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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow: “Nanda Parbat”

Illustration for article titled Arrow: “Nanda Parbat”

Quick: Name any and all recurring characters on this show who don’t know Oliver Queen is the Arrow. Off the top of my head, I’ve got Captain Lance, Ray Palmer, and … Diggle’s kid? And even those are arguable: Lance’s instant recognition of Roy suggests his ignorance of Arrow’s secret identity is more cognitive dissonance than anything else, Ray’s offhand reference to other billionaires in tonight’s episode might be a veiled hint that he’s worked out Oliver’s secret and just hasn’t yet seen the need to reveal it, and Diggle’s kid might be preverbal, but she isn’t stupid. (And she’s already been in the Arrow Cave, but then that’s true of everybody.) This total lack of secrecy is at odds with how we tend to think about superheroes and their alter egos, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with this approach. On the contrary, Oliver’s openness has allowed Laurel and Thea to take on far stronger, more nuanced roles than they ever could when they were stuck on the outside. The previously unequal distribution of knowledge of the Arrow’s secret identity left the show oddly off-kilter, leaving a fun but essentially tertiary character like Roy with a deeper connection to Oliver than his own sister.

From an in-universe perspective, what’s really interesting about everyone knowing everything is that it conflicts so directly with Oliver’s need to control all situations. He went from a lonesome warrior, killing villains and embarrassing his would-be bodyguard Diggle, to the well-meaning if overbearing big brother to all the other characters, not just Thea. He’s constantly trying to convince them that he knows best and they should do what he says, even when what he tells one contradicts what he tells another. This sort of worked when the team was just Diggle, Felicity, and Roy, each of whom had valid reasons to look up to Oliver as their commanding officer, but Laurel and Thea are not so easily cowed. Nor are the others, for that matter, in the aftermath of Oliver’s fall and his protracted disappearance. This is a far messier, more combustible team than the one Oliver once knew, and it isn’t nearly as accommodating of his weekly soul-searching crises as it once was.

That’s particularly true when Oliver is so quick to lie to, well, everyone. The scene in which Laurel confronts him in the wake of Thea’s confession is the perfect illustration of how far Laurel has come in recent episodes, and how Arrow is starting to find ways to nudge the show’s power dynamics away from Oliver. It isn’t that Oliver has some silly slip-up that inadvertently reveals the terrible truth to Laurel. No, Laurel comes to him in what appears a vulnerable moment, seeking comfort, and he calmly replies with bullshit so casually tossed off that it’s entirely possible that, in that moment, he believes the sentiment to be true, that they really are going to find Sara’s real killer one of these days. There’s a time when a casual falsehood like this would have worked; hell, that’s more or less all Oliver and Laurel’s relationship consisted of in the first two seasons. But now we’re reaching a point where Oliver’s ability to lead others is tied directly to his ability to deal with them honestly, and Oliver is barely capable of being honest with himself.

A big reason for this is the fact that Oliver’s identity has fractured beyond repair. This goes far beyond the major distinction between Oliver Queen and the Arrow. There are the more mundane aspects, things that might be true even if Oliver didn’t spend his nights wearing a mask and shooting arrows: He is big brother to Thea, former lover to Laurel, mentor to Roy, best friend to Diggle, and something deeply complicated to Felicity. But then fold in all the things he has had to be since he landed on the island: comrade turned mortal enemy to Slade Wilson, fellow secret agent to Maseo, Russian mafia captain to all those Russian mafia guys, and a dozen more since he’s returned to Starling City. It’s small wonder then that can never quite tell the same story twice, and why even he struggles to articulate what’s really driving his actions. If we are to believe what Oliver says in Nanda Parbat, that offhand lie to Laurel is a Russian nesting doll of untruths: He lies to protect Laurel from the truth, by which he really means he lies to protect Thea and justify his continued training with Malcolm, by which he really means he needs to win his rematch with Ra’s al Ghul to regain the very confidence he needs to lie effectively in the first place.

This is where letting every character in on his secret helps the storytelling, because it allows the show to zero in on which character is really best equipped to help Oliver in this particular situation. In a scenario this convoluted, he needs someone clear and straightforward, and that’s Diggle. There are admittedly some clunky, unintentionally funny moments on the way to that point—seriously, how many adjoining rooms does Verdant have so that Oliver can have his series of one-on-one conversations?—but “Nanda Parbat” offers a long overdue affirmation of why it’s more than happenstance that makes Diggle Oliver’s longest-tenured partner. At their cores, they are both old soldiers, simultaneously looking to leave the battlefield behind them and dealing with the new one they have constructed for themselves. And, as impossible a task as storming Nanda Parbat might be, there’s a clarity to their actions that both men clearly relish. Say what you will about Butch and Sundance, but at least those two knew where they stood when it came time to face their end. Sure, they lied about it, but that’s only to be expected.

“Nanda Parbat” is a fine entry for the show, though it becomes most interesting as it nears its conclusion, as it reveals just how much of this hour is really setup for the episode set to air in three weeks. The offer to make Oliver the new Ra’s al Ghul is the next logical progression for a man desperate to cling onto any coherent identity, while the launch of Ray Palmer’s Atom—who is really far more akin to something like Iron Man than his comics counterpart—heralds the appearance of yet another superhero on the scene. That Ray’s own moment of clarity comes after having sex with Felicity isn’t exactly unexpected, given the short- and long-term story beats leading up to that point, but it’s anyone’s guess where Arrow proceeds from this point. What we may well be seeing, at least for the rest of this season, is a literal divergence between what Oliver and the Arrow represented, with the mantle of the latter—the haunted billionaire playboy who protects Starling City, fights crime, and romances Felicity—being officially taken up by Ray to allow Oliver the space to explore alternative destinies. If there were ever a time for Oliver to be tempted by Ra’s al Ghul’s offer, this might honestly be it.


Stray observations:

  • Laurel’s feeble attempt to take on Malcolm Merlyn is a weirdly fantastic moment. It’s remarkable just how much stronger a character Laurel became the precise moment that Arrow stopped trying to convince us that she was such a strong character, instead letting her be seriously outmatched in most fights. There’s an honesty to the show’s handling of Laurel now that wasn’t always there, and it’s actually endearing how willing she is to take on a foe as formidable as Malcolm, even if she fails utterly.
  • Roy also keeps looking better and better post-fall. He’s quietly become the most well-adjusted member of the team, give or take Diggle, and his way of dealing with the guilt of inadvertently killing that cop is probably about as healthy as any method could conceivably be.
  • Yeah, Thea, I’m going to go ahead and say you’re going to regret opening that door. Just a hunch.