Oliver Queen has been a lot of things during his years-long run as the Green Arrow. Vigilante. Lover. Billionaire. Government agent. Castaway. And, oh yeah, murderer.
All the way back in Season 1, Oliver made a habit of dropping bodies. If you "failed this city," you usually failed to breathe in short order. The dead-eyed Ollie we once knew made that clear about 25 minutes into the series premiere.
In the show's first action scene, Oliver Queen snaps a man's neck. No quip. No crisis of conscience. He just ends a dude. Because he tied him up? Punched him a little? We have no idea. The guy was a faceless goon and now he's not packing a pulse and we have to go with it.
At that time the series, and maybe even Starling City, needed that kind of man. Not a hero, but a force of nature. As a viewer, any notions you had about the CW creating a series about DC's Robin Hood were gone. As a baddie in Star City, you were on notice.
In the years since, "Arrow" has become a team show. Oliver has an entire roster of fellow crime fighters and brainy backups to help him deal with his enemies, much like Barry Allen does over on that other CW series. Some people have clamored about returning Oliver to his more gruesome ways. Some people miss him acting as a lone wolf. Sometimes I'm one of them.
If there were ever a narrative reason to turn Oliver Queen back into the love child of Frank Castle and Katniss Everdeen, it was Damien Darhk's attack on Felicity. But Oliver can't just go back to putting arrows through people all willy-nilly, so "Blood Debts" was tasked with an age-old comic book quandary: finding a narrative reason to stop the hero from killing his nemesis. It's usually answered by some variation of the idea that if Batman killed the Joker, or if Luke killed Darth, or if Peyton Manning killed Tom Brady, they would become the thing they hate the most.
To my surprise and delight, "Blood Debts" handled this in a slightly more nuanced way, painting the old Oliver Queen as not just dangerous to himself, but dangerous to Star City as well.
The sight of Felicity Smoak in a hospital bed sends Oliver into a spiral, delivering savage beatings to thugs on rooftops, nearly risking Quentin Lance's life for a lead and then marching headlong into a one-on-one confrontation with Darhk that he knows he can't win. By the halfway point of the episode, he's released a psychopath onto the streets on the slim chance it puts him in a position to kill Darhk, and he endangers the lives of (as far as he knows) an innocent mother and child in the process.
Sure, a return to lone wolf form would be an unhealthy life choice for Oliver. But it's also nearly a deadly one for those close to him. Oliver's solo decision to release Anarky puts the villain in position to kill Thea, but his brand of crazy doesn't allow for that. Oh, and Darhk manhandled Oliver again this week, and could have easily slaughtered him on his porch, but Neal McDonough is a really swell guy.
Killer Queen (heh, puns are fantastic) is terrible at his job. He's desperate, he's ignoring his closest advisors, and all of his plans melt into catastrophe in alarmingly fast fashion. We could have easily seen Oliver talked down from his bloodthirsty rage by Diggle or Thea or Felicity, but "Blood Debts" spares us Comic Book Lesson 101 in place of a much harsher reality: Mr. Queen sucks at hero-ing when he goes rogue.
"Blood Debts" hits almost all the right notes throughout, from Oliver's philosophical stumbles with killing to the emotional tumult felt by most members of Team Arrow. Oliver is distraught, unmoored and erratic without Felicity to anchor him, while Ms. Smoak is all the right kinds of awkward and terrified as she sits morphine-dripped and mortally wounded in a hospital bed. She was a little too forgiving of Oliver's absence at her bedside for my tastes, but her ability to give Oliver needed counsel while half-dead is also a little too heartwarming for me to nitpick. I'm a little more than skeptical that she's actually paralyzed, but we'll get back to that later.
The Diggle/Andy stuff worked better than it has in recent episodes here, with the ex-Soldier tormented by his decision to go all "enhanced interrogation technique" on his younger brother before expressing disgust with himself and taking a softer tact. I liked the snuck-in exposition that Andy was a criminal before he became a soldier (unless that was a past nugget of character development I'd forgotten), and the closing shot of the two brothers playing cards and David Ramsey trying to sneak a peek at Andy's hand worked well. Not really sure I buy Andy's cathartic decision to help Diggle, but again, the good far outweighed the bad.
Thea's plot line with Anarky (who has completely detached from his political dissident roots) wasn't as strong as Oliver's or Diggle's arcs, but it was also a nice deviation from her season-long "bloodlust" arc. The fact that Thea seemed to want to kill Anarky because she felt responsible for turning him into a monster, rather than to feed the demon inside her, was clever, if a little forced. Lonnie Maclin was killing people long before he met Thea Queen, now he's just doing it with all the subtlety of the Jigsaw killer.
For the record, this incarnation of Anarky isn't really working for me, especially his capoeira/nunchaku attack style. We've kind of devolved a complicated character into a parkour-style assassin, and while that allows the villain to fit into "Arrow's" cinematic fighting style, it does a lot less to distinguish him as more than a villain of the week.
Anarky may be the episode's main bad guy, but the series' arch-fiend was his usual incredible self in a fraction of the screen time. I'm enjoying McDonough's smiling sadist portrayal of Darhk more and more each week, and touches like his honor-bound decision to spare Oliver adds a hint of complexity to a character who is just fine as mustache-twirling terror.
Sure, you could accuse Darhk of committing the "villain plays with his food/monologue" cliché here, but at least the show is self-aware enough to acknowledge that. Of course we find that out via the revelation that Darhk's wife is evil, because of course Damien Darhk's wife is evil. As one astute Twitter user pointed out, his daughter probably drowns puppies too.
I can keep nitpicking, but "Blood Debts" is a high note for "Arrow's" fourth season, and hopefully a sign of a permanent return to form now that all the setup for "Legends of Tomorrow" is over and done with.
Left in the quiver:
I’m really hoping Felicity isn’t actually paralyzed, and not just because the idea of the character being seriously hurt is a top-rope elbow drop to my soul. “Arrow” has borrowed a ton of Batman villains and Batman story lines. I was waiting for Ra’s Al Ghul to start referring to Ollie as “detective” last year. But if Felicity Smoak, second-cousin to Oracle, actually winds up in a wheelchair by virtue of an arch-villain-driven bullet to the spine, then we need to officially retitle “Arrow” as “Elsewords: Gotham.” Felicity never confirmed the diagnosis, so I’m going to assume her mother was mistaken.
Darhk wants to end the world now? OK… I know I’ve been complaining that we need more than a hint about Darhk’s plans, but I could do without him trying to cause the apocalypse either. His battle with Oliver is gaining steam and turning personal. We don’t need world-ending consequences in play here, especially because that activates the “Avengers” headache and will necessitate Flash’s involvement. I can’t do another season finale that involves a Deus Ex Barry.
The flashbacks … remain a problem. The writing in those scenes isn’t particularly bad, but I simply think the show is sticking to a narrative device that has outlived its usefulness. The island scenes were necessary in Season 1, and a damn delight in Season 2, especially the closing past/present collision of Oliver vs. Slade. I’m assuming whatever Rider (that’s his name, right? Maybe? Does anyone care?) is searching for on Lian Yu has something to with Darhk’s mind control drug from a few episodes ago, but we’re taking a long time to get there. Other than introducing Constantine, the flashbacks have been lacking in purpose most of the time.
The Quentin Lance/Donna Smoak rom-com Web series needs to happen. Actually, wait a minute, YouTube is a thing and I’m a writer. Forget I said anything.