Now that’s the Arrow we haven’t seen since the end of season two, and it. Was. Awesome!!! A few months ago, if you have told me that there was going to be an episode of the show that featured the League of Assassins, Felicity’s parents, and saving Thea’s life, and it would end up being one of the best episodes of the series, I would have thought you were crazy. But here I sit, gushing about the pay off to the long-running story arc involving Thea’s bloodlust and the growing schism in the League of Assassins between the forces of Nyssa al Ghul and Malcolm Merlyn. It. Was. Glorious.
But let’s preface this with some negativity: it would have been nice if there was some build up to this beyond last week’s episode, “Unchained.” When Nyssa growls at Laurel about she was in prison cell for months, abandoned by Team Arrow as Merlyn ruled as Ra’s in a position set-up for him by Oliver Queen, she makes a good point. Team Arrow did basically hose her, and I’m not sure how much of that came from a function of character over a function of plot. Surely at some point Laurel should have wondered about springing her friend and trainer from League jail if there weren’t other things going on, right? I guess the time was ripe to put this on the front-burner, but way back in episode three when Laurel resurrected Sara over Nyssa objections, Nyssa became a prisoner and Laurel and everyone went home, and that was that. No big deal, in other words.
On the flip side though, you knew that the League story had to be heading to this. Nyssa, who hated Merlyn for having Sara killed in the first place, was rightfully, doubly pissed for being forced to serve under him. The League was rightfully hers too, she was the Heir to the Demon, but her father had a “no girls” policy in terms of succession. Three strikes means war with Merlyn, whose own nefariousness meant that he wasn’t likely to give up easily, or be easily taken down. Hence she tries to leverage the life of the sister of the only person that’s come close to killing Merlyn.
This was a pretty big test for the new and improved Oliver, and no one would have blamed him for just doing it and killing Merlyn to get Thea’s cure. Normally a Captain Kirk-like man of reaction, Oliver chose the Captain Picard method and put faith in diplomacy. It didn’t work, but it was fascinating to see Oliver try and contort himself to getting Merlyn and Nyssa to achieve peace without blood shed, and it was heartening that Diggle and Laurel backed that play even if, as Diggle suggested wistfully, it might just be easier to kill Merlyn and get it over with.
One of the smart things that the script by Ben Sokolowski and Keto Shimizu did was thread the delicate needle of Malcolm’s personality. Yes, there is maybe some small part of Merlyn that’s a normal parent, but he’s also a megalomaniac, and a sociopath. In recent episodes, one might read Malcolm as a kind of sitcom dad with killer instincts; he means well for his child, but he just can’t help but screw things up with the fact that he’s a natural super-villain. John Barrowman does a great job of making you think that for one brief second, he was prepared to give up the League of Assassins so that Thea can live. Makes you feel more the fool than when he pulls the bait and switch.
Whether or not Nyssa might have the mercy to let Malcolm live if he gives up the ring, and the question of whether Malcolm might willfully give up leading the League to save his daughter’s life, gave the episode a wonderful tension to begin with. Gordon Verheul, who’s typically one of Arrow‘s cinematographers, takes his first time calling the shots as director, and he frames the story so that step-by-step he took the viewer up a notch, until all hell breaks loose with a full-blown open war amongst the League. The transitions were smooth, and not a scene was wasted even if it cut to the B-story where Felicity was trying to ascertain if her father, The Calculator, could be trusted.
The story expertly made the point without laying it out in explicit terms that everyone here was painted into a corner. It’s interesting that there was no blame, but more of a resignation that this is the hand they were dealt, having to figure out a way to save Thea while making sure both factions of the League didn’t kill each other. I don’t know if it’s foreshadowing when you already know the ending, but it’s the same sort of attitude that Oliver has by the future graveside. Then, as now, it is his responsibility, and qualities like duty and accountability tend to be passionless, putting their burden on the shoulders of those that accept them whether they are to blame or not.
In what maybe true dramatic irony, Oliver’s contortions to save everybody may lead to the sad death in the future. We’ve been assuming that grave belonged to a beloved member of Team Arrow, but when Malcolm swears revenge for giving up the leadership of League only to see Nyssa disband the whole thing, he goes to Damien Darhk and gives the villain a particular piece of damaging information: Oliver has a son named William. I hesitate to think that the writers of Arrow would kill a kid, not even Star City is that dark (Darhk?), but it would make sense seeing how broke up Felicity will be, and the fact that Barry, whom William is a fan of, would make the trip from Central City.
“Sins of the Father”, as an episode title, could have multiple meanings. It could mean the multiple sins of Merlyn in the fact that his careful scheming lead him to lose the League; it could mean The Calculator, who crossed his daughter one too many times to be taken in earnest when he says he wants to make amends; and it could mean Oliver, who in saving the day became the author of his own pain (to borrow a phrase). Of course, it could also refer to the original Ra’s al Ghul, whose betrayal of his daughter lead to the destruction of his precious League, and it was a nice moment for Nyssa hearing her say that she will not repeat her father’s mistakes and no longer live in her father’s shadow. Also, it was also kind of heartening that Nyssa takes her marriage vows more seriously than some people these days, even if it was an arranged sham-marriage that’s not very legally binding.
No one was an enthusiastic fan of season three and the League of Assassins storyline, which makes this one of the rare times in TV history where the conclusion was better than the build-up. The night’s drama elegantly made Merlyn more invested in the action, which has been a big problem for season four so far, and it ups the danger factor to the nth degree as Merlyn was privy to a lot of information that Team Arrow would rather not let H.I.V.E. know. The stakes going forward are huge, and considering that we’ve known all season long that someone serious is going to die, that’s really saying something.