Arrow’ season 3 lets loose its fourth installment of the year with "The Magician,” as Oliver learns of Malcolm Merlyn's survival from Nyssa al Ghul (Katrina Law), threatening to break his "no killing" rule in the process, as well as bringing him into conflict with the deadly Ra's al Ghul (Matt Nable).

Last week's installment “Corto Maltese” saw Oliver traveling to the titular country in search of Thea, while Felicity settled into her her new job, and Laurel traded blows with boxer Ted "Wildcat" Grant (J.R. Ramirez), so what does the fourth episode of ‘Arrow’ season 3 bring? Can Oliver be both himself and the 'Arrow' vigilante?

Read on for your in-depth review of everything you need to know about ‘Arrow’ season 3, episode 4, “The Magician!”

I’m never going to be enamored of ‘Arrow’’s decision to kill off such a rich character as Sara Lance, nor was I necessarily on board when Comic-Con 2013 brought about the early revelation that John Barrowman’s Malcolm Merlyn had survived his apparent demise, but good grief, if the ‘Arrow’ writers aren’t making some lemonade with those. Where Tuesdays bring us a bright, shiny and new approach to this world in ‘The Flash,’ ‘Arrow’ has continually developed the ability to fold in on its own history, and not solely the twists and turns that could prove more soap opera-esque in the wrong hands, but also those that pay off threads dating back to the first season.

Admittedly by the contrived nature of said mystery, it was inevitable that the search for Sara’s killer would turn to Malcolm Merlyn’s surprise resurrection, and while it seemed equally unavoidable by this point in the season that Merlyn wouldn’t turn out to be the culprit, the character’s very presence brings about some wonderfully conflicted material for both Oliver and the returning Nyssa. Merlyn’s potential culpability would naturally test the no-kill rule Oliver established last season, both in fear for his sister’s safety, vengeance for the 500 killed in the glades, and his own personal vengeance, while Nyssa’s conflict runs along a more closed personal loop.

For Nyssa, the conflicts of vengeance for Sara’s murder, as well as obedience to Ra’s al Ghul and the League both begin and end with Malcolm Merlyn’s death, and Katrina Law does some impressively strong work selling equal parts grief and intelligence, for a character we’ve spent so little time with, comparatively. And while Oliver’s Hong Kong flashbacks this week seem somewhat out of place to focus on Waller’s A.R.G.U.S. connection with Edward Fyers in the first season, the underlying message for Oliver’s struggle rings perfectly clear. Nyssa tends not to question orders to kill, where Oliver learned long ago how the need to disobey or question authority keeps one in touch with their humanity.

As nice of a spotlight as “The Magician” provided for Oliver and Nyssa however, John Barrowman was clearly having a blast here, as the most uninhibited presentation of Malcolm Merlyn yet. The first two seasons saw the character somewhat sticking to the shadows, where “The Magician” pulls the rabbit out of a hat to find Barrowman tearing into each opportunity to show up Oliver Queen, or disregard the threat he poses. Sure, Oliver might have made good on Merlyn's goads to put an arrow in him by the hour’s end, but on at least three occasions Merlyn seems completely assured of Oliver’s inability to hurt him, proving himself far more dangerous than the first season all the while.

I’ll dock a few points for the three-way fight scene unfolding largely in the dark with three similarly-garbed characters, but in the end it was still reasonably cool to see all three physically venting their frustrations at once, and all dangerously veering down their own paths. Similarly electric was Oliver’s confrontation with Malcolm in public, or the ease with which Malcolm explosive-powdered himself away from Nyssa in the monastery, and hand-waved away Oliver's nano-tracking.

"I'm totally stealing this kimono, guys."

And where it’s hard to get a handle on what ‘Arrow’ has in store for Thea this season, the character’s evolution remains the most fascinating we’ve seen the younger Queen Merlyn sibling yet. I still don’t quite remember what Thea knows or doesn’t know of Oliver’s secret, though the sincerity with which she lied to Oliver about Malcolm’s survival proved effectively chilling, as does the extent with which she seems to have thrown in with her surrogate father. At least a few moments in the last few episodes have made the mistake of pointing out Thea’s changes verbally, rather than show the evidence beyond her shorter hair and shirts, though smaller moments like her manipulation of Oliver and Roy clearly set up some meaty conflicts for the season to come.

Somewhat underutilized this week were the Lances, as per usual, now keeping Paul Blackthorne marginalized within the narrative’s main thrust for a solid four episodes now. The moment of his voicemail to Sara rang reasonably sweet, but the character has only so much to offer without knowledge of his daughter’s death, or the toll it takes on Laurel. Katie Cassidy on the other hand, continues to chisel her frame into fighting shape, though “The Magician” only had room for so many League-trained fighters to deliver the main action. If nothing else, the scenes between she and Nyssa brought a strong undercurrent of respect, amid the sparring.

We also got our first good look at Matt Nable’s Ra’s al Ghul tonight, though beyond Malcolm Merlyn’s predictable accusation of his role in Sara’s death, or the somewhat underwhelming appearance in the final moments, there wasn’t very much to go on beside a fanservice not to the Lazarus pits, and a more threatening role to come.

Overall, ‘Arrow’ continually put Sara’s death to good use tonight character-wise, simultaneously affording John Barrowman his most exciting turn as Malcolm Merlyn in three seasons. We also got a stronger sense of the grudge Oliver holds against Amanda Waller, though like Ra’s al Ghul’s appearance or Thea’s duplicity, it’s hard to say what season 3 plans to do with it just yet.

AND ANOTHER THING...

  • Worth mentioning is that some nice effort was put toward explaining away the thoroughness with which Merlyn seemed to expire in the first season.
  • It perhaps rang a bit false to have Oliver believing Merlyn so quickly, or vowing to protect him from the League altogether, but perhaps we'll flesh out the reasoning as the season goes on.
  • Yeah, so that was clearly just Iris West's "Jitters" coffee house redressed for Oliver and Thea's meeting. Oops.
  • Nice flip, Roy. Really helped out.
  • Ra's al Ghul with a clearly Australia-tinged accent. Not sure how I feel about that.

Well, what say you? Did ‘Arrow’ hit the mark with its fourth season 3 installment? How did you feel about the introduction of Ra's al Ghul? Give us your thoughts in the comments, and check back next week for our review of ‘Arrow’ season 3's latest, “The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak” on The CW!