It’s the Sara Lance origin story (sort of) this week on Arrow. Surprisingly, given that she’s a character we’ve spent (at most) a grand total of 30 minutes with over the course of 27 episodes, this makes for a remarkably compelling hour, especially since we are now allowed to view past events from a non-Oliver perspective.
The thrust of the episode is fairly simple. Sara reveals she learned her deadly ninja skills from Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Assassins. After spending some time as a dutiful member, she left the organization upon having a spike of conscience that’s straight out of the Jason Bourne mythology. (Seriously, she kills a target, only to be reminded of her humanity via the man’s traumatized children, etc.) The fact that we are not made privy to this event via a flashback, however, leads me to hypothesize that we’ve not heard the whole truth from Sara yet.
In any case, according to Sara, you don’t leave the League of Assassins unless in a body bag. Thus, the episode centers on Oliver and Co. attempting to protect Quentin and Laurel from being sliced by several of the League’s masked lackies (one of whom bursts in unexpectedly as Oliver and Sara are having an in-depth discussion about forgiveness—a perfect encapsulation of the show and its joyfully ever-shifting tone).
Though action scenes make up a good chunk of the episode’s content, perhaps its most memorably moment is the tearful reunion between Sara and Quentin. As muscly and testosterone-fueled as comic book properties can be at times, they remain essentially soap operas with superhuman beings as the characters. As such, emotional scenes like this are key to their success or failure. This way, we’re not just seeing fit, beefy specimens in strange costumes duking it out with the bad guys; rather, we’re seeing human beings—with real emotion and real relationships—fighting towards a well-defined goal.
Naturally, this time around, the flashback scenes are purely Sara-centric. One such flashback finds her being taken from captivity by an unnamed, dapper man (possibly, Ra’s al Ghul himself?) and, presumably, indoctrinated into the League. This structure really allows actress Caity Lotz to show her full range—from quivering, traumatized victim in her flashbacks to cold, vicious henchwoman in Oliver’s flashbacks to her present-day version—a seemingly clear-headed, yet guilt-ridden warrior capable of both breaking a man’s neck without remorse and getting appropriately choked up upon seeing her father in the aforementioned scene.
Now the downside: Katie Cassidy is once again given less-than-stellar material to work with. After Oliver takes her out for the night—a discreet attempt at making sure the League does not get to her—she makes an ill-advised pass at our hero. An awkward moment ensues, and Laurel goes into a brief monologue about how she feels like a pariah who pushes people away. Besides the generally awkward syntax (her Dad “climbed into a bottle” while mother “climbed into a car and drove away”), the speech concludes with her asking, “What is so wrong with me that everybody leaves?” Such a rhetorical question harkens back to a celebrated, tear-inducing scene in season two of Friday Night Lights, where quarterback Matt Saracen—demolished by a string of unfortunate events in his life—tosses out the same question to his coach. While the divide between Arrow and FNL couldn’t be wider in terms of style and genre, merely hearing that line in a similar context further highlights how underwhelming it is in comparison.
Also, given that Arrow has been so on the mark with providing tantalizing, watch-us-next-week teases at the end of episodes, the fact that the final minute of “League of Assassins”—flashback-era Oliver discovers that Sara works for his captors—serves as little more than a slightly extended version of last week’s tease feels a tad disappointing.
When all is said and done, “League of Assassins” works mostly as a vehicle of exposition, establishing a large, nefarious organization that will no doubt have a major role in future installments. What saves it from being merely filler, however, are the dynamic battles scenes and the emotional gut-punch that is the Sara and Quentin reunion. Whereas Arrow’s first season took some time before finding its groove, season two has come out of the gates bursting with energy, well-placed story beats and a remarkable self-assuredness. One can only hope, at this rate, the writers do not burn out before reaching the end game.