“The Climb” begins in media res, with Oliver struggling his way up the side of a mountain. At first it’s hard to tell whether or not this moment is in the present or past, whether it’s one of the show’s signature flashbacks or a trial that Oliver is undergoing in the series’ present day. Quickly though, it’s revealed that it’s neither of those as the episode jumps back in time forty-eight hours, exposing the opening as one of the worst narrative tricks that shows deploy when they’re looking for a quick jolt of energy. It’s a trick that The Flash used poorly just one night ago, starting in the heat of the action to carry the viewer through dull setup, and it looked, for a moment, like Arrow was going to take the same uninspired path.
Slowly, the episode revealed a more complex, and more exciting method of utilizing this storytelling technique. Rather than showing the point the episode was building to just once, it began to thread quick bits of Oliver’s ascent through the episode, returning to it time and time again to highlight his coming battle with Ra’s al Ghul and to thematically reinforce Oliver’s decision to lay out his life to save both his sister and the inhabitants of Starling City. It’s a successful approach; by returning to the climb multiple times it lends a sense of dread to the proceedings that highlights the likelihood of Oliver’s defeat. It’s a fatalistic narrative structure that showcases Oliver’s motivations and his character rather than existing solely to generate excitement.
What’s equally impressive though is that the narrative structure is reinforced by exceptional direction from Thor Freudenthal, who manages to lend the episode an incredible sense of forward momentum through careful camera work and editing. Freudenthal makes a point to highlight as many matching or rhyming shots whenever the episode transitions from one scene to another. Maintaining the pace of the episode at all times and blending the past, present, and future into one seamless series of events.
Just look at how the show transitions from the first scene, where we first see Oliver climbing, to the Starling City precinct. Oliver reaches for a hand hold, and the matching shot in the precinct features a hand reaching out for a glass of egg nog. It smoothly transitions the episode from the flash forward into the present. Shortly thereafter Oliver’s captured by the League of Assassin’s and as he’s knocked out the camera dissolves from one scene to another, retaining Oliver’s point of view for the transition. It’s another smooth transition that emphasizes the forward momentum of the narrative and ultimately highlights the inevitable, tragic nature of the episode’s story by refusing to let it slow down.
Events have been set in motion and they all lead to Oliver’s climb up that mountain. By keeping a flowing, propulsive forward momentum thanks to these kinds of careful shot constructions and smart edits, as well as consistently returning to Oliver’s climb throughout the episode, Thor Freudenthal and credited writers Jake Coburn and Keto Shimizu manage to effectively foreground the hopeless nature of Oliver’s quest.
That hopeless nature is deployed beautifully in the final fight sequence between Oliver and Ra’s. It’s a well shot sequence, but the most important detail comes in the scoring, which is almost entirely absent from the fight. There’s no music underlying the majority of the combat, just the cold, stark vista and the clashing of swords over the blowing winds. That’s why, when Oliver seems to be gaining the upper hand late in the fight the score suddenly kicks in. It’s the first time where it seems like there may be hope for Oliver, that he may just win, and the score is the signal of that hope as it floods in to fill the stark, silent void that the fight has been up to that point. It’s why the final victory from Ra’s is so brutal and quick, just as Oliver seems to gain the upper hand he loses it almost instantly. Ra’s counters his attacks, brings him to his knees, and the score drops out, returning to the silence that marked Ra’s advantage.
Oliver’s “death” is unlikely the end for the character, mostly because it’s hard to believe any show would kill off its lead, but the sequence still works because the moment hits hard thanks to the smart aesthetic choices made. Freudenthal nails the sequence and does so by expertly deploying the visual and aural tools of the medium. It’s truly impressive, partially because television so rarely manages to be ambitious on a formal level, but also because “The Climb” manages to repurpose and energize narrative techniques that are usually poorly deployed stop-gaps utilized solely to prop up episodes that lack a strong narrative drive. Not everything in the episode ultimately works, Laurel’s scenes are still mostly flat and the reveal that Thea is Sara’s killer is undermined by the subsequent revelation that she did so only because Malcolm Merlyn drugged her. And yet, those minor missteps are overshadowed by the accomplishments of the rest of the installment.
Despite the flaws the core of the story and how it’s portrayed are just too strong to resist. The writers take full advantage of the episode’s position as a mid-season climax to pay off a huge number of plots, introducing Ray Palmer’s A.T.O.M. suit, properly deploying Ra’s al Ghul after teasing him much earlier this year, and finally digging in to Malcolm and Thea’s toxic relationship. When that dense, complex plotting is combined with a more formally impressive directorial effort than the series has ever had, all the problems simply fall away. It’s an exciting, propulsive, and enthralling installment of the series that feels subtly unlike just about any other episode of Arrow to date. Freudenthal’s directorial sense combined with the superior script from Coburn and Shimizu send Arrow into its hiatus on an exceedingly strong note, highlighting all that the show is capable of at its best.