In his review of “Nanda Parbat” for the AV Club, Alasdair Wilkins concludes, “If there were ever a time for Oliver to be tempted by Ra’s al Ghul’s offer, this might honestly be it.” Now that pretty much everyone knows Oliver is the Arrow his extended family of crime fighters is ever growing, and they’re not all willing to fall in line when he dickishly tries to dictate order to them. Even Felicity has turned on him. Laurel and Thea are repeatedly pleading with him to simply be honest with them, something he seems pathologically incapable of. Ray Palmer, positioned since day one as a better version of Oliver, not only has Felicity now, but he finally has his glorified Iron Man suit. He’s primed to replace the Arrow as Starling City’s superhero of choice (what a strange world where that’s a choice). So, Oliver’s days of autocratic rule over Team Arrow might be over. The woman he used to love (Laurel) kind of hates him right now. Ditto for the woman he currently loves (Felicity). The season-long theme of Oliver’s identity crisis has reached a point where both his Oliver Queen and Arrow identities are shattering. Suddenly, his enemy claims to be his friend and is offering him the chance to be a dictator of an unquestioning army for the rest of his days. Throw in some green hoods and all the salmon ladders you could ever want and that sounds like Oliver’s wet dream, right?
But, wait, didn’t Oliver just tell all of Starling City literally two episodes ago that he would never leave them again?
Yeah…shut up about that. That pretty much went out the window when he left by the end of the next episode to go train with Thea on Lian Yu.
But, wait, what about Oliver’s whole no-killing philosophy? Doesn’t making a pacifist the leader of something called The League of Assassins kind of an oxymoron?
Yeah, well, Oliver’s not really a pacifist, but otherwise shut up about that. Oliver used a flame arrow to set a man on fire in this episode while his best buddy Diggle used an assault gun to mow people down. Imagine all the time he’d have to spend stalking the families of those new victims, buying the kids groceries and Christmas gifts and leaving money for the mother anonymously ala what Roy is up to.
But, wait, do you mean to tell me that all of this utter nonsense with Oliver needing to train with Malcolm to defeat Ra’s al Ghul was actually leading up to this?
If you know your Batman comics or even if you’ve simply seen the Batman: The Animated Series two-parter “The Demon’s Quest” this turn of events with Ra’s al Ghul can’t be that surprising. I even predicted as much in my review of “The Climb” (aka, when Ra’s “killed” Oliver). You know how a successful man might try to leave his business to one of his son-in-laws only to have their offer rejected? That’s kind of how things played out with Batman and Talia al Ghul and Ra’s al Ghul in the comics, with Ra’s attempting to recruit Batman as his heir after his daughter had fallen in love with him. Of course, Batman said no, and Ra’s just kept on being one of his arch-enemies, albeit one with a great deal of respect for him. That’s what Arrow is up to now, with their update to the material cribbing from Batman Begins which hinted “Ra’s al Ghul” might actually be a title passed down over the years as opposed to an immortal man surviving through the centuries.
As a Batman fan, I actually kind of dig seeing this storyline realized in live action on Arrow. As an Arrow fan, though, I oddly can’t stop thinking, “Remember when this show was just about a guy dressing up in a hood and protecting his city? Now he has the chance to be the head of an international terrorist organization! Yay?” However, more importantly I can’t shake the feeling that this has been season 2 all over again.
The driving force behind the majority of the conflict for at least half of the second season was that Slade Wilson wanted revenge against Oliver for his part in deciding Shado’s fate. Slade oddly blamed Oliver over the man who actually fired the gun that took Shado’s life, although he did cut off that man’s hand. The problem I always had with that was that it was built upon the shakiest of foundations thus undercutting absolutely everything it touched. The show simply had not done enough to establish Slade’s connection to Shado before killing her off to then build an entire half-season around his rather destructive method of mourning.
Well, now for the past four episodes of season three everything has hinged upon the goofiest of goofy-sounding ancient Chinese proverbs: “Only the student can defeat the master.” Why the hell are you working with Malcolm Merlyn, Oliver? He killed hundreds of people in the “Undertaking,” including your best friend Tommy, and going even further back he’s the reason your dad died and you ended up on that island. Sorry. Only the student can defeat the master. What? What does that even mean? You weren’t Malcolm’s student in that first season when you at least partially defeated him. Hell, the only time you’ve probably been anyone’s student and then defeated them was with Slade Wilson. Sorry. Only the student can defeat the master. But, hey, Oliver, that guy killed my sister. I want revenge. Sorry. Need him because only the student can defeat the master. But, hey, Oliver, that guy drugged me and made me kill Sara, a friend of mine who you once claimed to love. Why on Earth are we working with this piece of trash? Sorry. Need him. Only the student can defeat the master.
It’s not really like the actual expression was used all that often, but it was the foundation upon which Oliver’s decision-making was built. This is the type of storytelling trap you fall into when you are stuck with trying to fully integrate a former big bad, Malcolm Merlyn, who really should not be on the show anymore, despite our immense collective love for John Barrowman. The result is that in “Nanda Parbat” when an imprisoned Nyssa taunts Oliver, “Your every action has been aimed towards the frustration of justice” you find yourself wanting to applaud. At least I did. Throughout “Nanda Parbat,” I was continually reminded of a running joke in The Boxtrolls where the main villain’s henchman think they’re actually the good guys though as the story progresses they increasingly struggle to justify how their actions could be defined as “good.” Regardless of Oliver’s “Save Thea’s soul” reasoning, I felt as if Oliver was the real villain (or, if not villain then idiot) of the story this week, my sympathies placed not with him but with Nyssa. The show seemed to be very aware of that, giving every team member a chance to call Oliver on his bullshit, with Diggle doing it in the most patient way possible. Roy mostly seemed to just pull a “This is some craziness right here. I’m outta here.”
This is supposed to be one of those “It’s much easier to be liked when the choices are easy, but a real hero does what is right when the decision is difficult and an easier solution is there for the taking” situations. However, the mere idea that Thea would seemingly solve all of their problems by giving Malcolm up to the League (Don’t ask for the specifics of how she did that, though), and Oliver would respond by mobilizing the team to undo all of that and save Malcolm seems like a non-starter. Then again, I struggled with the idea of Oliver placing Malcolm under his protection after fighting Nyssa earlier in the season. So, in general, I just don’t like what the show has done to Oliver this season, and his consistent habit of seemingly knowing better and making decisions for the women in his life was ultimately upheld in “Nanda Parbat” when by the end Thea’s “Did I just kill my own dad?” guilt along with her lingering “I killed Sara” guilt resulted in her deputizing Nyssa as her executioner.
There is interesting conflict and commentary to be realized when your protagonist lives in a grey zone, but you have to help us understand their behavior. Oliver being a dick to everyone on the team, lying straight to Laurel’s face and then yelling at her is nothing new. That we can understand, but “Nanda Parbat” kept hinting at an ulterior motive behind Oliver’s actions before revealing in its final act that “Ra’s got in his head,” characterizing Oliver as a soldier who now feared he wouldn’t return home from the battlefield. The only way to erase that fear is to beat the man who took his smile away, Ra’s al Ghul.
It’s a perfectly fine idea delivered quite eloquently by John Ramsey, whose acting helped elevate the material in “Nanda Parbat.” But it comes out of nowhere. Have we actually seen any real signs since “The Climb” that Oliver was actually affected by his near-death experience? Emotionally? No. Physically? He spent one episode healing up, and was a bit slow-moving in “Uprising.” Ever since then, he’s been 100% normal. You could argue that his foolish reliance upon Malcolm has been an obvious sign of his traumatized state, forgiving Oliver’s decision as it was borne out of a lack of confidence in his ability to defeat Ra’s without an extreme solution. If that’s really what they were going for, it’s too little too late.
The best thing I can say about all of this is that with the next phase of the season being Oliver mulling over Ra’s offer I assume this business with Malcolm must certainly be over.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Oliver’s actions being compromised due to trauma or damage to his ego related to his near-death experience is a good idea. Oliver doing anything to save his sister’s soul is a good idea. They were both poorly executed in “Nanda Parbat,” an oddly talk-heavy heavy episode with a bit of a WTF? cliffhanger (unless you know your comics). A reader of this site recently joked that maybe there was something we don’t know about in that missile which exploded nearby Oliver and Felicity in the restaurant during the season premiere because ever since then Oliver’s IQ seems to have been on a downward spiral. The truth is that Oliver is usually an egotistical jerk, but the show works double-time to make him sympathetic. Now, they have, as Felicity said, placed his head thoroughly up his ass, setting us up for a story that would seemingly have only one obvious conclusion which is that Oliver will say thanks, but no thanks to an offer to become the head of an international terrorist organization. But, wait, are they going to go Angel Season 5 with this? [Angel Spoiler Alert] Could Oliver end up trying to do good from the inside of evil? Is The League of Assassins the new Wolfram & Hart?
1. Spin-off Pitch: Oliver becomes the new Ra’s al Ghul, and back home a Team Arrow built around the ATOM protects Starling City. Arrow the show is renamed “Team Arrow,” with Diggle the new man in charge and Felicity and Ray’s relationship tested by her newfound attraction to Roy (not like that wouldn’t get confusing with the whole Ray/Roy name thing). Oliver Queen stars in his own spin-off The League of Assassins, but in a departure for Berlanti/Guggenheim/Kreisberg it would be a wacky workplace comedy giving the Brooklyn Nine-Nine treatment to the lives of Oliver, Nyssa, Maseo, Katana, and some new funny League characters. There could be a storyline where everyone disagrees about the proper way to pronounce the name Ra’s al Ghul, or an episode where someone accidentally replaces the magical waters of the Lazarus Pit with normal water. Maybe an early episode could feature Oliver begrudgingly picking out the right new fancy rings and robes to wear since Ra’s al Ghul always has those. Finally, they could do a Team Arrow cross-over where Laurel and Nyssa struggle to keep their new relationship a secret from Oliver. You’re welcome, CW.
2. Going way back to last season, I anticipated they wouldn’t be able to resist exploring the idea that Sara and Nyssa’s relationship was frowned upon by the League. I didn’t anticipate they would hold it back so long only to deploy as a way of seemingly disqualifying Nyssa as her father’s heir thus opening the position up for Oliver.
3. Felicity and Ray had sex. That happened. It’s probably pretty significant. Ray parading around the office half-naked in front of her is in keeping with the creepy-is-hot romantic fantasy world they’ve dropped Felicity into with him. Who would have guessed Felicity would be the first person to have sex this season, and it wouldn’t be with Oliver? Oh, wait, I forgot about Thea and that DJ/Assassin whose DJ name should have clearly been DJ Assassin.
4. Laurel attacked Malcolm Merlyn. That happened. It made her seem dangerously naïve, yet I found it fairly consistent with her time as Black Canary to this point.
5. Laurel instantly forgave Thea for killing Sara. That happened. Then she told Thea almost the same exact thing Oliver told her last week which is that her decisions from this point forward are her own. Lazy writing for repeating the same advice one episode later, or re-used to purposefully provide more weight to the sentiment coming from Laurel instead of just Oliver?
6. Laurel caught Oliver in his lie about Sara. That was a pretty thoroughly awesome moment for Laurel, although everyone lies to everyone else on this show so consistently (at least used to) that someone giving a “How dare you lie to me like that!” speech is going to seem a tad hypocritical.
AND NOW, FOR NO REASON, SEASON 2 BLOOPERS!
AVClub – “’Nanda Parbat’ is a fine entry for the show, though it becomes most interesting as it nears its conclusion, as it reveals just how much of this hour is really setup for the episode set to air in three weeks”
GirlOnComicBookWorld – “Arrow season 3 episode 15 well and truly said goodbye to the grounded roots of season 1, and instead said hello to flying men and a possible new heir to the Demon’s throne. Arrow from the very beginning has drawn parallels to Batman, with some criticising the show for being too Batman and not enough Green Arrow. This episode has definitely furthered that issue”
TV.com – “Ray focused very narrowly on his vigilante activities at the expense of his business and, arguably, his non-combat exosuit plans to save Starling City through a rebranding effort. Meanwhile, Oliver was presented with a very big-picture offer that would push him further away from being Oliver Queen. They both stand at a crossroads regarding the type of life they each want to live, and now they must both make very big decisions.”