Per its title, “The Return” works as a “return” in more ways than one. Not only does it mark Oliver coming back to the Island and facing off against an old foe, but a good chunk of it concerns flashback Oliver walking clandestine through his old city and spying on his loved ones from afar (and sometimes, not so afar). From a plot standpoint, the episode really doesn’t push much of the story forward aside from asserting the fact that Thea can be a helpful asset (which has been an assumption since the Season Three premiere) and that she no longer can trust Malcolm Merlyn (which was already hit home at the conclusion of last week’s episode). As such, this is an episode driven by character. Yet, while Arrow’s character work has been shockingly good over the past three seasons, many of the developments in this episode felt like foregone conclusions.
Primarily, the episode concerns Oliver and Thea coming back to the Island to train. It’s here that Oliver realizes that Malcolm has arranged Slade Wilson’s escape as a means of testing Oliver and Thea’s teamwork. The rest of the episode is basically a cat-and-mouse game between the former Deathstroke and the brother/sister team.
Sure, it’s fun to have Manu Bennett back after a lengthy absence this season. That being said, it also feels as though the creative team is saving him for a bigger role down the line, as his appearance here is fairly minor in the broad scheme of things. Throughout the episode, a good portion of his presence is expressed via his booming voice coming from somewhere off-camera, or the traps he’s set for Oliver and Thea. And while, for the purpose of the episode, his defeat at the hands of the Queen siblings comes about as expected, it is a bit disappointing to see such a prominent and memorable villain beaten down so easily.
Likewise, the “teamwork” that Oliver and Thea demonstrate on the island sometimes comes across more as an example of convenience. When Slade imprisons the pair, for example, they devise an escape plan under the assumption that this prison was never meant to hold someone as small as Thea. Thus, by dislocating her arm, Thea is able to reach around the bars to open the cell doors. Why the A.R.G.U.S designers of this place would put the release button so close to the actual cell feels like a major design flaw.
No doubt the more interesting segment for fans comes with the flashback scenes, which finds Oliver and Maseo attempting to break into Queen Consolidated to get info on China White and her sale of the biological weapon. Mostly, it’s a convoluted excuse to have Oliver observe how the world has devolved in his absence. Thea is a drug reckless drug addict, a bitter Quentin is hitting the bottle hard and Laurel struggling with her complex feelings about Sara’s “death.” In the process, we also get glimpses of future allies (Felicity brings something up to Robert Queen’s desk and Diggle works security for a party), as well as long-lost friends (Tommy appears in the role of temporary protector to Thea and inspiration to Laurel).
As a whole, the flashbacks work more as amusing fan service than a propelling development of the story. Since we know how all these seeded dynamics and arcs will eventually turn out, it’s not really horribly compelling from a character standpoint. Most of the time, it feels like little more than a cool way for the flashback scenes to fill time. The only major development, it seems, comes with Oliver’s murder of Thea’s violent drug dealer. Though the show does everything it can to justify the killing (the killer not only attacked Oliver but threatened to reveal he was alive, thus putting his family in A.R.G.U.S’s crosshairs), it’s still a bit shocking to see a now-heroic Oliver going to such extremes.
Despite its experimental structure, “The Return” feels mostly like a filler episode. While the flashbacks make very little narrative headway, the main story tries to get mileage out of the return of a beloved villain as a means of bringing excitement to what’s essentially a fairly dull concept (Oliver reconnects with Thea via their training). Of course, a filler episode in Arrow still has the capability to be exciting and fun, and that’s precisely what “The Return” is. It may not be the season’s best hour in the long run but, as a temporary respite from the main action, it still has enough good material to sustain itself.