If there’s one well of actors Arrow seems intent on drawing on for its guest stars, it seems to be folks who spent some amount of time on Starz’s Spartacus. It’s a smart choice, as that series was full of quality performers who have yet to truly stretch their wings outside of that show. Most prominent on Arrow is, of course, Manu Bennet, who the producers and writers wisely decided to upgrade from a recurring guest role to a series regular with the second season. But over the course of this second year, the show has also added Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Amanda Waller and now Katrina Law as a new daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul named Nyssa. It’s a strategy that’s paying off, in part because Arrow shares some of the same DNA as Spartacus.
Law’s time on the action-oriented Spartacus certainly helped her to sell her introduction as Nyssa, as she’s flagged at Starling City’s airport and easily fights her way through a batch of security guards. Before long, though, Law’s asked to call on the other side of her training from Spartacus and engage in a quick lip locking session with Sara Lance. Spartacus was a show that never shied away from sex, love, and copious amounts of provocative content regardless of its orientation, and after seeing this episode, it’s hard to say that Arrow’s cut from entirely different cloth. Sure, a lesbian kiss is a bit surprising, especially considering the fact that the basis of Sara’s character is that she was involved with Oliver and, thus, caught up in events, but it’s not entirely out of place on this series. Arrow’s a show that’s always traded in a bit of titillation, the salmon ladder gets a new user this week as Sara pulls her way up it, and we’re also treated to a shirtless Oliver multiple times, either while thwacking away at a practice dummy or while utilizing a sledgehammer for training purposes. This is a series that has reveled in the human body, but like Spartacus, it manages to be about more than simply helping the viewer indulge their prurient interests.
The central story of this week’s episode is that Nyssa, heartbroken over losing Sara, comes to Starling in the hopes of getting her to return to the League of Assassins. She goes about it in the only way she knows how, first poisoning Laurel to draw Sara out and then kidnapping the Lance matriarch when Sara refuses to return with her. Throughout it all, Sara states to Nyssa that she cannot go back because the killing has taken almost all that she once was. She cannot bear it any longer, and it’s this psychic toll that animates the episode and Arrow as a whole. Much like Oliver lost much of himself on the island and is slowly clawing his way back to humanity, Sara lost herself in the League, and now she’ll do anything to protect those she loves and to leave behind the killing in her past. It’s a big, operatic story being told with distinct, clear, and relatable personal stakes, and that’s the exact arena that both Arrow and Spartacus work so well within.
Both series manage to contextualize its use of violence and sex in terms of its characters, and they take the tolls of those things seriously. Here we see it in the ways that the scars of Sara’s betrayal still remain for Laurel when she lashes out at her sister rather than warmly welcoming her home. Similarly Oliver berates his mother when Felicity informs him that Thea is Malcolm Merlyn’s son, Moira’s past sexual dalliances cutting their bond forever, at least if Oliver’s final statements are to be believed.
There’s a lot in this episode that really shouldn’t quite work, such as the sudden revelation of a character’s bisexuality, but Arrow somehow finds a way to pull most of it off, primarily by finding the character driven core of what’s going on. Sure there’s a lot of fun eye candy, both of the human-body and the action-sequence variety here, but what makes that eye candy so much fun is knowing that it has a reason for existing beyond its surface appeal. There are real things being fought for, real consequences to these relationships, and real stakes at every turn. Spartacus learned this lesson early on and turned into a much better show for it. Arrow similarly learned this lesson and that has allowed the series to be a big, ridiculous, comic booky show that still understands the beating hearts of the characters at its core. Those characters ground the storytelling, and so long as that’s the case the series will be capable of balancing its outsized elements with real pathos and meaning. And if it can give some of the fine actors from Spartacus some much needed work and exposure along the way, well, that’s just a delightful bonus.