never been beaten so badly that he couldn’t come back at all. She tried not to cry as he kissed her on the forehead with more intimacy than he could have achieved if he’d swept her off her feet and dipped her…and he told her that he loved her. “I love you,” he said, smiling and shrugging as though it was the most natural thing in the world and that this was neither the first nor last time that he would say it. He was not forced to say it as part of a ruse to capture a supervillain. He did not say it backwards as he ended their relationship. He said it because he loved her, and he didn’t need to hear it back. There could be time for that later.
The biggest scene to deserve special—if significantly less heartwarming—mention is the mountaintop fight between Ra’s al Ghul and Oliver Queen.
Technically, the confrontation was a duel between two willing parties. Practically, however, the fight was more or less a one-sided exercise in brutality. Despite the fact that Oliver does draw blood and strike a blow serious enough to unnerve Nyssa, Ra’s defeats Oliver with frightening ease, because of course he does. He is the leader of the League of Assassins who has killed thousands of people and trained the likes of Sara and Nyssa. Still, never before had we seen Oliver so badly wounded on screen, and the moment that Ra’s disarms Oliver and stabs him through the side was difficult to comprehend on first watch. It made sense for Oliver to lose, but he couldn’t actually die, right?
“Death comes for us all,” says Ra’s al Ghul as he stands over our bleeding hero. “Consider this an honorable exit.”
Then he runs Oliver through with a sword and kicks him off of a cliff. Oliver was killed in a duel with Ra’s al Ghul, and it was awful and impossible and…kind of awesome. Oliver’s death was more brutal than that of Sara Lance, but the entire scene was treated with such desolate dignity that it was heartbreaking rather than infuriating. The haunting melody, his disbelief that he was dying, the flashbacks to his parents, the image of his sister, the memory of his first and last kiss with Felicity…it was an honorable exit, and the writers at least somewhat redeemed themselves for the mangling of Sara’s.
Of course, it was not the writing that had viewers everywhere sniffling. Stephen Amell sold the scene so exceptionally that we could really believe that the titular character of a show only in its third season had died on screen. In fact, he carried the entire episode on his delightfully broad (and finally bare) shoulders, shining in everything from Oliver’s love confession to Felicity to his unexpected masked fisticuffs with Thea to his last moments alive. Even better, the epic fight between Oliver and Ra’s al Ghul may have been cut together to allow Matt Nable’s stunt double some anonymity, but it was very clear throughout the whole sequence that Amell was handling Oliver’s side all on his own. The other actors rose to the occasion for the most part as well, although Katie Cassidy needs some new material to emote over if we are to care at all about Laurel, and Alex Kingston’s American accent remains not the most convincing ever to cross the pond.
What Didn’t Work: Sadly, even the greatest performances would not be enough to salvage a certain chunk of this episode’s storyline. While Team Arrow actively dealt with the ramifications of Sara’s death in the conflict with the League of Assassins, Laurel Lance continued to flounder around in her own anger and refuse to share the truth of her sister’s murder with any of the people who most deserve to know. While Laurel tells her boxing coach and her ex-boyfriend’s little sister that Sara was killed, she keeps her father in the dark on the pretense that his health that permits him to run a police precinct on a daily basis will not allow him to survive a forthright conversation about his youngest daughter’s mortality. Even the visiting Dinah only found out that Sara was dead by intuiting that something was wrong and confronting Laurel, which was really a step forward until she became Laurel’s Enabler Of The Week by voicing her support for Laurel’s vague but furious assertion that she’s going to make Sara’s killer suffer. As far as Dinah knows, Laurel is still just an attorney with questionable judgment who happens to be her only surviving daughter. For Dinah to encourage Laurel on this misguided quest is unlikely at best.
Less irritating but also iffy is the continued unfolding of Ray Palmer’s storyline. As always, he toed the line between eccentric and inappropriate as he tracked Felicity via GPS to discuss with her a personal topic that she’d already dismissed. Brandon Routh has been the character’s saving grace, infusing in Ray enough charm and humor that his interest in Felicity isn’t entirely unsettling. The problem is that his scenes often feel as though they have been copied and pasted from the script of another show, changing the tone to one more fitting with a lighthearted case-of-the-week on The Flash than the life-or-death tension of the Arrow midseason finale. Felicity had more important things to worry about than Ray’s tragic backstory.
On a final note: How on earth did Thea not recognize her brother in the Arrow suit? Oliver left her, unsatisfied after she would not answer questions about Malcolm Merlyn, and then the Oliver-shaped Arrow with Oliver-esque stubble appears in the loft that she shares with Oliver to continue the line of questioning. Come on, Thea. Although, considering her crop top/sparkly hammer pants ensemble, it’s entirely possible that her eyes weren’t working in “The Climb.”
What Needs To Happen Next: As far as midseason finales go, “The Climb” checked all of the right boxes. There was the requisite lack of conclusion, but the dignity and class with which Oliver’s death was handled on screen kept any sense of deliberate spectacle out of the ending. This wasn’t any typical cliffhanger, not least because the hero of the story literally fell off of a cliff. It was an ending, but an ending that opened up so many future plotlines that we can be eager to return in January rather than frustrated and searching for spoilers. The show can do an awful lot with the fact that Oliver Queen is dead.
The most important of which is to resurrect him. Poetic ending aside, the show is named for him. He’s not gone for good, and Arrow must find a way to handle his return without setting too much of a precedent for coming back from the dead. Arrow has always been a comic book show rooted in reality, and even the more fantastical elements have had scientific explanations. To bring Oliver back, the show must delve into mysticism previously absent from the plot. For the midseason premiere to claim that Oliver’s injuries and subsequent fall from a cliff did not actually kill him would be more ridiculous than however they choose to bring him back; as long as it’s handled carefully, this could be one of the most fascinating threads of the series to date.
Protagonist resurrection aside, the second portion of the third season really needs to feature some truth-telling in Starling City. Even if Oliver maintains his stance that Thea not know about his identity as the Arrow, she deserves to know about what Malcolm has done to her. Similarly, Quentin Lance deserves to know that his daughter is dead. He’s going to find out eventually, and Laurel drawing it out more and more each week does her character a disservice that she certainly does not need and tries our patience as the sense of contrivance escalates.
Also, the show needs to take its time in the establishment of Laurel as Black Canary. The character is a petite, comparatively sheltered thirty-year old lawyer with no previous offensive fighting techniques that would be useful in vigilantism. If she suddenly becomes a hero on par with characters like Oliver and Sara who have literally spent the majority of their time either working out or fighting crime after learning to fight dirty in the most extreme conditions over a period of five years in their twenties, the Canary 2.0 story is going to be a chore to slog through.