“League of Assassins. You’re feared for your bravery and power. But all I see are a bunch of weak men, running from their lives, trying to escape.” -Diggle, ‘The Fallen’
“The word ‘assassin’ has fallen victim to many abuses of language. Its real meaning hidden beneath a sediment of lies and falsehoods. In truth, ‘assassin’ comes from hashishiyya, which means ‘those who stand apart from society.'” -R’s al Ghul, ‘The Fallen’
“You know, I’ve been meaning to tell you it really weirds me out to no end the way you refer to yourself in the third person like that.” -Diggle to Oliver, ‘Identity’
In the first two seasons of Arrow, the issue of identity was an ongoing consideration – often existing at the peripherals of the series. Particularly for the show’s title character. He came from his “five years in hell” a radically different person from who he was before. No longer the feckless playboy, he had grown into a hardened and skilled killer, honed out of necessity over the five years in a basic need for survival. But all of those differences are channeled through the outlet of the Arrow: his new persona of maturity, of skill, and of clarity. And all the while he continues to maintain the front of his less-evolved self to those who don’t know his secret.
Many of those trappings fall away over the two seasons, as more people are brought in on his secret. Those who knew him best (Tommy, Laurel, Moira) all come to learn the truth, and the realization of the separate personas becomes a bit more blurred. In the war with Slade Wilson, much more becomes stripped away – and the need to maintain that Oliver Queen front becomes less and less.
Third season more fully brings the idea to the fore, demanding that the character start to question who exactly Oliver Queen is. He knows who the Arrow is – but that’s become separate enough, that’s it not entirely true to say that Oliver Queen and the Arrow are one and the same. As it’s been lingering for two seasons, third season utilizes that foundation to finally force the question.
In the opening, Oliver makes a Hail Mary in reclaiming his lost company, and it fails. He simultaneously makes strides to maintaining simple normalcies in his personal life, but comes to learn that people will still come after him as the Arrow. From the get-go, he’s increasingly feeling the pressure to relent to one persona over the other. After all, with no family life (Moira is dead; Thea is gone) and no work life, he’s lost the need for the public persona. In essence, he’s lost all access to all outside factors that were forcing him to be Oliver Queen. Even if that individual was something of a vestige left over from the playboy he once was.
Introducing the League of Assassins then pivots the story into a more specific direction. Oliver becomes entangled with their association, and what’s more catches the eye of Ra’s al Ghul. The latter of whom decides that Oliver is destined to be his predecessor. The offer he then makes to Oliver isn’t a choice. You either accept and become the new head of the League, or have everything else from your life stripped away until you relent.
In a very real sense, this becomes something of a literal manifestation of Oliver’s crisis that lingered through the early part of the season. Ra’s al Ghul wages his own kind of war on Oliver – an external realization that echoes the internal conflicts dogging Oliver.
For Oliver, accepting a place within the League means banishing the Oliver side of himself altogether. His League identity – very aptly named Al-Sah-Him (translation: “The Arrow”) – is essentially the Arrow persona in its purest form. A total stripping away of all those peripheral elements that allow him to still be Oliver. A more radical approach to what life was already doing to him earlier in the year.
Flashbacks spread throughout the season echo the thematic exploration. His time in Hong Kong with the Yamashiro family emphasizes key elements: they, like him, are outsiders here. And even then, he doesn’t entirely have a place within their family unit. Much of Oliver’s time during those five years was about being kept apart from society. He’s spent so long as an outsider, there’s a degree to which he’s even forgotten what it meant to integrate with other people.
The show has also long established the different Olivers in the past vs present use of the flashbacks. In first season, the helpless fool caught up in a mercenary conflict strikes a very sharp difference from the efficient and lethal killer we see in the present when he takes to the streets of Starling City. And this continues well into second and third season, as past Oliver himself becomes more capable, and loses even more touch with the person that he once was. The image he puts on in those early seasons for the public and for his family is, to no small degree, something of a facade.
Without those elements forcing him to maintain that facade, it feels as though fate and the cosmos is telling him this dualistic lifestyle cannot be accomplished. The Oliver person was something of a mystery – possibly even a lie – and so it becomes easier to fall back in the ease and comfort of the Arrow.
But abandoning Oliver altogether is not easily done, since it’s not willingly taken on. He doesn’t know how to be both because, after five years of deception, violence, and survival, an Oliver Queen separate from the Arrow persona got lost in the fray.
Enter Ra’s al Ghul – the perfect person to put pressure on this conflict. He believes in the nature of destiny and prophecy, so he willingly accepts the notion that Oliver is the one fated to inherit his mantle (destiny and prophecy – as seen here – also work in contrast to notions of agency). He also recognizes rather swiftly Oliver’s dilemma – and believes very sincerely that embracing a life as Al-Sah-Him will offer him the clarity that he seeks.
After Oliver’s refusal, he starts to peel away at the fabric of Oliver’s life and agency. He removes all factors that allow Oliver to be even the Arrow. And when that’s not enough, he takes away Oliver’s most essential piece to his other life, all but killing Thea in a final ultimatum.
That near-death of his sister is the final piece, and the total removal of Oliver’s agency is complete. He has no choice but to accept the offer and become the new Ra’s al Ghul, entirely subsumed by the Al-Sah-Him identity – which is, in it of itself, the total distillation of the Arrow persona down to its core elements.
Diggle wisely points out that the League is made up of people running from their lives – echoing the dilemma that resonates across the season for Oliver and others (Malcolm Merlyn and Maseo are both shown having run to the League as a means of dealing with loss, and in a sense, the loss of self). Ra’s al Ghul also describes them as those that stand apart from society. Something Oliver has been struggling with since the day he was shipwrecked on Lian Yu.
Unfortunately, this is the part where it must be addressed that the resolution of the narrative and character arc didn’t land as well as it could’ve. What should’ve occurred was that Oliver became successfully brainwashed by the League, losing himself completely to Al-Sah-Him, and accepting willingly the plan to destroy Star City. To cite an old adage, you have to lose yourself to find yourself. And in that total loss of self, Oliver not only could’ve achieved the zenith of the season’s central arc, but from amidst all that, in the heart of the conflict and climax and the confrontation coming to a head in the League attacking the city, could’ve been discovered Oliver Queen. A new Oliver Queen – one that had evolved from all the people he had been before, and satisfied the need he had spent the season struggling with. It would’ve finally pivoted the character into a greater level of self-acceptance.
Though this isn’t what occurred, credit where credit is due. It was a solid season of Arrow nonetheless. One that utilized core elements of the comic universe to challenge and explore the selves and identities of multiple cast members, including Oliver himself. The question of identity has so often been at the core of Oliver Queen’s progression, that seeing it come to a head made for a satisfying experience.