Arrow: 523 “Lian Yu” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
It’s funny how season finales can define how you look back on a season. Arrow’s first year took a long time to get going and never quite reached the creative heights of season two, but it has a reputation as a great season of television because it ended so satisfyingly and emotionally. Season three, on the flipside, was a robust enough, if flawed season up until it blew the conclusion of Oliver and Ra’s al Ghul’s feud, and now that season is remembered as the start of a creative decline. And while season four had blown its opportunity for success a while before the finale, the awful season ender of last year sealed the deal and cut off any potential for redemption. So while Arrow season five has accrued a deserved reputation as the best season in years, there was still a lot riding on the final episode, promised to be the conclusion of a 10-year journey that began in season one’s flashbacks, and the beginning of an entirely new chapter.
It’s a good thing that Lian Yu works, then.
I had high hopes for this finale given the amount of diligent build-up afforded to it in the past couple of episodes and the all-star guest cast that had been picked out from the show’s roster of past heroes and villains, but Lian Yu managed to surpass them. This is a flat-out terrific episode of TV, good enough to challenge the very best hours that Arrow has put out across the course of nine years, and easily enough to become the show’s strongest season finale. To compare this to last year’s Schism feels like comparing two different shows entirely, reflecting just how quickly and efficiently the writers recognised and fixed the problems that were hindering a show with plenty of gas still in the tank. Whereas Arrow felt like a creatively exhausted also-ran of the CW-verse this time last year, it heads into the summer hiatus as the CW show with the most compelling reason to tune in for the new season in October.
Lian Yu bears a strong reminiscence to a series finale until its turn in the final act – not only in the way it returns to the island to wrap up the flashbacks arc that’s been part of Arrow since the pilot, but also in the voluminous amount of call-backs and character returns from seasons past. The headliner of all of these returnees, Slade Wilson, returned in last week’s cliffhanger, reflecting the deceptive importance that Oliver’s former arch-enemy plays in an episode that Manu Bennett spent a weird amount of time claiming he wasn’t in on social media. Slade’s solicitous attitude towards Oliver and his quest is one of the few plot points that creaks just a little, given how antagonistic even his last appearance was in season three, but the time he’s had for recollection and for his madness to wear away acts as a reasonable, if not compelling, justification for his newly-gained sanity. He works in the episode in much the same way Captain Cold did in his return to The Flash last week, in that he’s an unconventional and troubling character playing a surprisingly conventional role as an ally and confidante. Given the lack of personal closeness between them, his wisdom to Oliver about the need to forgive himself gets to the core of Oliver’s troubles in a way the regular characters, who can view him through the biases of their attachments to him, can’t, and it’s no wonder that it’s Slade’s words that Oliver echoes to Chase in his moment of redemption later on. There’s a good character-focused reason for Slade to return, then, but his appearance is also great fun – Deathstroke is one of the most enjoyable participants in the packed-out melee of the final act because his eye-catching costume design and martial arts expertise make him an ideal fit for the balletic choreography of the action as he hacks and slashes through ninjas (it wouldn’t be an Arrow finale without goons!). Manu Bennett was always one of Arrow’s most compelling performers in his time, and he feels energised by the material here in comparison to his thin guest star appearance in season three, slipping back into the gruff gravitas of Deathstroke as if he hasn’t aged… three years (this was a limited simile).
Malcolm Merlyn might not seem like the sort of guy who would quietly steal an episode, but Lian Yu grants the former enemy/former ally/former enemy again a surprisingly poignant and effective part to play. His most compelling relationship was always with his reluctant daughter Thea, so it’s right that the episode quickly returns to the tragic dysfunctionality of that pairing once they’re reunited on the island. Re-establishing his love for Thea as his one constant allows Lian Yu to finally give Malcolm the concrete send-off he’s needed for years as he takes her place on a land-mine and sacrifices himself in a final show of selflessness. There’s something surprisingly effective in Malcolm’s arc as it’s played out, as someone who began using all of his emotional connections for manipulative and selfish ends, realised the error of his ways, fought against his inclinations, slipped back into anger and fury again, briefly tried to rewrite reality to get everything back, and then finally understood and took comfort in the human connections he’d made. It exemplifies the way in which Lian Yu is more expansive and satisfying than a simple Oliver vs Chase final battle, as it pays service to a vast array of supporting characters and brings their journeys on the show to something approaching finality.
The introduction of Oliver’s son, William, was a turning point for season four as it catalysed the angst and character conflict that sent the season spiralling, so it’s surprising to see Lian Yu return to that connection as the principal motivation for Oliver once he gets the rest of his friends out of the line of fire at the start. On one hand, this is a bit of a stretch – William isn’t a character (I’m not confident that he speaks here) of any note, and he was only a concern for a couple of episodes in season four when Arrow needed some more emotional stakes rather than a consistent part of Oliver’s life. On the other, Lian Yu is focused to the point of obsessiveness on the impact of the devotion or cruelty of fathers upon their children, to the point where Oliver’s furious search for his own son is merely one part of a much wider debate in the episode. There’s Malcolm and his sacrifice for Thea, the al Ghul sisters whose enmity is fuelled by their father’s treatment, there’s Lance who manages to separate Black Siren from the daughter they lost, and there’s even Slade, who’s cajoled into Oliver’s plan by the potential of finding his son. Blood relations and fatherhood carry a kind of primal power in this episode, stripping away all of the emotional messiness and complications around those relationships. Indeed, it’s the sacrifice of Robert Queen that Slade correctly identifies as the turning point in Oliver’s life that brought on the self-recriminations that have defined him for 10 years. In that respect, then, Oliver’s search for William can be easily explained, because there’s a significance here ascribed to parental relationships that friendships and other forms of human connections simply can’t match. Even if the specifics of that are a bit wonky, it’s a thematically watertight story, and one that provides Lian Yu with the emotional stakes and heft to substitute for the lack of existential threat like the nukes or ninja armies that have faced down Star City for the last four Mays.
For all of its seriousness and introspection, Lian Yu also works because it remembers that it has a cast of over a dozen comic book characters to pit against each other. There is a lot of action in this episode, but each sequence plays a clear role in progressing and deepening the story, as well as serving the simple fun of a ‘who would win?’ between two characters. Just about every major face-off you could think of gets a look in. Nyssa and Talia get to fight for the title of the strongest al Ghul sister, with an assist from Deathstroke to even the odds a little. Black Siren gets to fight Black Canary in a battle of appearance versus reality as Dinah is confirmed as the ‘real’ Canary by Lance himself. The two resident Australians, Slade and Digger Harkness, even get a brief round in before the episode has to move on for other things. At times, in the best way, Lian Yu feels like the product of a kid with a whole collection of action figures, and that’s reflected in the stylish and kinetic filming of the action that includes a sweeping one-take shot. It helps, too, that there’s emotional stakes behind each punch, as every hero and villain gets their moment in the sun to remind us what they’re fighting for. Arrow sold its creative reinvention this year on a return to a dark and gritty tone, but it’s never become dour or unengaged with the joyousness of bringing comic book characters to life, even in an episode as emotionally loaded as Lian Yu.
Lian Yu is stuffed to the brim with callbacks that close the circle that began in the pilot, and the most obvious call-back of them all is the chance, after five years of meandering and intermittent flashbacks, to see the moments directly before and after the pilot’s opening scene of Oliver’s rescue from Lian Yu. Plot-wise, his final fight with Kovar is very basic stuff. Fittingly, for the final appearance of 80s star Dolph Lundgren, it’s an action movie with more wounds inflicted than there are lines of dialogue. Oliver’s final scrap against Kovar is intercut with his battle against Chase, but it’s not like there’s a powerful emotional connection to be drawn; they’re two enthralling fights that illustrate Oliver at the middle and end of his emotional journey to becoming a hero where the intercutting merely serves as a device to keep the adrenaline of the action up. The real meat of the flashbacks comes at the very end with Oliver’s first call back home to his mother. It’s an extremely effective little scene in establishing the juxtaposition of the battle-hardened, cynical Oliver of the pilot with the world he’s returning to, and Susannah Thompson puts in an impressively committed performance in displaying Moira’s emotionally overwhelmed reaction to the simultaneous news of the return of her son and the death of her husband. The flashbacks were quite frequently a burden for Arrow, but in Oliver’s trip to Russia this year and this final slice of unseen moments from the start of Oliver’s journey in season one, Arrow has worked up a satisfying conclusion that deepens the emotional effect of his emotional breakthrough in the present. It’ll be fascinating to see how this storytelling device will be replaced in season six. Flashbacks to season one would seem the obvious choice, and the show even dipped its toes into the waters there in the mid-season finale, but it would be interesting to see Arrow shorn entirely of its past stories to reflect Oliver’s final decision to move on here.
Oliver’s journey began in a boat off the shores of Lian Yu, and it ends in pretty much exactly the same way – unsurprising for a super-villain who appreciates good drama. It’s here where Adrian Chase finally breathes his last in the most memorable way one can imagine. The Flash and Arrow have had a problem in recent years of the season’s villain losing their lustre in the season finale and becoming a generic placeholder to be vanquished by the end; just see how Savitar’s story petered out over on Flash. The same is not true of Adrian Chase. Prometheus was probably not this show’s best villain – he did become unrealistically powerful as the season went on, and Deathstroke still casts a shadow three years on – but he was certainly an effective foe for Oliver, and Josh Segarra has been one of season five’s best surprises with his disconcertingly unhinged demeanour once he was unmasked. Some seasons opt to try and redeem the villain in their last moments, but Chase goes out in a confirmation of just how sick and twisted he really was, by blowing up the entire island with Oliver’s friends seemingly trapped on there for one outstandingly petty final act.
Is the entire supporting cast dead? Obviously not. Arrow provided enough leeway by cutting away three minutes from the end to the boat, and the ARGUS boat and sealed-off supermax prison are both get out of jail free cards that could be invoked to keep Felicity and co alive for season six. Nonetheless, especially considering how rare it is for Arrow to end a season inconclusively (it hasn’t done so since season one, and even then, no main characters were in danger – aside from Tommy, who was dead), it’s a jarring conclusion, and one that leaves season six in an intriguingly ambiguous place. As an ending to a 10-year journey that kept coming back to that damn island, the destruction of Lian Yu is also fitting catharsis – a purging of all the pain and sorrow that Oliver experienced in that place and a final cutting of the thread of the past that’s defined him for five years. Even if it’s impossible to believe that anyone important died (there are some spare villains to kill off, though Black Siren will be a regular character next year and therefore has immunity), it’s a cliffhanger that delivers appropriately on the promise of an ending and a beginning at once.
Lian Yu is a best case scenario finale for season five, bringing all the character arcs and themes of the past 23 episode to their head while providing a breathless and exciting episodic narrative that juggled a huge cast with impressive skill. Season five may not be the best season of Arrow, as it lagged a little too much in the middle stages, but the beginning and ending of the season were nothing less than thrilling, and the season felt much more careful and thoughtful in its construction than the shapeless third and fourth seasons. Arrow rediscovered itself this year, and I’m delighted to see it stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best superhero TV shows out there as the show that arguably kick-started the current craze for small-screen spandex. There’s no guarantee that this creative rejuvenation will last, but it’s difficult to imagine this show going into season six in a better place. Roll on October.