After thirteen episodes that have ranged from unforgettable to inexplicable, “Arrow” aired its annual flashback-heavy installment on Wednesday night. “The Return” was just about as close to a bottle episode as this series is capable of producing, and the limited focus on the familiar was exactly what the narrative needed at this point in Season 3.
Having made a deal with the devil by agreeing to partner with Malcolm Merlyn to defeat Ra’s al Ghul, the Queen siblings journey to Lian Yu to face their fears and train on the island that turned Oliver into a killer. Oliver faces off with an old foe when Slade Wilson escapes his A.R.G.U.S. cell, and Thea has questions about Sara’s death. Meanwhile, Flashback Ollie maneuvers his way through Starling City on a mission for Amanda Waller, seeing firsthand what his death did to the people he cared about.
“The Return” was not the greatest episode of “Arrow” ever to hit the airwaves. As with Season 1’s “The Odyssey” and Season 2’s “The Promise,” the disproportionate number of flashbacks lower the stakes of the present action. Nevertheless, this episode was such a refreshing departure from the paint-by-numbers approach that has dominated “Arrow” in 2015 that it was a relief to know that the show has not entirely given itself up to mediocrity. So, here is a look at what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to happen next after “The Return.”
What Worked: From the beginning, “Arrow” was presented as the story of one man’s journey from cold-blooded killer into full-fledged hero. There have been missteps along the way, and the series isn’t exactly sweeping the awards circuit for its writing, but the characterization of Oliver and the portrayal by star Stephen Amell generally allowed a certain overall consistency to the narrative. Unfortunately, Season 3 has done a disservice to that consistency by treating the protagonist as a device retooled each week to serve the plot du jour. Oliver Queen stopped being written as the star of his own story, and his “death” now feels like an attempt to oust Amell from the main action and force focus elsewhere in his absence. Oliver didn’t pass the torch to anyone; the torch was pried from his cold, dead(ish) fingers to facilitate the rises of lesser characters.
Luckily, “The Return” was the present-day Oliver-centric story that the series has been missing of late. He was recognizable as the hero whose development we had signed on to see, and his choices were consistent to two and a half seasons of characterization rather than designed as flighty conveniences for a single episode. There was finally more to him than action sequences and myopia.
Not that the action sequences were anything to sneeze at. There’s always a certain thrill in seeing Oliver go full Arrow in civvies. The green leather and hood may be iconic to the character, but watching Oliver race around Lian Yu in a light jacket without hobo flashback hair is a treat.
An even bigger treat, however, was the company he kept as he stylishly traversed Lian Yu. His interactions with Thea on the island provided a fascinating glimpse at the sort of man that he could be if he were willing to try. Thea managed to draw out the affectionate side of Oliver even as she became acquainted with brutality of the Arrow. Their worlds combined, and both came out the stronger for it. His sister was one of only two things of which Oliver was certain, and witnessing them openly bonding and accepting one another as adults helps to justify Oliver’s alliance with Malcolm Merlyn. Willa Holland blossomed opposite Stephen Amell, and the success of this bizarre family love story was more than welcome in a season of escalating depression.
The Queen camping trip was not the only welcome aspect of the island storyline. Indeed, the return to Lian Yu also happened to feature the return of everybody’s favorite psychotic Australian: Slade Wilson. Slade’s ongoing mission to destroy Oliver in the most grotesque and elaborate ways within his means is as entertainingly terrifying as ever. Manu Bennett and Stephen Amell play wonderfully opposite one another, and there is a pervading intimacy between them that sells the fact that these bitter enemies were once dear friends. Slade’s too-casual inquiry after Felicity and quiet satisfaction after Oliver rises to the bait are positively elegant in comparison to the villainous melodrama of Season 3. Slade Wilson keeps his promises, kids, and he’s not dead yet.
In an unexpected twist from the first two seasons, Slade’s presence in the present was offset by flashbacks centered on Starling City. The coincidence of China White’s contact in the country working at Queen Consolidated aside, Oliver’s sudden immersion into his hometown was a great way to keep the two sections of the episode cohesive. Besides, it was just plain fun to see callbacks to seasons past. Tommy was back! Laurel was dressed casually! Tommy was back! Thea was a kid! Tommy was back! Quentin had hair! And Tommy was back!
Superfluous as some of his scenes in “The Return” may have been, Tommy makes everything better. Katie Cassidy sparkles across Colin Donnell, and the comfortable chemistry between the two was one of the most appealing aspects of the first season. Tommy’s unfailing loyalty to Oliver and insistence on looking out for Thea even as he is still in the midst of his spoiled playboy phase were poignant reminders that the Queens truly became his family after Malcolm’s abandonment, and his appearance in “The Return” was positively delightful.
Sadly, the inclusion of a living Tommy in past Starling City meant the exclusion of certain other characters. Diggle and Felicity each had less than a minute of screentime. Still, their Easter egg appearances were handled with just the right balance between whimsy and restraint that relatively little retroactive continuity was involved. Oliver’s passing encounters with both were pointed enough to be fun without being so major that Oliver would actually remember two years later.
Digg’s exchange with his brother Andy was a treat, and the look at the late lamented Diggle brother managed to give some attention to a character who has fallen by the wayside in Season 3 as well as promised expansion on the H.I.V.E. storyline from Season 2. Felicity’s appearance in Moira’s office just as Oliver was breaking in was more of a stretch, but Emily Bett Rickards was so darn cute in her Season 1 ponytail and little babble that it was easy to handwave the unlikelihood. Besides, any development that can tease such an earnest smile out of Oliver Queen – particularly Flashback Oliver Queen – is worth the handwaving. So what if the picture that Felicity was addressing made Oliver look more like a serial killer than a dreamboat? Stephen Amell can save anything with that barely-there smile of his. He’s so big and strong and brooding that such a gentle reaction can bring an “Awwww!” out of even viewers with the hardest of hearts.
Of course, “gentle” is not the word to describe Oliver is most of the other flashback scenes. Halfway into the five-year metamorphosis that would turn him into the murderous Hood of Season 1, the combination of longing at the world to which he had once belonged and ruthlessness as he applied the principles of Lian Yu and A.R.G.U.S. to his dealings worked as counter to his current attitude toward killing. Besides, any advancement that allows Amell to deepen his vocal register out of pre-island Ollie is an improvement. Seriously, was pre-island Ollie on that cruise to China to sabotage his relationship with Laurel or to pick up some power converters from the Tosche Station?
As it happens, however, Oliver’s return to Starling was necessary to the overall narrative in a way that was perhaps more relevant than his voice going through puberty and checking in with Tommy. As noted with the “previously on” segment, Oliver long ago stated that his father had left instructions about the infamous Season 1 list, and it was about time that the show filled in this blank. Maseo served as a sounding board to allow Oliver to exposit without falling back into the dreadful early voiceovers, and his meta observation that pulling up a hood is an incredibly inadequate method of concealing one’s identity was hilarious.
Less hilarious was the check into Starling City in the present as Quentin Lance visited Sara’s grave. The confrontation with Laurel was ugly, brutal, and entirely appropriate after her active deception regarding his daughters death. Both characters were written as befit their own place in the plot rather than using one to prop the other. Laurel’s assertion that she was somehow always fated for vigilantism on the basis that he managed to guilt her out of taking a corporate job in San Francisco was certainly worth a disbelieving chuckle and/or epic eyeroll, but the scene was overall effective and set the stage for Quentin to adopt a new attitude toward the Starling vigilantes.
What Didn’t Work: As ridiculous as Laurel’s claim of predestined vigilantism was, Malcolm Merlyn wins the prize for most nonsensical inclusion in the episode. The script literally never gave any reason for the journey to Lian Yu other than “Malcolm said so.” There’s no logical reason for Oliver to take his beloved little sister to Landmine – and, as we now know, Boobytrap – Island if they were just planning on whacking each other with bamboo and dining on wildlife. They were there so that Slade Wilson could escape and hunt them down. To her credit, Thea points out – with varying degrees of hysteria – that Malcolm’s plan for them was the product of a self-serving lunatic whose methods truly make no sense to anyone but himself. Sadly, Oliver is still inexplicably toeing the Merlyn line, and the episode’s attempt to justify the massive contrivance via the hero’s cooperation backfires on him rather than works on viewers.
For an episode contrived to bring back Slade Wilson, there wasn’t nearly enough Slade Wilson. Only featured for about five of 43 minutes, Manu Bennett was relatively wasted in “The Return.” Granted, he was on screen long enough put Malcolm Merlyn to shame as a big bad, but there was not nearly enough of him to whet audience appetites. Hopefully, Bennett enjoyed his stint as the supervillain enough to return to menace another day, because “The Return” was not the sendoff that Slade Wilson deserved.
His limited screentime might have been more palatable if valuable chunks had not been spent expounding on Oliver’s love of secrets, much to Thea’s shock. Come on, Thea. Oliver spent five of his 30 years developing an emotionally crippling case of post-traumatic stress, accumulating scars and tattoos galore while being forged into a weapon by a variety of very bad people. Of course he has secrets. The offense that he has not spilled every sordid detail of his life just felt naïve. The only reason why Thea even latched onto the idea that there was more to Sara’s death was because the plot dictated that a distressed Oliver utter her name in his sleep.
Now, on a purely superficial note: how bad was the CGI in “The Return”? It’s not fair to expect cinematic genius out of a show airing on The CW with a limited budget, but the opening shot of the sunken Amazo panning onto the Queen kids fighting wasn’t even close to realistic.
What Needs To Happen Next: For once, this particular section of the review may not be too long. Mostly, “Arrow” just needs to continue the trend of all that it did right in “The Return.” The fact that the writers are clearly still capable of allowing Oliver to star in his own story sets a precedent for the rest of the season for careful handling of the other vigilante arcs, and the bonding between Oliver and Thea certainly needs to carry over. If the plot is going to demand that Oliver be a big dummy in his major decision-making, he should at least be able to experience some healthy interpersonal relationships. Let the guy have something good in his life. Misery may love company, but audiences don’t necessarily love watching it week in and week out.
The thread of Quentin’s anger at Laurel – and presumably the complicit Team Arrow – for the deceit needs to continue. The man was denied the chance to properly say goodbye to his youngest daughter and humiliated as every other character denied him any agency in the tragedy. He was wronged; he deserves some righteous anger.
Malcolm may be poised to hang around and disrupt organic storytelling until the finale in May, and he may look like John Barrowman, but somebody really needs to punch that guy in the face.
Also: “Arrow” really needs to increase the wig department budget. Just…come on. The wigs were pretty bad.