I’ll admit I’m not an expert on the rules of storytelling, but I feel like you’re probably not supposed to cram flashbacks inside flashbacks, much less a dream sequence inside a flashback. “The Promises” indulges in both of these examples of narrative funkiness, and each works perfectly. This episode is Arrow at its most confident, and with such confidence comes exuberance, a willingness to try anything in pursuit of the best possible story. Tonight represents a turning point of the second season, and its clear focus on the Island flashbacks makes it a natural companion for last year’s “The Odyssey.” But this story is still more ambitious than that episode, as “The Promise” constructs a story in the present every bit as complicated as the tale of what happened five years ago. Most importantly, the main characters are no longer operating in ignorance; Moira may not understand Oliver’s redoubled hostility, and there’s still the question of Slade’s henchman Sebastian Blood, but those are side issues. The present-day Oliver, Sara, and Slade all know that one another survived, and the fate of Shado is no longer a secret back in the past. This feels a climax to all that has come before it, but, as Slade makes clear on his way out of the Queen Mansion, this is just the calm before the storm.
But first: Flashback Oliver completes his transformation into Green Arrow! (Or the Arrow, or the Hood, or whatever we’re technically supposed to be calling him this week.) There have been several moments over the first 37 episodes that hinted at the younger Oliver’s eventual metamorphosis into his current self, but this episode features by far the two biggest milestones. Oliver takes a major step toward his present-day identity when he dons the hood, an act that honors both Yao Fei and Shado. Implicitly, that act indicates Oliver’s belief that he is worthy of their lineage, if only to pay tribute to them. Still, that in itself isn’t proof that Oliver has really left behind his past life; after all, Oliver has been driven to extreme action many times before, but Arrow always suggested that Oliver was merely play-acting the role of a killer. He was capable of brutal violence in defense of himself or those he cared about it, but he wasn’t hardened to it like Slade or like the Oliver that returned to Starling City.
The opening training sequence suggests just how far Oliver has progressed as a fighter and, more generally, as a driven, disciplined person. That’s something he taps into with his conversation with Sara the night before the assault on the freighter. He alone has gained something from his time on the island; he has gained a measure of self-respect that he could never attain as a feckless playboy. The same can’t be said for Sara, who has only been confronted with the worst aspects of herself during her time as the part-prisoner, part-accomplice of Professor Ivo. Then there’s Slade, whose insistence that his teammates can’t even think of the possibility of death indicates a certain understanding of the psychology of combat, but it also suggests his own mindset. As Slade tells Oliver on the freighter at episode’s end, he has known only despair since the death of Shado.
“The Promise” has some fun with the fact that Oliver isn’t yet a polished warrior, as he is forced to peevishly admit that a breeze might have diverted the arrow that he aimed at the bonfire. But once the fighting starts onboard the Amazo, there is no doubt. An underrated aspect of Stephen Amell’s performance as Oliver Queen has been his ability to play the two distinct versions of the character. He’s helped in this endeavor by the more superficial details like Oliver’s hair and clothing, and Amell isn’t exactly subtle in how he pitches up the younger Oliver’s voice to make him sound less like the terrifying vigilante he is destined to become. But the real genius of the dual performance lies in Oliver’s shifting body language; the Oliver of Starling City is a precise, controlled warrior, whereas the Oliver of the island has been known to thrash and flail when confronted with the hopelessness of his latest predicament.
Tonight, Amell lets these two performances merge. When Oliver steps onto the deck of the Amazo, the shadows casting him in a familiar hooded silhouette, he looks every bit like the hero who patrols the streets of Starling City. He is comfortable in battle, and that newfound confidence does not desert him when Slade begins the sadistic game with Professor Ivo. Oliver cannot know whether he will survive Slade’s fury, but he drags himself to his feet to stand before Ivo and his gun. He is done with begging, because he’s got nothing left to live for beyond his own sense of self. I imagine there will be more twists and turns in the final three or so years of Oliver’s exile, but he is now essentially the man that returns to Starling at the beginning of Arrow. Even if he isn’t quite yet ready to kill Professor Ivo in cold blood, he has seen enough to know there is nothing to be gained by appealing to his foes’ better natures. To borrow a term from an earlier episode, his captivity at the hands of Slade is precisely the kind of crucible that would create the murderous vigilante of the first season. Oliver loses something tonight that he won’t regain until he meets Diggle, Felicity, and the rest of the ever-expanding Team Arrow.
The decision to incorporate the present-day team into “The Promise” is what elevates a superior episode into an all-time great. Arrow always picks up momentum when it switches gears and devotes the bulk of an episode to the flashbacks, but it’s rare that the show can also sustain that energy back in the present-day sequences. Oliver’s willingness to violate his no-kill rule and execute Slade is not unexpected, given their history, but the suddenness, even rashness, of his attempt to stab Slade is revealing. Oliver clearly doesn’t have much of a plan when he first tries to kill Slade; he cares enough about his mother’s well-being to get her out of the room before he makes his move, but that ruse provides Slade ample time to anticipate the blow. The return of Slade Wilson is so shocking that Oliver can only process it on an instinctual level, and his gut reaction is summary execution. Sara later articulates what Oliver has been thinking all along: If Slade isn’t stopped, he will brutally murder Oliver’s entire family. But then, the abject horror with which Sara reacts to the sound of Slade’s voice is all the proof the audience needs.
The climactic standoff between Slade and Team Arrow represents the show at its absolute tensest. Manu Bennett is outstanding throughout this episode, but he’s never better as he reacts to the various new arrivals in the Queen mansion. Slade instantly recognizes the significance of Roy’s improbably strong handshake—indeed, it’s not impossible that he had a pretty good idea beforehand that Roy was one of the recipients of the Mirakuru, given his ability to anticipate Diggle’s position—but his one good eye betrays genuine shock when he sees Sara walk down the stairs. His later line about her having come back from the dead indicates Slade was previously aware of Sara’s survival, so it’s likely his reaction is more rooted in the rage that he feels toward Oliver and Sara that they should survive, even thrive, when Shado is still long dead.
It’s possible that he’s less surprised by the fact of her presence than by the audacity of her showing her face to him. Besides, he might not have been quite ready to see the only other person alive who knows all of his secrets—or, at least, the secrets he left on the island. As Slade makes damn clear in the final scene, in which he gazes upon all the hidden cameras that now cover the Queen Mansion, he has plenty of new secrets that Oliver will have to uncover if he and his friends hope to make it out of this season alive. The worst is yet to come, which, if “The Promise” is any indication, means we’re now watching the show at its very best.
- The big fight sequence on the Amazo represents another highlight in Arrow’s already stunning reel of great action scenes. It’s a messy, chaotic affair, in which it’s not always easy to figure out which side is which, but that’s pretty much the point. The moving camera and the extremely wise decision to stage the battle at night helped disguise the fact that that scene was most definitely not filmed on the high seas.
- Dylan Neal continues to do brilliant work as Anthony Ivo, and I’m glad that he manages to make it out of this episode intact. There’s an art to playing scenes of villainous manipulation—everything Ivo says about Shado’s death is complete bullshit, and Neal pitches his lines as a particularly convincing, plausible brand of bullshit. It’s enough to sucker in Oliver, who is dealing with his own deep-seated feelings of guilt, but it’s actually Slade who says unequivocally that Ivo, not Oliver, killed Shado. That doesn’t make him any less apocalyptically furious with Oliver, but still.