Despite how increasingly unnecessary flashbacks have become, this season has seen Arrow explore a small but important part of Oliver's history by taking a deep dive into his time in Russia and the affiliation with the Bratva that resulted from his trip. There to fulfill a promise to Taiana, Oliver's efforts have so far put him in touch with Dolph Lundgren's Kovar, a bunch of seemingly untrustworthy members of the Bratva, and, surprisingly, his future sort-of sister-in-law Talia al Ghul. It's a lot to take in, and even more for the series to make seem relevant with the ongoing plot line involving Prometheus acting as judge, jury, and potential executioner for Oliver and the Green Arrow.
With the season's increased focus on Oliver's rocky road to becoming a hero and the frequent questions of what goes into making one, the look back at his time in Russia has the opportunity to provide some much-needed insight and perhaps closure on a major chapter in the life of Oliver Queen. It's been five years since the spoiled son of a billionaire was found alive, and that means five years worth of stories detailing his time on and off Lian Yu, making the part where a dead man decides to return to the land of the living an integral part of his backstory. With any luck, that's where Arrow season 5 is headed with the flashback portion of the narrative, which makes the midseason excursion to Mother Russia potentially noteworthy as more than just filler.
The move comes in the wake of two weeks spent not chasing the season's Big Bad, but in chasing ghosts of the past. With all that's going on with regard to a masked villain seemingly capable of tearing Team Arrow apart, the decision to add a new team member in Dinah Drake will either help fortify the group against future attacks, or it will add the necessary level of stress to help it crumble faster.
As it turns out, however, the team doesn't need to worry about an attack from Prometheus depleting their ranks -- not when there's a rogue nuclear weapon on the loose, anyway. That's right, a week after Team Arrow finds its new Black Canary, they lose what is arguably their most powerful team member when Ragman sacrifices his enchanted rags to make sure a Russian airport doesn't resemble Havenrock.
The move to show Ragman the door makes a certain amount of sense, especially considering he never really fit in with the masked, mostly non-powered Star City vigilantes. While the series never went into a lot of detail regarding all that Rory's rags could do, the times he was onscreen fighting bad guys made it seem as though his power was seemingly off the charts. Unlike anyone else on Team Arrow, Rory was bullet proof, and didn't require a bow and arrow or gun in order to engage an enemy from a distance. Given that the team is gearing up to take on Prometheus by the season's end, moving Rory out of the picture makes it seem as though the Big Bad is a lot more menacing now that the team is down a bullet proof, nuke swallowing, enchanted ragman.
The surprise of Rory's departure aside, 'Bratva' came across as a fairly straightforward episode of Arrow. Oliver's return to Russia was always going to bring up a painful part of his past, one he's been trying to overcome and overcompensate for – though with mixed results. The trip to Oliver's old stomping grounds afforded the series a chance to engage with the season's overarching theme, and to explore the ways in which Oliver processes his past. For the most part that has involved avoiding talking about it, and telling people he'll let them in when he's good and ready – not unlike how he deflected similar line of questioning from Susan, during a little post-coital pillow talk. But with Oliver and the people he's closest to actively engaged with someone who played a short but significant part in Ollie becoming the man he is today, it was inevitable he would have to come to terms with a part of his past.
Amidst the predictable intrigue of chasing down a nuclear weapon, 'Bratva' manages to conjure up some interesting character moments – in Russia and back home in Star City. While it's plain to see that on a plot level Arrow is stalling until it comes time to bring Prometheus on and the series can kick the immediate drama up a notch, the show has been doing some interesting character work with everyone from Felicity to Diggle to Quentin. A lot of that is the result of the series slowing things down and making what could have been a seconds-long encounter between Quentin and Rene into a character building moment that reinforces the former's struggle with sobriety and confirms the latter is more than just a gun-toting hothead looking for his next opponent.
The same is true of the three original Team Arrow members, who have all been struggling with what kind of hero they want to be. Felicity's turn down a dark path includes "fighting fire with fire" as she puts it, digging up lots of dirt on the bad guys and using it against them in an un-Felicity way. The show wants to make this an issue, and while it is a potential turning point for Felicity, contrasting her questionable actions in the name of justice against someone like Oliver doesn't quite have the impact the show may have been aiming for. It is unsurprising, then, that 'Bratva' has more success contrasting Diggle's thirst for revenge against Oliver's history with Russia's most unsavory types, and especially his push (or Talia's push, really) toward becoming the Hood.
The ongoing examination of what it means to be a hero and all the ways Oliver does and does not fit the traditional mold have made for some entertaining filler episodes as the second half of season 5 begins to pick up steam. The series is laying the groundwork for Green Arrow's showdown with Prometheus in an interesting way: building the character up by knocking down some of his preconceived notions of how he's been precisely what Prometheus says he is. It's not a conventional way to go about confronting an enemy, but it's made for some fascinating character moments.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with 'Spectre of the Gun' @8pm on The CW.