TV REVIEW: Arrow Handles a Tricky Flashback Episode with Mixed Results in “The Return”
By Justin Carter
Prequels are a tricky thing. On one hand, they present an opportunity to shed some light on an event vaguely referenced in the present timeline, or offer clarity on some conflict between characters who were once friends. On the other hand, this often means things will be hinted at with the grace and subtlety of a sledgehammer. Eye-rolling jokes and some admittedly clever wordplay can really undermine a well told origin story.
Take, for example, “The Return,” an episode which walked a fine line between insight and on the nose silliness. The flashbacks see Oliver and Maseo traveling back to good old Starling City in 2010 to find China White and the Omega virus she plans to sell to the highest bidder. This requires them to track down one of White’s associates who also happens to work at Queen Consolidated. His time at home also sees Oliver checking in on Thea.
Her drug dealer shows up at Tommy’s party, and Oliver does what any rational brother would do if he caught his sister getting drugs — which is to say he snaps the kid’s neck and throws him off the balcony. The flashbacks mostly serve to set things in place for the present day (and to justify everyone in the main cast but Stephen Amell, Willa Holland, and John Barrowman getting credited), and their quality ranges from well done, like Lance’s drinking problem, to awkwardly on the nose, like 2010!Felicity talking to a picture of Oliver or Tommy trying to get a date with Laurel. There’s one moment after Oliver has killed the drug dealer where Maseo chastises him for simply wearing a hood to cover his face and says, “That disguise wouldn’t work if you had greasepaint all over your face.” That is a direct quote from the show, and I’m going to parade it around with the shame it deserves.
At least once each season, there’s an episode where the flashbacks matter more than events occurring in the present time, and “The Return” is this season’s. Malcolm sends Oliver and Thea to Lian Yu to help the elder Queen regain his “killer instinct.” Of course, this is Malcolm Merlyn, the same man who decided that the best way to avenge his dead wife was to take up training from the most powerful assassin in the world and create a machine that would literally destroy the area of Starling City where she died. So to up the stakes, he releases Slade Wilson from his prison. Slade is pissed, of course, but he doesn’t seem to be as threatening as he was last year. Granted, he is depowered and he isn’t really doing anything that he didn’t do last year, but it never really feels like Oliver and Thea are in any real danger from him. This doesn’t mean that Manu Bennett isn’t continuing to rock it as Slade, but in the end he’s just sort of there.
His main role in all of this is to be the thing that turns Oliver (or Thea, or both) into killers. The episode as a whole feels like it exists to show the juxtaposition between 2010!Thea and current Thea. It’s fitting that in 2010 both she and Oliver have long hair and come off as shallow whiners where their present day counterparts have short hair and are (or in Thea’s case, becoming) hardened. Like Slade says, Thea’s come a long way, and being able to take getting her arm broken by Oliver and helping beat Slade into submission is proof of that. The flashbacks show Oliver slowly turning into the man that will eventually become the Vigilante, while the present has Thea becoming her own woman. Learning that Malcolm manipulated her into killing Sara is what drives her to cut family ties with Malcolm. It’s the coldest move she’s made in the show–well, the coldest move she’s made that was actually her choice. Slade can see there’s some darkness in Thea, and while it’s too soon to be certain, this won’t just be something she can just escape with a trip to a beautiful island.
Like Huntress said last season, “Once you let the darkness inside, it never comes out…”
This episode reminded me that Thea used to have a crush on Tommy, and man if that sibling revelation didn’t make things real awkward real fast.
These flashbacks also reminded me that Lance had hair at one point. Nothing will ever beat flashback John Barrowman’s hair, though. Not even Tommy’s flashback hair.
“What was that?!” “A booby trap.” “What psycho set that up?!” “Me.”
- China White, so badass that she can sell a deadly virus to rogue nations and warlords, even as her men are getting shot by ARGUS agents.