After last week’s episode pulled most of the disparate pieces of Arrow’s third season into a more cohesive whole, this week’s installment takes advantage of that newfound clarity to plunge ahead, turning out an action packed hour of television that’s difficult to resist. “Uprising” is a propulsive hour almost from the word “Go!”, delving into Brick’s new gang controlled Glades while putting forth a serious moral quandary for the heroes to grapple with at the same time.
This episode is emblematic of this series at its finest, channeling its pulpy, operatic impulses into a scenario that allows for big, exciting action all while seriously considering the ramifications of its heroes decisions. Sure, the episode’s centerpiece is a huge brawl between Brick’s forces and the denizens of The Glades who have been called into action thanks to Team Arrow, but what really motivates the episode and lets these sequences have an emotional impact is the way it digs into the moral decisions that its heroes are forced into making.
A hallmark of the episodes that have occurred in Oliver’s absence has been the ways that the heroes have been unsure of themselves, being outsmarted and outmanned by Brick and his plans. Without Oliver they’ve lacked something, so when Malcolm Merlyn comes to the team with a proposal to work together it feels like a natural fit. Here’s an option that the team can utilize to give them an edge, Malcolm’s nearly Oliver’s equal in combat and his desire for revenge makes it clear that their goals are aligned, at least for the moment. It’s also a plot beat that many other shows have tread, turning a long standing villain slowly, but surely, into an ally.
For a moment it looks like this is exactly where Arrow is headed. Barrowman is great in the role of Merlyn, so it’s only natural that the writers would want to keep him around and turn him into a reluctant ally. Rather than just taking the path of least resistance, the writers take a step back and instead use the team’s decision to examine their moral stance. Malcolm is essentially unredeemable at this point; having killed hundreds with his undertaking back in the first season, manipulating everyone around him for personal gains, and turning his own daughter into a killer in a desperate gambit to save his own life, and in light of this, rather than just sweeping Merlyn’s actions under the rug, the writers instead have the remnants of Team Arrow refuse his help, despite their inability to think of a better way to stop Brick.
It’s a surprising move, but one that fits with the series. By taking the moral implications of accepting Merlyn’s help seriously, the writers once again highlight how Oliver and the group have moved towards an aspirational goal of becoming better people and inspiring the city rather than Oliver’s original, more violent tactics for saving the city. It’s an unexpected beat, mostly because giving Merlyn a reason to become more integrated with the core team would likely be beneficial to the series in the long term. In the short term though, the decision leads to the team thinking outside the box and turning to the people of The Glades to assist them in their fight against Brick. It’s a clever solution to the problem, both in that it’s a grandiose moment, leading to a big battle sequence, but also in that it lets the show bring back some characters it hasn’t touched on in a while, specifically Ted Grant and, more excitingly, Sin.
That big fight also features Oliver’s return to Starling City, as he talks Merlyn down from executing Brick for the murder of Malcolm’s wife. It’s another strong moment as Oliver believably convinces Malcolm that while he may be beyond total redemption, his actions in the present can still hold meaning for those he cares for. It also allows for Oliver to be the surprising way for Malcolm to become more closely tied to the group as Oliver enlists him to train for the inevitable return of Ra’s al Ghul. Once more, the writers take this decision seriously, allowing Felicity to tear in to Oliver for his decision. Indicting Ollie for allowing Merlyn any sort of kindness and delivering a searing speech to close the episode as Felicity outright rejects Oliver, highlighting the terrible fates that have befallen women he’s loved in the past and directly linking those fates to his current decision to trust Malcolm.
It’s the kind of moment that Arrow excels at. A moment that at once indulges in the tropes and traditions of superhero stories while also deconstructing them, figuring out new ways to interpret and build from tried and true elements of these stories while simultaneously wedding them to big, spectacular action plot lines. “Uprising” has a flaw here and there, but it still showcases so much of why Arrow is an excellent TV series and just how unique it can be when the show is at the height of its powers.