The Cheeky Recap
At the beginning of Arrow’s “Al Sah-him,” three weeks passed in not even quite three minutes via a montage showing us Oliver being physically and psychologically tortured by the League of Assassins as an off-camera voice continually commanded, “Oliver Queen is alive only in the past. He is forgotten. You are Al Sah-him.” All of this was framed around a sword fight training session between Oliver and Ra’s set in the present, culminating with a robot-like Oliver confirming his conditioning by emotionlessly repeating the line “Oliver Queen is alive only in the past. He is forgotten.” And then he killed someone he believed to be Diggle but was just some random guy offered up for the slaughter while Oliver hallucinated due to some … um, “magic plant” about covers it.
Whoa there, Arrow. Did you seriously just break Oliver down into a brainwashed cult member in less than 3 minutes?
Immediately after the Arrow title card flashed by, Nyssa schooled Laurel on the proper way of dispatching a knife-wielding bad guy, and after that Laurel schooled Nyssa on the proper way to eat a hamburger, fries and milk shake, a thoroughly 1950s-America kind of meal surely picked out by the show due that very association. As the very fish-out-of-water Nyssa held her newly milkshake-dipped French fry as a child might when encountering a bizarre new food, Laurel laughed, “I have to admit. It’s fun seeing you like this.” That set up a fun back-and-forth, Nyssa, “Like what?”, Laurel, “Like a normal person,” Nyssa, “I am a normal person,” Laurel, “[Laughs] I can’t believe you just said that.” This turned into a heart-to-heart in which Nyssa expressed genuine gratitude and fondness, “Thank you, Laurel. I was alone and adrift, and you have shown me kindness.” And then Laurel finally told Nyssa that Oliver had become the new Heir to the Demon. Instantly, the rest of the episode turned into Laurel trying to save Nyssa since Oliver’s ascension actually meant his first mission would be to kill the prior Heir to the Demon. For her part, Nyssa tried to save herself with honor while limiting any collateral damage.
Whoa there, Arrow. Did you just seriously jump straight to Laurel and Nyssa being “No way in hell will I let you die!” buddies when this is the first time we’ve actually seen them together since Nyssa first offered to train Laurel 3 episodes ago?
The rest of the episode proceeded like any other villain-of-the week installment of this show, except this time the villain was Oliver. Even the act breaks were timed as such. For example, by the second or third commercial break Oliver quite often already has his first encounter with the villain and fails to capture them or possibly barely escapes if they’re stronger than him. In “Al Sah-him,” the hero Nyssa was about to be killed by the villain Oliver when the good guys – Diggle and Laurel – showed up to chase the bad guy away.
As per usual, the tactical and emotional fallout from this encounter shaped the rest of the episode, with everyone (other than Nyssa…and maybe, kind of Laurel) struggling to completely accept what Oliver had become. They were blindsided by his countermove (kidnapping Lyla so that she could be offered back in exchange for Nyssa) before banding together with their own countermove (pretending to play along until Lyla could get to the guns Felicity had hidden on her and let all hell break loose). It culminated in an Arrow specialty: a climactic fight in some abandoned warehouse/air hanger.
In the end, Team Arrow failed. Oliver would have likely killed Diggle if not for Thea’s speedy arrow (see what I did there?). Nyssa was taken back to the League. Oliver would have killed her if not for Ra’s suddenly deciding those two crazy kids would make a great couple. So, it’s decided: Nyssa is to marry Oliver. Where does one find a wedding planner in Nanda Parbat?
The Frustrated Review
Let’s ignore that ending because…well, we’ll have plenty of time to discuss that more next week, and there’s a lot to unpack. Nyssa is openly gay, yet she’s being forced into an arranged marriage to a man. She’s only ever loved Sara Lance, who is actually a former lover of the man she is to marry. Oliver now loves Felicity. Plus, what’s with the two-episode-in-a-row trend of Ra’s sparing a disgraced League member’s life out of nowhere?
Let’s go back to the beginning. They broke Oliver down into a League of Assassins robot. They gave us one scene, albeit a perfectly lovely one, of Laurel and Nyssa being friendly together before having Laurel stand up to the rest of Team Arrow and preach on Nyssa’s behalf. Neither of those storylines are necessarily bad on their own. Oliver can become a League of Assassins robot just as Thea became Malcolm’s robot when she killed Sara, although I still find the whole thing really goofy. Laurel and Nyssa can become bosom buddies with encounters which spark “Friends? Or more than friends?’ debates. But not like this. Not this fast. If you ask me, I think they skipped an episode, or, to be more accurate, they crammed an entire episode’s worth of story into the first 10 minutes of “Al Sah-him.”
It is simply far too jarring to see Oliver so easily broken down by the League, haphazardly communicated to us through a short montage which seems to completely lack the courage of its own convictions. He gets water thrown on his face and is left isolated in a room? Okay. That’s workable. But you’re barely even going to show us any of that? I know this isn’t Homeland, circa season 1. I am not expecting Arrow to do anything as awards-caliber as that show’s flashbacks revealing how the American war hero Brody (Damien Lewis) had actually been psychologically broken and turned into a sleeper agent for the terrorists (not a spoiler since that’s the entire premise of the show). I know that Arrow is on the CW, and it airs in what used to be known as the “family viewing hour” (7 PM Central, 8PM Eastern). However, the same is true of The Vampire Diaries, and that show has had multiple episodes in which characters have been tortured quite convincingly. Moreover, when it’s needed to it has slowed down to give a character an entire episode to deal with their psychological trauma.
For example, early last season Stefan (Paul Wesley) was in a situation in which he, isolated from his loved ones and left with no hope for a rescue, very much so wanted to give up and give in. The specifics of it are perhaps too complicated to go into here, but as he struggled to stay sane he hallucinated versions of the other characters on the show who either encouraged or discouraged him to give in. It actually took the viewer on an emotional journey with the character, making his moment of eventual triumph in refusing to give in all the more effective.
Not down with Vampire Diaries? Then simply look back to earlier this season of Arrow in “Corto Maltese” when Thea got her own flashback episode showcasing exactly how Malcolm tore her down and built her back up again. The same people who made “El Sah-him” once recognized that we needed to be taken on a journey with a character to really connect with what had become of them.
There’s no freakin’ journey with Oliver in-between “The Fallen” and “Al Sah-him.” There is simply a writing staff rushing forward because they probably really wanted to see how crazy Twitter would go when Oliver appeared to kill Diggle before the opening credits. They are lazily trying to connect the dots from Oliver’s season-long identity crisis to his new status as heartless killer, returning him to his default setting from the pilot. This is just bad storytelling, and it didn’t have to be. There so easily could have been an amazing episode in which Team Arrow fights a standard villain-of-the week while back in Nanda Parbat Oliver struggles to resists the League of Assassins conditioning and ultimately fails. There should be a sense of loss here, not a mere “gotcha!” moment before the title card. You could have even kept all of the nonsense with the Hong Kong flashbacks since Maseo being around in Nanda Parbat would easily trigger “Remember when we used to be friends?” thoughts.
The counter-argument is probably that they already did a Team Arrow-without-Arrow episode back around midseason when he was “dead.” Plus, wasn’t Oliver’s identity crisis already decided last week when he gave himself up to the League? Wouldn’t it feel redundant to see him still fighting them? I would argue that Felicity answers that question in this episode with her “Oliver never said anything about volunteering to be brainwashed!” comment. He had no idea that’s what he signed up for, and Nyssa’s “He wouldn’t even know it was happening to him” explanation is simply not good enough for me.
There’s a missing episode they simply forgot to write. We watch the League break Oliver down while crosscutting back to seeing Felicity, Diggle, and Thea struggling to move on with their lives. We finally watch Laurel and Nyssa training together and get a better sense of their friendship, with a scene or two of Nyssa being hilariously out of her element in normal society ala Chris Hemsworth in the first Thor. Maybe Captain Lance even makes an appearance. Maybe Felicity and Ray have their first interaction since their break-up. There’s some obscure comic book-derived villain of the week that Team Arrow decides to fight after some debate. At the halfway point, Nyssa helps Team Arrow fight off the villain thus revealing Laurel’s dirty little secret: she’s been training with Nyssa and hadn’t told anyone. The second half foregrounds the conflict between the rest of the team and Nyssa before they learn to accept her in the end, likely as a result of her saving their lives in the final fight with the bad buy. Or you push the “Team Arrow doesn’t know what to make of Nyssa” part to the next episode in which Oliver is the villain, and end this one with Team Arrow first finding out that Nyssa is training Laurel when she swoops in to save the day.
Most importantly, you give us a reason to actually believe Nyssa when she says, “Laurel, these past weeks, they’ve enlightened me. To live a life outside of my father’s rule, to be someone else for just a little white, brought me great happiness. But I am daughter of the demon. Happiness is not something that was ever meant for me.” Such sentiment should be the culmination of a friendship we’ve seen grow over time, not simply referring to events which occurred almost entirely off-screen without even a hint of acknowledgement from any of the other characters.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It is a testament to this show that I like these characters enough that I want to go on an emotional journey with them. It is to the show’s detriment when that journey is skipped over in favor of “too much, too soon” syndrome. There’s a crucial step in-between the events of “The Fallen” and “El Sah-him” which Arrow mostly sidestepped. I wish they hadn’t, and I watched most of “El Sah-him” simply feeling bad that Stephen Amell was being asked to become robo-Oliver this fast.
1. To be fair to Arrow, there are practical realities of running a TV show, such as budget and actor availability, which often dictate story, and they only have so many episodes left this season. So, maybe the missing episode I’ve proposed is entirely impractical and leans too heavily on someone who is only a recurring character, but it’s what I would have preferred to have seen.
2. Also, to be fair to Arrow, this could all turn out to be giant swerve. Maybe Oliver is just pretending to have been brainwashed.
3. The Canary Cry? Still a work in progress.
4. The following would have been a good note to give the actors, “Remember, your character was just sliced with a knife/stabbed with a sword/shot through the arm with an arrow in the last scene. You should still be in a little pain. Well, maybe not you, Amell. Your character’s like 95% robot now.”
5. So, is that thug Nyssa and Lyla tied up still lying in that alley waiting for someone, anyone to find him? Or did they call the cops to give them the heads up before going out for dinner?
6. “Were I so inclined I’d question why your first instinct is to always keep matters secret. Even after doing so cost you your relationship with your father.” – Nyssa’s insults are oddly elegant and insightful.
7. So, does this mean that Captain Picard is tougher than Oliver Queen?
8. Katrina Law on playing an LGBT character (MTV):
There is always a fear — and I don’t necessarily feel that with these writers in particular, it is more of a generalized fear — to suddenly have her become straight because some man was able to sway her. That’s not how this world works. I don’t think I am going to suddenly become a lesbian, or some guy is suddenly going to become gay because he’s hanging out with other guys. It doesn’t really happen like that in the real world. So there was a fear, in order to placate audiences, or just give a storyline that they were going to do that… But so far, they haven’t and it doesn’t look like they are going to. And I love that.
Collider – Now that we know how evil Ra’s al Ghul really is (I mean, who forces their daughter to marry in this day and age? Oh, you meant the bio-terrorism. Right, right.), I can’t imagine Oliver staying Al Sah-him much longer; in fact, I give him just slightly less than two episodes. Still, it’s fun to see Stephen Amell channeling his dark side without having to justify his actions or wrestle with those pesky interruptions from his conscience. While it’s a foregone conclusion that Oliver will come around to his true self before the season’s final moments, the question is, just how will that come about? Killing his best friend (imaginary or otherwise) didn’t change him, getting shot by his kid sister didn’t sway him, and being tasked with exterminating the citizens he’s been protecting for three seasons didn’t even make him blink. (The only time he looked nonplussed is when he was told he’d be marrying Nyssa!)
Katrina Law talked about this episode with MTV, The Wrap, ETOnline and ComicBook, to name a few. In one of them, she indicated she thought Nyssa would be open to a romance with Laurel, but she didn’t know if Laurel would reciprocate.