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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrow: "Three Ghosts"

Illustration for article titled Arrow: "Three Ghosts"

The purpose of this season’s batch of island flashback sequences has never been entirely clear. Yes, they have explained Sara’s fate after the sinking of the Queen’s Gambit, and they have detailed how Dr. Ivo’s insane schemes helped bring superpowers into the show’s universe, but all of that constitutes back-story that could just as easily have been relayed in a few quick bursts of exposition. The flashbacks have been compelling enough, but “Three Ghosts” points out that, until tonight, they weren’t truly vital. It’s a neat trick to point out the superfluous nature of a sizable chunk of the show’s narrative while simultaneously fixing that very problem, but that’s just what the scene with the hallucinatory Slade Wilson accomplishes. For the first season-and-a-half, the island sequences have been pitched as what happened to Oliver; these are all the events that transformed him from billionaire ne’er-do-well to arrow-wielding crime-fighter. But Slade Wilson—or, more accurately, Oliver’s deranged memory of Slade Wilson—suggests the island must be understood in terms of what Oliver did there, how his specific decisions destroyed people’s lives. The island didn’t turn him into a hero but rather provided a place where he could commit the most monstrous of sins, ones for which there is no possibility of atonement.

It would seem that the delusional Oliver has a good read on what the actual Slade Wilson thinks, as the present-day, eyepatch-wearing version of Slade has sworn to “tear everything he cares about away from him, destroy those who choose to follow him, corrupt those he loves,” and all that before he drives an arrow through Oliver’s eye. The implication is that this is Oliver’s punishment for letting Shado die; Sara likely seals Oliver’s fate when she lies to Slade on Oliver’s behalf, as the eventual discovery of that untruth could easily drive the final wedge between the former allies. If that is the case, Oliver’s punishment appears brutally disproportionate to his actual crime, especially since Oliver might well have been attempting to sacrifice himself to save both Sara and Shado’s lives. Whatever the specific motivations behind that particular split-second decision, the fact remains that Oliver—not to mention everyone he cares about and likely all of Starling City—is set to pay for the madness of Anthony Ivo, assuming there’s not still more we have yet to learn. Admittedly, that’s a very unsafe assumption as far as Arrow is concerned, especially when Oliver obliquely mentions his failed, as yet unseen attempt to save Slade. There’s more to this story, but how much more could there be to justify such hatred in Slade?

It’s amusing to think that tonight’s midseason finale comes this close to just being the story of Oliver Queen tripping on rat poison. As it stands, Barry’s pronouncement of a clean bill of health for Oliver’s blood means that the cause of his hallucinations is psychological. A reliably sage Diggle observes that the hallucinations may be manifestations of Oliver’s survivor’s guilt, which means only those ghosts can tell Oliver what he has to hear, and the appearance of the titular “Three Ghosts” offers a Dickensian connection to the episode’s Christmastime setting. If that’s the case, the ghosts don’t quite appear in order, although Oliver can’t know that the ghostly Slade represents quite literally all the horrors yet to come. But Shado is an appropriate representative of things past, her appearance in the corridors of the Queen family’s mansion foreshadowing her death later in the episode. Her message is one of surrender or of sanity—perhaps both—as she entreats him to stop fighting forces he cannot hope to defeat and carve out a life for himself. That message takes on additional resonance in light of the circumstances of her demise; Oliver is indeed trying to atone for her death, and that alone is not sufficient reason for him to continue his crusade. The hallucinatory Slade makes much the same point, albeit in far more destructive terms.

But then there’s Tommy. Colin Donnell makes a most welcome return as the last of the three ghosts, reminding Oliver of the man he has become in his present situation. The spectral Tommy suggests the Island is neither something that transformed Oliver nor the site of an unforgivable transgression but rather something that he defeated, because Oliver is, above all else, someone who fights to survive. Donnell plays the scene beautifully, pitching his lines between what Oliver needs to hear and what he deserves to hear. The real Tommy likely would have agreed that Oliver didn’t let him die, but it’s perhaps more wishful thinking that he would have backed away from the stance that the Arrow is a murderer, given his total revulsion to Oliver’s vigilante methods. Whatever the case, Tommy is the perfect person to spur Oliver on to victory against Brother Blood and Cyrus Gold, as his appearance confirms that Oliver chose the right person to honor with his war on crime. Shado and Slade can only consider the man that he once was, but Tommy maintains the promise of the hero Oliver has become.

Admittedly, “Three Ghosts” doesn’t always find Oliver at his most heroic, and the hallucinations are only part of that. His first reaction to Barry Allen saving his life is to try strangling him, and his second reaction is to seriously consider putting an arrow through him. His reaction is extreme if understandable, as he observes that he only brought Diggle and Felicity into his inner circle after carefully assessing their trustworthiness. He has no reason to place similar faith in Barry, whose role here is largely that of awestruck fan. Although the real reason Barry hangs around this episode is so that he can undergo his climactic transformation into the Flash, Geoff Johns and Ben Sokolowski’s teleplay does make some good use of his boyish enthusiasm. His parting gift of a mask takes Oliver one step closer to looking the part of a hero, while his earlier line about how the green hood indicates Oliver trained in a forest or jungle environment is an unintentional reminder of the real, more haunting reason. That hood might well have been meant to blend in with the island’s foliage, but that decision would have been Yao Fei’s, not Oliver’s. That little moment—one in which Oliver says nothing, but his pained expression reveals plenty—is a worthy reminder that Arrow has anchored all aspects of its mythos in a real, human context; the Oliver of this show never does anything simply because that’s what his comic book counterpart does.

One of the more notable things that the Green Arrow of the comics has done is take on Roy Harper, alias Speedy, as his sidekick, and “Three Ghosts” represents a major step toward that story. Oliver’s attempt to warn off Roy with an arrow through the leg doesn’t take, with Thea—also known as Speedy, as this episode reminds us—also taking an active role in solving the mysterious disappearance of Sin’s friend. This tightens the screws still further on Oliver, as this now positions Thea as the latest person willing to work against the Arrow’s wishes, and it’s questionable whether Oliver could take similarly extreme measures to keep her safe. In theory, either Roy Harper or this show’s Speedy could be on a path to become Oliver’s crime-fighting partner, although the road ahead is far clearer for Roy, given that his miraculous injection may well have granted him superhuman abilities. Oliver knows he will have to keep an eye on Roy, but his attention is likely soon to be consumed with the nefarious activities of Brother Blood and Slade Wilson. Indeed, that’s part of why “Three Ghosts” is such a fitting place to end the first half of Arrow’s second season. Oliver understands who he is better than ever before, but he’s on the brink of losing control of Starling City once more—and he doesn’t even know the worst that lies ahead of him.


Stray observations:

  • Office Lance once again throws in with the Arrow to take on Cyrus Gold, and it ends up getting some of his fellow officers killed. The Arrow later tries to take responsibility for those deaths, but Lance won’t hear it, reaffirming just how far the two have come in their relationship. Besides, Lance is totally right—I mean, his partner was marked for death the moment he mentioned plans to go Christmas shopping with his wife. When will cops on TV shows learn that making any sort of after-work plans, no matter how mundane, is tantamount to signing one’s own death warrant?
  • Laurel makes a return after what certainly feels like a lengthy absence. It’s hard to judge her too positively or too negatively here, considering her major purpose is to help Thea and her friends track down a lead. Then again, the show does appear to be setting up a romance between Sebastian Blood and Laurel, which can only end well.
  • If you haven’t had a chance yet, do read Carrie Raisler’s review of the season so far; it’s a terrific take on just why the show has become so strong this year. And, with that, I’ll see you all again in January when the season kicks off its second half.