Summary: A well-told story with a welcome, if innocuous, return of an old favorite, nagged by some superficial retconning.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
Oliver and Thea take to Lian Yu to train at Malcolm’s suggestion. Oliver is surprised how well Thea can handle herself after only 9 months of training with her father. They talk about finally being open with each other, but Thea feels there is something Oliver is holding back. While they sleep, Oliver has a bad dream about Sara and calls out her name. Thea wakes him, asks what he’s hiding about what happened to Sara and why he didn’t tell her about Sara’s death. Oliver says it was Laurel’s wish and her secret to tell. He goes for a walk to clear his head and decides to check on Slade in the ARGUS holding cell. He’s shocked to find a dead guard and Slade free on the island.
Oliver runs back to Thea and tells her about imprisoning Slade there. As he insists they leave the island, a satellite phone rings. Oliver takes the call from Malcolm and accuses him of letting Slade out. Malcolm admits to it and asserts that it is a way to make the threat real and bring back Oliver’s killer instinct. Malcolm hangs up and the sat phone goes dead. Oliver takes Thea and they run for the graves of Robert Queen and Shado. Oliver digs out a gun for Thea to use. Slade attacks and knocks both out.
Now stuck in the cell, Slade tells Oliver and Thea that he will create an auto accident to make those in Starling think they died and never come looking for them. Slade leaves to get off the island. Not seeing a way out, Thea nags Oliver to finally tell him that truth: that Malcolm brainwashed her with a drug to kill Sara. She’s justifiably stricken, and Oliver tries to impress upon her that it wasn’t her doing. Realizing the cell was designed for men, Oliver has Thea attempt to reach the door release. They have to dislocate her arm to reach it, but they get free. They go running to catch Slade from using the plane they took to the island.
As they run, Thea trips a booby trap set by Oliver and he’s slightly injured. Slade attacks, but fighting them both Thea is able to get a gun from him. Pointing it at him, Oliver frantically tries to convince her that she’s not a killer. She fires the gun but only grazes his arm. They return Slade to the cell and he and Oliver share words. Slade tells his old friend that he’s now lost his sister, as well. He ponders what Oliver Queen will be if he loses everyone in his life. Oliver closes the door and seals Slade in again.
Back home in Starling, Malcolm checks in on Oliver and Thea. She reveals that she knows the truth about Sara, and that while they will all work together, she will never count herself as his daughter again. Meanwhile, Laurel finds her father at Sara’s grave. She attempts to tell him that she’s doing the good he wanted her to do while in the mask. He explains that it’s not about that. She broke his trust and the bond he felt they shared separate of Dinah and Sara, and he’s not sure that’ll ever be fixed.
In the flashbacks, Waller brings Oliver and Maseo to Starling City to investigate Chien Na Wei’s contact, an employee of Queen Consolidated. Oliver and Maseo plan to break into QC to retrieve information on the company’s servers. While surveying the building, Oliver sees Thea. They follow her back to the Queen mansion and watch her talk to Oliver’s grave. She’s interrupted by a drug dealer offering her latest score. Tommy Merlyn chases the guy off and tells Thea that she’s not welcome at a party he’s hosting that night.
That night, Oliver breaks into QC and gets what they need. He notices two files of his father’s left in a private folder, one for him and one for Thea. He finds a thumb drive and downloads them. He has to hide quickly as Felicity Smoak comes in to drop something off on Walter’s desk. He overhears as she sees a picture of Oliver and Robert and remarks how cute he is. Giving the info to Maseo, Oliver goes to check out Tommy’s party, even though Waller warned that his family would be killed if he let anyone know he was alive and in Starling.
At the party, John and Andy Diggle run security. Oliver sneaks in, wearing a hoodie to hide his identity, and oversees Tommy first chatting up a guest and then talking with Laurel. Thea arrives against Tommy’s wishes. Oliver oversees her buy more drugs from the dealer, who goes upstairs. Oliver confronts the guy, who recognizes him. When he attacks Oliver with a knife, instead of subduing him, Oliver snaps his neck and tosses him off a balcony.
The cops are called and Detective Quentin Lance and his partner catch the case. Laurel had to find him at a bar earlier and he’s still sauced on duty. He lays into Tommy, Laurel, and Thea about their choices and how they should all be better given Sara’s death on the yacht with Oliver. Laurel scolds her father later and he criticizes her for choosing to go work for a big corporate law firm in San Francisco.
Maseo finds Oliver at the Merlyn house and escorts him off at gunpoint. Oliver insists that his family can counteract anything Waller can do to them, and he leaves to go back to his life. He goes to the Queen mansion and finds the main room empty. Sitting at home, he uses a tablet to look at the file his father left for him. It’s a video explaining what the list is and that Oliver should use it to save the city. Realizing he has to stop China White’s plan to sell the Omega virus.
At the auction for the virus, China White is interrupted by Maseo and ARGUS men. They are all killed but Maseo. As he’s brought to China White, Oliver intercedes. They stop the buy, capture China White, and recover the Omega. Later, Oliver demands Waller let him go now. Her boss, General Matthew Shrieve, arrives to tell him they can’t yet. He has to return to China for a debrief, but he offers to let Oliver go anywhere afterward. Oliver agrees.
There’s a danger often in doing flashbacks in shows that have been on for a few seasons that the flashbacks become too knowing. Some see it as a sly play (and pay off) on the audience’s relationship with a series. In other cases, it comes off cloying. Maybe to find a balance, we have both this time out.
Way back in Season 1’s “Year’s End,” we were graced with a nugget of meta gooeyness in Malcolm Merlyn suggesting blindly to Oliver Queen that Starling City’s hooded vigilante go by a more fanciful moniker like “the Green Arrow.” In series based on known source material, particularly comic book properties, such blatant foreshadowing references are commonly referred to as “anvils,” the equivalent to anvils being suddenly and thuddeningly dropped for effect in old movie serials and cartoons. Some can be good, some can be groaning. Almost all are invariably cheeky, and most could (and should) be removed. (Oh, but if Gotham could only learn to go a single episode without even one of these…)
When a show featuring flashbacks drops such meta anvils to refer to its own future/present, it runs the risk of eating itself from the tail onward. Yet, for every wince-inducing moment like Maseo basically calling Oliver’s Season 1 version of the Arrow a crappy, unrealistic costuming choice, we get our first introduction to John Diggle’s brother, Andy. It’s actually a kind joy to get small pay-offs like that.
Not so much with the clunky Oliver/Felicity non-moment where he overhears her mooning over him in the past looking at his picture. (A thoroughly unnecessary retcon that felt more pandering than essential or revelatory.) But we do get a lovely moment of seeing Jamey Sheridan back on the series as Robert Queen to deliver the message that informs Oliver about the list.
It’s the retconning — the act of retroactively altering past continuity to align with the present story you are telling — that proves a bit nagging in this case. The idea of Oliver being back in Starling City two years before he returns from the dead is a salacious one full of great opportunity. The problem is trying to shoehorn in everyone else. Oliver becomes a bit more of a passive observer, taking out the drug dealer aside, which actually proves effective. Yet, seeing Diggle and Felicity in the past just to see them proves inconsequential. Yes, Felicity did work for Queen Consolidated, but she was “IT Girl” back then, and not likely to be reporting anything directly to the desk of Walter Stone. In moments like that, things begin to take on a Star Wars prequel quality, where suddenly this vast universe feels like the neighborhood corner in a New York borough where everyone knows and is connected to one another. It’s hammy and distracting.
Lest this completely come off like a negative rant, this was honestly a well-told story. Following the tradition set by “The Odyssey” and “The Promise,” this is the yearly episode that changes up the formula and balance of the present storyline and the flashbacks. They go about it a little different this year, which serves the story well. The present is set on Lian Yu while the past is set in Starling City. It’s a fun tweak to the formula and a great symmetry for the story they are telling.
That story is actually a bit simple, as far as the present is concerned. Malcolm sends Oliver and Thea to the island to get Oliver’s edge back and challenge Thea in a true life-and-death situation. It offers us a welcome return to one of the more fully realized characters on the series, Manu Bennett’s Slade Wilson, even though that return isn’t that poignant or involving. Slade is merely a minotaur in the maze here, yet the maze itself is something you’d find in a child’s Highlight magazine rather than something complex and harrowing.
That simplicity, though, proves quite effective. This gives Oliver and Thea a chance to connect even further, something that deepens their newly strengthened bond following his reveal of being the Arrow. It also allows Thea a moment to pin Oliver into telling him the biggest secret he’s still holding from her: that she killed Sara Lance. Once again, we must be grateful to the show’s desire to get to the point more than not. This secret is one that could’ve been held for the remainder of the season, brought up at some inopportune time to drive a wedge between brother and sister. Yet, the address is quickly and it galvanizes Thea in a way that even the island and Slade’s threat couldn’t. Malcolm wanted a hardened daughter ready to face the League, and he got what he wanted. It simply cost him her.
The great thing about this is it could give her greater purpose. Starting the season strongly with hope of her carrying more weight on the show, Thea sank back into relatively obscurity and little consequence once the Sara murder storyline was cracked open. There’s not a clear direction for where she’s going but making her an active part of Oliver’s storyline gives her stronger presence. Oddly, as she slowly morphs into Speedy, her journey somewhat mirrors that of her former flame, Roy Harper. Both have committed murder for which they feel tremendous remorse, even if both’s actions were brought on by external forces from which they had no control. We’ve talked in the past about Thea and Roy seeming like their own little unit. Even apart, that seems to continue. As both represent the two different Speedys that were sidekick to Oliver Queen in the comics, this seems quite fitting.
The past timeline proves interesting in that we see one of the truly defining moments of Oliver’s life that leads him to the man that is rescued from Lian Yu in Season 1. Returning home for Waller’s, there’s somewhat of a regression in Oliver, perhaps a play on that idea that we all revert a bit to past selves when coming back home. The whiny, selfish Oliver returns, surely not without justification — might we all not make the same choice with home just right there — and he has to decide to start doing things for a greater good. This isn’t about survival anymore. This is about an outward focus. It’s an astoundingly significant moment that oddly seems somewhat downplayed by the episode. Part of me enjoys that, part of me is confused by it.
There’s an aspect of Oliver being home and not having Susanna Thompson’s Moira Queen around that makes it feel a bit empty. In turn, though, we get a pleasant reprise of Robert Queen by Jamey Sheridan, last seen on the show in Season 1. Grateful that there was a recap of Oliver telling Diggle he got a message from his father on what the list was for in the “previously on” montage. It was one of those threads that had kind of fallen by the wayside from memory. Here it’s satisfyingly picked up and answered, even if Oliver took things quite literally from Robert’s message. Suddenly, much of the remaining past timeline seems to come into focus. Dealing with ARGUS, Waller, and her boss (!), Matthew Shrieve, over Omega the rest of this year. Likely a storyline involving Anatoli and the Russian Bratva for next year, and the fifth year being a firming up of Oliver’s vigilante persona and the build to his crusade with his father’s list.
That seems like a pretty fair approach and would fit nicely in closing the circle of the flashbacks. Of course, one can expect any number of twists and turns to make that even more interesting; it wouldn’t be Arrow without them. For now, though, this really was the “big bang” moment for Oliver becoming the Arrow. Something I’m not sure he even recognized at the time. That also fits the lineage with “The Odyssey” and “The Promise.” Even the episode title falls in line.
The other common link is, of course, Slade. The curious thing about Slade Wilson, and it’s another of those things we’ve talked about before, is that we still really know relatively little about his past life. The advantage of that is it gives us room to explore the character going forward, ensuring a number of other visits by the baddie as the show carries on. The disadvantage is something like we have this hour. There really is very little to Slade’s story here other than momentary freedom and an opportunity first to curse Oliver to the same fate he was suffering and then to kill him. He loses out on both counts. Without the Mirakuru, he also becomes surprisingly a bit easier to best between Oliver and Thea. The overwhelming feeling of Slade’s use here is as pawn, both for Malcolm’s training but also by the writers as a means to give a threat that could harm the Queen siblings while simultaneously offering a reason why Thea would so bitterly want to kill him. It’s a bit diminishing of the character, but he actually proves to be the only one suited for the task.
The strange thing is that, even though he essentially is, Slade doesn’t feel wasted here. Much of that has to be credited to Bennett. Despite not knowing much of Slade’s past or his inner workings outside of the Mirakuru madness — even Season 1 Slade was frequently guarded from us — there is significant life and animus injected into the role by Bennett. There feels like substantial history, both with Oliver and prior to meeting him, that makes him such a strong character and an engaging presence. The energy that crackles between Oliver and Slade is unbeaten by any other adversarial relationship on the show, and it’s a charge that sorely been missing this season. Even though the reason he’s back is somewhat fickle, it is darn good to have Slade back, even for just the episode.
We also get returns of Colin Donnell’s Tommy Merlyn and angry, bitter, drunk Quentin Lance. Donnell is sort of the original unsung hero of the series, a regular cast adrift in death who still gets to put in some appearances now and again. Similar to Slade, there’s not dreadfully much that Tommy is pushed to do here, but every note is right and Donnell hits them all. He surprisingly seems a bit more noble here, both in trying to deal with rambunctious teen Thea and in wooing Laurel. (A more assured and slightly sunnier Laurel also makes a reprise in the past timeline.) It’s nice to see in his two appearances this season how much Oliver’s death has affected him. If he felt a bit caddish playboy in the pilot episode, he’s definitely informing the bond of their friendship here and deepening that sense of ennui that led to Tommy wanting more out of life in Season 1. Yeah, he’s still trading in “douchebag,” according to Lance, but it feels more three-dimensional.
It’s hard to say for certain if Quentin’s hair worked or not, but it was a smart choice in showing us the full-blown, rock bottom Lance to contrast with the schism between he and Laurel in the present. The thing with alcoholics and addicts is that certain emotional triggers set their minds back to similar situations in the past and the broken thinking often takes over to respond in similar fashion. It’s not shocking to see present Quentin with a bottle at Sara’s grave. It’s how he knows to react and something he fights everyday, even if he’s been sober for ages. The other aspect of that becomes the heightened interaction in emotional bonds, particularly with family and loved ones. His brain immediately jumps to betrayal and that broken thinking plays it out in overly dramatic fashion.
At issue here, though, is the fact that this was as bad a betrayal as anything the emotional response of his mind could conjure up. Concern over his heart or not, there is simply no rational reason to excuse away Laurel keeping Sara’s death from him. To find out that Dinah already knew on top of it chips away what little connection he feels to his remaining daughter. If there’s one thing they’ve often gotten right with Laurel over three seasons, it’s her relationship with her father. Cassidy and Blackthorne also tend to do strong work with the emotional family ties between their characters. This is another standout, if heartbreaking, example.
“The Return” is this year’s timeline-flipped episode. Yet, it’s one that strikes a better balance than the two previous. The stories of both timelines are pretty straightforward, which offer their advantages and their disadvantages. Thankfully, the simplistic stories are told well, which serves for them to work as a complete story. Tying most of Oliver’s focus in Starling City of the past on Thea with what they are going through on the island in the present is a shrewd choice that serves to strengthen the bond between them. This should prove invaluable as they, with Malcolm, take on the League in the latter part of the season. There is some anvil dropping and attempts at retconning that prove more nuisance than help, but none of it distracts from a solid, likeable hour.
Odds & Ends
- Who woulda thunk that Amanda Waller had a boss? When news struck of original recipe V and BeastMaster star Marc Singer being cast as now-General Shrieve, I must’ve missed any notice about him working for ARGUS. Proved a pleasant surprise and offered a renewed interest in what’s going on in the past.
- Matthew Shrieve is the head of a group of supernatural soldiers (vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster) called the Creature Commandos in the comics. Wonder how, if at all, this relates to the Omega virus. Or if he’s just a character they pulled to use for their own purposes.
- We got to see him for only a brief scene, but I love the casting of Eugene Byrd as Andy Diggle, John’s brother. Nice to finally put a face to a name.
- The use of the original arrowhead for the title card was a fun nod.
- Oliver wears a Starling City Rockets ballcap as a disguise. First time I noticed that their logo looks like an arrowhead.
- Oliver’s green hiking coat is also meant to evoke his Arrow jacket and hood.