Oliver faces his toughest opponent yet: Ra's al Ghul.

By Chancellor Agard
December 11, 2014 at 04:58 AM EST
Cate Cameron/The CW
S3 E9
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WTF?! HOLY S—?!  HUH?! NO THEY DIDN’T?!  I CAN’T EVEN! 

These are  just some of the all-caps words that littered my notes on Arrow’s midseason finale, an episode I was skeptical about for two reasons. First, because the title reminded me of a song by a certain former Disney channel actress. Secondly, the first half of Arrow‘s third season has been rather uneven and hasn’t had a sturdy focus. But, boy, did tonight’s episode make up for everything that came before! “The Climb” delivered one of the show’s best fight scenes as well a lot of other great character moments. There was something in this episode for everyone to love. Let’s get to it…

FLASHBACK — Hong Kong, 3 years ago

This week, Oliver and Maseo are trying to get their hands on a deadly bioweapon called “Omega” before China White does. Apparently, one vial of this stuff has the power to take out an entire city. Oliver isn’t any more comfortable with torture than the last time we saw, but he’s closer to accepting it as a necessary evil. Maseo and Oliver find the lab that makes the virus and try to steal it. However, by time they get there it is gone.

Turns out, China White had a man on the inside who stole it for her. They capture him, but after hours of torture, they realize he doesn’t know anything because he was under the control of Vortura, a plant that makes a person susceptible to suggestion. Basically, it’s mind control, and Oliver’s reaction to finding out was priceless. Unfortunately for them, China White decides to visit Maseo’s home and has a nasty encounter (katana fight) with Tatsu. By the time Maseo and Oliver get back, China White has taken Tatsu.

PRESENT DAY

Boy, does the League of Assassins know how to make an entrance. The Arrow is casually minding his business on this December night—you know, dropping gift-wrapped bad guys off at the police station for Quentin—when the League ambushes him in an alley. Outnumbered, Oliver is captured and dropped at Nyssa’s feet. Nyssa al Ghul, a.k.a Daughter of the Demon, a.k.a. The World’s Deadliest Glorified Messenger, has come to Starling City to deliver a message for the Demon himself: Oliver has 48 hours to find and deliver Sara’s killer or else the League will start killing innocent people in Starling City, because that’s apparently a thing the League does when it grows impatient. (ASIDE: I may be wrong, but didn’t Nyssa tell Oliver earlier in the season that the League was after Malcolm because his Undertaking, the nonchalant killing of hundreds of innocents, violated their code of honor? If that’s the case, how is the Undertaking not okay, but being ready to kill innocents over Sara’s death make sense? )

We’re less than five minutes in the episode, and we get our first surprise: The so-called “cleansing of Starling City” will fall to Sarab, who is revealed to be Maseo! Following some tragic night—probably the one that comes after the final flashback—Maseo traveled to Nanda Parbat because who needs grief counseling when you can just become a badass assassin. Oliver tries to reason with Nyssa that this isn’t something Sara would want, but Nyssa points out that Sara is dead and leaves him to get to work.

Because grief and loss is all over this episode, Laurel visits Sara’s grave and runs into Thea, who was also at the cemetery putting flowers on her mother’s grave. In their ensuing exchange, Thea is shocked and upset to find out that Sara is dead. Cleverly thinking on her feet, Laurel makes Thea promise that she won’t tell Oliver.

Elsewhere, Felicity and Ray are not okay. Felicity’s still upset with him for running off mid-kiss without saying anything, and she assumes that he did so because he regretted it. Later on, Ray stalkerishly pings Felicity’s phone and pays her a visit at Verdant to explain his reaction to the kiss. Turns out, Ray felt guilty about the kiss because it has only been a couple months since his fiancee, Anna, died during Slade’s siege on the city. Anna was supposed to be the last woman he kissed, and yet here he was kissing another woman.

Unfortunately for Team Arrow, and Starling City, Oliver doesn’t have a contingency plan for this kind of thing, so they really need to double down on the investigation of who killed Sara. Caitlin rushes the DNA test for Felicity and sends it over, and everyone’s shocked to find out who it belongs to: Oliver Queen. GASP! Commercial break!

NEXT: Sara’s killer is revealed

Meanwhile, Quentin decided to bring his ex-wife Dinah (the incredible Alex Kingston) to town as a Christmas surprise for Laurel. Tonight, Dinah Lance proved she’s the most intuitive mother in the world when she figures out that Sara isn’t actually backpacking through some far off place. Later on, she meets Laurel for dinner and after a few minutes of prodding gets Laurel to admit that Sara’s dead. Laurel promises that she will find Sara’s killer and make them pay. Dinah demands that Laurel also make them suffer.

How did Oliver’s DNA end up on that arrow? The most obvious answer is someone who has a vested interest in pitting Oliver against the League. Oh right, Malcolm Merlyn! Through some quick research and the casual throwing of airplane pilot through windows, Team Arrow finds out that Malcolm Merlyn was indeed in town when Sara died. But, he wasn’t alone. Thea was with him, a revelation that shakes Oliver to the core because he realizes that Thea lied to him. Both Diggle and Felicity are quick to point out the elephant in the room: the computer matched the sample to Oliver because it came from his sister. But Oliver refuses to accept the possibility that Thea would kill someone.

Oliver heads home to find Thea decorating a gratuitously large Christmas tree. “Smaller the family, bigger the tree,” she says. Lacking any kind of tact, Oliver just comes right out and asks her about spending time with Malcolm. To Oliver’s surprise, Thea gives him a taste of his own medicines and lies; she denies flying back to Starling City over the summer with Malcolm. Spoiler alert: Oliver does not like how being lied to feels.

Across the world in Nanda Parbat, Ra’s al Ghul sends his recently returned daughter back to Starling City to teach “Mr. Queen” that the League does not make empty threats and only asks once. I really hope Nyssa and the rest of the League are collecting frequent flyer miles because it would be financially irresponsible if they weren’t.

Back in the Arrow Cave, things are getting a little heated. Because he has a blind spot for his family (and Laurel), Oliver refuses to believe that Thea is capable of killing someone. He says he looked into her eyes and saw that she couldn’t be a killer. Acting, as he always does, as the voice of reason, Diggle tries to knock some sense into Oliver’s head. Felicity interrupts Oliver and Diggle’s arguing to tell Oliver that he’s the wrong person to be interrogating her.

And cue the Arrow bursting through a window in the Queens’ apartment to interrogate Thea. However, Oliver’s surprised to see Thea, rather skillfully, fight back. He’s so in shock that she manages to flee the scene. Honestly, I’ve been waiting for a physical confrontation between Thea and Arrow since we saw her training at the beginning of the season. This one was short, but still a whole lot of fun.

Oliver returns to the club to find Malcolm waiting for him. In rage, Oliver pins Malcolm to the bar top and expresses that he’s more than willing to break his no-killing rule. But, at that moment, Oliver receives a message. It’s a video that Malcolm took of Thea killing Sara. To be honest, it’s actually rather hard to watch for a number of reasons. First, it’s difficult to see Sara just stand there and take the arrows. More importantly, however, it’s hard to see Thea kill someone. We quickly find out that Malcolm used Vortura to convince Thea to kill Sara—but that doesn’t make the video any easier to handle.

“What I’ve done is give you incentive to tell Ra’s that you killed Sara Lance,” says Malcolm. If Oliver does this, he’ll be allowed to request trial by combat, which Malcolm wants him to do because he wants Oliver to kill Ra’s to erase his blood debt. Malcolm cockily says he’s glad Thea is sufficient motivation.

(ASIDE: Malcolm’s video was definitely a snapchat, right? Who do you think he sent it to? Moreover, is he not worried by the recent string of iCloud breaches?! Also, the fact that Malcolm was standing there recording it probably accounts for part of Sara’s confusion. Sara was probably like, “Why is Malcolm Merlyn ‘America’s-Funniest-Home-Video’ing me?!” END ASIDE)

What’s great about this episode is that while it did feature Oliver blaming himself for things he really couldn’t control, it doesn’t feel gratuitous and doesn’t bring the episode’s mood down. In fact, it leads to an Oliver with renewed confidence; who knew a self-assured Oliver would be such fun to watch? Oliver’s convinced that he’ll win in a duel against Ra’s because, unlike when he fought Malcolm the first time, he now knows what he’s fighting for: Thea. This moment helped make sense of what’s been wrong with Oliver this season: It’s not that he’s been moody, as I’ve annoyingly complained about for several recaps in a row. It’s that there’s been too much self-doubt, which makes it harder for the audience to fully believe in him.

NEXT: The Arrow vs. The Demon’s Head

Now we reached a moment eight episodes in the making: Oliver Queen and Ra’s al Ghul’s first meeting. The Demon’s Head’s initial reaction to Oliver: “You’re just a boy.” (The fact that Oliver’s appearance surprised him makes you wonder if they actually have internet in Nanda Parbat.) Their first encounter is as intense as you would expect, but also features Ra’s throwing the ultimate shade at Oliver: “You’ve failed to protect the city you love,” Ra’s says as if he knows just where to hurt Oliver. Adhering to Malcolm’s wishes, Oliver confesses to killing Sara and request a trial by duel, which surprises Ra’s since no one has challenged him to one in 67 years (Lazarus Pit!). But, Ra’s accepts.

Once most of the League has departed, Maseo and Oliver are left alone in the room. Maseo reveals that he joined the League the same time as Sara, and that he’s confident that Oliver didn’t kill her. Revealing that the two formed a stronger bond than what’s been shown, Maseo tells him that he has no desire to watch him die, but since he’s so stubborn, he has 12 hours to settle his affairs.

Oliver’s first stop is to Thea. It’s a heartbreaking scene—not only does it reinforce their sibling bond, despite the lying, but so much also goes unsaid. Secrets have torn their family apart already, but Oliver still doesn’t tell her he’s the Arrow even though there’s a strong chance he may never see her again. At the same time, however, Oliver telling her he loves her is all that needs to be said.

Meanwhile, Felicity heads to the office to confront Ray. Having spent enough time around people who have suffered pain, she knows when people aren’t telling her the whole truth and demands that Ray tell her why he really bought Queen Consolidated. Essentially, he’s taking an old QC project called O.M.A.C. that was working to make things smaller rather than bigger. His idea is to make military grade technology, like the stuff made by Queen’s R&D lab, small enough to fit in his hand. He has renamed it A.T.O.M., Advanced Technology Operating Mechanism. With this technology, he hopes to protect Starling City and wants Felicity to help him do so. “Why does this keep happening to me?” says Felicity, which is the most-Felicity response ever.

Felicity returns to the Arrow Cave and is naturally taken aback by Oliver’s news. In a very out of character move, Felicity tells Oliver that he needs to kill Ra’s. This is a duel, and she’s afraid Ra’s will use Oliver’s humanity against him. But it’s the only thing she could possibly say because, as she puts it, him not going is definitely out of the question. Further showing off his newfound confidence, Oliver tells her that there are two things he knows to be true about himself: First, he is willing to do whatever it takes to save his sister. And second, he knows that he loves her—and I can’t even anymore! This touching exchange might make up for all of the “they-should-but-he-says-he-can’t” nonsense between these two that has taken up so much time.

After a perilous climb up a mountain, Oliver reaches the dueling ground. Maseo urges him to try to beg for mercy, but Oliver doesn’t and picks up two swords to fight him. Before the duel, Ra’s explains the League’s philosophy when it comes to justice: The killing of wrongdoers is good because you are replacing evil with death. If Ra’s were talking to season 1 Oliver, he might find a like-minded ally, but alas.

Oliver and Ra’s al Ghul’s ensuing duel is exceptionally choreographed. It is beautifully simple. It’s just these two shirtless men (an allusion to a similar fight that occurred in the Neil Adams-era Batman when Ra’s al Ghul was first introduced) fighting with two swords—swords being, probably, the simplest weapons after guns. Needless to say, the scene also feels very Nolan-esque, which is okay since the show has proven it’s no longer completely dependent on that Nolan aesthetic. If anything, this episode felt like one of the most comic book moments the show has ever had. Like so much in tonight’s episode, Oliver’s poor performance against Ra’s is reminiscent of the scene in season 1 when Slade is training him to fight with bamboo sticks. It’s an unnecessarily humbling fight for Oliver.

At one point, it looks like Oliver has been losing on purpose to give Ra’s a false sense of security. Oliver gets the upper hand for a second, but Ra’s quickly steals it back by disarming him at the edge of the cliff. Ra’s then rams his sword through Oliver’s chest. After he recites a prayer, he pushes Oliver off the mountain. Talk about a cliffhanger!

We know Oliver isn’t dead, but it’s still a very effective ending.

Wall of Weird: 

— Having watched the Ra’s al Ghul episode from Batman The Animated Series today, here’s my prediction for the second half of the season: Someone takes Oliver to the Lazarus Pit, he’s revived, but his brain is altered, making him a bit crazy. He’ll alienate those around him, which will necessitate Ray Palmer, with A.T.O.M, to help him.

— Clarification: I’m not sure if this is how it works in the comics, but on Batman The Animated Series, every time Ra’s al Ghul uses the Lazarus Pit—a pit that revives the dying—he comes back and is mad, in both senses of the word.

— Kudos to those of you who suspected it was Thea! I suggested the possibility in the season premiere recap after reading a post on Reddit, but I definitely didn’t argue for it.

— This was a strong episode, however, it must be noted that the Hong Kong flashbacks and the Laurel stuff definitely weighed it down. The fact that Oliver did not tell Thea he was the Arrow didn’t help either. Secret identities get annoying really quickly.

— Funny coincidence: Ray Palmer and The Flash‘s Harrison Wells have “similar” backstories.

— Well, this is the midseason finale. I’ve had fun recapping the show and reading your reactions to each episode in the comments. If you want to talk about Arrow during the hiatus, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @chancelloragard. See you back here in January.

Billionaire Oliver Queen — under the vigilante persona of Arrow — tries to right the wrongs of his family and fight the ills of society.
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