As Arrow marches on towards its first season finale (CW has formally renewed the show for a second season), it’s a good time to take stock of the significant story progress the show has made in barely more than a dozen episodes. Oliver’s quest to save Starling City has gotten a lot more complicated since those simple early days of merely crossing off names on his daddy’s hit/shit list. As a result, Oliver’s relationship with his family, both genetic, and “professional,” has gotten more and more tangled each week, to a point that the Venn diagrams of each are rapidly overlapping. The truth behind many of the season’s biggest mysteries still remains unclear, but the mysteries themselves have become better defined, with clearer stakes developing as shreds of information are gradually revealed.
It’s on pace to tie up most of the season rather neatly, but where Arrow has been slow to make real progress is the flashback plotline, a risky narrative device that has nonetheless paid off pretty well for the show, thus far. As I wrote last week, the island storyline has the benefit of total freedom from the series’ baggage characters, and formulas. There’s a busyness to the present day plots in most episodes, which would make cutting back to scruffy Amell bitching, and moaning his way through the wilds of British Colum- sorry, China- an anchor for the show, were it not Arrow’s single most consistent narrative. Even though we’re first introduced to Oliver just as he is finally leaving the island, what led to that moment has always been, and may always be, the show’s richest potential throughline, one necessarily kept at a low boil.
The flashbacks, though unpredictable in the timing of their appearances, have been reliably engaging, as they always find ways to keep the younger Oliver hanging on by a bare thread each week. The introduction of Slade Wilson was the latest in a string of dramatic reversals, and shocking-to-baffling twists that have made Oliver’s island sabbatical particularly novel, and unlike anything else the show is doing. Yet, the plotline has been cagey about actually answering the big question that justifies the entire show: how is it a spoiled, trust fund prick, that can grow about as much facial hair in six months, as some teenagers do in six hours, turned into the ultimate archer-survivalist woodland warrior?
It’s a question that’s been pushed towards the foreground very gently these last 14 weeks, as to divulge too much too soon would ruin the show’s most dependable bag of tricks. Whenever Oliver needs a particular skill, bit of knowledge, or gang affiliation that will help with the baddie of the week, the solution is only a flashback away. The island has a mystique as rich as its implied history, so the showrunners are understandably in no rush to rip the conifer canopy out, and expose every secret of Leean-Yoo (secret #1: how to actually spell the island’s name).
But the writers have set a hard, 5-year time limit on the arc, so it’s somewhat surprising to learn this week that Oliver has been marooned for now half a year, which he commemorates with Slade by assaulting Fyres’ airfield. In those six months, Oliver has picked up a little Mandarin, and gotten the piss punched, choked, and slashed out of him, but not much else. The guy can’t even start a fire, and the one time he’s successfully defended himself was mostly a fluke. Protector of Starling City, this kid ain’t. He may have picked up a few skills here and there from his two reluctant mentors, but Slade’s trepidation over bringing the still green (in a bad way) Oliver along with him to the airstrip is entirely warranted.
It was to be expected that Arrow would carve out a solitary hour dedicated to finally jumpstarting Island Oliver’s career as an ass-kicker. The “big flashback episode” is a pretty common trope across all genres, with the only real quirk to it being how you justify it in the fiction, if at all. “The Odyssey” goes for one of the classic excuses, by placing Oliver in a gunshot-induced, flashback-inducing coma. Moira, though only present for the opening five minutes, might be the episodes MVP, disarming a not truthfully hostile, but still inquisitive Oliver with the ol’, “I’m a mother” routine, before blowing a hole in his shoulder that requires some serious surgery back at the Arrow-Cave.
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