If I had to pick a moment where I went from being casually optimistic about Arrow’s prospects to downright falling in love with its sexed-up, yet earnest appropriation of the DCU, it’s when I realized what the writers were doing with Manu Bennett’s Slade Wilson, AKA Deathstroke. Out of the literally thousands of villains that dot the DC comics landscape, Deathstroke stands among my very favorites, alongside the Joker, Brainiac and, of course, Granny Goodness (because, my God, someone actually thought of that).
Yes, I was someone whose went into the first season of Arrow completely oblivious to any casting news, so one can imagine my geeky squeal the moment Island-era Oliver met an Australian mercenary who shared a very familiar name. A show like Arrow is only as good as its villains and, over the course of the past season and a half, Bennett and the show’s writers have constructed a phenomenal arc for the Slade character. From gruff survivalist to lovesick loner to mourning rage machine to one-eyed, goatee-stroking villain, we’ve witness the death of Slade and the birth of Deathstroke. Bennett’s influence certainly cannot be denied, as he’s played each of these roles with a robust sense of comic book gusto, yet without ever once feeling as though he was aiming for anything less than complete emotional sincerity. In a season filled with memorable performances, Bennett is my pick for this year’s VIP.
After taking a bit of a detour with both “Suicide Squad” and “Birds of Prey,” “Deathstroke” finds the show dipping back into the reckoning that was hinted back in “The Promise.” Similar to that second season masterpiece, “Deathstroke” is a taut, sharply written installment that hits all the right buttons and leaves the viewer slack-jawed in shock.
As the episode opens, we pick up right where last week’s teaser left off. Thea, heartbroken over her recent separation from Roy, climbs into a limousine with Slade after he offers her a ride. Thea proceeds (for some reason) to spill the beans about her recent emotional turmoil. She soon realizes, however, that Slade is not taking her home but, rather, to one of Starling City’s endless array of warehouses. Slade then broadcasts video of his tearful captive during a mayoral debate between Moira Queen and Sebastian Blood, thus alerting Moira and Oliver to what he’s done.
And so the remainder of the episode concerns Team Arrow’s attempts to get Thea back. Needless to say, it’s an emotional time for everyone. More than simply being a standard race-against-time hour, however, “Deathstroke” digs deeper by exploring how this incident both strengthens certain bonds and highlights the cracks in others. Somewhat predictably, Roy’s rage gets the best of him and his anger towards Oliver over the handling of the Thea situation ultimately leads him to revoke his former mentor. On top of this, while Isabel Rochev initially seems all too eager to help, thus leading a distressed Oliver to temporarily sign over his CEO status to her in a moment of weakness, her subsequent actions prove far more nefarious. Only later does Oliver realize he’s been duped into giving away his company by this femme fatale in business attire, who also reveals herself to be in cahoots with Deathstroke.
On the other hand, in a demonstration of how tragedies can also bring people together, there are the scenes between Stephen Amell’s Oliver and Susannah Grant’s Moira. I’m aware there’s no way in hell Arrow ever has shot of winning any kind of esteemed acting awards, but if ever there was a scene that showcased that this funny book adaptation has a beating heart, it’s in these moments. Arrow, like most shows of its kind, often veers into the potentially goofy. Amell and Grant could easily phone in their performances and treat the material as beneath them. Instead, they tackle their lines with all the passion and conviction of an actor approaching Tennessee Williams. “From the moment your children are born, you worry what the world might do to them,” a frightened Moira explains to Oliver. “But you never stop to think what you might do to them—that we could be our own worst enemy.” In an episode filled with such intense momentum, it’s monologues like this that helps keep the proceedings emotionally grounded. Also, I dare anyone to hear a near-catatonic Moira whisper, “Is my baby still alive?” and not get a chill down his or her spine.
In contrast to the non-stop propulsion of the main storyline, the Island scenes mostly act as stepping stones to a bigger event. The big takeaway moment occurs when we learn that Slade—whether it be from the Mirakuru, intense guilt or a combination of the two—is being directed in his actions by a vision of Shado, who circles around him like a miniature devil on the shoulder.
But back to the present. Slade’s strikes against Oliver prove to be more psychological than anything. He’s kidnapped his sister not because he intends to hurt her, but because he wants to prove to Oliver what he’s capable of doing. That, and it also allows him time to abduct prisoners to act as recruits for his growing army of Mirakuru-fueled super soldiers. But Deathstroke is not done there. He then drives a wedge into the Queen family by revealing to Thea that Malcolm Merlyn is her real father. Thea is, of course, upset by this turn of events. The villain then twists the knife once more by stopping by Laurel’s home to inform her that Oliver is, in fact, the Arrow.
Arrow’s first season was akin to snapping a rubber band. The first half served as the gradual wind back while the final stretch acted as the long-awaited spring forward. Perhaps because the writers are far more comfortable with the dynamics of the show, the second season has eschewed any gradual burn in favor of machine gun-like bursts of fast-paced plotting. If ever this season felt like it was truly building towards something huge, however, it’s with this episode. Like “The Promise,” “Deathstroke” highlights the power that Arrow can have when it’s firing on all cylinders. It’s a throw-down action movie one minute and an open-hearted melodrama the next. I may complain about the way the CW elements worm their way into the show but darn it if this structure doesn’t work perfectly at times.
“Deathstroke” more than earns the quality and prestige that its name implies. With Arrow reaching the final few episodes of the season, one can hear the drums of war beginning to pound. Oliver emerges at the end of the hour with his family dynamic in shambles and his company taken from him, but, as he makes clear in his final scene, he’s not going down so easy. “Now we fight back,” he proclaims in the show’s closing minutes. It’s both an inspiring note to end on as well as great teaser for the mayhem that is to follow.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.