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Character Development: How Malcolm Merlyn Became The Dark Archer In Arrow “Uprising” 

We’ve been waiting weeks for Oliver to return to Starling City and yet I can’t help but feel that his big comeback episode was less about him and more about another arrow-wielding, hood-clad crusader. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, I’m always interested and open to seeing characters in a different light and finding out what makes them tick. And this episode didn’t disappoint. Thanks to some early 80s flashbacks, we learned a great deal and finally got to see what made Malcolm Merlyn in to the Malcolm Merlyn we’ve come to know and hate.

Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/The CW
Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/The CW

Merlyn has always been tough and self-assured and relatively fearless. He wears the Archer hood, has no hesitation about killing and ultimately crushes people and cities without flinching. However, he wasn’t always like this. And while training Thea, who is questioning how she’s ended up in this mess with a target on her head, he explains the one moment that changed everything.

Thea: I didn’t sign up for any of this. Assassins. League. No mercy. All I asked for you was to teach me how to defend myself, to never let someone hurt me again.

Malcolm: And now you face people who want to kill you. To prevent that, you must kill them first. It may not be what you signed up for, but make no mistake, it’s what you face right now. Thea, I know it’s difficult, I wasn’t always a killer. The first time, I have never been more frightened or remorseful.

Thea: Then why did you do it?

Malcolm: Because the man I killed murdered my wife.

We’ve long known that the death of his wife, Rebecca, was what sent him on the path of vengeance and “evil,” however, it isn’t until now that we’ve seen pre-Archer Merlyn and it was a real eye-opener. Malcolm has always been a businessman so I just assumed that he’s always been somewhat shrewd and tough and a bit of a force to be reckoned with, but wow, was I wrong. Seeing Merlyn with his bad haircut and cowering manner trying to stand up for himself was like watching the wimpy kid trying to face the schoolyard bully and I have to admit, I almost felt bad for him. He was scared. He was skittish. And he could barely hold the gun without dropping it. This isn’t the tough Merlyn we know. But it was that one incident that sent him on his path to the League of Assassins and ultimately turned him in to the Dark Archer.

Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/The CW
Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/The CW

And yet, that alleyway showdown with Rebecca’s not-killer all came back to him in this episode as he learned that her real killer, Brick, is still alive and has claimed control over the Glades. Once again, as he preps to go take on Brick, we see a glimmer of that broken Merlyn, who just wants justice for his wife’s death.

Malcolm: Everything I thought I believed in for the last 21 years is false. My wife’s death remains unavenged….I swore that I would always protect her from harm, but I couldn’t. For years I believed justice had been done. The undertaking was for her. I truly believed I could change the Glades and prevent what happened to my family from happening to anyone else. It’s all been a lie. But now I have the chance to set it right.

Thea: I don’t understand.

Malcolm: I know, because you’re not a killer. But I am.

And so while Laurel, Diggle, Roy, Cyn and Ted take on the Glades, Malcolm uses this opportunity to do what he should’ve done years ago as he faces Brick in an alley that looks an awful lot like the one where he originally took down the not-killer. And again, we see some of that old Merlyn. Instead of arrows, he chooses to use the same gun that killed Rebecca (and many others) to threaten Brick. Call me crazy, but Merlyn isn’t nearly as intimidating when he holds a gun. I feel like once again he was trembling, hesitating and unsure of himself. I don’t know if it’s because this kill represented something personal or if it is simply because he’s more of a sword-and-arrow man than a gun man, but he was definitely different. And it was thanks to that hesitation that Oliver was able to swoop in and deliver some wise good-guy advice.

Arrow: Don’t do it.

Malcolm: You’re too late.

Arrow: Drop the gun, no more death.

Malcolm: That’s easy for you to say, you just returned from the grave.

Arrow: Killing him won’t balance the scales.

Malcolm: When you have killed 503 people including your own son, you tend not to worry about scales. And don’t tell me it won’t stop the pain and it won’t bring her back because you don’t understand. If I had taken care of him back then, it could all be different. The League. The Undertaking. Tommy. Every choice I have made since my wife died.

Arrow: And you can make a different choice now. For Thea.

Malcolm: Thea will never forgive me.

Arrow: Start giving her reasons to.

I kind of love that Merlyn recognizes that this man was the precipice for the way his life turned out. However, had he killed Brick years ago instead of killing the not-killer, would things really have been different? How so? I mean, he thought he killed his wife’s killer and yet he STILL went to the League of Assassins. He still initiated the Undertaking. And he still had no problem with being an overall bad guy. So how would killing Brick have changed that? He thought he got revenge and yet he still became a villain. He may have gotten it wrong back then, but he didn’t know that so would killing this man instead of that man really have made a difference? I have trouble believing that.

Nevertheless, Malcolm seems to finally be in a position where he wants to (or is pretending to want to) turn a corner. I don’t know if I believe he’s capable of denying his highly-trained gut instinct and doing it, but I like that he is at least opening up and admitting he has a problem. After all, that’s the first step, right?

Malcolm: I wasn’t always like this, you know. Before Rebecca died, I was a good father.

Oliver: I remember.

Malcolm: Killing changes you, it takes away a piece of your soul and you can never get it back again. Oliver, I know I wasn’t there for Tommy but I see Thea as my chance for redemption.

Oliver: You turned my sister in to a killer and you put her in the crosshairs of one of the most dangerous men on the planet.

Malcolm: You won’t believe me, but I did so with a heavy heart and expecting a different outcome.

Oliver: Ra’s is going to come for me. And he will learn the truth about Sara eventually.

Malcolm: And then he will come for Thea. And me.

Oliver: That’s why I have to kill him.

Malcolm: You couldn’t before.

Oliver: This time I will have you to train me.

And now this brings us to the crux of the episode. So Oliver is back in Starling City and he must take down Ra’s al Ghul if he wants to protect Thea and himself. But as we saw in “The Climb,” he is no match for Ra’s. And let’s be honest, he was lucky to survive a sword straight through the gut once, there’s no way he can endure that again. But that near death experience wasn’t all bad because in recovering from that, he did receive some sage advice from Tatsu as to the one way to take down Ra’s.

Tatsu: Mastery of swords is more than mastery of technique. To defeat this man, you must think like him. Be like him. You must fight in the way he does. Your only hope for such a teacher is Maseo. Only the student has hope of defeating the master.

Well, I say one way, but that doesn’t mean that there’s just one person. Obviously Oliver can’t wander over to Nanda Parbat and ask Maseo for help, so instead he turns to the one other person who has been trained by Ra’s and who also needs him dead to survive, Merlyn. With Ra’s still running free, Merlyn is still a target and once Ra’s finds out about Thea, she will be too. So if your enemy’s enemy is your enemy, does that make your enemy your friend? Well, in this case, I’d say yes.

That being said, not all of Team Arrow is on board. Especially Felicity. And to be honest, I can’t blame her. After years of watching Merlyn both try to kill and actually kill those they love, why would you ever trust him, let alone turn to him for help? And especially now that Oliver has literally just returned from a nearly-fatal adventure as a result of Merlyn’s conniving. Felicity’s misgiving are clearly spot on, but that being said, it’s not her call. Now that the Arrow is back in the captain’s chair, he’s the one who must both face Ra’s and rescue the Glades. I can’t help but feel this is clearly going to put a kink in the whole Oliver-Felicity love story, but as Tatsu said, beating Ra’s requires sacrifice.

Tatsu: There are many forms of death. To defeat a man like this, Ra’s al Ghul, you must be willing not just to die, but to know what you have to sacrifice in order to beat him.

Oliver: And what will that be?

Tatsu: I don’t know. That is what you will have to discover. But it will be whatever you hold most precious.

And like so many times before, it looks like Oliver is once again sacrificing love. Nevertheless, I am actually looking forward to seeing Merlyn train Oliver. I think it’s an interesting and unexpected spin on the story and I actually enjoy the banter between these two, even if it is usually hostile. That being said, if I were Oliver, I would still sleep with one eye open. Merlyn is looking to take down Ra’s and I don’t think he’s beyond stabbing any supposed allies in the back to ensure that happens.

Be sure to catch the next episode of Arrow next Wednesday at 8/7c on The CW.

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