People dump on CW’s Arrow a lot. And a lot of the time, I agree with them. But we also often forget just how ambitious a show it’s become. Arrow is the show that a) helped a network re-identify itself, b) launched a television superhero empire and b1) potentially dozens of actors’ careers in the process, c) pushed back against the course of blockbuster films, and d) did it all on a five year plan that it actually managed to make good on with the finale of its fifth season.

Beware spoilers.

Starting a world

When Arrow started, there wasn’t an Arrowverse. Obviously. There was just this weird retelling of a B or C-list DC Comics hero who is, by all accounts, a jokey take on Robin Hood and Batman. Where the comic was light and goofy, Arrow was a relentlessly gritty tale of revenge and redemption. Those who call themselves fans of the Green Arrow often are detractors of Arrow.

Despite this, it caught on. The show invested in its comic book roots early on, bringing in the mercenary called Deathstroke as a complicated frenemy – yeah, I’m going to use that word – of Arrow. The show took a full two seasons to develop him, before finally pitting them against each other in a final winner-take-all battle. This pairing helped begin to open the DC universe, eventually letting in characters from the Batman side of DC’s universe and even an adorkable CSI investigator named Barry Allen.

Making it stick

In the beginning, DC and Warner Bros.’ attempts to make a cinematic universe impinged on Arrow. The show’s Suicide Squad was rather short-lived, and characters like Deathstroke and Deadshot saw their arcs shortened because DC wanted to put them in movies. Then, thanks to a push from Arrow, Flash hit the big time. Next came Supergirl, which featured Superman not once but twice during its second season. The DCEU have had to back off from the idea that these heroes and villains can only exist in one universe or the other. But doing so gave the teams at The CW a level of creative freedom that they wouldn’t have had if they’d remained slavishly devoted to the idea of a single, all-encompassing entertainment-verse.

Finishing the fight

Arrow also took its time with the origin story of how the dorky playboy named Oliver Queen became the crack shot archer the show focuses on. Each episode, since the original, has woven between the modern era and a time five years in the past. We’re told at the beginning of each episode that Oliver Queen spent five years in hell. Since the show’s inception, each season of the show has covered a year of Oliver’s life during and after his time away from Star City.

With this fifth season, Arrow had a lot to live up to just from all that preparatory work. Coupled with that are a pair of two very rough seasons in 3 and 4, which featured awesome villains at the center of poorly executed stories. Arrow‘s already lost plenty of fans, just anecdotally speaking, but season 5 was likely the show’s last chance to keep or pull anyone back in for whatever a sixth season might be. That’s a lot of pressure for one show.

Throughout the season, that pressure has been too much at times, and it hasn’t always lived up to it, but with the finale we have one of the best episodes of Arrow in years and maybe one of the best ever. It makes good on the ambitions and gruntwork it’s done over the last five years and brings home the themes the season tried to hammer on.

The biggest idea at the core of this season was the idea that get back what you put into your life, and into your past. This season’s mustache twirler, Adrian Chase, would have us believe that your past comes back to haunt you, but that’s only part of the equation. For Oliver, all of his energy, negative and positive, came back to him, and were both sources of strength and vulnerability for him. His challenge was to acknowledge both of those.

Those you hurt can come back to affect you, but those with whom you develop respect, and those who you show mercy to, can also come back. And what’s more, the latter can help balance out the former. Indeed, the alliances Oliver forged for this finale weren’t ones I would’ve predicted, but they felt right. They were about family and karma. The most exciting and satisfying of these, of course, was the return of the aforementioned Deathstroke.

In the first seasons of the show, Oliver and Slade Wilson formed a deep bond that was then broken as the Mirukuru drug (the pronunciation of which has always bugged me) both gave Wilson super strength and drove him insane, causing him to betray Oliver in ways that still burn three seasons later. With the drug having faded from his system, though, we get a more lucid Slade. That Oliver is willing to trust him again shows just how desperate Oliver is, of course, but also calls back that prior bond built between the two. It shows Oliver willing to look past those betrayals when he sees someone has changed, and when he also sees common threads with that someone. That Manu Bennett was able to come back to play the part of Wilson, even if just for an episode, was awesome. The scenes between the two of them were satisfying as a longtime Arrow fan. Instead of feeling contrived, they felt earned.

While the show’s modern segments were bringing together every one of Oliver’s friends to the island of Lian Yu, the flashbacks were focusing on getting Oliver off the island. All at once, we had two all-out battles going at once.

In the past, it was Oliver and the Russian mobster Konstantin Kovar, played by none other than Dolph Lundgren. In the present, Oliver was facing off Adrian Chase, whose meticulously laid plans had been plaguing Team Arrow since the outset of the season.

Both felt like worthy foes for Oliver, and the two brought both stories back to where they started. And then, finally, Adrian blew it all to hell.

With Lian Yu literally blown to pieces from end to end, it felt like the writers shedding the baggage of five years of flashbacks. We’re done here, they said.

And with Adrian and Oliver stuck on a boat off-shore, it also gave the show a way to clean up some of its messes. John Barrowman’s Malcolm Merlyn had taken care of himself just a few minutes earlier as he finally proved to his daughter that he really did love her. But now we have a way to get rid of, really, any character the show wants to get rid of. There are a lot of ways the writers could take this in season 6, and many of them present a fresh new direction for the show as it enters what could be a new era for the CW’s elder stateshero.

Now, though, we can spend the season guessing who died on Lian Yu and who lived, and do it without the same trepidation we did last year and the year before. Arrow ended the Lian Yu era in a satisfying place. Time to move forward to, we hope, even better things.