If you want to understand why this season of Arrow represents such a major leap forward for the show, look to that final group scene in the Arrow Cave. Oliver has returned from what might well be the worst moment of his crime-fighting career—hell, maybe the worst moment of his life—as Prometheus led him through a grim recreation of one of his own past killing sprees before maneuvering him into killing Felicity’s boyfriend Billy. A season or two ago, Oliver would have compounded this tragedy with a more personal error, foolishly attempting to shield Felicity from the truth and in doing so setting the stage for the very subsequent betrayal Prometheus promised he would extract from the rest of Team Arrow. But Oliver doesn’t do that. Through his obvious torment, he tells Felicity and the rest of the team exactly what happened, leaving no details out. And Felicity instantly recognizes this not as Oliver’s crime, but as Prometheus’. When Oliver tells the team they ought to stay as far away from him as possible, Diggle draws them all closer together. Sure, the subsequent montage shows just how broken the team is—and how captured John appears to be—but that isn’t Oliver’s fault, even if his closing monologue might disagree.

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It’s a common mistake in the CW’s superhero shows that the best conflicts are necessarily internal ones, that it’s not compelling to show the protagonists be resolute in the face of the latest threat when time could be spent endlessly relitigating how every bad thing is actually the hero’s fault. Why bother building up and defining a villain when said foe can remain pointlessly mysterious, all so that time can be better spent on endless squabbling and pointless secret-keeping among team members who really ought to know better? (At this point, you might think I’m throwing shade at The Flash, but the whole point of shade is one never needs to acknowledge what one is talking about. I am absolutely talking about The Flash.)

This year of Arrow appears to check a lot of those boxes, but that’s only on a superficial level. Yes, the team still has its share of internal conflicts, but a big point has been Oliver taking in new recruits who quite rightly can’t be expected to have the same trust that Diggle and Felicity do. What might be weirdly arbitrary objections if a long-term member were making them become valid all over again when articulated by Rene, Rory, or Evelyn. And there’s been concrete progression with all three over the course of the season. Arrow has committed to the delightful dichotomy between Rory’s sunny disposition and Ragman’s inherently dark character without making either a joke. Wild Dog remains a wild card, but as he puts it, Oliver knows full well how much of a wild card he is, so it all works. And Artemis… well, Felicity is probably right to say she didn’t vet her closely enough, because it’s honestly hard to see how this could have ever ended differently, given Evelyn’s origins were tied up in Team Arrow abandoning her parents to Damien Darhk. Sure, the discovery of the List is maybe what pushed her over the edge, but she was always right on that line.

And sure, Prometheus remains the latest in a long line of rival mirror images that have bedeviled Oliver and Barry alike for years now. The difference though is that Oliver actually does have sins in his past that are worth reckoning with. The more violent approach Team Arrow has adopted this year blurs the lines a little between today’s Green Arrow and the Hood of the flashbacks, but make no mistake: the Oliver of season one was no clear-cut hero. (Again, not to harp on The Flash, which is a perfectly excellent Tom Cavanagh vehicle with other satisfactory elements*, but it’s funny how Arrow is now far more at ease with its sibling’s initial lighter tone, given Arrow’s origins as a grim and gritty Dark Knight-inspired show.) The show never coherently dealt with Oliver’s initial approach to vigilantism, with Tommy’s disapproval the first real rebuke and his death serving as inspiration for Oliver to adopt a no-kill rule. Since then, though, the Hood and the list have been quietly shuffled away, relevant only to the extent that the largely meandering flashbacks are intended to show how Oliver became so at ease with killing.

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We still don’t know who Prometheus is, unless you’re feeling really confident that he is indeed Justin Claybourne’s son—and even then, that doesn’t preclude him from being an adult character to be revealed later. And, if we’re being finicky about this, we still don’t know what Prometheus is truly up to, as he assures Oliver this is about far more than simple revenge. Maybe that just means Prometheus’ intention is to break Oliver, or perhaps all this is prelude to some still grander vision. Either way, “What We Leave Behind” is clever in building up Prometheus without undercutting Oliver—throughout, our hero is smart enough to make guesses and intuitive leaps that take him from two steps behind his foe to just one, even if he never catches up. This isn’t necessarily Oliver as master detective, but this isn’t just Oliver the stubborn creature of instinct. And Prometheus is a fearsome foe not because he’s just kind of generically invincible—something John Barrowman and Neal McDonough were able to make work through sheer force of scenery-chewing—but rather because he (or, hell, she!) has spent years preparing to take down the Green Arrow. Oliver is at a disadvantage not because he’s less than his foe, but because his attentions have been divided. That likely won’t remain the case for long.

I declared last week’s episode the best Arrow had ever done, and tonight’s entry comes perilously close to topping its predecessor. The direction is once again stellar, having lots of fun with the match cuts between the present and the flashbacks to the first season, and Oliver’s walk through memory lane is especially powerful. (I’ll admit I’m always a sucker for storytelling structures like this. The more TV is like Futurama’s “Luck Of The Fry-rish” or Firefly’s “Out Of Gas,” the happier I am.) There are a few minor quibbles here and there, chief among them a feeling the final few minutes are a bit rushed, with Diggle’s capture in particular not being given the weight that it ought to receive. But everything else is so assured, so resolutely solid, that those parting missteps don’t matter as much. “What We Leave Behind” strikes a careful balance, giving us an Oliver who blames himself for the latest crisis without letting him be consumed by that self-doubt. Maybe if he had brought the entire team along with him to face Prometheus, things would have turned out differently, but it’s hard to see how. Perhaps more than anything else, that speaks to the lesson Arrow has at last learned after a couple seasons in the wilderness: The most dramatic, compelling wounds are rarely self-inflicted. Prometheus has taken his shot. Now we’ll have to wait for 2017 to see how Oliver and company respond.

* I actually really like The Flash. That line was just too fun to pass up.

Stray observations

  • “What We Leave Behind” is clever in splitting the difference between moving swiftly on from the craziness of last week’s crossover and dealing with some of the fallout. Oliver and Thea reflecting—in and out of costume—on what their parents would think of them now was particularly well handled, as was Rene and Diggle’s conversation about the latter’s child.
  • I like Echo Kellum a lot, so it gives me no pleasure to say I have no idea what is going on with Mister Terrific. I mean, Curtis’ conflict with his husband is solidly handled, but it’s so separate from anything else that’s going on, and Curtis is so incompetent as a crime-fighter that I kind of just feel he should quit when the quitting is good. Can we please go ahead and let Mister Terrific start fighting crime with the help of the T-Spheres? He already invented the damn things, after all!
  • Adrian Chase isn’t even hiding how unhinged he is at this point. Next up he’s just going to start wearing a shirt that says, “Hi, I’m Vigilante!”
  • Oh, hey Laurel.

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