Have Arrow’s Flashbacks Worked?

James Akinaka
TV Arrowverse
TV Arrowverse DC

Arrow is about to bid farewell to one if its famous traditions. The TV show’s upcoming fifth season will be the last to feature the season-long flashbacks to Oliver Queen‘s five-year journey through hell. After that, fans will have to say goodbye to Arrow‘s flashbacks.

Some of Arrow‘s flashback stories have worked better than others. For the series’ past four seasons, fans have learned how Oliver transformed from a spoiled playboy into a gritty vigilante. Let’s look back and see which season’s flashbacks were the most successful.

Season 1: Oliver’s Crucible


The main appeal of season one‘s flashbacks was that they were an extreme contrast from the present-day story. Through Lian Yu, Oliver met a trio of characters — Yao Fei, Shado, and Slade Wilson — who taught him how to survive. Together, they went up against Edward Fyers and his team of mercenaries. The story drew inspiration from comics like Green Arrow: Year One and The Longbow Hunters.

A few of my friends enjoyed the flashbacks more than season one’s present-day story, which revolved around Malcolm Merlyn‘s plot to destroy the Glades. Although the flashbacks worked well, they still felt divorced from the season’s present story. Even so, they did an excellent job of showing how Oliver survived his crucible on Lian Yu.

Season 2: Deathstroke’s Promise


Arrow‘s writing team noticed the successful impact of Season 1’s flashbacks. As a result, the writers made Season 2‘s flashbacks significantly more integrated. Fans watched as Oliver and Sara Lance worked with — and then against — Slade Wilson. Every detail had direct repercussions on Oliver’s present-day struggle with Deathstroke in Starling City.

I’ve always seen Arrow as a drama series that happens to wear superhero garb. Season two was when the show unabashedly embraced and utilized the soap opera at its core. Fans got to understand why Deathstroke nursed such a hard-hitting grudge against Oliver. In many ways, the second season’s effective flashbacks became the model that subsequent seasons tried to emulate.

Season 3: A Trip to Hong Kong

Arrow episode "Broken Arrow" Karl Yune as Maseo and Rila Fukushima as Tatsu Yamashiro -- Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW

Season three changed the tone of Arrow‘s flashbacks by sending Oliver away from Lian Yu. In Hong Kong, Oliver became an operative for A.R.G.U.S.’s Amanda Waller, though not by choice. Cynthia Addai-Robinson‘s cutthroat portrayal of Waller was one of my favorite parts of the flashbacks. I was disappointed when Addai-Robbinson had to be written out of the season’s later flashbacks due to scheduling conflicts. Matthew Shrieve, the villain who replaced Waller, just didn’t have as much of an impact.

Part of the challenge of Arrow‘s flashback structure is that at times, it seems too convenient that Oliver’s past from five years ago is always affecting his present-day life. In that way, the flashbacks can sometimes feel a bit tiresome. Nevertheless, season three got plenty of mileage from Oliver’s relationship with the Yamashiro family. The episode “This Is Your Sword” showed Tatsu Yamashiro’s heartbreaking loss of her son, Akio, in the past, and the gut-wrenching murder of her husband, Maseo, in the present.

The third season’s flashbacks might have lacked season two’s overall impact, but they still had their moments.

Season 4: Return to Lian Yu


Arrow‘s flashbacks finally started to burn out in season four. The season had a compelling focus on magic, but the flashbacks meandered at a drawn-out pace. Amanda Waller reappeared to send Oliver to infiltrate another villain’s operations back on Lian Yu. Oliver worked with Taiana Venediktov to thwart Baron Reiter‘s search for a magical idol. However, neither Taiana nor Reiter were particularly memorable as characters. As a result, it was difficult to get invested in the flashbacks.

The problem with season four’s flashbacks was that they could be summed up in a single sentence: Oliver encountered the Khushu Idol before Damien Darhk began using it in the present day. Arrow‘s producers seemed to notice that fans had a mixed response to season four’s lackluster flashbacks. Co-executive producer Marc Guggenheim admitted that the writers struggled with season four’s flashbacks. It’s nice to know that the writers try to be receptive to fan response.

Looking to the Future (and the Past)

Arrow episode "Suicide Squad" Pictured: Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen Photo: Jack Rowand/The CW

Arrow co-executive producer Wendy Mericle promised that season five‘s upcoming flashbacks will be more “engrossing and focused.” Oliver is heading to Russia to bring Taiana’s family the news of her death. The flashbacks will also explore how Oliver entered the Russian Bratva. And Anatoly Knyazev, one of my favorite characters, will be back to help Oliver through his Bratva initiation.

It remains to be seen exactly how much of season five’s flashbacks will tie into the present-day story. We also have yet to learn why Oliver returns to Lian Yu, in time for Chinese fishermen to rescue him and bring him back to civilization at the beginning of season one. This season, Arrow‘s flashbacks should have a strong trajectory, since they have a solid endpoint. Hopefully, they’ll deliver a memorable end to the series’ flashbacks.

By tuning into Arrow‘s fifth season premiere, you won’t fail your city. Arrow shoots back onto TV screens with “Legacy,” which airs on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 8pm.

James Akinaka
James Akinaka arrives at Fandom by way of Wookieepedia. He covers Star Wars, superheroes, and animation and has mastered the art of nitpicking. Since he works in publishing, he reads far too many books.
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