Pulling off the deceptive character turn is a tricky thing for a TV show. The success rate is usually tied to how long you continue lying to the audience about it and the amount of explanation you give whenever you do finally pull your “Gotcha!” moment. In Arrow’s case, they devoted an entire episode (“Al Sah-him”) to convincing us that Oliver Queen had become a brainwashed member of the League of Assassins. Four minutes into the next episode (“This Is Your Sword”), they relented and explained Oliver and Malcolm were actually in cahoots to dismantle the League from the inside. Likely due to his prior membership in the League, Malcolm knew Oliver’s first task as the new Ra’s al Ghul would be to destroy Starling City. So, the two hatched a plan, but Malcolm figured they would have several months to work away at the League, not a mere couple of days. Thus, “This is Your Sword” was all about Malcolm letting everyone else in on the secret and rallying them together along with Katana to stop the League before it destroys their city, traveling to Nanda Parbat for an extended action scene before they were ultimately caught and jailed.
As far as save-the-world plans are concerned, killing the beast from the inside is not a terrible way to go. Genre television is filled with episodes in which the good guys merely pretend to be in league with the bad guys. Joss Whedon did it with David Boreanaz’ Angel multiple times across Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but in that case it always made sense because Angel had turned legitimately evil for half a season on Buffy. So, there was precedent. Plus, by his very nature as a vampire with a soul, Angel was a monster forever fighting the temptation to give in to evil, making him a metaphorical alcoholic always one bad day away from falling off the wagon. It was not a violation of his character to make us believe he’d turned evil again, and when they pulled that trick they’d only do it within the confines of a single episode, revealing the truth of his deceit in the episode’s climax, be it [Buffy/Angel spoiler warning] him tricking Faith and The Mayor to get information with Buffy and Giles’ help or tricking everyone, good and bad, to set up a Godfather-esque simultaneous hit against all the bad guys on Angel.
I point to Angel because that is a show Arrow’s producers have mentioned multiple times in interviews, making it an obvious reference point, e.g., a brooding, taciturn male protagonist whose central mission draws a surrogate work family to his cause, a tendency toward soap opera, an emphasis on killer action scenes, consistent flashbacks. When Angel would pull the same thing Arrow just tried, it would always come with eventual flashbacks clearly explaining everything, leaving little to doubt or nitpicking. For example, that guy you thought [again, Buffy/Angel spoiler] stole Angel’s soul was just someone putting on a fancy light show and repaying a favor to Giles. Arrow just gave us a short fireside chat with Malcolm.
We don’t actually know when Oliver and Malcolm hatched their plan. It was presumably on the flight to Nanda Parbat when they were transporting a nearly-dead Thea to the Lazarus Pit. But if you think back over the events of the past two episodes it brings up some questions. Why did Malcolm go along with Felicity’s attempt to break Oliver out instead of simply letting her know what they had in mind? Or did they actually completely anticipate something like that, thinking it would make Ra’s believe Oliver more if he rejected a chance to escape and sent his friends away? Moreover, when Oliver killed that poor victim he mistook for Diggle due to the effects of some “magical plant” did he in fact know it wasn’t really Diggle even though the plant made him see that person as Diggle? Would he have killed Nyssa if Diggle and Laurel hadn’t stopped him? The same goes for when Ra’s al Ghul stopped him. And what exactly would have happened if Thea hadn’t shot Oliver in the arm as he had a sword raised and ready to fall on Diggle? What was Oliver’s endgame there? Clearly he wasn’t going to really kill him, but what was his plan if no one happened to stop him?
If you’re writing a storyline like this you constantly have to think of it on two levels, anticipating every question the viewer might have and coming up with a rational answer to ensure that what you’re doing has an actual internal logic to it as opposed to merely being a case of you haphazardly yelling, “Gotcha!” I think that what Arrow just did was more “gotcha” than anything else, and it retroactively explains their completely half-assed attempt at a “The League tortures and brainwashes Oliver” sequence last episode. That part wasn’t important to them because it didn’t actually have any effect on Oliver, but they waited too long to tell us that thus making “Al Sah-him” an incredibly challenging episode to accept even if you did suspect Oliver was possibly pretending the whole time. That episode shouldn’t have ended with the cliffhanger reveal of Ra’s evil plan, but instead with Oliver relaying that information to Malcolm.
The funny thing is that Arrow actually pulled this same exact stunt a couple episodes back when it wrote out Roy Harper, and in that case it followed the Buffy/Angel model of mostly containing its trick to a single episode which used climactic flashbacks to very briefly explain everything. Everyone was lying to Oliver in that scenario whereas now we’ve returned to our default setting of Oliver being the one living the lie and keeping everyone in the dark. It’s perfectly in keeping with Oliver’s behavior, but it does beg the question of whether or not he’s actually developed at all since the pilot. The guy who’d spent 5 years on an island struggling to make connections with people and constantly lying to them about his past makes sense; the guy who’s been back in society for 3 years, gone through multiple girlfriends, gathered multiple friends and family members around him, and still treats deceit as his go-to move and abhors hearing anyone else’s opinion feels like a character who’ll simply never actually change. Then again, Supernatural’s gotten 10 seasons out of a set of brothers who are constantly lying to each other, failing to ever learn their lesson, and beyond picking up a sense of humor along the way Angel never really changed.
So, with all of that business out of the way I can finally get to this: I absolutely enjoyed “This Is Your Sword.” I have issues with their execution of “Oliver pretends to be brainwashed,” but now that we’re seeing him working against the League I’m just going with it. Really, in general, entire seasons of Arrow are like airplane rides with smooth takeoffs which give way to stretches of pleasant flying routinely interrupted by rather severe turbulence before completely nailing the landing. And with “This is Your Sword” being the penultimate episode of the third season we are clearly in the landing phase. This is when they truly go all out, designing their final episodes to all feel like mini-season finales before everything collides in one final action-heavy hour. So, “This is Your Sword” gave us a convincing enough scene of ATOM downing a jetplane, and Team Arrow (minus Oliver, but plus Malcolm and Katana) battling the entire League. The Felicity of old even showed up with a funny moment in which she thought her frisbee’d tablet had killed a threatening assassin before realizing the two Malcolm Merlyn arrows in the guys back had more to do with it, with her hilariously deadpanning, “Yeah, that makes more sense.”
Moreover, we saw crystal clear signs that Team Arrow is not going to easily forgive Oliver, nor should they. He kidnapped Diggle’s wife in front of his infant daughter! He’s lost Diggle’s respect. It seems pretty apparent that he would have absolutely killed Nyssa if he hadn’t been stopped, and that shouldn’t go down well with Laurel. And he’s lost Felicity’s trust, although this episode’s handling of Felicity was very problematic.
As rightfully pointed out, Team Arrow has no reason to trust Katana since they’ve never met her before, and the writers clearly wanted her to somehow bond with at least one of the characters to up the trust factor. On paper, their choice was obvious: Felicity. Katana lost a husband to the League, and Felicity feels as if she’s lost Oliver the same way, struggling to trust Malcolm when he says that Oliver’s just pretending. So, clearly, Katana should give Felicity a speech about not giving up on Oliver the way she gave up on Maseo. Plus, it helps reminds of why Katana and Maseo broke up, thus setting us up to connect with her weeping over his body after she’s forced to kill him in self defense. I get why they did it. It’s just so economical. But far too often their go-to move with Felicity this season has been to reduce her to tears and romantic histrionics, neither of which I would regard as being Emily Bett Rickards’ strong suits. Seeing her actually taking charge and tricking Oliver in an ill-fated escape attempt a couple episodes ago seemed like such a relief in the same way that seeing her balling and claiming she couldn’t bear to see “that version of Oliver” ever again felt disappointing.
She shouldn’t be the one in denial. She should be the plucky one on the front line back to Nanda Parbat because after they stop the League she is going to give Oliver a thorough lashing for lying to her. That role fell to Laurel instead, although Laurel didn’t really have a whole lot to do. And without Felicity needing the pep talk from Katana then who does Katana bond with? They didn’t have any other answer, and practical matters like actor availability and budget likely prevented them from simply introducing Team Arrow to Katana earlier. That doesn’t mean it came off any less contrived.
Still, when Arrow goes all out like “This Is Your Sword” it can make for incredibly engaging comic book TV, every single character, regular and recurring, fighting ninjas (as insane as that sounds), Felicity and ATOM combining to take down a freakin’ jet, Malcolm revealing his true nature and turning on the team to save his own ass, cliffhanging with a scenario in which no one’s really going to die but we’re still curious to see how exactly they’ll survive (apparently with the assistance of The Flash because it’s about dang time they asked him for help). The flashbacks are unfortunately still happening, made slightly jarring now that the Maseo in the present has died yet we’ve only just now reached the moment in the past when Maseo lost his son. We can only hope they cut their losses and keep the flashbacks to an absolute minimum in the season finale since without the consistent presence of Amanda Waller around the Hong Kong flashbacks really got away from them this season
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you can forgive Arrow’s far-too-delayed reveal of Oliver’s deceit and its very problematic handling of Felicity, “This Is Your Sword” is everything Arrow’s penultimate episodes usually are: big, crazy expensive action scenes, cliffhanger ending setting Oliver up to rush to stop a mad man with a bomb (in this case, a disease bomb I guess). However, there were some pretty tough pills to swallow along the way.
1. Oliver’s marriage to Nyssa isn’t legally binding, right? Like, when he gets back to Starling City they’re not going to recognize him as legally married just because some priestess in an international terrorist organization presided over a weird ceremony. Right?
2. Spin-Off Pitch: Oliver and Nyssa in a wacky sitcom in which they’re an Odd Couple type who have to stay married for Visa reasons but can’t let their pesky next door neighbors know.
3. Kudos to Nyssa for refusing to go out without a literal fight.
4. Kudos to Oliver for completely anticipating Nyssa’s knive attack, handling it quite nonchalantly.
5. Boo on Arrow for constantly having Nyssa lose just about every fight she has.
6. Boo on Arrow for trying to make Ra’s al Ghul interesting for half a season before deciding he’s pretty much just a generic villain.
7. Good for Thea getting closure with Roy.
GirlOnComicBookWorld – Overall I can’t say I even know what to make of Arrow season 3 episode 22. Everything seems to be bordering on the line of absolutely ridiculous. The season finale looks like it’s bringing us another episode of Starling City in chaos, yay. I’m really hoping that the showrunners have a great plan to set-up season 4, because right now I can’t say I have loved season 3, which is a shame because season 2 was completely awesome.