“City Of Blood” is the eye of season two’s storm, the brief respite between the setup we’ve seen over the past several episodes and the season’s final two entries, in which Starling City figures to burn once more. The murder of Moira at the end of last week’s “Seeing Red” snapped the show back into its sharpest focus, and tonight’s episode recognizes the impact of her death: a victory for the bad guys and a crushing, heartbreaking defeat for the heroes. Maybe this isn’t the final defeat, but, as “City Of Blood” makes clear, it comes damn close. Oliver goes AWOL for a good stretch of one of the season’s final episodes, and this could so easily feel like a retread of similar plot beats from the beginning of the year; indeed, the resurrected Isabel Rochev alludes to this when she suggests he has run back to his island. The reason this segment works is that it lets Arrow shift its focus back onto Felicity and Diggle, to give them their own space to process the tragedy unfolding around them. The show has to thread a bit of a needle in maintaining the characters’ agency when their overriding purpose is to find Oliver; the show is perhaps slightly too workmanlike in how it presents their search for Oliver. Still, we are talking about a Diggle-led Team Arrow, and Diggle is all business. He’s there for Felicity when she needs to grieve for the diabolical Moira, and he knows precisely what to tell Amanda Waller to get the information he needs.
Besides, every second that Oliver isn’t onscreen just emphasizes further how devastated Oliver is. At the opening funeral scene, the audience can hold out hope that Oliver is about to make a last-minute appearance, to offer some stirring eulogy that presages his heroic march against Slade Wilson. But then Walter picks up his flower, and the long wait begins. Even after the reception passes with no reappearance, there’s still the fleeting hope that Oliver is off planning something truly audacious to hit back at Slade. Indeed, when Detective Lance mentioned that Sara is also missing, I briefly thought they might be working on something together, but then I remembered she had already left on her own dark journey. Amanda Waller offers that last little sliver of hope when she mentions that Oliver has gone to his other lair; considering Isabel just took control of Verdant—and, presumably by extension, the Arrow Cave—that seems like just the sort of thing Oliver would need to fight back against Slade.
But this is all just false hope and wishful thinking. When Felicity and Diggle finally find Oliver, they find a broken man, sitting in a barren, empty room. It’s the next stretch of the episode that really gives “City Of Blood” its power, and it’s all down to Stephen Amell’s acting. As Oliver—at least the present-day version—Amell has never really favored a particularly showy, expressive performance. From the very beginning, he has played the Starling City incarnation of Oliver as a closed-off, remote figure, something complemented by his body language: Anyone remember fans’ running gag about Oliver’s unmoving arms? Amell has grown into the role over the past two years, and what’s particularly impressive is how much he can subtly convey without ever stepping outside of Oliver’s natural emotional range. So much of Amell’s performance tonight simply involves taking Oliver’s usual cool, committed persona and removing any sense of hope, any sense of fight. When Oliver explains that he will surrender to Slade and accept whatever is coming to him, the scene plays as a brutal inversion of his usual statements of purpose; all the notes are the same, but the tune has changed. “City Of Blood” is at its best when it’s simply a mood piece, one that allows us to spend time with Oliver as he prepares to die. His monologue on the pier takes on an elegiac, almost otherworldly quality, with the bright lights pushing Oliver into a distant unreality as he acknowledges his many failings.
Indeed, it’s almost—almost—a shame then that “City Of Blood” has to go back to being a normal episode of Arrow. The dreamlike framing of the scene at the pier only heightens the sense that Oliver has reawakened in reality, and it’s an interesting choice for it to be Laurel who finally brings him back from the brink. Given Laurel’s status as the show’s most divisive character, I’ll guess that that scene didn’t work for everyone. Honestly, I’m going back and forth on it, but the crucial detail is that Oliver doesn’t really change his mind because Laurel appeals to some buried part of him that Diggle and Felicity had missed; instead, Laurel is able to snap Oliver out of his delusion that this really is only about him, that Slade Wilson will leave Starling City be once he has completed his vendetta. You can hear the storytelling creak a bit as Oliver instantly accepts Laurel’s assurance that the newly inaugurated Mayor Blood is working with Slade, but that’s kind of the point: Oliver’s last hope was that he really could end this by surrendering, but the fact that he always knew the Mirakuru army was out there means he was just hiding from the truth.
More importantly, “City Of Blood” makes time for Oliver and Laurel to talk about things that don’t directly relate to the current plot. Oliver admits that he has always wanted to tell Laurel the truth, and he finally gets to tell her Tommy’s last words. Thea was right all along: This show benefits so much from honesty, even if she remains pretty much the only character—give or take Detective Lance—who is still in the dark about what’s really going on. Oliver’s confrontation with Mayor Blood is a case in point, as both men realize just how well each has fooled the other. Kevin Alejandro makes some nice choices in this scene, as Blood really appears to consider Oliver’s warnings about Slade, if only for a moment. There are those brief hints of someone reachable hidden inside this slick psychopath, but then Blood goes right back to talking about his grand vision for the city, one that prominently involves an all-out assault by a bunch of Mirakuru-enhanced ex-convicts. Blood leaves his conversation with Oliver triumphant, but then he wasn’t really dining with Oliver. He was talking to the Arrow, and the Arrow is ready to go to war.
That’s where “City Of Blood” leaves us, as the advance guard of the Mirakuru warriors begins its attacks, while the main battalion begins its slow march on the city. Like I said up top, this episode is the eye of the storm, and next week, the hurricane returns in full force. The episode ends with Thea and Detective Lance in immediate danger, Diggle under threat by a Deathstroke-clad Isabel, Felicity busy with a call from Cisco at S.T.A.R. Labs, and Oliver and Laurel trapped in an alley, an entire city block’s worth of rubble raining down on the warriors before them. It’s one hell of a setup, and the previews suggest that everything is only going to get far worse and far crazier next week. But that isn’t what I’ll be taking away from “City Of Blood.” After two very good episodes that just didn’t quite work for me, this episode represents Arrow at its most impressively ambitious. This episode definitely isn’t flawless, but it’s something so much more wonderful and daring than that, as the show is confident enough both in its star and in its audience to spend a good chunk of the episode focusing on the despair of its hero. Slade Wilson might still lose—really, if there’s going to be another season, he has to—but this episode makes it clear that, if only for this one brief period, he broke the Arrow. We’ve seen Oliver’s darkest hour, which means we’re at least ready to see his finest moment.
- “The essence of heroism is to die so that others can live.” I really don’t think Oliver should live his life according to things Ivo told the people he was torturing, even if said torture victim did use it to derive some vague hope in the midst of his hellish situation. Also, Peter’s subsequent conversation with Oliver, in which he tells Oliver that he isn’t yet the hero that he could one day become, does feel kind of ridiculously on-the-nose, but this is one of those episodes strong enough to earn that kind of implausibly overt connection between past and present day.
- Scene That Was So Awesome It Pretty Much Earned This Episode An “A” All By Its Damn Self: Felicity interrogating Mayor Blood’s bodyguard was a thing of beauty. She and Diggle had nice banter going as she methodically raided the man’s bank accounts, and it was a brilliant instance of Arrow being smart where it could so easily be blandly violent. I can’t imagine Arrow is the first show to come up with this particular spin on the interrogation scene, but it was fantastic regardless.
- It was only one shot, but I’m not sure Isabel’s version of the Deathstroke outfit is working for me. There’s something about the mask that doesn’t seem to quite fit right.
- “I don’t know anything about hoods and masks or human weapons or any of this, but I know you. I know you like I know my own name. And I realize it may sound crazy in light of your secret, but I know who you are in your bones, Oliver.” Whatever Katie Cassidy’s strengths or weaknesses as Laurel, I think it’s fair to say she tends to get saddled with some of the show’s most ridiculously overwritten dialogue; I’m not honestly sure there’s a great way to deliver a monologue quite that florid. I realize Felicity also gets some pretty densely written lines, but at least those have goofy jokes in them.
- For a second there, I thought the bit about the premature timestamp was going to be a relatively plausible example of characters discovering a secret through looking at someone else’s computer files. I mean, I assumed it was the computer’s record of when the document was created, or something. But apparently Blood put the timestamp on the actual document itself, for some insane reason? I suppose it could be an automatically generated thing, but, yeah, that read as more than a little preposterous. Doesn’t take away from how awesome this episode was, though. I mean, I still haven’t even mentioned how the flashback plot involved Oliver and his island gang stealing a damn submarine.