Ever since the series premiered in 2012, the use of flashbacks has been a cornerstone of Arrow. Taking cues from the recently ended Lost, and playing off the Green Arrow origin written by Andrew Diggle, the producers chose to incorporate a flashback structure into the series, and not one that would intermittently appear between episodes or transfer between characters. It was far more purposeful, with the goal of providing an in-depth look at the origin of a superhero by watching the 10-year process through which Oliver Queen transforms from a playboy into the Green Arrow.
It was a bold idea at the time, especially in an era when the abundance of superhero television hadn't quite yet taken off. It demanded audience investment in the present storyline and in the past as well. It meant being able to keep both narrative paths fresh and interesting, while often times finding thematic parallels between the two from episode to episode. It meant essentially intersecting Oliver's journey from one timeline — one set of characters and circumstances — to another.
The Flashbacks Started Out Strong
In the first season, the flashbacks proved their mettle. The early days of watching Oliver take to the streets as The Hood raised the question of how his "five years in hell" might have changed him. The flashbacks afforded us the opportunity to see just that. While the driven, vigilante killer of the present was stacked up against the naive and in-over-his-head playboy, the differences between the two Oliver Queens was stark. There was a long divide between these two views of the character, and it promised interesting things still to come.
What's more, the stories on Lian Yu in the first (and even more in the second) season provided for satisfying narratives all their own by showing the beginnings of how Oliver became a killer and how it was a necessity for him to survive (survival being a key recurring motif in the first year). It let us meet important characters to the Green Arrow's origin — Yao Fei and Shado — who inspired the look of the superhero (among other things), and of course Slade Wilson — a friend and ally to Oliver and the others early on.
The Second Year Was Even Better
In the second season, the flashbacks were even more of a resounding success. Anyone who knew the truth of Slade Wilson likely anticipated his inevitable turn into the villain, Deathstroke. However, the current state of affairs in the flashback time period made such a promise all the more intriguing. Slade had worked with Oliver to take down the mercenary Fyres in the first season while Oliver, Shado, Sara and Slade holding back the madness of Anthony Ivo set the stage for the second year. Long and short of it: Oliver and Slade were friends, and that friendship mattered a great deal.
The second half of the season took full advantage of this, achieving a uniquely effective method of executing the flashbacks relative to the present-day storyline; something akin to the methodology of Lost's fourth season, where the present foreshadows events still to come in the past.
Seeing Slade Wilson's emergence as the villain dogging Team Arrow while the season evolved enhanced anticipation for the flashback storyline. It left the audience questioning and wondering what was to come that would fracture their friendship, even as that anticipation resonated tension across to the present-day events of Slade and his minions closing in and Oliver and his allies.
This made for a superb season finale, capping off one of the finest seasons of comic book television ever made. When the question of Oliver's tendency to kill (rather than capture) enemies was brought to the fore, the knowledge that Oliver chose to kill (and not save) Slade at a pivotal moment added tension to the narrative's consideration of the subject. The need for Oliver to find a way to defeat his friend-turned-foe without killing him became the greatest crisis in the climax. The grand finale itself was built around a spectacular split of events — smoothly switching between two contests that pitted Oliver against Slade., with both coming to a head after a long season of buildup.
Third Season Started To Stall
While the show executed this all with finesse, much of it began to fade in its third year. No doubt many a factor played a role in the post-Slade sag — the producers had divided their resources, concentrating on the launch of The Flash (and later, the continued expansion of Arrowverse into two more shows). All the while, the show itself struggled to live up to the high quality achieved in its second year.
By comparison, the flashbacks in the third year became more of a weakness; not yet the liability they were in fourth, but they lost much of what them so impactful to begin with. Oliver's travels to Hong Kong — while good in theory — came up short in execution. The show struggled more as the season went, trying to make the flashback events themselves interesting and coherent enough to stand on their own, while also tying in to events of the present (as they had the year before). But more and more they failed, and with the season finale, the flashback storyline just sort of ended.
The fourth season became an even lower point for the concept. Four years in and they started to fray at the edges. Perhaps it's not too much of a surprise, as Lost stuck to the idea early on with the implication that this would be a series-long idea, and even just in its second year they started to feel rote. At this point, #Arrow almost seemed to be spinning its wheels.
The story itself hardly lacked any intrigue. The players involved — outside of Oliver himself — were largely forgettable; events were messy, the story unfocused, and the return to Lian Yu failed to live up to the show's previous forays to that all-important island.
At the same time, it perhaps reflected Season 4 itself — a year that struggled to find compelling storylines, justification for its (albeit entertaining) villain, and juggle a cast that were all starting to share the same emotional space within the framework of the show.
The Fifth Season Bounced Back In Quality
The fifth season has managed to bounce back in excellent form in the parallel narratives — something that's likely due just as much to the incredible resurgence of the show's focus and quality. Perhaps it also benefits from pieces already laid in place from past seasons — characters like Anatoly could reappear as a more important presence in Oliver's journey, and the as-of-yet-untold story of his time with the Bratva could now come to the fore. The audience had been waiting since first season to see it play out, and it did not disappoint.
Of course, where that leaves us now is the looming end of the flashbacks — a staple of the show since its very beginning; something that's largely held it apart from all its successors, in more than one way. To a greater degree than Flash or Supergirl, Arrow has had a vested interest in dissecting and deconstructing the nature of superheroism. Utilizing the two narratives in tandem — spread out over a period of 10 years — to explore how someone might achieve that ultimate transition. All the while suggesting that there's far more to it than simply having skills or powers, and a desire to help others.
At its best, it's also made Arrow a standout series in the genre for this very reason. As the producers themselves have even said, Oliver was called "The Hood" and "The Arrow" in early seasons because he hadn't yet earned the right to be called "Green Arrow." It's a mantle of achievement and responsibility. Letting the character make so many mistakes along the way is part of the appeal — it enhances the idea that superheroism is something that makes someone a standout from the human race (all the while reminding of the cost in what it takes).
For all that they've been hit and miss in later seasons, the flashbacks have still often served the series well, giving it a richness and a thematic depth to its considerations of criminal justice, vigilantism and identity. While the producers have indicated they might continue utilizing flashbacks in some form or another next year, it won't be the same. This is the end of that 10 years journey when it all comes together, building on that remarkable journey our lead has taken to truly becoming the Green Arrow. The flashbacks may not always have been perfect, but at their best, they've made for a hell of a ride.
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