**This post contains spoilers for episode 3.14 of Arrow, “The Return.”**
I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that, Malcolm Merlyn aside, much of the present-day stuff in this week’s Arrow was almost up to par. There were familiar faces, island scenery, a ridiculous booby trap, and some much-needed truth-telling from Oliver. Unfortunately, there were also flashbacks… and the only good things about the flashbacks were Andy Diggle and the incredible Tommy Merlyn. (Sorry, Felicity fans, but you might want to skip this post. I promise this will hurt me more than it will hurt you.)
I couldn’t even write about last week’s episode, aka the Oliver Steals Everyone’s Agency Episode. He was downright awful to Laurel, and he even did it to Roy! It was all just bad, and I think it was a misuse of Caity Lotz when there is still so much of Sara’s story that we don’t know. I will say that Katie Cassidy knocked that one out of the park, but I couldn’t bring myself to write an entire post slamming the episode and then have one paragraph that said “At least Katie was awesome! Go Laurel!” So I’m saying it now: Katie was awesome. Go Laurel!
The only reason I had any sort of hope for this week’s episode can be summed up in two words: Slade Wilson. I don’t even know why I held out hope for him — whether it’s because his season 2 storyline was so great that his face just reminds me of why I loved this show, or whether it’s because Manu Bennett just seems to elevate the show indescribably — but he was definitely a sight for sore eyes. And his scenes with Oliver and Thea brought back a lot of the frenetic action that’s been sorely lacking this season. People like Malcolm and Ray Palmer, they’re calculated and precise, to the point that they get boring. Malcolm Merlyn is boring, his particular brand of psychopath is no longer intriguing because we spent all of season 1 exploring that. There was no outcry when he was gone, because the character arc stopped being interesting the moment Oliver thwarted him.
Slade Wilson’s brand of psychotic is still refreshing, somehow. It helps that his vendetta is focused solely on Oliver, and everyone else is just collateral damage. He’s not acting out of selfishness or self-preservation, he’s still reacting to the love he lost, and he’s willing to die or trade his freedom just to watch Oliver suffer. Malcolm is not that intriguing — selfish characters are not that interesting. Show me a selfish lead character on a show that is fun to watch or is beloved! There aren’t any, that’s why the Bad Boys with a Heart of Gold is even a trope, because people want to believe that selfish people are actually acting out of love. Malcolm isn’t doing that, he’s never done that, even the Undertaking wasn’t really about his wife, it was about control at first, and eventually it became about power.
Slade, on the other hand, has never exclusively wanted power. Power, via his Mirakuru army and Sebastian Blood, was a means to an end. Power was what would enable him to torture Oliver Queen. He’s acting out of love, not just for Shado, but for the betrayal he felt from his brother-in-arms. He even said it in this episode: “Maybe if you’d told me what really happened with Shado, your mother would still be alive.” In this respect, Slade is the killer counterpart to Moira Queen. Everything Moira did, she did out of love for her kids. In a way, and I say this grudgingly, it’s kind of poetic that she died by Slade’s hand.
(Sidenote: Did the writers ever think about that aspect of Sara’s death? That Oliver chose Sara over Shado on that island all those years ago, sealing his fate with Slade and leading to the events of season 2, only to have Sara die for no reason by Malcolm Merlyn? It actually cheapens Shado’s sacrifice. And if and when Slade finds out about Sara’s demise… there will be hell to pay.)
So I was hoping Slade’s presence would bring back some of the energy and pace of the second season, especially in regards to people finding out certain secrets, and it worked for the most part. Thea freaks out when Oliver finds out that Malcolm had freed Slade just to turn them into murderers, and it eventually forces Oliver to tell her the truth about Sara’s death: that Malcolm had drugged and manipulated Thea into doing it.
They have a fantastic tag-team fight to take down Slade, who holds his own even without Mirakuru now, and Thea has him at gunpoint when Oliver stops her and talks her down. Together, they manage to overcome Malcolm’s ministrations and continue to honor Oliver’s promise to Tommy after he died. That, of course, means nothing to Malcolm. And just when you think this episode is going to fix the fundamental problems with the show… Oliver and Thea go and agree to continue working with Malcolm, because they need him so badly. You know. For the mess he created. Sigh.
I’m sad to see Slade go, but I’m happy that he’s still alive, and I loved his interactions with Thea (he seemed to grow to respect her over the course of their encounters; she’s not the same girl he kidnapped only eight or so months ago) and his last conversation with Oliver.
Slade: “She’s lost, your sister.”
Oliver: “No, she’s not.”
Slade: “You can see it in her eyes. She’s been touched by darkness. Was it Merlyn? He’s an interesting man, to do that to his own daughter. So now you’ve lost your father, your mother, and now your little sister. How’s the girl in the glasses? What’s her name? Felicity. How many people can Oliver Queen lose before there is no more Oliver Queen?”
I’ve got news for you, Slade: there already is no more Oliver Queen. This guy is not the same Oliver we saw for the last two seasons, or the Oliver we see in flashbacks. This guy is just a travesty… and Felicity is the least of his problems. (I like how Oliver immediately says Thea isn’t lost, like just by saying it, it must be true.)
Nonetheless, the Slade fan in me appreciates how he can just cut right to the core of Oliver, and I think if Oliver weren’t so wrapped up in his League of Assassins stuff, he’d realize that that was, and still is, Slade’s intention all along: to turn Oliver into himself. Slade lost all the people in his life, so he’s no longer Slade Wilson. And from what he’s seen, the last link to humanity lies in Felicity Smoak, which is why he says her name like a threat.
Which goes to show that even Slade Wilson underestimates the importance of John Diggle in Oliver’s life.
Hey! Speaking of Diggle — we met Andy this week! We only saw him for a minute, just long enough to establish that Andy got Diggle the Rich Kid Bodyguard gig, and that he thinks Diggle was a fool to divorce Lyla, to which Diggle dryly replies, “Thank you, Andy, I appreciate that.” Heh.
Tommy also appeared as an overbearing but good-hearted big brother figure (nice that he turns out to actually be her big brother) to Thea, who was already getting into drugs and acting out. She still goes to talk to Oliver at his gravestone, which is sweet until her drug dealer meets her there. Oliver, who is back in Starling this week for really dumb lampshaded reasons, watches appreciatively from afar as Tommy intervenes. Tommy also flirts adorably with a radiant Laurel, and I had honestly forgotten how delightful they were together until now.
If I could choose one other person to be in flashbacks, it would be Moira. I feel like that deserved a long, resounding DUH after that statement, but unfortunately, this show decided to cater to the lowest common denominator and have Oliver have a near-brush with… Felicity. Who talks to a terrifying picture of him… and calls him “cute” even though he’s dead. It was painful and weird and bad and I hate when shows retcon and rewrite history to have people crossing paths in contrived ways, but the shippers are eating it up. The cynic in me thinks this crew really knows how to manipulate the fanbase.
Oliver kills Thea’s drug dealer, probably causing a lot of emotional and mental harm to his little sister along with the fact that he kind of ruined Tommy’s party, then throws a fit when Waller won’t let him stay in Starling. The only reason Oliver even survived this season of flashbacks is because Maseo is repeatedly sticking guns in his back to keep him from doing stupid things.
They end up capturing China White and turning her over to military custody, with a particularly villainous looking Army guy telling Oliver that he will be debriefed in China before they drop him off wherever he wants to go. Oliver doesn’t seem to notice that Waller seems scared of the Army guy, but we do know that China White somehow makes it out of custody and that Oliver never makes it back to Starling City until the day he’s rescued. Presumably.
The only good thing to come out of the flashbacks is the video Oliver found of his father, Robert, telling him about the list. So that’s one mystery solved, clumsily, but solved nonetheless. I appreciate the casting for Oliver’s father, when he talks, he has a lot of the same mannerisms and facial tics as Stephen Amell, and that’s when the resemblance really comes through.
Quentin was awful in the flashbacks, but in a realistic way. He was deep into booze and blaming the world for his troubles, and it played painfully but accurately; it shows the tremendous growth he’s made since then. Unfortunately, present-day Quentin is really mad at Laurel, not for donning the mask or becoming the Black Canary, but for lying to him for months. He tells her she broke the bond between them, and he leaves for a separate AA meeting from hers. And I’ll just end with this observation: This is the same sort of secret and breach of trust that created the Slade Wilson we know and love today.
Next week: It looks like everyone takes a field trip to Nanda Parbat. Hopefully this ends with Malcolm Merlyn’s demise. Also — ugh — ATOM stuff.