“You cannot die until you have suffered. The same way that I have suffered. Until you have known complete despair. And you will … I promise” —Slade Wilson to Oliver Queen
The Island flashbacks have long been a curious device in the Arrow series. Sometimes they serve as a loosely connected parallel to the present-day story. Sometimes they exist merely as their own mini-adventures. Sometimes they serve to shed light on a current Starling City plotline. They are, in essence, like mini-comic book installments within each episode. Some are substantial while others feel like little more than glorified filler.
It was only a matter of time before an Island flashback took up a majority of an episode’s screen time, and “The Promise” sees that idea come to fruition. The result is one of the best episodes of the whole series.
“The Promise” marks perhaps the closest the show will ever come to a full-on bottle episode, with the majority of the action in both past and present timelines taking place in or around a single location. For the flashbacks, it’s the freighter; for the present timeline, it’s the Queen household, where—picking up directly where last episode left off—an unsuspecting Moira and Thea give the eye-patched Slade a tour of their home. Meanwhile, Oliver tries to figure out how to handle the sudden reappearance of his unstable friend-turned-foe.
Both plotlines are equally strong but, as previously stated, more screentime is granted to the Island flashbacks. After several episodes spent grasping at straws, Oliver, Slade and Sara have finally hatched a tangible strategy to take the freighter. The plan begins with Oliver getting purposefully captured by Ivo and his men. In an attempt to draw Ivo’s attention, Oliver fires a flaming arrow onto a distant pyre (Oliver actually misses the pyre the first time and, in one of the best moments of the episodes, mutters, “there was a breeze,” in embarrassment.) Seeing this enormous blaze, Ivo sends his men out to investigate. They bring back Oliver, and Ivo proceeds to question him. With their enemy distracted, Slade and Sara use the parachutes they uncovered from the crashed plane last episode to dive onto the ship. It’s here that the middle section of the episode becomes an extended action sequence, with our trio fighting off the ship’s security and freeing the freighter’s other prisoners.
Then comes the confrontation that the series has been building to since last year’s “Three Ghosts.” When Oliver finally has Ivo in his sights, he hesitates before delivering a kill shot. Ivo takes this time to pick at Oliver’s guilt about his role in Shado’s death. Turns out, Ivo delivered this monologue knowing that Slade was right behind Oliver the whole time. A brokenhearted Slade asks Oliver if what Ivo says is true. Unable to lie to his friend, Oliver can merely respond, “I can explain…” Slade goes into a rage and, while Sara and the other prisoners manage to jump off the ship and swim back to the Island, Slade throws Oliver into a cell, cuts off Ivo’s hand, murders the ship’s captain and appoints himself the new captain of the freighter. Shit, as it were, just got real.
Back in the present, Oliver discreetly summons his “Arrow” crew to come to his assistance. Diggle positions himself near the perimeter of the house and aims a high-powered sniper near the entrance, ready to kill Slade the moment he exits the house. Always prepared, however, Slade has one of his minions knock out Diggle from behind. The pathway cleared, Oliver and Slade walk out together. Before climbing into his (incredibly) nice car and driving away, Slade admits his role in the Brother Cyrus debacle and reiterates his desire to make Oliver suffer (i.e. the titular “promise” I placed at the top of this review).
Perhaps in an attempt to balance out the past two episodes, which were largely staged as relationship dramas with a bit of action thrown in for good measure, “The Promise” is an all-out, gloriously comic book-esque romp. What’s more impressive is how the episode successfully intertwines two wildly different types of pacing—the Island scenes work as an almost non-stop bombastic action set piece while the scenes at the Queen abode capture a quieter, yet no less potent, confrontation as Oliver and Slade trade veiled threats that promptly go over Moira and Thea’s heads.
Aside from the Oliver-Slade storyline, the episode also gives hints as to Ivo’s backstory. Granted, it’s an old reliable trope—he has a sick wife and his obsession with perfecting the Mirakuru drug stems from him wanting to find a cure—but it does effectively flesh out his character a good bit. Thus, when Slade slices off his hand near the episode’s end, you can’t help but feel a bit conflicted.
Much like the great season two episodes before it—“Three Ghosts” and “City of Ghosts,” as well as last season’s “Vendetta” and “Sacrifice”—“The Promise” excels because of what came before it. It’s the culmination of many episodes of build-up and, while it may not represent the climatic physical confrontation between Oliver and Slade, it certainly serves as a satisfying emotional clash. One can criticize Arrow for its overabundance of storylines and subplots , but one thing you can’t deny is that the show knows its audience and how long to tease storylines out before paying them off.
With “The Promise,” the Arrow writers have now set into motion the events that will lead to a (hopefully) epic season closer. When “Sacrifice” ended in the destruction of an entire city district, I wasn’t sure how the Arrow team could top themselves in season two. The more this year unfolds, however, the more Malcolm Merlyn’s scorched earth plan looks like small beans in comparison. The end of “The Promise” sees our hero and villain taking their respective battle stances. To quote another great show, winter is coming.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.