At various points tonight, I was convinced I was watching either the best or the worst episode in Arrow history. If absolutely nothing else, that’s proof of audacity, as a show doesn’t flirt with such dizzying heights or such self-destructive lows by playing it safe. “Kapiushon” ends up somewhere between those two extremes, though I would place it closer to all-time best than all-time worst. Prometheus’ efforts to extract the confession from Oliver take Arrow into the darkest territory we have witnessed, yet even Adrian Chase’s (or Simon Morrison’s, or whatever we’re calling him) most brutal schemes can’t compete with what Oliver gets up to in Russia. His torture and murder of one of Kovar’s henchman finds Oliver on the verge of going full Dexter, which is never a good thing to be on the verge of. The ultimate success of tonight’s episode likely rests on how the season’s remaining episodes—and there’s still a half dozen left, somehow!—build on what we learn tonight, determining whether “Kapiushon” really has something powerful to say about Oliver Queen or is ultimately just so much luridly gritty (possibly grittily lurid) trash.

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Let’s consider Oliver’s secret, the one he had been keeping not just from his loved ones but likely also from himself. After nearly a week’s psychological warfare, Chase gets Oliver to admit that he began his crusade as the Hood not out of a sense of justice but because he enjoyed killing people, and being a vigilante was a good justification to let him indulge his inner monster. Oliver’s decision to kill Kovar in cold blood—sure, it doesn’t take, but Oliver doesn’t yet know that—is perhaps the first time that Oliver kills not out of any necessity, but out of choice. There’s a sliding scale here, to be sure, as there was no strict necessity to murder than henchman either, but even here Oliver could claim he was practicing for the challenges still to come. With Kovar, though, Anatoli makes it absolutely clear that the man will face justice, but Oliver instead chooses vengeance on his own, seemingly lethal terms.

The parallels Arrow likes to draw between its flashback and present-day sequences can be both strength and weakness for the show, depending on the deftness of the writing. The idea that Oliver’s current situation nearly always matches something that happened precisely five years ago has always been a hell of a contrivance, but “Kapiushon” is one of the episodes that makes this work through just how inescapable the connections are. What’s brilliant is that we hear Adrian Chase force Oliver into admitting his darkest, most hidden secrets, getting our hero to confront things we might reasonably assume he had never truly recognized before—only for us to immediately learn that Anatoli foresaw all this five years ago and warned Oliver in no uncertain terms. Anatoli knew it was bullshit to claim Oliver and the Hood were somehow two separate entities, and that no good would come of Oliver pretending the “monster” wasn’t just him doing unspeakable acts. It’s all a fantasy, and an inherently self-destructive one.

This is where Arrow has the chance to do something truly clever with its storytelling, and all the pieces are there this season to think that’s where the show is going. Let’s first assume that Adrian Chase isn’t entirely right in his assessment of Oliver—after all, if our hero can’t on some level prove the villain wrong, then that’s kind of a crap villain. (This, admittedly, is a debatable point. But in the relatively straightforward narrative realm of superhero television, I think it’s fair to say audiences ought to want to see the hero triumph over the villain in a way that’s more than just simply exacting revenge.) And here’s the thing: As violent as Oliver could be during his time as the Hood, I don’t recall him ever reaching the level of brutality, even bloodlust we saw on display in the flashbacks tonight. It’s been a while since I watched the first season, but skinning people alive was never really his style.

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So what changed between tonight’s flashbacks and Oliver’s time as the Hood? Simple: He met Diggle and Felicity. John joined his crusade within the first few episodes, and it’s now possible to argue his presence steered Oliver away from his worst impulses, ones we couldn’t even know Oliver possessed because we didn’t know what he had been up to in the preceding year in Russia. Felicity’s presence further allowed Oliver to reconnect with his dormant conscience, and Tommy’s death led him to embrace the no-kill rule, albeit not permanently. To understand how Oliver got from tonight’s flashback savagery to the man we have known for most of Arrow’s run, look no further than the point Oliver himself has made repeatedly this season. His friends are his strength. They make him better.

And, on the flip side, consider just who led Oliver down the path that Anatoli warns him against. For most of his missing five years, Oliver gradually hardened into a killer, but his actions generally made sense in context. He found himself in a succession of impossible, inherently violent situations, and he responded accordingly. There are moments where he crossed the line, but it’s possible to invoke the fog of war as a reason, if not an excuse—which also fits with how Diggle would later bring a soldier’s perspective to their crime-fighting. It’s only when Oliver met Talia Al Ghul that he harnessed all his trauma and pain and anger in service of unleashing this monster. Previously, Anatoli pointed out the ridiculousness of Talia’s teachings. It’s not that Talia is wholly responsible for unleashing all of Oliver’s worst aspects—he was a willing pupil, after all—but it adds another, deeply satisfying layer to the construction of this season to have Talia be so fundamental to the formation of the Hood persona. It also positions her to be a hell of a final antagonist, in case Arrow wants to pull the old Dark Knight Rises twist.

It remains to be seen whether Arrow follows through on any or all of these, but the basic point is that “Kapiushon” represents a logical endpoint for all the stories Arrow has told up to this point: the season-long battle between the Green Arrow and Prometheus, the concurrent exploration of Oliver’s time in Russia, the five-year evolution from the Hood to the Green Arrow, and the gradual transformation of Oliver Queen during his missing years. The climactic battle with Kovar plays as a rousing last hurrah for the flashback sequences—after all, this is said to be the last season to feature them—and Chase forces a much-needed truth out of Oliver by getting him to admit he enjoys killing people. We see that fact on display tonight, in grim, sometimes over-the-top detail. But just as important is how Oliver responds at episode’s end. In the face of what he has learned about himself, Oliver is prepared to quit. He has grown, even if Prometheus doesn’t care. Oliver is a better person. As much as everything we saw in the past showed Oliver at his worst, much of what we see tonight in how he resists Chase shows him at his best. All that leaves is the question of how to reconcile the two sides of him. The Oliver of five years ago actively refused to try. Maybe today’s Oliver can do better.

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Stray observations

  • John Barrowman is on hand as Malcolm Merlyn, in one of those cameos that you kind of realize can’t amount to much for fear of wrecking continuity. He’s still a lot of fun to have on hand, though, as he’s as enjoyably slimy as ever. Anatoli casually introducing himself as a gangster is also fantastic.
  • Dolph Lundgren’s size makes him a fantastic fighting partner for Oliver. He towers over Stephen Amell (and any stuntmen), adding a different dimension to their face-off.
  • I’m not sure what’s worse: chase snapping a broken Evelyn’s neck, or Evelyn revealing the whole thing was a ruse to break Oliver. I’m kind of tempted to say the latter, if only because it temporarily pushes Arrow into Saw territory. Seriously, this is a brutally bleak episode at times.

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