Arrow: 5.23 Lian Yu
After the heights of Oliver Queen vs Slade Wilson in season two, Arrow has struggled to find its groove. Ra's al Ghul didn't deliver, both in personality and threat, Damien Darhk started with promise but the show's descent into fantastical never quite sat right. The Felicity and Oliver romance fell apart after so much chemistry and promise and a number of story twists, from Oliver's secret son to Laurel Lance's death left fans with a bad taste in their mouth. Not to mention two years of sometimes dire flashbacks. While I've personally enjoyed elements of every season, there was no denying that Arrow's best days were behind it.
But then something changed in season five. It started off strong and steady with a return to its dark and gritty roots. The Russian flashbacks seemed to have purpose again, with the return of Anatoly, the debut of Dolph Lundgren as villain Konstantin Kovar and Oliver finally transforming into the Hood under the surprise training of Talia al Ghul. Admittedly it took a while to warm to the new recruits (particularly Rick Gonzalez's Rene Ramirez / Wild Dog) but the progression of these new heroes felt earned by the season's end. Felicity and Oliver's relationship finally matured and new villain Prometheus held promise. His reveal as DA and ally Adrian Chase suddenly elevated season five to the point when it became must see TV for the first time in years. It wasn't always perfect (I don't think Arrow has ever quite achieved that) but I was eager for more, in no small part to the wonderful, twisted performance Josh Segarra as a villain that put Green Arrow through his paces.
Of course Arrow's return to form would live or die by its pay off in the finale and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. If this had been the end of Arrow it would have been a perfect conclusion, except perhaps the bleak cliff-hanger of everyone dying on the island explosion! Five years of history converged on the island while the past brought us to the pilot episode as Oliver finally defeated Kovar and raced to the boat and was 'rescued'. For those wondering how Oliver was going to end up as the bearded hobo in the hood we saw back in the beginning of season one, there was even a fun twist where he threw on a fake beard and wig to play up the story that he was on the island for five years. It was capped with a lovely, bittersweet scene where he called his mother Moira as he journeyed home. Stephen Amell absolutely delivered the scene an it was lovely to have Susanna Thompson back on the show even briefly.
But the real fun was in the present day; picking up from last week's cliffhanger, Oliver recruited his greatest episode - and his mother's killer - Slade Wilson to help fight Adrian Chase. Together with Digger Harkness, aka Captain Boomerang and bickering enemies Nyssa al Ghul and Malcolm Merlyn, Oliver assembled a great band of rogues, which led to a number if surprises. Harkness was the first to betray, Chase already one step ahead of the game in coercing him to his side and the finale certainly played with Wilson's loyalties; after defending Oliver and co in the battle against Harkness, Talia al Ghul and Evelyn Sharp, he then seemed to turn tables and give Oliver up to the enemy. Of course, it was all part of the plan to get Oliver into the heart of the enemy with a device that could free Dinah Drake and her abilities; in the end, Deathstroke - the ally - was unleashed and seeing him taken on a horde of assassins was a joy to watch.
What's more, Manu Bennett stole the episode, reminding us all with his commanding presence why he was such a successful part of Arrow's first two seasons. I loved how he immediately settled back into the wise mentor figure to Amell's Oliver Queen, providing not just the muscle as Deathstroke but the master strategist in battle too. Assuming he survives the explosion at the end of the episode, I hope he makes at least another appearance in season six.
One character who looks like a goner is Malcolm Merlyn. Taking Thea's place on a landmine, the episode seemed to confirm he died with a fiery explosion that took Harkness and a host of bad guys with him. It was a great heroic final moment for this character, saving his daughter and proving his love for her as a father. As the original big bad of Arrow it was rather fitting to have him here at the end and it was a bittersweet departure for John Barrowman's time in the Arrowverse.
There were plenty of other cool moments too, with Nyssa finally taking on her sister in battle (though I wished we'd seen them on screen together before now to provide some depth to their sibling rivalry). The Black Siren versus Black Canary battle was another thrilling touch and kudos to Quentin for knocking his daughter's evil doppleganger out. And the big battle in the temple was as spectacular as Arrow has ever got, particularly when flashing between Oliver's fight with Chase in the present and Kovar in the past. Arrow doesn't get enough credit for its fight choreography and the sweeping shot of Oliver and his allies fighting Chase's army was magnificent.
What's more, the episode didn't just rely on the dramatic showdowns between heroes and villains, as fun as that was to watch. The twists kept coming with Felicity and Curtis discovering that Chase had rigged the entire island and destroyed their only chance of escape. What has made Adrian Chase / Prometheus such a great villain this year is that he has not only challenged Oliver's beliefs and threatened the lives of everyone he holds dear, but he has also been a master of manipulation, putting everyone through a series of twisted games.
And that came to a head as Oliver confronted him on the small boat and battled for the life of his son William. Even facing death Chase held all the cards; kill the enemy and he would act as the death switch that would destroy the island and everyone he held dear. Leave Chase alive and he would slaughter his son. While it felt like a bit of cop out that Oliver was able to maim him and get William free, Chase still delivered, shooting himself in the head and letting Lian Yu explode behind him.
It left Arrow season five with a spectacular cliffhanger, capping up one of most successful episodes in its five year run. The fate of almost every character is up in the air; Felicity, Diggle, Curtis, Rene, Quentin, Dinah, Nyssa, Slade and William's mother Samantha, not to mention Laurel, Talia and Evelyn. The only character we know who isn't coming back next season is Adrian Chase himself and Josh Segarra will be sorely missed. But I can't imagine Malcolm Merlyn is the only casualty of the finale.
Lian Yu was a spectacular finale, bringing the show full circle and paying off the war against Adrian Chase - and indeed five years of storytelling in a satisfying and thrilling manner. It also puts Arrow in new territory, now that the flashbacks have taken Oliver up to the pilot episode. While I have concerns about how the series will be able to build on what has been an excellent fifth season, I'm also excited to see where it goes next.
Well done Arrow, you finally proved yourself...