“City of Blood” has a mostly unenviable task, effectively setting the stage for the finale of a twenty-three episode season of television. It’s mostly devoid of action, and generally a talky episode of Arrow, which is rarely the true strength of the series. That it succeeds in most of its aims is a welcome relief, this could be a placeholder of an episode, one that mostly just bides time until the fireworks arrive, instead it manages to invest a surprising amount of gravitas and feeling into the proceedings, which is a testament to just how strong this season has been as a whole. What works here builds nicely off all the work put in over the season, taking a mostly dour, downbeat episode and investing the proceedings with a surprising amount of emotion and just the right amount of anticipation for what is to come without feeling too much like an appetizer devoid of any real substance.
Intriguingly, Oliver is mostly absent for the first two acts of the episode, appearing primarily in flashback, and only showing up in the present at close to the twenty minute mark of the episode. He’s been wrecked by Slade murdering his mother, and it shows once Diggle and Felicity track him down thanks to the help of Amanda Waller. Oliver’s ready to turn himself over to Slade, convinced that doing so will finally bring an end to Slade’s reign of terror. A few failed pep talks change little, Oliver is intent on sacrificing himself for the greater good, a lesson that’s imparted thanks to the island sequences in tonight’s episode, which once again are mostly effective in setting things in motion for the closing episodes of the season rather than paying off too much material on their own.
Team Arrow’s not about to let the Arrow throw his life away though, and Laurel’s instrumental in getting him back on track, she hunts down Felicity and Diggle while ultimately informing Oliver that Blood is indeed evil, just as she suspected earlier in the season. The evidence against Blood is a little too easy to come by, it’s more than a little surprising that a criminal plotter like Blood would leave a big old time stamp that proves his guilt on a press release offering condolences for Moira Queen’s death, but luckily those details are mostly glossed over in favor of getting everyone on the same page in their quest to save Starling City.
And once everyone’s on the same page things start moving along quite beautifully. Oliver gets a great scene to glare at Blood and casually drop the fact that he’s the Arrow into the conversation that’s filled with barely restrained rage. Felicity and Diggle get a great scene wherein the pair act as good cop/bad cop with one of Blood’s goons. Luckily it’s Felicity who gets to play the bad cop in her own inimitably bubbly fashion, draining the goon’s bank account and threatening him with her wi-fi-fu. It’s a lovely little inversion both of the character’s usual roles as well as the general tenor of torture sequences, eliminating the blood while still building enough believable distress to make sure the bad guy plays along with the heroes.
It’s exciting stuff that plays nicely next to the resigned and downbeat early portions of the episode, and while the end of the episode definitely plays more specifically to Arrow’s strengths with its fisticuffs and immediate stakes, the early portions of the episode also have a nice rhythm that supports this installment as a whole. In particular they’re a strong showcase for Stephen Amell’s increasingly assured performance as Oliver. Amell’s asked to show just how deeply Slade has broken him, and he does so ably, inhabiting a version of his character who has no drive left, no hope for success, only a belief that the best he can do is sacrifice himself for others. It’s a noble decision, but a decision that the episode ultimately convinces him isn’t truly the choice he should be making. Slade’s plan clearly isn’t at its end stage just yet, and Oliver’s sacrifice might protect his family and loved ones but it would also lead to a devastated Starling City that would have no defenses from Slade and Blood’s rampaging army of mirakuru enhanced criminals.
Everything comes to a head in the final moments of the episode, as the group’s attempts to bury the mirakuru fueled villains under the concrete of the city fails and their fate is left until next week. As cliffhangers go it’s a little abrupt and inelegant, pushing things along in a way that felt like more forward momentum was needed before cutting out. (The problem is furthered by the tendency of CW shows to have extremely short acts late in their running time, with the final two acts of this episode lasting around a combined length of seven minutes.) Those kind of minor issues are the only real problem with “City of Blood” though. What’s here works, and despite a few flaws, everything moves forward admirably while working to set everything in place for the final two episodes of the season. Slade’s army is on the loose, the fate of Oliver, Diggle, and Laurel is up in the air, and all is coming down to the final showdown between Slade and Oliver in what promises to be a near apocalyptic version of Starling City. Arrow has built to an exciting climax, and while doing so it still managed a compelling lead up, which is gratifying in and of itself.