They’re leaving a lot of time on the clock. That was my first reaction when Oliver finally took down a depowered Slade Wilson with nearly 10 minutes to spare. Deathstroke’s defeat is the natural endpoint for the show’s second year, so my initial concern was that some horrible twist awaited the audience as the season wound down. But that isn’t quite what happens. Yes, Detective Lance is felled by an injury he sustained in an earlier battle with one of Slade Wilson’s minions, but the fact that he doesn’t actually die here likely bodes well for some manner of recovery, even if it’s a slow one; it’s not impossible that such a well-established and generally well-liked character will die off-screen between seasons, but it feels unlikely. Compare this scene to the conclusions of “Seeing Red” and “Streets Of Fire.” The former intends to kill Moira, so her murder is actually shown; the latter doesn’t really mean to kill Malcolm Merlyn, so the episode finishes with Thea shooting the gun. Arrow generally adheres to a very basic rule of storytelling: If you want a character dead, show him or her dead at the end of the episode, but if a character is only shown dying, then he or she will probably survive. That’s not going to make the wait between seasons any less agonizing, though.
Really, that’s true of everything we see after Slade Wilson is brought down. “Unthinkable” chooses a different path from last season’s finale “Sacrifice,” which ended right as Tommy died and the Undertaking continued to unleash havoc throughout Starling City, leaving precious little sense of what the second season might bring. Tonight’s episode lays down a clear blueprint for where the characters will are headed next fall. Both present-day and flashback Oliver find themselves forging closer links to A.R.G.U.S., as the former cuts a deal to house his worst foes in the organization’s prison on the Island, while the latter finds himself in Hong Kong about to have a very important conversation with Amanda Waller. Sara has survived, but the deal she cuts with Nyssa means she must leave Starling City, opening up a Canary-shaped vacancy that Laurel could theoretically fill, though their father’s deathly state might scramble any such plans. Thea, the only person to whom nobody has ever told the whole truth, has decided to throw her lot in with Malcolm Merlyn, which can only end well. Roy looks ready to throw himself into the superhero game as a coping mechanism. Oh, and Diggle is going to be a dad.
So what about the show’s journey to that point? I’m intentionally backing down on this slowly, because the two most brilliant, daring moments of “Unthinkable” just happen to cancel each other out. The scene in which Oliver takes Felicity to the Queen Mansion is such a huge moment because it represents Oliver, a man forever coy about his various romantic entanglements, actually making clear, declarative statements. It’s impressive enough when he says that Slade took the wrong woman, but it’s downright astounding to hear Oliver just straight up say that he loves Felicity. This goes beyond relatively prosaic questions about which love interest individual audience members might prefer; the scene gains its power not because it’s wish fulfillment for a certain subsection of fans but because it shows Oliver allowing himself to be completely vulnerable. Stephen Amell plays the moment beautifully, conveying a slightly tentativeness that suggests Oliver has finally removed all of his emotional armor—something he has arguably never done before, definitely not with Laurel and probably not with Sara either—and is showing his true self at last. Emily Bett Rickards is equally great as Felicity, her tiny reaction as Oliver leaves indicating that, for once, her character is at a loss for words.
But it was all an act, a ruse designed to trick Slade Wilson into a decisive moment of overconfidence. Again, this makes for a perfect bit of storytelling, as Arrow reveals once and for all that Slade is fallible and that it’s much, much harder to pull a fast one on Oliver than it might appear; the reveal that Oliver long ago noticed Slade’s bugging devices is a clever twist, even if it does feel slightly odd that Oliver never even considered using that knowledge against Slade any earlier than he did. Still, this narrative decision undercuts the most impressive aspects of Oliver’s confession: its absolute, uncomplicated honesty. Just to twist the knife, the final scene on Lian Yu makes it clear that, whatever unresolved feelings Oliver and Felicity might actually have for each other, they’re going to stay unresolved for the foreseeable future. Again, the issue isn’t about whether those two crazy crime-fighting kids should be together; it’s about the show deciding to undo one the boldest storytelling decisions of its season finale, even if that reversal allows the show to make some narrative moves that are nearly as daring.
Chief among these is the decision to keep Slade Wilson alive; indeed, while Detective Lance’s fate is still up in the air and earlier episodes did kill off Moira and Mayor Blood, it’s kind of remarkable that the most notable casualty of “Unthinkable” is Isabel Rochev, who has maybe two lines before Nyssa executes her. That’s an appropriate reflection of how Oliver has grown over the past year. The first season was defined by death, so how could “Sacrifice” not show the deadly consequences of the Hood’s decisions? But for Oliver’s journey—for the Arrow’s journey—this season to have any meaning, he has to find a way to end the madness without any unnecessary deaths. Oliver’s final speech to Slade manages the neat trick of being both inspirational and nuanced, as it features Oliver unambiguously declaring himself a hero while still acknowledging why he wasn’t always one.
The ideas that he throws around are ones that have been evident in the subtext of the entire season, as he explains that Slade helped him become a killer when he had to be one in order to survive, but now Slade’s madness has allowed him to prove once and for all that he is one no longer. Oliver doesn’t let Slade live to save him, nor does he do so to punish him. He keeps his enemy alive because that’s just what a hero does, and the intercutting between the two fight scenes, set five years apart, hammers home the transformation that has occurred. The Oliver of five years ago could not help but sink to Slade’s level; he couldn’t help but be enraged and terrified by the madman’s taunts and threats. But now, as the Arrow, Oliver has become someone better. Slade spent this entire season convincing Oliver that theirs was a personal story of revenge, but Oliver at last proved it was something more basic. In the end, this was a battle between heroes and villains; the fact that the heroes’ side included a bunch of assassins muddies the water, but only slightly. Because Oliver allows himself to become a hero here, “Unthinkable” allows him a measure of triumph, one that he hadn’t yet earned in last year’s “Sacrifice.”
Let’s circle back to the scene in which Oliver—or, more to the point, Felicity—depowers Slade. As much as I would say that moment undercuts the honesty of the earlier scene, it still has plenty positive to say about what Oliver and Felicity mean to each other, romance aside. After all, Oliver is this close to agreeing with Detective Lance’s rousing speech about the necessity of killing Slade and his warriors before Felicity cuts in with her own rousing speech. It shows remarkable trust for Oliver to give Felicity this mission, especially considering he very clearly doesn’t actually tell her what the hell he’s up to ahead of time. He takes it on faith that Felicity will understand what he’s playing at, and that she will be ready to take Slade down when the pivotal moment comes. Again, I want to make this less about the specifics of Felicity’s awesomeness, though the temptation is absolutely there. Felicity and Diggle are just the two characters whom Oliver trusts most, but the fact that he can trust at all is what’s really remarkable. This might be the episode where Oliver finally leaves the island for good, in more ways than one.
Arrow is always going to be about Oliver—honestly, it’s sometimes a little too much about Oliver for its own good, though let’s save that discussion for later—but “Unthinkable” is a celebration of the entire, extended Arrow universe. Some characters don’t get all that much to do here; in particular, Laurel is shortchanged by the finale, though I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and say that probably isn’t that big a deal to the local readership. “Unthinkable” is clever in that it gives every supporting character and every random guest star a little moment amid the chaos to show off why they’re worthy of our time. This is an episode where Lyla makes her big return by showing up in an A.R.G.U.S. helicopter and dispatching a bunch of Mirakuru minions with a rocket launcher. This is an episode in which Detective Lance gives a life-saving assist to Nyssa, and they share a nod of mutual respect. This is an episode where Diggle frees Deadshot himself in a last-ditch assault on Amanda Waller’s command center. This is what Arrow is. It isn’t always perfect. It’s stilling navigating some of its trickier character and narrative complexities. But my goodness, is this show spectacular.
- There came a point in Thea’s subplot where it felt as though the show didn’t quite know where to go, perhaps because budgetary requirements elsewhere left Thea and Malcolm confined to that train station. It was slightly goofy for Thea to spend quite so much time going over the same handful of plot beats with her psychotic fairy godfather—you know, her actual father—but that doesn’t make me any less excited to see where Thea’s story goes next season. Somehow, though, I’m guessing that people aren’t about to stop lying to her.
- Let me make this perfectly clear: Detective Lance damn well better survive. If we have to let Laurel become the Canary for that to happen, then fine. (Also, if that’s the trade-off that the Arrow creative team wanted fans to make, then that’s brilliant. Evil, but brilliant.)
- Here’s the rather awesome promo for The Flash that aired mid-episode. I just love how firmly Oliver is established as the centerpiece of this bold new universe, even if he isn’t the most powerful character. Hell, the way that he ordered around Nyssa and her assassins tonight was pretty ridiculously impressive.
- And that just about does it for the second season of Arrow. Once again, it’s been a ton of fun talking about the show each week with all of you. Here’s to season three!