For a good long while Arrow’s second season finale looked like it was going to be just about perfect. After last week’s installment that both set that pace and upped the stakes for this final hour the writers had to find room to make the finale somehow more exciting and climactic while still managing to engage with the complex and interesting thematic core of the series. Clever structure was helping them along, allowing the League of Assassins to reemerge as a natural obstacle to the no killing mandate that Oliver had set for himself this year even as they provided needed backup against Slade’s thugs. Arrow was once again managing the feat of being a big, fun action show while managing to critically engage with its source material.
Then, at about the halfway mark it seemed like the writers fell back on a hoary old comic book cliché as Oliver confessed his love for Felicity and parked her in Queen Manor so she would be out of danger. It was a move that seemingly managed to fail both on multiple levels. Firstly in terms of character, while there’s an obvious chemistry between Felicity and Oliver, and Felicity in particular is obviously in love with Oliver, there hadn’t been enough screen time given to their likely romance to sell Oliver’s sudden pronouncement. Secondly it didn’t fit with Felicity’s increased presence in the field this season; Oliver had stopped playing defense with Slade so his sudden reticence to use Felicity actively just didn’t feel satisfying. All of those problems should have tipped me off to the obvious, that this wasn’t the writers settling for standard comic book tropes, and once the episode reached its final standoff between Slade and Oliver it became clear that they hadn’t. Oliver used Slade’s seeming omnipotence to his advantage, putting Felicity in range to deliver the mirakuru cure thanks to his deception.
It’s a fantastic subversion of a trope that has long outstayed its welcome in comics and it speaks to just how effectively Arrow is dismantling and interrogating the standard storytelling conceits of its comic book source. Indeed, in its own way, Arrow is as interesting a comment on the kinds of stories told in the superhero genre as something like Watchmen, but instead of injecting more “reality” into the story Arrow is examining the structural conceits that prop up many superhero tales and examining just why they do or do not work. Most important of these is the show’s deconstruction of the no killing rule that so many superheroes hold. Rather than just taking the concept as an aspect of the character that is written in stone it has instead tasked itself with tracking the road Oliver treads that will lead him to that rule. It’s an infinitely more compelling approach to the concept and since Oliver’s always had a more fluid relationship with killing it makes his decision to ultimately eschew it all the more powerful at the climax of this episode.
Getting to that climax happens to be a whole lot of fun even with all that serious thought about what constitutes a superhero story. The finale throws the kitchen sink at the viewer, returning Nyssa al Ghul, the League of Assassin’s, and parts of The Suicide Squad all while juggling Slade’s army and Amanda Waller’s incoming A.R.G.U.S. drone strike from the previous episode. It’s a jam packed episode that manages to both revel in the ludicrous nature of its story, it’s almost impossible to tell a story with masked heroics that isn’t at least a little ridiculous and Arrow has long since stopped trying to be anything other than a suitably over the top show about superheroes, and slyly focus everything back in on that central conceit of just what it means to take a life in service of saving one. The League constantly harangues Oliver for using the cure instead of finishing off his opponents permanently, Amanda Waller is resolute in her belief that sacrificing Starling City to prevent Slade’s troops escaping the city is the right decision, Slade is convinced that Oliver’s inability to kill him is a weakness that will eventually revisit Deathstroke on the ones Oliver loves, and even Quentin Lance begs the Arrow to make an exception to his new rules in hopes that doing so will be the difference between losing and saving the city.
It all loops back in to the central dilemma Oliver has dealt with all season, the question of just when, if ever, killing in the name of the greater good is justified. Oliver’s final monologue to Slade sums up where he’s landed beautifully. Slade made him into a killer on the island, and it was necessary there, it was a lawless place that Oliver couldn’t have survived without being a killer. But now that Oliver’s back home he can’t be that killer anymore. If he is it means Starling City is the same as the island, a place where only killers can survive. Instead Oliver affirms that he has become a hero since his return home, he’s left behind the man he was on the island because he’s now a symbol of something greater, a symbol of the best in Starling City.
It’s a strong argument for why a hero would choose the harder path that refusing to permanently kill their enemies leads them down. Rather than just stating that heroes don’t kill because they’re better than those they fight, Arrow has forced its hero to confront that concept head on by giving him a past that made it essential for him to become the kind of person that could kill without a second thought. It’s made the road to his final decision bloody and hard, but it’s also made it into a real journey rather than just a character trait that has to be accepted.
Arrow’s second season has grappled with a piece of superhero storytelling so carved in stone that it’s rarely questioned, and in doing so has mined story material that feels quietly revolutionary and fresh in ways that few superhero stories manage. The genre is well worn, and while Arrow indulges in many of its tropes and tendencies it has managed to do so while still thinking critically about those hallmarks of the genre in a way that has allowed it to paint on a broad, action filled canvas while retaining an involving thematic core. It’s everything I look for in superhero stories, and after Team Arrow’s triumph over Slade Wilson in this finale I can’t wait to see what stories and concepts this creative team tackles next season.