Arrow: 321 “Al Sah-Him” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Previously on Arrow: to force Oliver into accepting his offer, Ra’s al Ghul skewered his sister, Thea with a sword, offering a free dip into the Lazarus Pit to bring her back if Oliver joined up with the League of Assassins. Thea was duly resurrected, and after a hilariously futile escape attempt, Oliver’s friends were forced to leave him behind in Nanda Parbat. To mark his induction into the League, Oliver received a new name: Al Sah-Him…
This week’s episode, Al Sah-Him, displayed the stark effects of Oliver’s transformation as the former hero assumed a villainous role. The idea of the show’s central heroic character becoming the antagonist was an ambitious one, but one that was generally well executed. Despite a disappointing lack of set up for this new Oliver’s drastically different personality (having ended last episode pretty much as the Oliver we’ve seen for three season), with Oliver in full-on brainwashed mode after a quick opening montage, the villainous Al Sah-Him worked wonders as an antagonist. Stephen Amell, after an emotional acting tour de force last week, continued to show how far he’s come from his fairly wooden acting back in season one.
Infusing the character of Al Sah-Him with enough familiar mannerisms to remind the audience he’s still very much Oliver below the layers of voodoo brainwashing, yet possessing a gruffer and emotionless demeanour that underlines just how far the League’s brainwashing has pushed him, Amell’s portrayal of Al Sah-Him was a great example of chameleonic acting. Likewise, the character isn’t at all wasted despite the multitude of other elements in play this episode – after last week’s wasting of Thea and the Lazarus Pit, there’s thankfully more than enough of Al Sah-Him for viewers to get a handle on this very different version of Oliver.
Before we get to the meat of Al Sah-Him – how Team Arrow deals with Oliver’s departure – it’s worth mentioning an intriguing bit of universe building seeded in towards the start of the episode. Ra’s al Ghul’s mention of a former rival, Damien Dahrk, is a slightly clunky moment of exposition, but it’s interesting to see Arrow sowing the seeds for what’s to come in season four here. We’ve had a few mentions of the nefarious organisation, HIVE, throughout the last couple of seasons, and it certainly appears as if that threat is coming to the fore at this point, with HIVE likely filling in the antagonist role in season four. The reveal that they’ve been responsible for a handful of Oliver’s previous enemies is a smart bit of arc welding that establishes HIVE as an imposing off-screen presence, manipulating events from afar a little like Ra’s did last year with the League. The mention of Dahrk is a throwaway moment in the context of Al Sah-Him, but it’s nonetheless a thought-provoking hint for the future.
Al Sah-Him packs in a lot of character drama – and surprisingly, the balance is struck pretty well this time, with almost every character getting a chance to shine. Diggle’s generally peripheral role in season three has been a little disappointing, so his beefed up role as the quasi-protagonist was a key part in the episode’s sucesss. It was Diggle who was the first to join Team Arrow back in the early days of season one – and Al Sah-Him finally remembered the importance of that, highlighting Oliver’s bond with Diggle and Oliver’s impact on Diggle’s previously depression-addled life in a nostalgic call-back to Arrow’s earlier, simpler days. Diggle can be a really great character if given the right amount of focus, both emotionally grounded and able to kick plenty of the proverbial – and by placing Oliver’s former bodyguard front and centre, Arrow did justice to one of its unsung heroes for the first proper time in season three.
I spent a long time in last week’s review complaining about Thea’s minor role in an episode where she was raised from the dead (which was possibly a big deal) – but as with Diggle, Al Sah-Him manages to strike gold with Thea’s character. Her journey to becoming a paid-up vigilante and Team Arrow member isn’t complete yet (though I’m sure her route to vigilantism will be speedy), but Al Sah-Him took a few great leaps forward in that path as Thea suited up to stop Oliver from killing Diggle.
The transformation of Thea from a scared bystander to a fighter capable of staring a murderous, brainwashed assassin down has been a slow-burning one, but the benefits of Thea’s long and tortured journey are beginning to bear fruit, paying off the gruelling conga line of trauma she’s experienced this season in a meaningful way. Thea’s portrayal has been a little passive in the past few weeks, even during and after her resurrection, so her more proactive role in suiting up and joining the fight was another example of Arrow’s writers exploiting what makes each of its central gallery of characters interesting and entertaining to watch, rather than resorting to the old writer’s habits of secret-keeping and tortured brooding.
Nyssa’s expulsion from the League and training of Laurel has generally been pushed to the side in the past few weeks, but the new-found friendship between Nyssa and Laurel took a more central role in Al Sah-Him. Nyssa entered the scene in season two as Heir to the Demon and devout member of the League – but by chucking Nyssa out of the League and placing her in a more urban environment with Team Arrow, Al Sah-Him wrings out both fun fish-out-of-water comedy (as in the diner scene) and, of course, plenty of existential angst. Both work well, allowing Katrina Law to work with different facets of the character – Law is especially strong tackling Nyssa’s despair at learning that she can’t truly have a normal life, lending the character enough pathos for this viewer to feel sympathetic for someone who has probably racked up a body count in the hundreds. The impact of Nyssa’s character arc in Al Sah-Him is mitigated a little by the slightly clumsy final twist (more on that later), but Nyssa works as a more successful take on the ‘anti-hero figure Team Arrow can’t trust’ trope tried not entirely successfully with Malcolm Merlyn back during the Brick arc, and her friendship with Laurel yields some strong results both for Nyssa and for Laurel herself.
Unfortunately, Al Sah-Him stumbles a little with the first of its final twists. Having Ra’s suddenly turn around and decide that Nyssa deserved to live was fine, yet the sudden declaration that Nyssa would have to marry Oliver and become ‘Bride to the Demon’ is a strange twist on par with last week’s heart-to-heart with Felicity. It may serve to showcase Ra’s cruelty, but the final scene does that in a far more effective way. It’s essentially a plot twist too far, and one that will doubtless be discarded soon after anyway once Oliver returns to Starling City – so it’s a little unclear quite what the point of this development actually is.
The final scene was somewhat more successful – the Alpha/Omega bio-weapon’s (once used by General Shrieve in Hong Kong for a reason that still remains unclear) emergence in the present day is the meaningful link to Hong Kong besides Maseo’s presence that the flashbacks have badly been needing, and Ra’s insistence that Oliver be the one who releases the weapon provides a meaty personal battle for Oliver that should hopefully cap off this season’s intermittently effective identity crisis.
It’s been hard to pin down an endgame for a season that’s not quite had the laser focus of Slade Wilson’s revenge crusade in season two, but at last the shape of the season finale is becoming clearer. The fact that this endgame partially revolves around a barely explained MacGuffin isn’t ideal, but it’s a twist that nonetheless works in several ways. It’s not been the most consistent of seasons, but Arrow looks set to serve up an explosive conclusion to season three with the final two episodes…
A fumbled twist towards the end aside, Al Sah-Him sees Arrow get back on track after last week’s mild misfire, with several satisfying character arcs and a great portrayal of the show’s central character as a villain.