Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Top Arrow episodes)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.

Greg: CW Month continues here with your favorite fanboys as we open the pages of Countdown to our favorite superhero drama, “Arrow.”

Nick: Yep, this time out, we’re counting down our favorite adventures of everyone’s favorite shirtless, salmon ladder climbing, sweaty, muscular, scarred ….. I’m sorry, what are we talking about again?

Greg: It suddenly just got a little hot in here.

You're welcome ... everyone.
You’re welcome … everyone.

In any event, we’re here to count down our favorite episodes of the show, which traces the continuing adventures of the Emerald Archer, Oliver Queen. When we first thought of this topic, we figured it would be simple.

It turns out that wasn’t the case. This was probably the toughest list to narrow down for me, as going through the episodes again really reminded me how consistently good this show has been from the get-go.

Nick: Yeah, when doing a quick refresher on Wikipedia and making a list of contenders, my preliminary list was about 20-25 episodes long. The show is only 55 episodes in, so that’s a testament to how the show really did hit the ground running. In any event, let’s get it going with Greg’s No. 5.

SPOILERS AHOY!

Greg’s No. 5: “Keep Your Enemies Closer”

Sw1YOEBlNick: One of many episodes that I wanted to include, but just couldn’t find space for, this one really started to kick the door open in terms of introducing ARGUS and the idea of the Suicide Squad into the Arrowverse.

Greg: One of the calling cards of Arrow, virtually from its inception, has been its sense of fun. It always boggles my mind when some people accuse the show of being humorless, because nothing could be further from the truth. The sixth episode of the second season is a prime example, as for the first time, Team Arrow (Ollie, John Diggle and Felicity Smoak) travel overseas on a mission to rescue Diggle’s ex-wife, Lyla. In the process, we get some of the classic banter that the show has become known for between the three leads. Oliver’s ill-fated decision to sleep with business partner Isabel Rochev leads to one of the funniest exchanges in the history of the show, as Felicity gives Ollie the cold shoulder in the van afterwards.

As you mentioned, though, the episode also gives us plenty of the show’s great action scenes, and it plants the seeds for major stories to come in the form of ARGUS, HIVE, the Suicide Squad and Deadshot’s possible redemption. it’s also one of the too-rare Diggle-centric episodes, so that helps its case for a top five spot.

Nick: Absolutely. As much as we all love Ollie and his arrow slingin’ ways, it’s a testament to the show ‘s quality when it can focus on side characters and not miss a beat. Diggle has been underutilized at times, so it was good to see him in his badass element here.

Greg: David Ramsey is always terrific as Diggle, no matter if he needs to play comic relief, the voice of reason or, in this case, the action hero who has to save the day. Here’s hoping for some more from him when Arrow returns from its Season 3 midseason hiatus in January.

Nick’s No. 5: “Sacrifice”

SacrificeNick: There are often cases in which season or midseason finales for other shows can be a bit underwhelming. It’s difficult, particularly with a large cast, to give everybody their moment and provide some level of closure to a number of different plot threads. But, Arrow isn’t your average show. In fact, the show is often at its best when it’s time to wrap some things up, and there’s no better example of that than “Sacrifice,” the outstanding finale to season 1.

Every character has their moment here, whether it’s Felicity and Detective Lance successfully stopping Malcom Merlyn’s earthquake machine, Thea saving Roy, Roy saving countless innocents, Moira revealing Merlyn’s plot to the world or Tommy sacrificing himself to save Laurel. All great moments for characters that we’d grown to know and love over the course of the previous 22 episodes.

But, of course, none of those can top Ollie and Diggle finally getting the better of Merlyn after one of the show’s trademark fantastic fight scenes. You even have Merlyn with his own moment by revealing that he had a backup plan in the form of a second machine. Point is, everyone shines, and that’s the hallmark of a great show.

This is becoming something of a theme.
This is becoming something of a theme.

Greg: Yeah, this one set the stage for things to come, as Arrow has really developed a reputation for outstanding midseason and season finales. All the subplots that had built throughout the season in the background came to the forefront here — the vast conspiracy involving Merlyn, Moira’s final decision, Thea and Roy’s romantic relationship, Roy’s obsession with the Hood, Detective Lance’s growing trust of Team Arrow, and, of course, Oliver’s numerous choices that led into the episode.

The final fight between Oliver and Merlyn lives up to the hype and remains one of the series’ best, and thus one of TV’s best. But ultimately, what will be remembered most about this one is the tragic final scene between Oliver and his dying best friend, Tommy. It was a shocking death, given where we comic book fans thought they were going with Tommy’s arc, and actors Colin Donnell and Stephen Amell created one of the most tearjerking moments Arrow has ever produced.

Nick: It also set the precedent for tearjerking moments, as Arrow has been killing off major characters at a rate uncommon for broadcast television. No one is safe in the Arrowverse, and Tommy’s death served as our introduction to that concept.

Greg’s No. 4: “The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak”

arrow-the-secret-origin-of-felicity-smoak_article_story_largeNick: This was actually one I didn’t consider for my list. While I enjoyed the episode overall, I didn’t wind up enjoying it as much as some of the others the series has offered. Although, goth Felicity is well worth the price of admission.

Greg: Scientists have been studying me in recent weeks to determine if I am, in fact, the world’s biggest Felicity Smoak fan. Thus far, results are inconclusive.

"Behold: the fanboy crush!"
“Behold: the fanboy crush!”

Regardless, she’s one of my favorite characters in all of television — a believably nerdy everyperson who provides much of the show’s heart and humor. This was the first episode dedicated to her as the main character, and one of the few times we’ve been allowed to delved into her backstory. Anchored by a killer performance from Emily Bett Rickards, the episode makes my list for a few reasons.

First off, it explores more of the lingering chemistry between Oliver and Felicity, which we’ve addressed in some previous columns. Amell and Rickards just burn up the screen every time they’re together, and this episode plays with that idea (and the audience’s expectations) throughout.

Secondly, we get to see Felicity step up to the plate and save herself. Sure, Oliver shows up, but it’s Felicity who ultimately ends up the hero of the story.

And finally, it’s yet another example of the showrunners introducing a complex DC Comics concept in an accessible, entertaining manner. Here we see the birth of Brother Eye, a virus written by Felicity in college that (we assume, based on our comics knowledge) will eventually gain sentience and cause a whole world of problems for … well, everyone.

Nick: Plus, it did give us Mama Smoak.

FLAVIN!
FLAVIN!

Greg: Very true. The show made it clear the Smoak family has strong genes.

Nick: Among other things.

Nick’s No. 4: “Unthinkable”

arrow-unthinkable_article_story_largeNick: Another entry on my list and another season finale. “Sacrifice” certainly went big at the end of season 1, but “Unthinkable” pretty much redefined going big for the show.

Greg: Yet again we see a killer season finale from Arrow pop up on one of our lists. In this case, it was the final confrontation between Deathstroke and the Arrow, a battle that had been building throughout the previous 22 episodes.

Nick: In this episode alone, we get Nyssa al Ghul and the League of Assassins, an army of superpowered villains in Deathstroke armor, ARGUS and of course, the final showdown (for now) between Deathstroke and Ollie.

The conflict between Ollie and Slade had really been building since the midway point of season 1, and had even been hinted at in the pilot episode. So, in some ways, this episode served as the finale for the show’s first 46 episodes and in that regard it did not disappoint. Getting to see Ollie, Black Canary and Diggle fight alongside the League of Assassins was pure nerd nirvana. And once again, the season finale brought us one of the greatest fight scenes in TV history, as Slade and Oliver’s confrontation lived up to the hype and then some.

But, the show also tugged at the heartstrings, as we shameless Olicity shippers finally got the confirmation we had been waiting for — Oliver is in love with Felicity, even if both are denying that it’s true.

#Olicity
#Olicity

Plus, it was great to see the writers put Slade in a cell rather than taking him off the table completely. I’m hoping for him to pop up in a Hannibal Lecter-like role later in season 3, and eventually escape to renew his quest for revenge. Manu Bennett has been a revelation as Slade, so I’m glad we’ll likely get more Deathstroke badassery in the future.

Greg: It’s difficult to really encapsulate how many beats were hit in this one. To fully appreciate it, you need to watch the entirety of season 2, but suffice it to say we get some of the best action, some of the most satisfying endings to subplots, and some of the strongest acting the show has produced. The heroes’ backs are against the wall as never before, and seeing them come together to fight back Slade Wilson’s army is truly inspiring.

I also loved the brief epilogue, with the aforementioned Olicity moment. As for Mr. Bennett, I have a feeling he will pop up again on our lists.

Greg’s No. 3: “Dead to Rights”

dead-to-rights-610x333Nick: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but this one narrowly missed my list. It’s notable, however, in that it warranted consideration based largely on one scene. The rest of the episode was all well and good, but the scene in which Oliver is forced to reveal his identity to his best friend Tommy is among the best the series has ever put on the screen.

Greg: Bingo. If I could choose one scene from any CW show that has been made and submit it to the Academy, it would be that one. Amell and Donnell (remember them?) convey more emotion in their faces than books worth of dialogue could have in the same situation. It’s one of the very best scenes in show (and CW) history.

But that’s not the only reason this one ranks so highly with me. Just as important is that it’s the most breathtaking, pulse-pounding episode of the show’s first season. There are so many gears turning here — Moira Queen hiring China White to hire Deadshot to take out Merlyn, Oliver contrarily fighting to save Merlyn, Merlyn trying to rebuild his relationship with Tommy, and , of course, Tommy’s ultimate showdown with the Hood/Oliver.

Yet another one-eyed comic book character.
Yet another one-eyed comic book character.

It does a flawless job of balancing all these angles with fantastic action, genuine stakes and a great show-changing reveal. This is how you put together serialized fiction.

Nick: It especially resonates emotionally given the events of the season finale, and I suspect we’ll be revisiting this episode in future seasons if my theory we discussed last week ever comes to fruition.

Speaking of things we discussed last week….

Nick’s No. 3: “The Brave and the Bold”

The Brave and the BoldNick: I won’t spend too much time here since we discussed this episode at length last week in Off the Page, but season 3 has already been home to some of the best superhero TV episodes of all time, with this Flash crossover story as one of those.

Suffice it to say that this episode is a great examination of what makes Barry and Ollie different as heroes and people. And, it shows that while they may have different approaches, both can work in their respective settings. Add to that a fantastic portrayal of Captain Boomerang as a Suicide Squad member turned rogue (HOHO WOWWW!) and some fantastic action set pieces and you wind up with a great piece of television. The flashback portion was also key here, as it helped to show how Oliver came to refine some of his interrogation techniques that he’s used with great success over the first two seasons.

“DID SOMEBODY SAY HOHO WOWWW?”

Greg: Indeed, we rattled on endlessly about how much we loved “The Brave and the Bold” just a week ago. Yet I feel the need to emphasize just how much fun it was. In my opinion, it’s the best televised crossover that has ever been attempted in the genre.

"Genre!"
“Genre!”

“The Flash” has been a blast, and this episode showed both why Barry is awesome and why Ollie is still relevant in a world now inhabited by metahumans. Bravo to everyone involved here, particularly the writers.

Greg’s No. 2: “Deathstroke”

Manu-Bennett-in-Arrow-Season-2-Episode-18Greg: We’ve talked before about how narrowing our lists was difficult. The inclusion of this “Empire Strikes Back”-like episode from the home stretch of season 2, however, was not a difficult choice for me.

The Arrow writers have given us plenty of downtrodden, depressing episodes, but arguably none have stacked the odds so overwhelmingly against our heroes.

Consider that, in the course of one episode, Slade Wilson tricks, betrays and kidnaps Thea Queen, fools Oliver into surrendering his company to Isabel Rochev, distracts Team Arrow long enough to enact a “Knightfall”-like prison break, informs Thea about the true nature of her parentage (thus driving another wedge between the Queens), AND wraps it up by flat-out telling Laurel about Ollie’s superhero persona.

To use wrestling parlance, that’s one heck of a heat segment. And it makes Deathstroke (with apologies to Malcolm Merlyn and Ra’s al Ghul, among others) the show’s ultimate heel. Any sympathy we’ve had for Slade is now gone, as the depth of his drug-induced hatred of Oliver is fully realized.

Oliver didn't react well to news that "Firefly" was cancelled.
Oliver didn’t react well to news that “Firefly” was cancelled.

Nick: Yes, “Deathstroke” was one hell of an episode when it came to elevating the Ollie/Slade feud to another level. But, there was another episode that elevated their rivalry even further….

Nick’s No. 2: “Seeing Red”

Arrow_2_20_6Greg: In which Roy Harper’s importance grows and the team has to deal with a superpowered threat they care too much about.

Nick: Coming into this episode, Slade had taken all of Oliver’s secrets and all of his confidence. However, he hadn’t yet made good on his true promise — taking away everyone that Oliver loved. This episode focused mostly on the relationship between Moira Queen and Oliver, and the way it had both changed and remained the same over time. Moira had come a long way as a character and was finally mostly redeemable after the role she played in season 1’s Undertaking.

Through flashbacks, we see how she paid one of Oliver’s one-night stands to move away and never contact the family again after becoming pregnant. This is undoubtedly a fairly reprehensible action, but it fits with her constant desire to do whatever she thinks is best for Oliver. In the present day, she is attempting to repair her fractured relationship with her children while balancing a run for mayor.

She has all but decided to give up her mayoral hopes when Oliver is able to talk her into continuing. It is then that she reveals that she has known Oliver’s secret life as the Arrow all along, and is proud of the man he has become.

And, if the episode ended there, it would be a damn fine episode in its own right. But, it doesn’t end there. Slade soon abducts both Thea and Moira, and then forces Oliver to choose which one will live, much like Ivo forced Ollie to choose between Shado and Sara on the island. Oliver can’t choose, so Moira offers herself. Slade, in one of the most violent and heartbreaking scenes in all of network TV, then murders Moira in front of Oliver and Thea. A feud that had already been built to a fever pitch was now elevated to pure, unadulterated hatred.

Throw in some added stories with Roy losing control of his Mirakuru powers and Laurel revealing to Oliver that Slade told her about his alterego, and you’ve got one of the series’ all-time best.

Audiences were divided about the subplot that saw Thea become a giant.
Audiences were divided about the subplot that saw Thea become a giant.

Greg: It undoubtedly had one of the most shocking moments in any superhero show. One second, the Queens are sharing a family bonding moment in the car, about to reveal even more secrets. The next, a collision is occurring and the three are at the mercy of Deathstroke. It can’t be understated just how surprising this was. I remember jumping off my couch when it happened, probably uttering some less-than-savory words.

And then there was the murder itself, which simultaneously redeemed Moira (well … sort of) and pushed Ollie to his breaking point. It was exactly the kind of incident needed to provide an adversarial bond between Slade and Ollie that can never be replaced. And the backstory, with Moira scheming to keep Ollie’s unborn child away from him “for his own good,” sews the seeds for a young Connor Hawke to potentially enter the fold at some point down the line.

Greg’s No. 1: “The Climb”

AR309b_0010bGreg: Yes, this pick may be reactionary, as the episode just aired a few days ago. But it left such an impression on me that I felt I had no choice but to take it at number one.

Nick: Yeah, color me impressed as well.

Nick’s No. 1: “The Climb”

Neal Adams would be proud.
Neal Adams would be proud.

Nick: We just talked about shocking endings, but this might have been THE most shocking ending of any TV episode I’ve ever seen. It was the equivalent of John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar from Summerslam this year, where you just kept waiting for a heroic comeback that never came.

Greg: What an apt comparison, as I was just about to draw the parallel between Brock and Ra’s al Ghul. This episode presents Ra’s as the Brock Lesnar of the Arrow universe: not only is he better than Our Hero, but it isn’t even close. Oliver is simply outmatched, which leads me to believe everyone in the world of Arrow is outmatched by the Demon’s Head.

Nick: Yeah, the episode’s climactic moment is a fight between Ollie and Ra’s, which has some pretty badass moments for Mr. al Ghul. While Ollie is allowed to choose weapons for their duel, Ra’s calmly waits and begins the fight unarmed, informing Ollie “I’ll take them from you when you’re done with them.” Which he then does.

And, as I said, you just keep waiting and waiting for Ollie to turn the tables or at least to escape the fight. It isn’t until the final moments, and we’re obviously talking MASSIVE SPOILERS here, that you realize it isn’t going to happen. Ollie makes a last flurry, but takes a throat punch, a sword through the chest and is kicked off the side of a mountain for his efforts. Ra’s spikes the sword into the ground and walks away as the screen cuts to black.

And that’s where we are. We now have to wait until mid-January to figure out the answer that we asked ourselves immediately after the show ended: What the fuck just happened?

Greg: That’s not a hyperbolic or provocative question, either. That’s literally what we said when we spoke on the phone moments after the show ended.

Furthering the Brock analogy, this was pretty much the Lesnar-ends-the-Streak of comic book television.

That about sums it up.
That about sums it up.

Nick: Stunned silence.

Greg: But it doesn’t make my list JUST for the amazing last five minutes. The entire buildup, especially watching it back, feels like a man marching to his death. In the span of an hour, we finally learn who killed Sara, we see Oliver’s trust in his sister eroded, we see Thea’s newfound skills in action, we remember why we love to hate Merlyn, and we get the moment Olicity shippers have been waiting for … though with a distinctly somber tone.

Nick: Yeah, the rest of the episode is outstanding as well. We see what Merlyn’s true motivations have been, and in yet another badass Ra’s moment, he kind of sees through the entire ruse instantly.

Greg: The episode is anchored by two fantastic performances: Stephen Amell and Matt Nable (portraying Ra’s). Amell’s body language and facial expressions told the story throughout the episode — from the desperation to find Sara’s killer to the shock of the revelation to the gradual acceptance of his ultimate course of action.

And Nable is just fantastic, capturing the subtleties of Liam Neeson’s big-screen portrayal while adding a Darkseid-like air of superiority.

darkseid

Well, he's halfway there.
Well, he’s halfway there.

Nick: Totally. Yeah, we know it may be too much, too soon, but “The Climb” is the unanimous selection as the best “Arrow” episode of all time.

Greg: What say you, dear readers and fellow … Arrowheads? Did we get our lists right? Which of us came closest? Give us some of your sweet, sweet lists on the Place to Be Nation Facebook page, on Twitter (@gphillips8652 or @nickduke87) or via email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com)!

Nick: See you next time!

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.