[This is a review of Arrow season 3, episode 14. There will be SPOILERS.]
It is rare that the main storyline of Arrow will grant the flashbacks a chance to deliver such a strong one-to-one connection, where each thread the episode follows has a link in some way to what was going on in Oliver's past. Sometimes, there are strong thematic connections and sometimes the links are more oblique. Generally, this is fine, so long as the flashbacks provide some interesting idea of disparity between the Oliver of the past and the Oliver of today – something that goes beyond testing the show's wig budget.
In 'The Return', however, the flashbacks become a more central part of the episode's structure. Rather than serve as a break between scenes, or to underline a simple thematic element, the flashbacks take center stage, offering a glimpse of a pre-Arrow Starling City in which Oliver is ostensibly marooned; while in the present, he and Thea visit Lian Yu for a training session, only to discover Malcolm Merlyn has arranged for Slade Wilson to act as a lesson in lethality.
With the two threads mirroring one another so well, 'The Return' feels almost like a bottle episode. Everything from the siblings' encounter with Slade to Oliver's stealthy visit to Starling is perfectly contained within the confines of the hour. And even though the main thrust serves to prepare Starling's heroes (and Merlyn) for another return of sorts – the return of the League of Assassins, which will likely herald the return of Ra's al Ghul – the episode actually serves a more familiar function of determining where a hero like Oliver draws the line at killing, and whether or not Thea will follow in the footsteps of her brother or her father.
In order to do that, Arrow must go against one of its greatest tendencies: to keep a secret. In other words, for the events in the episode to carry any significant weight, and to propel the storyline forward, Thea must learn the truth about the role she unwittingly played in Sara's murder. That puts the show in an interesting spot, one that it has been exploring all season long – which is an investigation of what the central Arrow storyline would look like if it weren't blocked by characters preventing other characters from knowing what they know.
In essence, this is an extension of the theme surrounding the importance/non-importance of the secret identity. The importance of the secret builds tension that can be exploited time and again. The only problem is: that tension is reduced each time a storyline seeks to use the secret for some narrative gain. Eventually, that tension goes slack and there's nothing left to use. The trick is to reveal the secret before that happens.
There may be some questions as to whether or not Arrow succeeded in pulling Thea into the loop before the tension of her not knowing that her brother was the Arrow and that she fired the arrows that killed Sara had slackened too much – after all, she's been in the dark on the former for the better part of three seasons. But if the improved interaction between Oliver and Thea is any indication, then it may not matter. As Thea has gone from an occasional obstacle to an ally, her arc has mirrored that of her brother's; and when she is told about Sara, the truth serves to fortify their newly forged bond.
In that sense, the dual storylines of 'The Return' become equal parts the maturation of Oliver and Thea. While Oliver and Maseo are running around Starling City, looking to take down China White before she can sell "Armageddon," there is a parallel thread showing Thea's Oliver-like descent into drug-addled party kid status. The scene where Oliver observes Thea buying drugs and is then castigated by Tommy isn't just worth it for the return of Colin Donnell; it demonstrates how important the role of a big brother/mentor is to Thea, even if it took her (and the show, to a certain extent) years to discover that.
At the same time, Oliver's brutal killing of a drug dealer acts as a contradiction to his heroic efforts in terms of saving Maseo's life when confronting China White. All of this allows the series the opportunity to use Slade as a means by which to color the decisions of two characters with every possible reason to want to kill him, tying all the various elements together in a nice, neat package. Although Slade doesn't impact the story much, his appearance does act as the catalyst for two major events in Thea's arc this season. And if the confrontation between Malcolm and Thea is any indication, the use of Slade as a plot device was a resounding success.
But Thea's a different case than, say, Capt. Lance. His being kept out of the loop – when it comes to Oliver, anyway – is reinforced by his collaboration with the Arrow and his contentious relationship with the man underneath the hood. At this point, it's a bit of a stretch that Lance hasn't put together who the Arrow is – what with Laurel and Roy's identities being known to him – but right now what's more important is his reaction to the news that Sara is dead.
The final scene between Laurel and her father makes good use of Paul Blackthorne's slightly exaggerated performance as a drunken Det. Lance – complete with a full head of hair. Both threads have him mourning the loss of his daughter and seeking to take it out on Laurel in some way. It's unclear how his rejection of Laurel is going to play out or why it will even matter, but for right now, having Lance be the character who was recently in dark but responds to the truth with bitterness and resentment (as opposed to Thea), is a surprising move. And it goes to show how much greater the storytelling potential is when characters aren't always kept in the dark
Arrow continues next Wednesday with 'Nada Parbat' @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: