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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow: “The Magician”

Illustration for article titled iArrow/i: “The Magician”
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It’s early days yet, but I’m still worried about how the mystery of Sara’s murder is going to shape the rest of the season. The central issue is that, in theory, there’s really only one episode’s worth of actual story to tell about the actual resolution of the mystery: Oliver and his team find the murderer, bring him or her to justice (or put an arrow in the killer), and that’s more or less the end of it. In the meantime, Arrow has to be careful about how it uses Sara’s death to propel its narrative. The characterization of Laurel appears to have benefited from this storytelling development, but I can’t imagine anything good coming of the moment Detective Lance learns the terrible truth. As for Oliver, the easy pattern for the show to fall into is one where he just repeatedly chases dead ends and false leads; it’s the most obvious way for the show to keep extracting story from Sara’s murder, but it risks making Oliver look a bit ineffectual, perhaps even a bit irrelevant to his own story. What makes this trickier is that Oliver appears to be investigating Sara’s death like he would any other case. If her murder is personal to him like it is for Laurel, it appears he won’t reveal that until he’s damn sure that he’s facing down the actual murderer.

None of these are insoluble problems, by any means, but the show hasn’t made the strongest possible choices in the initial construction of its third season. To once more attain the propulsive, operatic heights of last year’s Slade Wilson plotline, either Arrow must craft episode-specific plots that extract the full potential of the Sara mystery or it must change what we think we know about the overarching narrative to allow for stronger storytelling. Remarkably, tonight’s terrific episode manages both of these feats. Malcolm’s suggestion that Nyssa’s own father—the demon himself, Ra’s al Ghul—was behind Sara’s killing is the first halfway reasonable hypothesis the show has presented. This could still be a red herring, but Oliver appears to at least seriously consider Malcolm’s hypothesis. More importantly, Oliver’s decision to believe Malcolm when he says he didn’t kill Sara is enough to trigger a cold war with the League of Assassins. Nyssa’s threats aside, her father’s choice of words—“If that is true, then Oliver Queen courts war with us”—suggests we’re still a few more mistakes and misdeeds away from open conflict between the Arrow and the League. But the clock is officially ticking, and the DC universe has few villains more formidable than Ra’s al Ghul.

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But in the meantime, “The Magician” triumphs because it contrasts the closed-off, enigmatic Oliver with three far more combustible personalities. Laurel gets some terrific material here as the vengeance seeker stuck on the sidelines, and Katie Cassidy does series-best work tonight. She shows a shockingly steely resolve when Oliver tries to invoke Sara’s memory as a reason not to kill the evil bastard behind the Undertaking—definitely one of Oliver’s more ill-considered bits of moral grandstanding—with a cold, “Yes, I do” when asked whether she thinks Sara would want Malcolm dead. (And, yes, she’s almost certainly right.) Laurel is at best the fourth or fifth most important character tonight, but this is one of the few episodes where she actually feels like a vital, well-integrated member of the larger ensemble, and her own evolving feelings on Nyssa’s murderous intentions provide a nice little narrative arc on the margins of the episode.

Katrina Law isn’t subtle in her return as Nyssa, but she brings a fire to the search for Sara’s killer that the vigilantes had previously lacked. Unlike Laurel, Nyssa is more than capable of making life difficult for Team Arrow’s crime-fighting activities. She’s an unstable element, and her insistence on getting vengeance for the death of her beloved provides an effective counterpoint for Oliver’s reaction up to now. Laurel can be angry about her sister’s death, and she has every right to that rage, but it’s more difficult for the show to sustain that anger in the face of Oliver’s control and his commitment to his no-kill rule; Oliver isn’t necessarily right in those confrontations, but it’s hard to follow the emotional beats of those scenes and come away thinking he’s actively wrong. Nyssa isn’t as immediately relatable as Laurel, but her quest for murderous revenge is a product of a cold, considered worldview, and that makes for a more effective comparison with Oliver’s methods. Even Diggle, who stresses he understands every reason behind Oliver’s refusal to kill Malcolm, suggests that Oliver might do well to let Nyssa take her best shot against Malcolm.

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And honestly, it’s tempting to say Laurel, Diggle, and Nyssa have a point—several of them, in fact. Malcolm is indeed a remorseless killer, an unreformed megalomaniac who spends his every confrontation with Oliver reminding his adversary that death is the only way to stop him. (Not that that worked the first time Oliver tried it.) Again, if not handled well, this story could make Oliver look feckless, but “The Magician” hits just the right balance in depicting Oliver’s continued commitment to his no-kill rule. The key is for once the episode doesn’t have Oliver agonize over his moral stand; instead of retelling that story for the umpteenth time, we see Oliver attempt to put his high-minded if impractical vow into action. Admittedly, he ends up tying himself in knots, if the fact that he places Malcolm under his personal protection and antagonizes the League of Assassins is any indication. But this is an episode that explores how Oliver is now willing to stick by his principles even when they are inconvenient.

Indeed, a nice side benefit of this approach is that it makes Oliver look even more powerful than he already is. Give or take Slade, Nyssa and Malcolm are the two most fearsome foes Oliver has taken on, and there’s every reason to think, based on how things end up during their climactic fight, that Oliver could beat both of them handily if he weren’t consciously restraining himself. But then you probably can’t have the one situation without the other. After all, it was Malcolm himself who told Oliver that he could never hope to win when he didn’t know what he fought for. It’s taken another year, but Oliver now absolutely knows why he fights, and it’s what prevents him from killing Malcolm, or even letting Nyssa take her shot. Oliver is smart enough to know that he could still be wrong—he admits to Nyssa that he might well deserve that punch in the face—but he alone among the episode’s archers is still in complete possession of his humanity.

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But really, this is John Barrowman’s episode, as he turns in the most John Barrowman performance ever. He’s never exactly been restrained as Malcolm Merlyn, but he devours scenery tonight at a rate that would make even King Adolf Frederick of Sweden blush. (I’ll wait.) Some of this isn’t exactly good acting, as Barrowman finds a pause in the word “illogical” that even William Shatner might have missed, but it’s a massively entertaining performance, all grandiose gestures and shit-eating smirks. He gives “The Magician” a mad energy that this season’s previous three entries struggled to find, and he lets Stephen Amell slide into the entirely natural role of straight man to Malcolm. It’s strange: Merlyn can feel like a relic of the show’s relatively basic first season. After all, he’s “just” another archer, which can come across a bit predictable compared with the likes of Deathstroke or Ra’s al Ghul. But Barrowman has such an obvious blast playing Malcolm, and he brings such unnerving charisma to the part, that his mere presence allows Arrow to keep expanding the bounds of possibility. After a few weeks spent beating up small-timers, Oliver gets to face off with not one but two equal adversaries tonight. If this result—a great episode that sets up both Ra’s al Ghul and Malcolm as serious long-term threats—is anything to go by, Arrow should be nothing but heavy hitters from here on out. I realize why that wouldn’t be possible, but still, what a damn fine episode…

Stray observations:

  • Roy never met an enemy he couldn’t parkour at. One of these days, he’s going to realize that he should may skip the warmup parkour and go straight to the fighting. But I’m guessing that isn’t this day.
  • Hey, we learned some stuff from the Hong Kong flashbacks. Stuff like: Edward Fyers was once a character on this show! I mean, I feel like I already knew that, but I can’t be entirely sure.
  • Also, why exactly did Oliver need to haggle over the number of candies he would swipe? That feels like the kind of thing he could get five of just as easily as he could get three.
  • Nice of Felicity to just wander on back over from The Flash.
  • “My father may be the demon. But yours is the devil.” If we don’t get an episode called some variant of “The Devil And The Demon,” I’m going to be sorely disappointed.
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