It was his time on Purgatory that turned billionaire playboy Oliver Queen into a killer. It was a reality check from his family and friends that helped him rediscover an inherent dignity to life.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Oliver Queen is the longtime DC Comics hero known as Green Arrow, an archery master whose most recent incarnation is as the subject of the popular CW series “Arrow,” created by writers/producers Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg. Now beginning its third season, the show so far has been largely an origin story about Oliver’s road to heroism because, initially, he doesn’t exactly fit the bill.
In the pilot episode, Oliver (Stephen Amell) is rescued from an isolated island in the North China Sea on which he spent five years, following an explosion that destroyed his father’s boat. This island, named Lian Yu (which means “Purgatory” in Mandarin), isn’t home to Gilligan or even the friendly survivors of Oceanic 815. No, there are dire forces at work there that require Oliver to fight for his life in “kill or be killed” situations.
At first, he lacks the ability to fight or even survive. However, he encounters several allies – Yao Fei (Byron Mann), Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett), and Shado (Celina Jade) – who slowly turn the weak-bodied and weak-willed young man into a warrior. Oliver, who at one point can’t even bring himself to kill a bird for food, eventually finds himself at war with a group of villains who not only want to kill him but also an airliner full of innocent people.
As usually happens in war, the enemy becomes dehumanized. And while the killing Oliver does on the island is justified, it takes a toll on his psyche and conscience.
You Have Failed This City
The island story, however, is told in flashbacks throughout the show, while the main action occurs in Oliver’s home of Starling City. While he is grateful to be reunited with his mother Moira (Susanna Thompson), sister Thea (Willa Holland), childhood friend Tommy (Colin Donnell), and ex-girlfriend Laurel (Katie Cassidy), he has also returned home with another mission: to right his father’s wrongs.
After Oliver’s father’s yacht was destroyed, the elder Queen, Robert, admitted to his son that he had failed Starling City because he had been part of much illegal – or at least immoral – activity during his road to business success. He gave Oliver a book containing the names of fellow businessmen who made their money via criminal means or at the expense of the poor, then asked him to bring these men to justice and somehow make restitution. This was Robert’s last request to his son before he killed himself so he wouldn’t be a drain on the resources Oliver needed to stay alive.
Determined to fulfill his father’s last wish and atone for his family’s sins, Oliver becomes a vigilante who uses a bow and arrow to take on the bad guys while wearing a green hood to hide his face. He starts showing up at the offices of Starling’s corrupt businessmen, telling them “You have failed this city!” and threatening them with death unless they confess to their crimes and pay back their victims.
Though he doesn’t usually kill them, there are times when Oliver crosses the line, like when he snaps the neck of a kidnapper or nearly beats an attacker to death in prison before Laurel stops him. Though she doesn’t know that Oliver is “the vigilante” (as he’s called during season one), she notices his propensity to fall into a killing rage and comments, “There’s something inside of him that’s not human.” And when Tommy learns his secret identity, he flat out calls him a murderer because of the willingness and ease with which he kills. He sees Oliver as sinking to the same level of the criminals he’s supposed to be fighting.
The other members of “Team Arrow” – Diggle (David Ramsey) and Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards) – who actually know Oliver’s secret identity and work with him to fight crime, also discourage him from playing executioner.
(SEASON ONE SPOILERS AHEAD) Just like in real life, revenge tends to destroy our outer relationships and inner lives. Tommy separates himself from Oliver until they finally make amends as Tommy is dying during a cataclysm that has been unleashed on Starling City by season one’s “big bad,” Malcolm Merlyn. It’s Tommy’s dying wish that Oliver no longer be so eager to kill others, even those who deserve it, that sets the young vigilante on a new path.
No Longer an Executioner
Oliver’s evolved conscience couldn’t come at a more challenging time because in season two, he’s forced to face Deathstroke, a mentally unstable, violent sociopath from his past who plans to destroy the aspiring hero, those he loves, and Starling City as a whole. (I’m trying to avoid being spoilerish so excuse my vagueness).
It’s easy to see the inherent dignity of the people we love or of society’s innocent. It’s much harder to attribute that same dignity to violent criminals who arguably deserve to die. But Oliver slowly builds up the vision and the virtue to follow that latter road.
For instance, in the season two episode “Seeing Red,” Deathstroke murders one of Oliver’s loved ones in what I would call the most heart-pounding, heart-wrenching sequence of the series so far. Oliver’s spirit seems broken. If there was ever a time to exact revenge, this would be it. As a viewer, I wouldn’t have blamed him.
Still, Oliver strives to find another way that doesn’t involve taking Deathstroke’s life. His effort conveys the idea that killing an enemy, unless it’s absolutely necessary, doesn’t take strength; it comes naturally, this ability to lash out at those who hurt us, to lose any semblance of self-control and let the urge for vengeance take over. Resisting that urge, on the other hand, requires a great deal of strength. Strength of character, mostly. Strength grounded in belief in a truth higher than yourself and your own emotions.
A Higher Truth
Though Oliver has never shown any overt religiosity, except for a few Buddhist references those on the island with him make, he is basically adhering to the commandment that God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai: “Thou shalt not kill.”
On the surface, it might seem that Oliver is breaking the commandment if he kills someone even when there’s no other way to stop him. But Bible scholars have said that the more appropriate translation of “kill” in this Exodus passage is “murder.”
As Rabbi Marc Gellman once pointed out: “In biblical Hebrew, as in English, killing (harag) and murder (ratzah) are two different words with two very different moral connotations, and the commandment uses the Hebrew word ratzah, which means that the proper translation of the commandment from Hebrew into English is, ‘Thou shalt not murder.’ The difference is crucial. Killing is taking a life. Murder is taking a life with no moral justification.”
One of the reasons the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty, for instance, is because it doesn’t see killing a person who is locked up and no longer a danger to anyone as morally justified. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops once wrote, “Each of us is called to respect the life and dignity of every human being. Even when people deny the dignity of others, we must still recognize that their dignity is a gift from God and is not something that is earned or lost through their behavior. Respect for life applies to all, even the perpetrators of terrible acts. Punishment should be consistent with the demands of justice and with respect for human life and dignity.”
And why would God give humanity this commandment? For the same reason He tells us anything: because He knows us better than we know ourselves. Because he knows that our fallen nature can make a little bit of power go to our heads and make us think we’re gods ourselves, especially when we veer into the territory of power over life and death.
Ironically, Oliver came to his epiphany about murder after having seen too much of it and caused too much of it. He had reached a point where he didn’t remember who he truly was because all the violence had eaten away at his soul. His efforts to avoid taking a life, even when it might be morally justified, show how far his conscience has grown.
Death Leads to Greater Respect for Life
Death ultimately teaches Oliver a greater respect for life, leading him to embrace a hope for redemption for himself and others. In several exchanges with Deathstroke, he appeals to the better angels of his nature trying to get him to remember the good man he once was. I was left with the impression that Oliver would forgive Deathstroke – or maybe that he already had. In the context of the story, that would be an unfathomable amount of mercy.
Chances are that Oliver Queen’s respect for life will be challenged as the show evolves because new villains bring new challenges. Yet it’s his striving to be a hero that should carry him through.
Heroes, after all, aren’t people who always hit the bullseye when it comes to doing the right thing. But they are self-aware enough to know when they’ve fallen short and need to readjust their aim.