On Arrow, characters are defined by what they do know and what they don’t know. This has always been a show obsessed with secrets, as any show built around a character with a crime-fighting alter ego is likely to be. But it goes deeper than that, as the aspect of this show that most distinguishes it from typical superhero stories—the serialized flashbacks to Oliver’s time on and now off the Island—can only sustain tension as long as there’s some expectation that the audience is going to learn something that it didn’t know before. In “League Of Assassins,” Oliver and Sara keep secrets from Felicity and Diggle, while all four attempt to protect the Lances from the truth, and even then, Moira and guest villains Al-Owal and Dr. Anthony Ivo hint at still great secrets just waiting to be revealed.
Within that framework, Arrow can instantly make a character appear powerful by giving her knowledge and, alternatively, it can make a character appear weak by leaving her in the dark about all that is unfolding around her. Those respective descriptions apply to Sara and Laurel pretty much perfectly. The resurrected Lance sister introduced herself in “The Crucible” by instantly recognizing Oliver beneath the Hood, and her ability to casually refer to Shado or Slade Wilson in the present day implicitly establishes her as Oliver’s equal. What “League Of Assassins” does so well is reveal how such secret knowledge can slowly crush a person. Sara is so terrified of giving her family members what they want more than anything—the knowledge that she’s still alive—because she believes they could never accept the things she had to do in order to survive. The episode ends with her father accepting her even after watching her kill an adversary in cold blood. While it might well have made just as much sense for Lance to recoil in horror, this episode is a true believer in the old saying that the truth will set one free, even if said freedom involves a life on the run from the League of Assassins.
Navid Negahban, best known for playing Abu Nazir on Homeland, is on hand tonight to represent the League of Assassins. He is reliably excellent as Al-Owal, even if it does appear this is a one-and-done role; perhaps it was overly optimistic to think Negahban would follow up Homeland as Arrow’s new recurring villain, although I suppose the rules of comic book storytelling say that it’s still possible Al-Owal will turn out to be alive and, quite possibly, a cover identity for Ra’s al Ghul. As it stands, Negahban makes the most of limited screen time, positioning himself as a threat more sinister and more ancient than any Oliver has yet encountered. When Al-Owal calls himself the man who trained Malcolm Merlyn, it’s instantly believable because the man shares Malcolm’s absolute clarity of purpose with none of the overriding rage or hatred that ultimately betrayed Merlyn. If this is all we see of Al-Owal, it’s still moderately impressive, though much like Michael Jai White in “Identity,” I’m going to be disappointed if this is really the last we see of him. Then again, Arrow did bring Deadshot back from the apparent dead, so it’s all still in play.
In this opening section of Arrow’s second year, an overarching goal has been to bring Quentin Lance—whom everyone still calls “Detective,” demotion notwithstanding, because “Detective” is his first name in a way “Quentin” just isn’t—into the show’s inner circle of characters, even if he still seems unlikely to learn Oliver’s big secret. “Broken Dolls” already featured Lance as the Arrow’s crime-fighting partner, and that episode foregrounded Lance’s emotional torment as a crucial aspect of the Dollmaker storyline. But “League Of Assassins” goes further, and it’s all about what Detective Lance is allowed to know. In the first season, he was the Hood’s very own Inspector Javert, a broadly well-intentioned absolutist who could not understand what place vigilantism—particularly the murderous, wealth-obsessed brand of vigilantism Oliver used to practice—could have in Starling City. On multiple levels, he was a character defined by all the things he didn’t know, which allowed Oliver and his team to shake the detective off whenever they needed to.
But now, Sara realizes she must entrust in him the secret of her survival, and he ultimately swears to never reveal the truth to her mother or to Laurel. Short of learning Oliver’s secret identity—and I’d guess Lance actively doesn’t want to know the Arrow’s identity, because the clues are all around him, and he worked out Sara’s alter ego pretty damn quickly—this is the biggest secret Detective Lance could ever be asked to keep, and anyway, this one has far more personal stakes. “League Of Assassins” relies greatly on Paul Blackthorne to sell the emotions underpinning its larger-than-life plotting, and he conveys the simultaneous euphoria and heartbreak Lance feels every time he embraces his resurrected daughter. As he observes to the Arrow, keeping Sara’s secret is the hardest thing he will ever have to do. Yet he also does derive some comfort from the knowledge that his daughter is still out there somewhere, and he tries to share that newfound hope with Laurel, even though he can’t provide the reason why.
And that brings us back to Laurel, whose storyline and character continue to be sources of weirdness for Arrow. I hesitate to call them weaknesses, because I think there’s still a chance Arrow has a specific plan in mind to take Laurel to her lowest point before rebuilding her. If that’s the case, the setup has been executed about as well as it could be, even if I’m dubious about how the follow-through is going to work. “League Of Assassins” very consciously isolates her from the main storyline, which effectively makes her a distraction from more interesting things going on elsewhere; even when Oliver finds Al-Owal’s knife in Laurel’s wall, he basically just tells her to sit the rest of the episode out. This feels different from most of her stories last year, in which she was stranded alongside Tommy in a meaningless romance subplot, because that felt like Arrow marking time with its soap opera elements with no idea as to what to do with its characters. Laurel’s speech about how everyone leaves her doesn’t reflect well on her character, but then it’s almost certainly not supposed to. Her world has collapsed in on her, leaving her emotionally brittle and prone to lash out. That’s a story worth exploring, but it’s not necessarily one that either Oliver or Arrow itself has time to pay attention to.
In the midst of all this, “League Of Assassins” fills in some vital blanks in Sara’s story, as tonight’s Sara-centric flashbacks circle back to where the Oliver-centric ones in “The Crucible” ended. The show also confirms it was no coincidence that the mysterious ship is called Amazo, as the man pulling the strings is revealed to be Dr. Anthony Ivo, a top three mad scientist in the DC Universe (along with the similarly villainous T.O. Morrow and the heroic William Magnus) and the creator of the nigh-invincible android Amazo. Dylan Neal, who in The CW’s prehistory played Pacey’s brother Doug on Dawson’s Creek, is perfectly cast as Dr. Ivo, appearing blandly handsome and well-meaning in his initial rescue of Sara before suddenly revealing just how insane he truly is. Besides, the audience still doesn’t see just how he transformed Sara into one of his committed torturers, a mystery that the show will hopefully begin to finally answer in the next episode. Until then, we’re left knowing significantly less than the show does about what’s actually going on—and if “League Of Assassins” tells us anything, that leaves Arrow in a very strong position, at least until it’s time to start revealing its terrifying secrets. Let’s just hope we can all be as understanding as Detective Lance when that time comes.
- I don’t want to become too enamored of my dichotomy between characters who know things and those who don’t, but I do think Thea is an interesting case. On a superficial level, she really doesn’t know any more about what is going on than she did last season, and indeed, both her brother and her boyfriend lie to her on a constant basis. But she does now know about her mother’s crimes, which is a big change from her spoiled ignorance last year, and, more importantly, Thea understands herself in a way she never did last year. Part of what leaves Laurel in such a weak position is she explicitly doesn’t know who she is or what her purpose is anymore, whereas Thea is infinitely more self-assured.
- “Have you found someone for me to hit yet?” Oliver has finally found a productive way to channel all that rage. Also, I appreciate that Arrow consistently makes Oliver the best fighter, even if the various League of Assassins members (Sara included) are just about able to match him. The Arrow has come a long way from when he struggled to defeat Merlyn, and I suspect his newfound, principled refusal to kill is a part of his increased prowess.
- “Well I can’t believe I didn’t think to look for you up here.” Detective Lance gets in his usual assortment of one-liners, and that’s my clear second favorite. Incidentally, when Sara says she never forgot her father’s voice, my only thought was, “Well… who could forget Paul Blackthorne’s American voice!?”
- “Guns are a coward’s weapon. What are you without your sidearm?” “A man with a spare!” Yeah… that was everything I ever wanted.