At a certain point, Arrow started to run out of ways to challenge Oliver Queen. He came back from his exile already long since transformed into a trained warrior, but it took him a little time to acclimatize to the particular challenges of conducting his crusade in Starling City. But three seasons in, how many people could plausibly defeat the Arrow in single combat? It’s a short list: Ra’s al Ghul, obviously, and maybe still Malcolm Merlyn, though the gap between them has closed considerably, plus Slade Wilson remains formidable with or without the mirakuru. You could perhaps throw in metahumans as a whole category of foe that would give Oliver problems, but Arrow has generally left such antagonists to its sibling show, and tonight’s episode doesn’t really do much to resolve whether the average metahuman would give Oliver a fair fight. “Broken Arrow” does find a novel way to challenge Oliver, and we’ll circle back to that shortly; it’s just one reason this episode represents the show’s second consecutive triumph.
When there are so few plausible external threats to Oliver, all that’s really left are the internal ones. Only the Arrow can defeat the Arrow, and all that. Sometimes, such crises of conscience can do great things for the show, as when Oliver honored Tommy’s memory by adopting the no-kill rule. But a little introspection can go a long way, and part of the reason season three has sometimes felt like it was stuck in a rut was the sense that the show was cycling through the same handful of plot beats, if only because an undistracted, secure Oliver Queen could pretty much be counted on to foil any threat to Starling City in the space of 15 minutes. The emergence of Ra’s al Ghul as an active threat helped ameliorate that—again, Ra’s is one of the three or so baddies who can absolutely defeat Oliver, and their last fight established Ra’s as arguably the preeminent threat in this entire fictional universe—but we still haven’t quite reached the point where Oliver has declared open war on the League of Assassins.
Until then, Arrow must devise other ways to make life difficult for Oliver, and “Broken Arrow” has that in spades. A scenario in which Oliver can under no circumstances don the Arrow suit is ingenious enough, but the addition of Ray Palmer takes the story to another level. I’ll admit I haven’t yet had a chance to watch last night’s episode of The Flash, itself billed as an “All-Star Team-up” between Ray and Barry Allen, but I’m willing to bet this is one hell of an interesting companion piece to that episode, especially as Oliver so vehemently rejects the use of the word “team-up.” On its own terms, the relationship between Ray and Oliver is plenty fascinating, and not just because the episode largely eschews any petty sniping over Felicity; the romantic triangle is absolutely a part of tonight’s storytelling, but more in terms of how it helps clarify the sacrifices the various characters have been willing to make.
No, what’s more interesting here is the contrast in crime-fighting styles. Ray is sunny in a way that could put even Barry Allen to shame, yet right up until the end this happy optimism doesn’t ever help Ray be a better hero. Quite the opposite, really: He is fundamentally incapable of taking any of this seriously, trusting that the tech will be more than enough to save him from Doug Jones’ metahuman foe. Ray is aware just how callow he is, but his response to that is not to commit himself to training, as he instead just focuses on improving the suit. For Oliver, his bow and arrows merely complement what he already carries within him. For Ray, the suit is meant to compensate for the things he is far too quick to concede that he lacks. “Broken Arrow” actually ends up sneaking a familiar crisis of confidence storyline into the proceedings, only this time it’s Ray, not Oliver, who is wracked with doubt, and he experiences the whole thing in the space between the neural link being severed and his finally agreeing to fight back.
That neural link is more than a little ridiculous conceptually, even by the ever eroding standards of this fictional universe, but it more than serves its purpose for Oliver and Ray. For the former, it’s a powerful way to underline just how remarkable the Arrow is, as Oliver doesn’t even need to be physically present to be the most skilled fighter in the room. If only because Oliver is the first of this universe’s heroes—and also because he’s totally filling that ersatz Batman role that Green Arrow has played more than once in his publication history—there’s a conscious effort made to remind us why Oliver remains the most fearsome hero, even as others come equipped with superpowers and high-tech armor. As the representative of the latter group, Ray initially confirms his secondary position in this universe—though that might be soon to change, given his headlining role in the upcoming spin-off—but he ultimately proves that his strength too does indeed come from within. The whole neural link sequence is beautifully balanced, making both Oliver and Ray look like heroes while also delivering another bone-crunching fight in an episode positively brimming with them.
That takes us to Mr. Roy Harper, who has indeed reached the end of his run as a regular on Arrow. I’ve long been a fan of Colton Haynes’ work on the show, particularly what he and Willa Holland did in previous seasons in developing Roy and Thea’s relationship, and tonight’s episode is a hell of a valediction for Roy. On balance, Arrow never quite found a way to foreground the mentor-student bond between Oliver and Roy, and the latter’s exit feels more like a respected junior associate moving on to a new job than a trusted crime-fighting partner making what is damn close to the ultimate sacrifice. But no matter: Indeed, Roy’s plot almost benefits from his longstanding outsider status next to Oliver, Diggle, and Felicity, because it just helps to confirm that he doesn’t truly need them, that he is far more capable of looking after himself than anyone ever gave him credit for. Roy’s handcuffed beatdown of his prison assailants is plenty impressive, as is the reveal of the full scope of his plan to save Oliver, if not exonerate the Arrow.
The whole thing might be nonsensical if Haynes weren’t able to convey just how damaged Roy is by the knowledge of his crime, and his need to escape the sins of his past goes a long way to explaining why he would find this a palatable trade. More than that, his sacrifice settles a debt that Oliver would have never considered in need of repayment, but then that’s rather the point. As “Broken Arrow” makes clear, one of Oliver’s weaknesses is his inability to rely on, or even look for the help of others. When pushed, he can be an inspiration to others, as he is when he convinces Ray to prove that being a hero is about more than having the coolest toys. But it’s still harder for Oliver to see himself as someone in need of being rescued, as someone who can’t claim responsibility for the latest crisis because someone else has already solved the problem. If anyone should teach him that lesson, it’s only fitting that it be Roy, the sidekick who was always a hair too competent to ever really feel like a vital part of Oliver’s journey.
But then, after all this thrilling action, we are faced with the newest and likely biggest crisis of Oliver’s life, as Ra’s al Ghul plunges a sword through Thea. Turns out “Broken Arrow” was just the calm before the storm. The war is about to begin.
- Detective Lance’s unremitting hatred toward Oliver doesn’t necessary end up accomplishing all that much in tonight’s episode—he even gets a reprimand for his Ahab-like pursuit of his chosen perp—but it’s all a good reminder that Felicity is right, and that Oliver can never be the Arrow again. But maybe a new name could be just what the doctor ordered. Something a little more colorful and consciously light-hearted, maybe…
- Oliver giving Felicity crap about Ray is kind of the best, especially since it really doesn’t feel like jealousy is the prime motivator. He just sincerely believes those two could be related, and it’s hard to argue with those speech patterns.
- One more thing to respect Oliver for: When he just up and declares he’s going to break Roy out of the prison, I don’t doubt for a moment that he could do it. Says all you need to know, really.