What did I think of Arrow‘s mid-season finale, “The Climb”? This show just took the first step — dare I say ascent? — in reclaiming the narrative energy that’s dwindled from the Season 2 ending/Season 3 opener.
I have this theory about full-order network shows: they don’t really get started until the mid-season finale. Hopefully, you can have some fun in the first 8 or 9 eps of the season, but the show will most likely be treading water until December — maybe November, if you’re lucky and the show in questions gives a satisfying build to its mid-season story catalyst. Seasons of 23 or 24 episodes come with their own blessings and curses. You technically get more episodes, but you rarely actually get more storytelling.
Unlike some fans, I came to the world of Arrow as someone who knew nothing about the character from his comic book origins. For the first season, it was a show that was always on my viewing schedule, but never with any insistency. I would let three or for episodes backlog, then gobble them up before repeating the cycle. Then, Season 2 started picking up some steam. I found myself seeking it out earlier in my TV-watching rotation. Finally, Season 2, Episode 20 (“Seeing Red”) aired. I distinctly remember watching this episode. I remember sitting up — both figuratively and literally — when Moira was slain by Slade in the final heartbreaking moments and thinking: When did Arrow become one of the most compelling shows on TV?
The final string of three episodes were amongst the best storytelling on television that season. They were one serialized story in a way that Arrow usually shies away from earlier in its seasons. They were one sustained wave of emotion for these characters dealing with the terror of Deathstroke and his mirakuru soldiers wreaking havoc on Starling City. They were one long exploration in consequence for our hero. Why am I rambling about all of this? Because, though Arrow has been entertaining in Season 3, it has definitely struggled to reclaim that same focus and urgency with which it ended Season 2 — or even started Season 3. Don’t get me wrong, I still watched every episode this season as soon as it was made available to me, but I couldn’t help but count the episodes until that mid-season finale. Boy did it deliver.
It’s hard to talk about this episode without immediately addressing its ending: Oliver getting stabbed, then pushed off a cliff apparently to his death. It was gruesome, horrific, and it makes me very, very excited about this show’s direction. No, I don’t think Oliver is actually dead. Or, if he is, he won’t be forever… The Lazarus Pit is a phenomenon in the DC universe with extremely restorative powers — i.e. the ability to bring someone back from the dead or, say, allow a man to make the claim that no one has challenged him to a duel in “67 years”… and then beat a man whose idea of a good time is defying gravity via salmon ladder. Arrow tends to shy away from anything too supernatural, but given that they’re OK with mirakuru, operate in the same fictional universe as The Flash, and don’t want their series star to remain dead, we have a feeling a Lazarus Pit might play a role moving forward.
The best storytelling aspect of the Lazarus Pit? (Well, aside for the Return From the Dead Trope, which will never get old for me.) The mental health issues that traditionally come with a dip in its restorative juices. Oliver Queen has never been known for his emotional health. Some of the best parts of the Flarrow crossover came when people, including Oliver himself, called him out on this. Arrow isn’t about Oliver saving Starling City so much as it is about him working through his trauma. Becoming The Arrow is a side effect of this process, albeit a crazily compelling one that presents so many awesome storytelling potentialities. But, for me, the show only really works when it is addressing this question of Oliver’s trauma and humanity in interesting ways. That’s why the mid-season finale was so damn compelling, and that’s why I am so excited to see this storyline move forward.
The weakest part of the episode, for me, was the reveal that Thea didn’t knowingly commit Sara’s murder. She was given a mind control drug by Malcolm that made her highly suggestible. At the end of last season, I was excited to see the Thea v. Ollie storyline play out in some epic fashion, but making Thea the victim rather than the agent in Sara’s demise was a missed opportunity. Coupled with the fact that Oliver still hasn’t confessed to Thea his alter ego identity, and Thea has become the new problem character of Arrow — which, on a show this great, isn’t saying too much. I still love her. I still think she has immense potential. But, right now, she is incredibly uneven and uninteresting. More Thea as a troubled yet resilient badass, less Thea as the owner of a terrible club owner who occasionally makes out with douche-y DJs.
It seems especially unwise that Oliver would go to his death without telling Thea the truth about her father. Sure, it would involve him telling her the truth about himself so this may be a selfish action, but one can only imagine she will grow closer to Merlyn following Ollie’s “death,” and that is a dangerous possibility. On a side note, was any one else hoping Thea would call The Arrow out on being Oliver when he came to question her, revealing she has known his identity the entire season? Because that would have been awesome. Just another missed opportunity in my dream of Thea becoming an epic villainess.
OK, maybe the weakest part of the episode was not the missed opportunity to have Thea a conscious killer, but rather Dinah Lance discovering Sara’s death via intuition. Ugh. Maybe I would believe she knew something was up from Laurel’s terrible lying face, but using “woman’s intuition” as an actual plot device is disappointing. You deserve better, River Song. You deserve better.
The Flashback Structure
Arrow doesn’t always do a good job justifying its use of the flashback, but this was not the case in the mid-season finale, which was structured in three different timelines: Oliver’s climb to meet Ra’s al Ghul, 48 hours prior in Starling City, and three years prior in Hong Kong. What could have been a busy, superfluous structure actually worked incredibly well to build suspense and craft some beautiful and thematic visual parallels. The moment when Oliver reaches the top of the cliff just following the flashback to his “I love you” scene with Felicity? Genius.
I also really loved how the Maseo stuff paid off in his urging Ollie to beg mercy rather than fight R’as al Ghul. After watching the friendship between Oliver and Slade fall apart via flashback and in present-day Starling City last season, I’m glad Oliver still has one friend from his time “on the island.” I am very excited to see more of Maseo’s character in the second half of the season, and wonder if he will play a role in saving Oliver from permanent death.
The Felicity Smoak
Watching The Flash struggle to develop its female characters only highlights how amazing Felicity Smoak truly is. (Though I wouldn’t say no to a little more character development outside of her relationships with these superhero men.) She had some great moments in last night’s episode with both Oliver and Ray, continuing to hold these characters to a higher standard. And as much as I feel I should talk about the stuff that went down with Ray, I really just want to gush about Olicity. The dynamic between these characters has felt a bit redundant to me so far this season. I loved their interaction in the first two episodes — the awkward yet adorable date, the heartbreaking hospital kiss, and their raw conversation following Sara’s death — but there hasn’t been as much development since then. (Which, to be fair, has been true of many of the story’s characters and elements in that string of episodes.) Some fans may think that their farewell scene in this episode was not enough, but I personally loved it.
These characters continue to surprise me, especially in regards to one other: Felicity telling Oliver to kill R’as al Ghul. Oliver declaring with no hesitation or expectation that he loves Felicity. Not as may happen in this scene on the surface level, but it is heavy with the amount of work it took to get to this point — especially on Oliver’s part. Comparing this scene to Oliver’s “fake” “I love you” to Felicity at the end of last season is very rewarding. That first admission, even with all of its asterisks, felt like a big moment of development for Oliver in so many ways. This admission feels like a revelation for Oliver compared to how emotionally-repressed and traumatized this character was when we met him.
One of the major reasons I enjoyed this episode was because it felt like the launch of a new chapter for this story, and a potentially highly serialized arc. I really hope Arrow doesn’t wrap Oliver’s apparent death up too soon. As painful as it would be to watch, I would love to see what Starling City and these characters look like without The Arrow/Oliver Queen. I want to see them try to piece themselves back together and try to move on while struggling to deal with the assumed loss of their loved one. And I want to see Oliver Queen — not Ollie, the boy who was marooned on that island or used as Amanda Waller’s pawn in Hong Kong — thrown back into an unfamiliar environment, struggling to get back to the people he loves.
What did you think of “The Climb”? What hopes and expectations do you have for the rest of the season? Sound off in the comments below!