It’s amazing what a little focus can do. “Al Sah-Him” is an episode of Arrow that’s trimmed away just about any useless parts. Even regular cast member Paul Blackthorne fails to make an appearance as the episode charges forward and delivers more than a few exciting and tense sequences. Guided along by standout director Thor Freudenthal this is exactly the kind of big blowout that makes much of the third season’s dithering feel like time that wasn’t wasted even if it wasn’t particularly satisfying in the moment.
The episode does little else other than delve into Oliver’s transition into the heir to the demon and just how effectively the League’s tactics and brainwashing methods have transformed him. The episode opens with a fluid montage, something that Freudenthal has a particular knack for, which details some of the training Oliver has been receiving and culminates with Oliver killing a man who appears to be John Diggle. It’s not truly Diggle, which isn’t a surprise, but the scene works despite the reversal simply because it sets up the fact that Oliver has truly turned into Al Sah-Him during his three weeks at Nanda Parbat. For Oliver the murder of his best friend was just that and showing this clearly helps establish just how much danger Nyssa is in once Ra’s sets Oliver on a path to kill her.
It also paints a clear target on just about anyone who gets in Oliver’s way. Before long he’s on the warpath in Starling, taking any means necessary, up to and including kidnapping and ransoming Lyla in an effort to bring Nyssa back to Nanda Parbat. Arrow’s not the first series to turn one of its leads to the dark side and it won’t be the last, but when it’s handled as effectively and efficiently as it is here the turn still has one heck of a charge. Oliver’s the lead, the one who always wins, so when he’s suddenly working at cross purposes with the rest of the cast it’s easy to feel like they’re in real danger. This isn’t some ineffectual villain of the week they’re up against, it’s the real deal and that lends a wonderful sense of uncertainty to all that occurs.
That comes across crystal clear in the episode’s climax as the remnants of Team Arrow fail to stop Oliver’s plans. Despite some well hidden guns and general kickassery from all the members, The League proves themselves the superior force and they abscond with both Nyssa and, unbeknownst to both Oliver and the audience, a vial of the Alpha and Omega virus that the flashbacks have been showcasing all season long. It’s a nice little trick that further shows just how much cohesion matters when it comes to a show like Arrow that thrives on a propulsive plot.
The flashbacks have been an issue all season long, and while they’ve worked in fits and starts, they’ve rarely felt like essential viewing. Freudenthal’s two turns in the director’s chair have been marked by a unique level of interest in the flashbacks. He’s accomplished this in multiple ways, primarily he’s done so through clever editing, carefully choosing matched images to help the story flow through the present and the past, lending a sense of continuity even as the story isn’t necessarily directly intertwined. Here though he manages both this visual continuity and story continuity as Ra’s reveals that for Oliver to take his place as the Demon’s Head he’ll need to wipe out his home, Starling City, and that he’ll be using the virus that has been decimating Hong Kong in the flashbacks to do so.
It’s a trick that works as both a surprising reveal and a strong statement for why the flashbacks have been necessary all along. The sudden relevance of the flashbacks doesn’t excuse the previous errors that have caused them to feel dull or useless, but it does make for an exciting conclusion to the season. Having had Oliver fight against the virus all year long and showing just how deadly it can be lends immense stakes to his actions, turning him from villain to perpetrator in a scheme that he himself once abhorred. It’s a canny way to stage the battle for Oliver’s soul and it ties everything together in convincing, inevitable fashion.
“Al Sah-Him” doesn’t entirely make up for what’s been off at times this season, but it at least showcases exactly how good this series can be when it’s at the top of its game. This is an essential episode for the characters and easily establishes the end game of the season even as it entertains and excites in the moment. Strong direction, clever writing, and a plot that finally reveals just where it’s been heading all along come together to tell a single, cohesive story over the course of a single hour. Arrow’s let its third season get away from itself at times, but now that all the threads are coalescing once more into a single whole it’s all too apparent that the show hasn’t lost its magic, it just took a little longer to find it this year.