Recap: Arrow, “The Climb” (3×09)

Arrow showrunner Marc Guggenheim promised a “what the fuck” cliffhanger, and “The Climb” delivered that cliffhanger, one both metaphorical and literal, indeed.

Let’s dispense with the pretense right away: there is no way Oliver Queen is dead. There is no show without Stephen Amnell as the Arrow, so even without the precedent set on the show that dead rarely means gone, it simply is not possible. Therefore, Oliver’s life isn’t the thing keeping me on the edge of my seat over the holiday break – it’s how he lives. (Two words: Lazarus. Pit.) To this point, Arrow has stuck to expanding the show’s universe through Oliver’s flashbacks to his missing five years, while the present was largely confined to the struggle over Starling City’s soul. Oliver’s loss to Ra’s al Ghul gives the writers the chance to stretch that lens a little wider over the DC universe, even as the intensely personal conflict inches toward the boiling point back at home.

Going into the episode, I was nervous that it wouldn’t live up to the quality of last week’s crossover episodes, but that was a needless concern. This midseason finale managed what all should do: bring together dangling loose ends into a satisfying conclusion, foreshadow upcoming plot developments, advance character arcs, and deliver a set of stunning fight scenes that make the show’s snub for a SAG stunt work nomination look even more egregious. (Okay, maybe that last one only applies to Arrow.)

Although the holidays don’t serve much of an overt purpose in this episode, other than to put an enormous, grandiose Christmas tree in Thea and Oliver’s loft, familiar holiday themes leave their imprint across the character’s interactions. The importance of family, coming clean with loved ones, the holidays as a time for taking stock of oneself – these time-worn sentiments are all reflected in the choices our characters make. Even the structure reflects a holiday classic: the episode begins in media res as Oliver climbs to meet Ra’s al Ghul in combat, and this framing device continues throughout Oliver’s journey in the episode, combining with the flashbacks to give “The Climb” a past/present/future structure reminiscent of A Christmas Carol.

The biggest reveal of the episode comes early on: Thea Queen killed Sara while under the influence of the mind-controlling Votura plant, acting as a pawn of Malcolm Merlyn. Merlyn wants Ra’s al Ghul dead to guarantee his own safety, thinks Oliver is the man to do it, and correctly surmises that protecting the life of his last (known) family member will be incentive enough to get Oliver to do so. After having the specter of Merlyn hanging so heavily over the past few episodes, it was good to see John Barrowman emerge again from wherever his lair may be to threaten Oliver to his face. Referencing the Big Bad often without seeing him or her is a genre standard, but if too much time passes, it threatens to make the villain toothless. Barrowman did a nice job toning down the scenery-chewing in his brief appearance, opting for calculated menace instead.

To his intense frustration and dismay, Oliver sees no other way forward other than following through with that terrible plan. Time and again he give Thea the chance to come clean, and over and over she feeds Oliver effortless obscuring the depth of her involvement with Merlyn and Starling City’s underworld. Oliver is repeatedly devastated, initially refusing to even entertain the notion of her guilt while his team tries to gently pry open his eyes. Oliver isn’t easily swayed by the mounting evidence (which ties in nicely to some of the circumstantial evidence from earlier in the season that pointed Felicity toward Roy). However, each untruth and discovery drives him towards acceptance, and the pain of understanding takes its toll. When he blasts through their apartment window in the guise of the Arrow to intimidate Thea into revealing Merlyn’s location and she fights back, Oliver is rendered ineffective in disbelief. Her punches and kicks may seem paltry compared to the heft that he’s used to countering, but Oliver’s dumbfounded look as she vaults over the balcony reveals how shocking a betrayal even that seems to her oblivious older brother. Thea changed, and he was too busy saving the city to see it.

Ra’s al Ghul levied the same critique towards Oliver in the message delivered by Nyssa and Maseo – Oliver was too distracted by saving Starling City to properly investigate Ta-er al-Sahfer’s (Sara’s) death. Now, he has 48 hours or else Ra’s will start punishing innocent civilians as motivation. Ra’s is an interesting adversary for Oliver because he’s more of a counterpart to Oliver than a true villain. Yes, Ra’s is a walking death machine whose prowess with a sword is unmatched, and he’s the Demon Head den mother to a group of steely assassins, but his goal is not to amass personal power or spread evil. As he says, he seeks to replace evil with death, and he achieves this through living by an iron-clad code. Oliver himself has the opposite code, no killing, which he claims is equally inflexible – but is that a good thing? Before he leaves to face Ra’s, Felicity begs Oliver to kill Ra’s to bring an end to the threats and give them all some hope for peace. Going into the final showdown, Oliver doesn’t know anymore whether he is or is not a killer – but he does know that he loves Felicity, and that he will do whatever it takes to protect Thea (to me, it sounds like the code takes on some flexibility). Whereas Ra’s is fighting to punish, Oliver is fighting to protect. Perhaps more in this episode than almost any other since he took up the hood, Oliver reacts to events and takes action wholly as himself rather than as the Arrow, regardless of what he wears.

The actual combat between the two skilled (and shirtless) fighters features stunning choreography and an admirable amount of work from the actual two actors rather than stuntmen. Earlier in the episode, we had seen excellent fighting between China White and Tatsu (cleverly lit by a swinging overhead lamp to fragment and confuse the action) and even between the Arrow and Thea (framed to highlight the size difference between the actors). As good as these are, they’re eclipsed by the character and energy in the final scene. The chilling mist of the Vancouver shooting location lends an air of otherworldliness to the sword fight, as Oliver fights feverishly fast and hard, filled with rage, while Ra’s never alters his precise and disciplined demeanor. Making significant use of overhead shots, it’s a masterfully constructed sequence (although no doubt a grueling one for the actors to shoot).

Because the plot moved at breakneck speed through Oliver’s discoveries about Thea, Ra’s, and Merlyn, we still had time to see how Sara’s death continues to affect others, namely her family, and I’m cautiously optimistic. Dinah Lance comes to town, and unlike her still-oblivious ex-husband, she immediately knows that Laurel is lying about Sara’s well being. Rather than council Laurel to be cautious, she enthusiastically endorses her plan for revenge. (I guess we know where the Lance sisters got their ruthless streaks.) Because of the close-to-home identity of Sara’s killer, Laurel’s transformation into the Black Canary and her vow of retribution takes on additional depth, especially since Thea doesn’t know she killed Sara. Forcing nu-Canary to immediately confront her own boundaries for determining culpability and guilt is a promising direction. But then again, this is Laurel, so it could all go spectacularly wrong.

Ray Palmer remains stranded in his own subplot, doggedly working on his plan to become Iron Man a guy called ATOM in a tech-heavy metal suit who helps people in the city. Like so many other secrets in this episode, the pressure of his becomes too much to bear, and he reveals his plans to Felicity when his preoccupation with its development threatens their budding romance. As of right now, Palmer is only tethered to the main storyline by Felicity’s position at the apex of the love triangle; now that she knows his plans, it would be pleasant to see Ray get pulled closer to the main narrative, seeing as he and Oliver have the same fundamental imperative (if wildly different personalities and methodologies).

If this episode had a glaring weak spot, it was Roy, or rather the writers stubborn reluctance to giving him an actual character. After a decent showing in the crossover episode as someone who believes in the Arrow’s mission but isn’t irrevocably tainted by Oliver’s angst, he recedes to bland here. Isn’t he still harboring passionate feelings towards his ex? If so, why does the revelation of Thea as Sara’s killer leave him so apparently calm and without visible inner turmoil? It’s a shame that the show has yet to find a niche for what could be a promising character.

We’ll see you again after the holidays. For your Arrow/Flash fix until then, I suggest you go read the Flash Season 0 and Arrow Season 2.5 comics, if you haven’t done so already. They expand the physical world of the universe in ways a television budget prohibits.

Odds and Ends

-The flight map of Merlyn’s journey from Corto Maltese to Starling City reveals its location, in this version of the DC universe, to be approximately where Chicago is. Interesting to note that New York, Washington, and San Francisco all exist in the show’s reality, but they declined to locate Gotham, or more puzzlingly, Central City.

-The lighting in this episode was superlative. I’ve already noted the fight scenes, but those bucket torches that the League of Assassins seem to carry with them were also a solid touch.

-Oliver’s incredulous tone and you’ve-got-to-be-shitting-me expression when Maseo tells him about Votura in the Hong Kong flashback: “Like mind control? Really? That’s a thing?” Past Ollie is sometimes a clear audience proxy.

-Ra’s al Ghul killed his first man at 11, hasn’t been challenged to a fight in 67 years, and will start a fight with no weapons just so he can steal yours. In case you were wondering if he was a badass or not.

-The editing in this episode, particularly the cuts between Oliver’s climb and the events in the present (such as him reaching the summit immediately after telling Felicity he loved her), was well done. I could have done without the direct connection between the interrogation in Hong Kong and Thea about the Votura, though.

-There’s a missing super-virus called OMEGA. Is there any chance that it doesn’t show up in Starling City before the end of the season?

-The headline on Felicity’s newsreader: “Mysterious Yellow Blur Attacks S.T.A.R. Labs”. Nice to see the extend of their commitment to maintaining the Arrow/Flash shared universe. (Vampire Diaries and Originals, I’m looking at you.)

  • Ollie Ollie Oxen Free

    That sword fight was SO heavily influenced by the Batman: Demons Head comic….and it was awesome! ThevFlash and Arrow are so well done. It’s a shame Gotham is a mess. DC is not the greatest with its universe building.

    • Wot4thW

      I completely agree about Gotham – I simply can’t get into it. But I’m always impressed by the way that The Flash & Arrow can occupy the same universe and keep distinctive tones.