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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow dives back into League of Assassins politics, for better or worse

Illustration for article titled Arrow dives back into League of Assassins politics, for better or worse

You know, if there’s anyone on this planet who should know better than to make an “emptyhanded” joke, it’s the former Robert Quarles.

Justified references aside, there’s a cruel, Old Testament kind of elegance to Oliver Queen’s solution to tonight’s problem. Nyssa won’t save Thea unless Malcolm gives up the ring that symbolizes his position as Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Assassins. Malcolm refuses to do so, ruling out any diplomatic solution. Oliver refuses to kill, yet he accepts there is no way to satisfy Nyssa and Malcolm without the use of force. So he splits the difference by literally removing the ring from Malcolm. It’s a brutal final step to take, but his leaving Malcolm alive implicitly rebuts the argument Malcolm made—and more than backed up—during their battles in the show’s first season. Back then, Oliver couldn’t defeat Malcolm because he wasn’t willing to go all the way, because he didn’t have a clear enough sense of what it was he fought for. Unless Oliver was willing to kill Malcolm, he couldn’t hope to defeat him, and even then his victory over Malcolm was at best a technical one. Now, three seasons later, Oliver has long surpassed his old tormentor, defeating him without much trouble at all.

“Sins Of The Father” is a solid enough episode, though I’ll admit it feels like it’s missing something. I suspect some of that goes back to the problem that hung over so much of the third season, as Arrow struggled to make all the business with Ra’s al Ghul compelling. Nearly a year later, my best explanation for the relative failure of that season is that the show never really got across why the League story mattered. Matt Nable’s performance as Ra’s al Ghul wasn’t bad, but his was easily the least magnetic of the four main villains the show has given us, and the League itself felt so damn insular, like this weird band of purposefully anachronistic ninjas waving swords at one another on mountain tops who occasionally showed up to cause mayhem in Star City for no particular reason. In that context, the internecine squabbles over who should be leader and who should marry whom—all of which were rooted in Ra’s al Ghul’s adherence to various ancient statutes and prophecies, none of which made him appear all that impressive—always came across as boring and, worse, disconnected from what Arrow really ought to be about, which is Oliver and company saving their city.

Both John Barrowman and Katrina Law are more compelling performers on Arrow than Nable was, but that only does so much to explain why the audience should invest in this latest power struggle for control of the League. Worse, the lack of nuance in this setup leaves very little room for interesting character moves. I’m not sure there’s ever been a more predictable story beat in the show’s history than Malcolm double-crossing Oliver and Nyssa at their first summit, and a big reason it was so markedly obvious was, well, what the hell else could Malcolm even do in that situation? If he accepts the deal and turns over control of the League of Assassins to Nyssa, then the storyline is over, because there are no other narrative building blocks in place that might allow the show to pursue a less expected option. The episode gestures at something like that later on when Malcolm mentions the League is involved in manipulating events on a global scale. Now, I’ll absolutely buy that as being true of the David Warner- and Liam Neeson-run versions of the League, but that’s not something Arrow has ever really communicated. But still! If that were something we already knew about the League, it’s conceivable the episode could have swerved and put Nyssa in charge, only to reveal just why Malcolm is so vehemently opposed to her controlling the organization—perhaps something about how absolute power corrupts absolutely, so only someone who is already an utter bastard can be trusted with it.

I must pause here and stress that my purpose here isn’t to rewrite the episode or criticize it for being something it has no interest in being, as that wouldn’t be fair. Rather, this is just meant to illustrate how limited Arrow’s available repertoire of potential storylines is when it comes to the League, because we know so little about what it represents. That leaves Nyssa and Malcolm locked into running through mostly predictable plots, driven along by what has already long been established about each of them. And I suppose it is worth pointing out that if any episode were going to try to turn that structural weakness into a thematic strength, it’s this episode, what with its unifying idea that people can’t change. As the episode’s title—incidentally, one of the most beloved titles in all television—indicates, people’s dads just sort of are who they are at this point, and it’s folly to expect they can ever do anything other than disappoint their children. That’s true of Malcolm, true of Felicity’s dad, and posthumously true of Ra’s al Ghul. Oliver introduces an important complication to that idea by suggesting that’s not true of everybody—after all, the premise of Arrow falls apart entirely if we conclude Oliver can’t change—but that those who can change must recognize and reckon with those who cannot or will not. I wish the show had dug a bit deeper into why some people just can’t change, even if just to condemn them for their gargantuan selfishness and narcissism, but that might be expecting a tad too much from the black-and-white morality of superhero stories.

What we’re left with is an episode that really does about the best that could reasonably be expected from what has generally been one of the show’s least effective ongoing stories. The characters (and the underlying performances) of Oliver, Nyssa, and Malcolm are strong enough to transcend the rather dull trappings of the League, and the episode does well to explore Oliver’s commitment to resolving the dispute without deadly force without treating us to another round of angst. The thinness of the show’s League-related storytelling up to this point limits how much the show can really do with this setup, meaning there’s not much new Arrow manages to reveal about who either Nyssa or Malcolm is, but then perhaps that’s not the true purpose of this episode. “Sins Of The Father” has the trappings of an event episode when really it might be a bit of table-setting, as indicated by the alliance Malcolm and Damien Darhk forge in the final scene, with Malcolm dropping just about the biggest bomb he can by reveal Oliver’s secret son. (It’s probably not great that I have to actively remind myself who “William” is, but then Oliver’s son will always be Connor Hawke as far as I’m concerned.) With this episode serving as a prelude to the next, likely even more devastating attack on Oliver and the people he loves—to say nothing of what Felicity’s dad might have planned—the end result is solid enough, and easily one of the best League-related episodes we’ve been given. It probably says more about this season’s resurgence than anything else that that’s only good enough to mark this as an average episode this year.


Stray observations

  • Oh, hey, it’s Captain Lance! Does it feel like forever since we’ve seen him last?
  • Probably best that Laurel assured Nyssa that Sara was doing well without getting into the whole time travel thing. That’s just begging for confused looks.
  • Really thought Malcolm was going to make the ultimate heel turn and reveal the person Oliver cares about most is Thea. Probably best to hold that back as the absolute last card to play for Malcolm’s arc, however long it might play out for.