Arrow is a dark show. It started as a fairly obvious riff on the Christopher Nolan school of superheroes, and while it has since developed its own unique identity, that dour outlook persists. That’s part of the reason why the show tends to be at its best when things are at their bleakest. While the characters are capable of existing within a positive space for brief periods of time the series doesn’t really come to life until they have their backs against the wall, with all good options removed.
Case in point, “Public Enemy” is one of the best episodes of the season and it’s because it finds a scenario that forces Oliver into an impossible choice. Either accept Ra’s offer to take his place or inevitably wind up captured by the police and locked away for The Arrow’s vigilantism. It works so well because the series sells it beautifully, immediately turning up the pressure by leading off with the aftermath of Maseo’s murder of Starling’s mayor and followed up by Oliver, Laurel, and Roy nearly being cornered by the revived Vigilante Task Force, led by Quentin Lance.
It’s a breakneck start that firmly establishes just how furious and determined Lance is. Reason has gone out the window and Paul Blackthorne relishes the chance to portray Quentin’s righteous fury every chance he gets. Quentin’s turn against Oliver may have been sudden last week, but the thinness of said turn doesn’t matter anymore, now that we’ve reached the payoff it’s more than sufficient to outweigh any misgivings about the reality of what caused it.
Part of that is the satisfaction from revisiting an earlier scenario in the series, from when Oliver was wanted by the police, and part of it is that there’s no clear exit for Oliver and Team Arrow. Ra’s has orchestrated things perfectly, and when he goes in for the metaphorical kill by revealing Oliver’s identity to Lance it’s a moment that’s both shocking and expected. Arrow has slowly erased Oliver’s secret identity from the show; in fact, Quentin’s the last major character in the dark about who Oliver really is, so it makes sense to finally pull the wool back from Lance’s eyes here. What’s appreciated is that the show goes one step further, outing Oliver to the entirety of Starling when Lance decides against sitting on the information and instead uses it to bring the full force of the police department down on Oliver.
It’s the moment where all seems to have spun out of control. While the episode has been concerned with the heroes being on the run up until this point, Oliver’s identity being exposed to the public at large essentially eliminates his ability to run. Team Arrow’s good at besting pursuers, but when Ra’s successfully turns the entirety of Starling into the pursuer it takes away any hope Oliver might have of staying ahead of those who want to track him down.
All of this is effective both because the episode successfully backs Oliver into a corner and due to the episode being almost singularly focused on doing so. Part of what has caused this season problems has been its diffuse nature, that’s not an issue here though since all of the disparate plot threads are finally working towards a focused goal of beating Oliver down into a position where he lacks almost any agency. Removed of all options and forced to make a decision he has no desire to make.
It’s all backed up by strong flashbacks wherein Oliver meets up with Shado’s twin sister while on the run from Waller’s men. The material’s mostly sketched in, but it’s powerful nonetheless thanks to the immense amount of history that the show has built up around Shado and Yao Fei. It all builds to a moment where Oliver opens up to Mei about her sister and father’s ultimate fate. This truth telling returns in the present as Oliver makes the decision to surrender himself to the police rather than assenting to Ra’s will. He negotiates immunity for the rest of Team Arrow and is prepared to finally open up about his actions.
Everything in the episode has converged on this point, and Oliver’s insistence to the team that there is some sort of endgame, even if it doesn’t seem like a particularly happy one, sets the stage for the episode to end with Oliver’s incarceration. When Oliver’s pronouncement about the power of the truth is reinforced by Mei’s words in the flashback it seems like there’s no other possible ending, until Roy takes it upon himself to reveal himself as The Arrow.
Much like the unexpected reveal of Oliver’s identity to the city, Roy’s decision manages to be both surprising and inevitable. Earlier in the episode Roy and Thea briefly converse about Roy’s guilty conscious, still struggling with his murder of an innocent police officer in the previous year. Roy’s sacrifice to save Oliver isn’t a twist that’s easy to see coming, but the episode allows just enough foreshadowing so it doesn’t feel like a twist just for the sake of a twist. It’s a character making a hard decision when it seems there are no other choices left.
In other words, it’s what Arrow excels at when it’s at its best. Arrow’s conception of Oliver Queen is that of a man broken by a traumatic experience. The series is concerned with his attempts to build himself back up into something that resembles a human being, and the best way to explore these attempts is to force him into scenarios where he’s forced to make seemingly impossible choices. It’s the conflict that the show runs on, Oliver has to succeed for the show to keep going but he can’t truly succeed in the long term or the anguish that drives him, and the series, will recede. At the moment that’s not a problem, “Public Enemy” taps into that darkness wonderfully and because of this it’s one of the best episodes of Arrow’s third season.