“Sacrifice” is everything the first season of Arrow could ever hope to be. It’s goofily, even dopily larger-than-life, full of ridiculously soaring music cues, rousing character moments, and monologues that waver between cheesy and profound, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. It trots out its soap opera elements and refuses to apologize for them. It’s an entire movie crammed into an hour’s running time and told on a CW budget, albeit one that was fairly clearly increased for this episode. This episode is a giddy, triumphant embrace of the show’s comic book roots, and it proves decisively that Arrow doesn’t need superpowers to create a heightened, more epic reality. And, more than anything else, this is an episode that elicited a couple dozen “Holy crap!” exclamations from me, and perhaps the biggest shock of all is that the show ends with the characters all facing their darkest moment yet.
The story doesn’t work as a completely serious hour of television, but then I can’t really imagine wanting to watch a completely serious version of Arrow. “Sacrifice” works because every time it appears primed to descend into cheese, it remembers the larger ideas and themes that take this beyond simple pulp. For instance, when Detective Lance comes clean about his connection with the Hood in an effort to save the Glades, his monologue about the law starts out as borderline nonsense, a rhapsodically over-the-top speech in search of a coherent point. It’s a ridiculous moment, but only briefly; by the time Paul Blackthorne has stopped talking, he has zeroed in on the one salient, thematically appropriate point. Lance recognizes that the reason he’s a cop isn’t fundamentally to enforce the laws but rather to protect the people, and that’s what leads him to this final, desperate maneuver. That decision takes him to the abandoned subway tunnel where the earthquake machine is primed to detonate, and it propels him to what could have been his big farewell call to Laurel, as he begs her to make the most of the time he thinks he no longer has.
Indeed, every character in the ensemble gets their own little character arc; the chaos and carnage unfolding around them means something specific to each person. Some of these character beats are relatively compressed; Felicity has some great moments when she tells Lance why the Hood is a hero and when she refuses to desert Oliver, but the real crux of her story comes right at the end, as she is reduced to tears by the destruction of the Glades. This is just a quick moment in the midst of several big actions sequences, but Emily Bett Rickards is unsurprisingly up for the challenge. Felicity’s vulnerable reaction reminds us of the Undertaking’s human cost without undermining the character’s essential bravery, and Rickards’ acting hits all those notes in about 10 seconds. The most shocking (non-fatal) moment of the episode is Moira’s big public confession, in which she finally grows a conscience and recognizes that her precious children would not actually want her to make this supposed sacrifice on their behalf, not when it means the death of thousands. Oliver tells her as much earlier in the episode, and a heartbroken Thea does likewise when she furiously reminds her mother that her beloved Roy lives in the Glades. This is the fundamental difference between the episode’s villains and heroes; the former believe it’s acceptable to sacrifice others in pursuit of a grander goal, while the latter recognize the only life they can justly sacrifice is their own.
Going back to Roy, “Sacrifice” actually makes his story compelling, something its predecessor “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” failed to do. It’s all about opportunity, really, as Roy is finally given a chance to save someone other than Thea, and he makes it clear that his newfound heroic streak is just that; he doesn’t stay behind to help the people trapped in the bus because he has some vague point to prove, but because it’s the right thing to do. His arc on the show so far has been defined by looking for the Hood, but it’s when he realizes that the Hood isn’t here and he’s the only one left to save the day that Roy really comes into his own as a character.
Even more remarkably, the episode makes the show’s first really strong argument as to why Oliver and Laurel belong together. Initially, their scene seems like just more obligatory soap opera, a CW-mandated distraction from the far more important things Oliver has to do. But Oliver unexpectedly provides a valid reason why Laurel really is special; even if she doesn’t know about his extracurricular activities, she still knows him better than anyone else because she always saw his potential and who he could be under the right circumstances. She’s the only person who could see the real Oliver even before he washed up on the island, and she’s the only person who has remained constant and honest as everyone else has betrayed or disappointed Oliver. I still wouldn’t say Oliver and Laurel’s relationship has been well-handled over the course of the season, but that exchange clarifies what theoretically is so special about this pairing. For the first time, they make sense.
“Sacrifice” seemingly represents the end of the Merlyn clan, as both Malcolm and Tommy appear to die (this is a comic book show, so any death must be so qualified). John Barrowman goes out on a high note, as both the writing and his performance keep him on just the right side of the line between believably tortured soul and larger-than-life supervillain… and then, at a certain point, all involved just say “Screw it!” and go completely over the top anyway. Malcolm is a zealot throughout the episode, but he still shows twinges of regret in his interactions with Oliver. He firmly believes he is doing the right thing, and he hopes to convince either Oliver or Tommy of that. But when the latter pushes back and asks whether the death of Malcolm’s wife justifies such retribution, Malcolm drops the last vestiges of his reasonable façade and bellows that everyone in the Glades deserves to die, complete with a hellish red backdrop that gives Malcolm a downright satanic look. This moment really shouldn’t work, but it does because there’s not a hint of irony or detachment in Barrowman’s performance; he totally commits to this outsized moment. Arrow respects Malcolm’s unreasoning fanaticism enough to not make him look silly when he finally reveals his true nature, and the result is a character that Oliver can only kill by stabbing himself through the heart.
But I think it’s only fitting to close by singing the praises of Colin Donnell, who presumably is done as a regular cast member on the show. When Arrow began, Tommy appeared to be, if not a weak link, then at least a superfluous element, and indeed it took the show at least half a season to work out what to do with him. Tommy learning Oliver’s secret gave the character a much-needed jolt, and Donnell has been impressive in these last few episodes, investing the staid romantic triangle and Tommy’s friendship with Oliver with palpable angry energy. Tommy’s life has collapsed around him, and those he trusted most—his father, Oliver, Laurel—have all betrayed him, some of them on multiple occasions. And yet, when Malcolm finally reveals his insane scheme and tries to manipulate Tommy with his mother’s final message, Tommy remains steadfast, even pointing a gun at his father’s head after Malcolm kills a bunch of heavily armed cops. Sure, he fails there, but when Laurel later needs a hero to save her, it’s Tommy, not Oliver, who comes to the rescue. And, in an episode that is all about characters deciding what they are willing to sacrifice, Tommy shows he’s willing to give his life to save that of the woman he loves. Oliver may be the hero, but Tommy dies the better man, and Donnell’s presence will be missed going forward. The episode ends with Oliver tearfully begging Tommy to open his eyes, plaintively observing that it should have been him. It’s a brutally dark place to end the the season, but after an episode as fearlessly entertaining as this, Arrow’s future has never looked brighter.
Season grade: B+
- Maybe next season I’ll figure out how to incorporate the island scenes into the main body of my review, but once again I’ll have to stick my thoughts in this space. The island story reaches its own terrific climax, as Oliver helps save the airplane and, with it, western civilization. He later gets his first arrow kill when he dispatches Fyers to save Shado, but that moment is an even bigger milestone for Oliver. After all, Fyers makes it clear that he can get Oliver off the island, because, as a mercenary whose mission in completed (albeit as a failure), there’s no reason for him not to. For the first time in months, Oliver has something to lose—in other words, something to sacrifice—and he doesn’t hesitate to throw that way in order to save his ally. In that moment, the Oliver we know is born.
- Stephen Amell has really grown into his role, and one thing I noticed tonight is how much effort he puts into delineating the fighting styles of past and present Oliver. The island incarnation of the character is a hesitant, uncoordinated brawler, while the Starling City version of Oliver is a finely tuned weapon. He looks like two completely different people when fighting, and that’s kind of remarkable. His final lines to Tommy also constitute by far his best acting this season, so they too bode well for next year.
- Even as Oliver tells Moira the truth about his father’s death, he still leaves out the key detail that Robert killed an innocent man in order to save Oliver. The characters are inching closer to the truth, but there’s still plenty of work for them all to do. In Moira’s case, any such work might well be behind bars, given her actions here.
- Oliver escaping from Malcolm’s clutches is great, because he basically takes all the skills he honed during those insane workouts and puts them to use in breaking free. Also, he does the whole thing shirtless, because how could he not? That said, I really wish the writers could have somehow incorporated the salmon ladder into Oliver’s escape. That thing is practically the fourth member of the team, and it deserves its own big dramatic moment, preferably where it saves Oliver’s life. This is getting a little weird, I know.
- And that does it for the first season of Arrow, which I’m giving a very creditable B+; this show hasn’t quite figured everything out yet, but it’s had some standout episodes—the Huntress two-parter, “The Odyssey,” “Dead To Rights,” “Unfinished Business,” and now “Sacrifice”—and it seems to have a good idea for where it wants to go next year. It’s been a real pleasure talking about the show with you all each week, so thanks for making this such a fun gig, and here’s hoping we’ll all be back to do this again in the fall. Until then, I’ll be working on my spec script that introduces the most important character in all Green Arrow lore: the boxing glove arrow.