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One of the trickiest elements of Arrow to both pull-off and watch is the flashbacks. Particularly this season, where, without the base of the island, the flashbacks have really strained credibility at times. But this week certainly wins for most convoluted and strange use of flashbacks in Arrow history.
Since the flashback scenes dominated the episode more so than usual (the split between present day and the past was nearly 50-50), I’m going to try to untangle those first before jumping into the more successful elements of “The Return.” Now, I was intrigued at Oliver returning to Starling City. I thought it might be cause for some fun cameos while he went on his mission for ARGUS. And, there were certainly several fun cameos (always good to see Tommy back). But, honestly, Oliver crashing a party at Tommy’s and killing a drug dealer with no one seeing him in his atrocious “disguise” (something Maseo pointed out in his meta, yet on-the-nose line “That disguise wouldn’t work if you had greasepaint all over your face.”)? That’s pretty ridiculous, even for Arrow. It pulls away from the main action of the present day plot. The main story may have been about family and gaining a killing edge, but killing Thea’s drug dealer in the past just doesn’t fit well enough into that theme to justify the tangent. Sure, old Oliver was a killer. We know that. And he loves Thea and wants to protect her. But it just doesn’t flow right within the episode.
Outside of the odd murder, the flashbacks as a whole just seemed largely out of place and unnecessary. I understand the need for the show to attempt to flesh out the supporting characters around Oliver, and flashbacks seen through his eyes can help there. But we know Thea was a drug using wild child before Oliver returned. We know Laurel and Tommy got together. We don’t really need to see that, and Oliver doesn’t need to see it either. And, really, he doesn’t even see Tommy and Laurel go on their first date- which is the main bone I have to pick with the flashbacks this week.
I enjoy it when other characters have their own flashbacks, like Merlyn two weeks ago. It really helps add depth. However, I’m less of a fan of this apparent change in the flashback rules. Rather than have these moments come from the memories of a single character, “The Return” just opts to have a bunch of character flashbacks without highlighting who is remembering them. Yes, the moments Oliver experiences are clearly from his memories. But the moments of Diggle working security and talking to his brother? There’s no context for that, as Diggle doesn’t even appear in the present of the episode. And the moments between Lance and Laurel, while among the strongest in the episode (more on that in a bit), don’t appear to be coming from Laurel or Lance. They’re just there.
Flashbacks can be a great tool. But when they are used the way they are in this episode- a hodgepodge look at all of our character’s mental states in 2010- they are much less effective. The only element of the flashbacks that worked in terms of true plot movement were the moments with Laurel and Detective Lance. We’ve known that Lance was an alcoholic, but we’ve never seen how truly awful this period of his life was. Considering Sara has been presumed dead, at this point in the timeline, for three years, it’s really something to see how far gone Lance remains.
The scene work between Paul Blackthorne and Katie Cassidy in the flashbacks and in the present day story was absolutely heartbreaking and wonderful. For as much as the writers missed in crafting this episode’s structure, they truly hit the broken father-daughter dynamic on the head. I know parents aren’t supposed to have favorite children, but it’s been clear throughout the seasons of Arrow that there is a special bond between Laurel and her father. There’s a closeness there, bred from the similarities within their personalities and the links within their careers that Quentin never shared with Sara. And seeing that delicate and amazing father-daughter relationship shattered as it has been is awful to see. It’s a great dose of real family struggle amidst the superficial superhero elements of the show.
As for the rest of the episode, I really enjoyed the present day side of Oliver and Thea’s story. Slade Wilson’s return (at the hands of a particularly sadistic Malcolm Merlyn) was excellent. The reveal that Thea killed Sara was also excellent- kudos to Willa Holland for her work in those scenes. The development of Thea as a character continued brilliantly throughout the episode, particularly with her choice not to kill Slade (although I have a sneaking suspicion that Thea might still turn out to be more of a Merlyn that she hopes). And ending things with Slade on the ominous statement regarding how much Oliver can stand to lose before he loses himself was excellent. It was an uneven outing for Arrow, but there were some strong moments that should continue to snowball as we get into the back end of the season.
— Felicity telling the Oliver picture he is cute was one of the weakest parts of the episode. I’m all for paying fan service in these flashbacks (I would have loved to see Moira or Walter again), but this one just didn’t work in the context of the episode. Ditto for the Diggle moment, even though it was nice to see his brother.
— I was so hoping that the mysterious second prisoner (Captain Boomerang) would make an appearance and team up with Slade. I would really love a Spartacus reunion.
–The wig game was super strong in this episode- especially Detective Lance. However, they really need to up Oliver’s flashback wigs. They look pretty rough compared to some of the excellent ones in this episode.
— Glad to see that Oliver is as mystified with Thea’s ability to become a badass fighter in nine months as I am. Although, I guess since they referenced it, we have to accept that Merlyn really is that good of a teacher.
— I really can’t express how impressed I am with the turn around of Thea. It’s been a wonderful surprise this season, and I can only see her character growing as the season draws to the inevitable showdown with Ra’s.