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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow: “Deathstroke”

Illustration for article titled Arrow: “Deathstroke”
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Arrow has often flirted with grandiose, operatic storytelling—it comes with the territory of being a superhero show—but rarely has the show been as gloriously over the top as it is in tonight’s masterful episode. “Deathstroke” peels back several key layers of Slade Wilson’s plan to destroy the life of Oliver Queen, and the scale of his plot boggles the imagination. The man must have nearly infinite resources to fund the dozen or so different aspects of his plan, some of which appear to operate at cross-purposes. As an exasperated Sebastian Blood points out, the kidnapping of Thea Queen has caused Moira to surge in the polls, stymying Slade’s supposed plan to install his loyal acolyte at city hall. Wilson furiously dismisses this complaint, calling Blood’s attention to the precise wording of his promise: He told Blood that he would control the city, and that need not necessarily have anything to do with the mayor’s office. But even if we accept that, there’s still the question of why Slade would engineering Thea’s abduction so that it ends with a warrant out for his arrest. He gives no indication that he cares one way or the other about this development, but is that because this renewed police scrutiny is yet another part of his fiendishly convoluted plan, or does he just honestly care about Starling City law enforcement? “Deathstroke” proves at length that there is a method to Slade Wilson’s madness, but never forget that there’s a whole heap of madness there too.

Still, what makes Slade Wilson so formidable isn’t really his ability to bankroll and execute such meticulous, slow-burning schemes. It took him and his newly revealed accomplice Isabel Rochev multiple months to wrest control of Queen Consolidated from Oliver, and the equally protracted scheme with Sebastian Blood appears now to be little more than a mildly amusing diversion for Slade. Yes, we’ve reached a point where building a secret army of Mirakuru-enhanced convicts is the sensible, grounded pastime that Slade neglects so that he can have some more fun with his Oliver obsession. In any event, as impressive as those two plots have been, they don’t really show off the truly awesome might of Deathstroke.

Instead, Slade Wilson is at his most terrifying when his attacks are at their most surgical. He destroys Thea’s faith in Oliver with a single conversation, and even that is nothing compared to what he does to Laurel. With a single, absolutely devastating sentence, he shatters the trust that Oliver and Laurel have slowly, painstakingly rebuilt over the last couple of season. The look on her face when she hears that sentence suggests she doesn’t even begin to know how to react. After all, beyond whatever this revelation must mean about Oliver, Laurel likely also has to wonder about the identity of the Arrow’s accomplice, who just so happened to show up on the scene right around when Sara resurfaced, and even that raises questions about what her father might have kept from her. As one of the sages once observed, this is going to get worse before it gets better.

But let’s back up a second, because it’s worth understanding why Slade Wilson’s words are quite so searing. After all, neither Laurel nor Thea has the slightest reason to believe a word that Slade says. To Laurel, he’s a wanted kidnapper, and for Thea he is her actual kidnapper. He should be an entirely unreliable witness, someone both women dismiss as the obvious, pathological liar that he is. Hell, it’s not even as though Slade bothers to establish his credentials to either of them as someone with special knowledge of Oliver. (It’s possible that he went into more detail about his and Oliver’s shared past in his off-screen conversation with Thea, but it’s not as though her true parentage connects to their time on the island.)

In reality, the big revelations that Slade offers are like magic tricks: They only work because Thea and Laurel want them to. After all, Thea could have walked out of that warehouse. Maybe she figured that Slade was going to renege on his word and kill her if she didn’t do what he clearly wanted her to do, but that’s not how the scene plays. Thea stays because, on a fundamental level, she knows that Oliver still keeps secrets from her, even though she insisted last week that he was the only person who was honest to her. She and Laurel both desperately want to believe in Oliver, perhaps because they know on an intuitive level that he is a good person trying to do the right thing, but that doesn’t alter the fundamental fragility of that trust. Their faith was so brittle that Slade Wilson could shatter it with just a few well-chosen, confidently delivered words.

So what does that say about Oliver? For that, we have to go to Moira Queen, who finally condemns herself for all the lies and manipulations that have defined her relationships with those she loves. Susanna Thompson isn’t always asked to do all that much as Moira, but she nails the tricky emotional balance of the scene. Everything she says about herself is inarguably true, except it isn’t really applicable to this particular situation; if that brief flashback shot of John Barrowman is any indicator, she suspects Malcolm Merlyn may have engineered Thea’s kidnapping, but she is blameless here. As such, her self-recriminations remain hugely important to her ongoing characterization, but they also serve a larger purpose as a rebuke to Oliver. He too has concealed the truth from those he cares about, and he has always done so for the stated reason that to tell them his secrets would be to put them in mortal peril.


More than anything else, “Deathstroke” reveals the foolishness of that calculation. Slade Wilson is on the warpath because of what Oliver did—or, at least, what Slade and Oliver agree that Oliver did, even if one could still quite plausibly argue that Ivo bears sole responsibility for Shado’s death—and the man doesn’t care if those he hurts have the slightest inkling of Oliver’s past. If anything, Slade is out to devalue Oliver’s prized secrecy; where before characters only learned Oliver’s secret under the direst of circumstances, here Laurel learns the truth as just a minor move in a much grander game. This big push to strip Oliver of his mysteries makes sense, given that Oliver’s primary motivation to hide his alter ego has never been a selfless need to protect his loved ones. The truth—even if Oliver wouldn’t admit it—is simpler: He fears that Laurel, Thea, and everyone else whose love and trust he yearns for would react just as Tommy did, would reject him as a psychopath and a mass murderer.

The one blow to Oliver that Slade Wilson does not appear to specifically engineer is the loss of Roy. The would-be Red Arrow offers a crucial observation on the theme of secrecy when he asks what is the worst that could possibly happen if he were to tell Thea the truth. “Deathstroke” deflects the issue by having Felicity step in for Oliver, as she tells Roy about Barry Allen’s fate. Given that Barry’s getting struck by lightning really had nothing at all to do with his knowledge of the Arrow’s identity, this observation rings at least somewhat false in the moment, but the argument only gets weaker and weaker as the rest of the episode unfolds. Roy’s eventual decision to abandon Team Arrow and strike out on his own makes sense, in that there really is no way now that he can trust his supposed leader. As Oliver himself acknowledges, every decision he has made has been wrong, and no mistake was more costly than telling Roy to embrace his rage. It’s well established that Oliver doesn’t think straight when his loved ones are involved, but even he should have had sense enough to know that it doesn’t pay to tell a Mirakuru-addled young man to lose control.


And yet, after all of Slade Wilson’s machinations, Oliver is not defeated. That isn’t because of any particular reserve of strength he finds within himself. If that Arrow Cave had been empty, it’s not hard to imagine that Oliver would have smashed his arrows and given up in a fit of broken, self-pitying anguish. But the Arrow Cave isn’t empty: Diggle and Felicity are still there. The two people who Oliver has been honest with—or at least the two to whom he has lied the least—are not yet ready to give up on him. That show of support is a much-needed moment of affirmation after one of Arrow’s darkest hours. In its treatment of Thea, of Laurel, of Roy, and of about a half-dozen other characters, “Deathstroke” reveals Oliver’s shortcomings as a brother, a friend, a leader, and, well, about a half-dozen other things. But for all his faults, he’s still a hero, dammit, and those who know him best as a hero aren’t abandoning him just yet. Maybe Slade Wilson has some scheme in mind to drive wedges between these three, the core members of Team Arrow, but somehow I doubt it. At least, I’ve got to doubt it. Because if Oliver really is going to fight back, he’s going to need all the help he can get.

Stray observations:

  • Summer Glau finally returns as Isabel Rochev, and it’s revealed that, yes, she’s been working with Slade this whole time. We’re still waiting to find out her exact stake in all this, though her talk of the sins of the father suggests Arrow is going to do some sort of take on Isabel’s comics origin story, which ties in with Robert Queen’s misdeeds. Or, you know, she’s Talia. I still really don’t think that’s the case, but I know that’s what a lot of you fine people have been speculating.
  • Speaking of the commenters, I know there’s been a lot of chatter about how the show seems to have forgotten that Oliver is in charge of Queen Consolidated or that Glau is meant to be a guest star on the show, and I can’t exactly refute either of those points. That’s why I love how “Deathstroke” handles the issue, with Felicity articulating these fan complaints by pointedly asking Oliver whether he actually remembers that he’s meant to be a businessman working with Isabel to save his company. Based on the look on Oliver’s face, yeah, he had kind of forgotten. And while that plays as a meta joke, it’s also another good illustration of how Oliver’s singular focus on Slade Wilson has proven so destructive.
  • The most interesting aspect of the island flashback is the hallucinatory appearance of Shado. In case anyone was wondering whether Arrow really does traffic in ghosts, we get a pretty clear sign that this Shado is purely what Slade Wilson makes of her. Whereas the Shado who appears to Oliver is a kind, if sometimes unforgiving presence, the Shado who directs Slade is a spirit of vengeance. Indeed, Manu Bennett’s delivery in the flashback scenes suggested even Slade wasn’t entirely sure of Shado’s directives, but he saw no alternative but to obey. Seriously, the man is as mad as a hatter.
  • A late-breaking observation: It’s wonderfully audacious that Arrow spends the entire episode leading the audience (and Oliver) to think that Slade is going to tell Thea her brother’s big secret, only to then have Slade tell her that Malcolm Merlyn is her father instead… and then follow it up by Slade casually telling Laurel the truth about Oliver. Arrow, that is some stone-cold, diabolical stuff right there, and I love it.