For much of tonight’s episode, this felt like the end of Arrow. Sure, those damn flashbacks were often shackles for the show, forcing it to recite the next incremental step in Oliver’s five-year journey from playboy to the Hood that was far from consistently compelling. But even the blandest prequel—and the beginning and end of the flashback seasons were very good, even if the middle was soggy—can’t help but pick up steam as it rushes toward its inevitable, preordained conclusion: the beginning we saw five years ago. In watching Arrow come full circle, in watching it bring back Nyssa and Malcolm and Slade and, yes, even Moira, if only to close out the flashbacks in style, it’s not hard to feel a sense of completion. “Lian Yu” doesn’t just feel like the finale of this season, or even of the show’s first five years, but rather of an entire 10-year journey for Oliver. Watching all that, I wondered what story Arrow could possibly have left to tell after this hour was up.
And, well, the show provided one hell of an answer at the end there, as Adrian Chase’s death blows up Lian Yu—providing just about the most perfect way to symbolically sever the Arrow of the past five years with whatever comes next—and quite possibly kills everyone Oliver cares about, give or take Lyla or, uh, I guess maybe Roy. The show has generally preferred to wrap up its seasons on a definitive note, so it’s doubly significant this season elects to end on the mother of all cliffhangers: Come back this fall, we’re not done yet, is the show’s promise with that ending. While it’s possible the show will go back to basics, eliminate everything to do with Team Arrow, and just reset the show around Oliver and William, I can’t believe they just killed off every major non-Oliver regular and recurring character. Hell, I’m not really convinced Malcolm Merlyn is dead, even if John Barrowman has said he won’t be back next season.
What all this does mean though is that it’s hard to judge the finale’s conclusion, as there really isn’t one to speak of. There is at least the fact that Oliver keeps his word and refuses to kill Chase, even when William’s life in danger. Oliver’s improvisation isn’t the most inspired bit of arrow-related business in the show’s history—shooting Chase in the foot is just sort of there, as solutions go, neither inspired enough to feel like Oliver finally outsmarted his adversary nor so dumb that it reads as Chase being hoist with his own petard. I’m getting all this out of the way now because, while this is all worth considering, it all feels secondary to the true purpose of this episode, which is to showcase every conceivable corner of Arrow in 42 action-soaked minutes. The closest comparable I can think of for this episode is Justice League Unlimited’s “Destroyer,” which similarly wraps up a show’s story by turning out one last half-hour of superheroics. That Arrow has to remind us it’s continuing on makes the end frustratingly uncertain, but everything up to then is delightfully on point.
It’s going a touch too far to say that everyone gets a moment here, with Curtis in particular coming across as a bit feckless—though, in fairness, Oliver didn’t bring the damn T spheres with him. If there’s a general criticism here, it’s that the whole season appeared to focus on Oliver learning to trust his team, only for the finale to focus more on a bunch of ringers in Slade, Nyssa, and Malcolm. This is where “Lian Yu” most plays as a finale not to this particular year of Arrow but its entire run to date, and there is a logic to this. The other strand of the season has been Oliver struggling with whether he can forgive himself for his past, and there’s no better person to crystallize that lesson for him than Slade Wilson. As literally everyone is quick to point out, it’s absurd that Oliver would ever team with the man who killed his mother, even allowing for the Mirakuru factor. But then that speaks to who Oliver is in its own way: He forgives others far more readily than he forgives himself.
The episode is at its best when it embraces its role as big damn action movie, with plenty of focus on Slade’s swordplay, the dueling Canary cries, and a whole bunch of hand-to-hand combat both in the present and in the past. Manu Bennett once more oozes charisma as Slade Wilson, selling both his would-be betrayals while drawing us back in each time his true allegiances are again revealed. Lexa Doig and Katrina Law prove perfectly matched as daughters of Ra’s al Ghul, with Nyssa showing her own capacity for mercy when she spares Talia. Lance declares Dinah is indeed the Black Canary and offers a timely assist against Black Siren, exorcising some of his grief over Laurel’s death by taking down her evil doppelganger. (Probably not the best therapy, as these things go, but needs must.) And what character moments the show does take time on work well. All of Slade and Oliver’s scenes are a good reminder of why the second season was so compelling, while Thea and Malcolm wrap up their story—with some words of wisdom from Felicity—in a way that acknowledges Merlyn’s complexity without letting him off the hook for his monstrous deeds.
As for the flashbacks, there’s a primal simplicity to Arrow dispensing with all the heady thematic parallels it has tried—and, hey, sometimes succeeded!—in drawing between the past and present-day sequences, instead just cross-cutting Oliver fighting Chase’s minions with him fighting Konstantin Kovar. But then, the point here lies in the contrast, not the comparison. The Oliver of five years ago kills Konstantin in cold blood, an action of debatable necessity given he clearly had gained the upper hand. The Oliver of today refuses to kill Chase, no matter what, even when it appears to be the only way to save his son. That final murder on Lian Yu five years ago allows Oliver to escape the island and start rebuilding his life, whereas Chase’s death appears to have destroyed everything Oliver has found since that day.
Taken in isolation, “Lian Yu” is a strong but probably not superlative episode. Other episodes have had bigger action beats, better observed character moments, stronger points to make about who Oliver is and what his existence as the Green Arrow means. But this episode climbs into the uppermost echelon of Arrow episodes because it taps directly into everything that has come before it. That sense of culmination makes tonight’s episode something special, bringing what is effectively a decade’s worth of story to an end… only to blow everything up. What happens from here is uncertain, and this finale sure appears to challenge Arrow’s sixth season to carve out something new for the show. But as a final affirmation, even celebration of Arrow’s journey up to this point—an imperfect journey that has mostly been fun, and often good or better, at least when Oliver wasn’t doing whatever he was up to in Hong Kong for that one year—“Lian Yu” is just about perfect. This episode is all that Arrow is… or perhaps, from now on, what it was.
- I mentioned the possibility last week, so obviously I was thrilled to see Susanna Thompson show up in the flashback to offer that last little link to season one. It’s a tough assignment to play a scene where one’s character is so utterly overcome with emotion, but any Moira is always a good thing. Though given her behavior in the first season, one can only wonder how long she waited after getting off the phone before she began some evil plotting.
- Oh, Digger Harkness. You brought nothing to the table.
- There are definitely a few strands left dangling from this season, perhaps the most obvious being just whatever became of everyone’s favorite neighborhood Ragman, Rory Regan. Hopefully he will return at some point to wrap up his story, as that never felt properly concluded.
- Even if Team Arrow survived, it’s hard to see how the caged Evelyn or the unconscious Black Siren would have escaped. But I’m assuming it’s only a matter of time before we learn everyone we thought died actually made it out okay, up to and possibly including Dolph Lundgren.
- Well, that just about does it for this season of Arrow, which has been a whole lot of fun to write about and overall a great return to form for the show. I’ll see you all again in the fall.