‘Arrow’ (Season 4): The Flashback Problem

Though there have been some stumbles along the way – the messy handling of Oliver and Felicity’s relationship comes to mind – but this season of Arrow has been a major improvement over last in just about every way. From a stronger villain to better use of the show’s large cast, the weekly visits to Star City have been truly enjoyable. However, whenever things shift to a certain lost island, quality dips hard and fast.

Yes, I’m talking about the flashbacks. Each year, we’ve been given a glimpse into Oliver’s “five years in hell.” Early on, these scenes were great; we wanted to know what turned Oliver from an aimless playboy into the hooded vigilante we followed each week. And for two seasons, they worked marvelously, building up Oliver’s on-island life to, at times, be even more interesting than the Arrow’s adventures. But perhaps the best evidence of how strong the flashbacks once were is the fact that the first two seasons each gave us an entire episode dedicated to the on-island action, and they still stand as series’ highlights.

Starting with the third season, though, the show has never revisited the idea of an all-flashback episode, and for good reason; the flashbacks simply aren’t as interesting or necessary anymore. Ever since Past Oliver became an unwilling agent of ARGUS, the flashbacks have really offered noting to the show. So, the news that they’ll be continuing next year isn’t exactly all that exciting, even with the scintillating promise of learning about Oliver’s mob connections. You know, the same ones that haven’t been relevant since season two?

A big part of why the flashback don’t work anymore is because the purpose they originally served has long since been fulfilled. With the epic fight between Oliver and Slade at the end of season two, the one that cut between past and present, we saw the end of Ollie’s journey to becoming the Arrow. As a result, there’s been little else worth learning in the past. The show’s tried to introduce flashback arcs since then that tie into the present day, but it’s never worked quite the same.

And things have only gotten worse this year. Say what you will about season three, its flashback arc at least tied to the present much sooner with the presence of Tatsu and her family. This year, though? We’ve seen that Oliver once faced a villain with the same magical powers as Damien Dahrk, powers that villain only got recently.

Maybe there’s a way to reinvigorate the flashback scenes; as this week’s flashback to Tommy’s funeral showed, there’s still ways to find emotional depth by looking to the past. More realistically, though? Maybe the show should just abandon the format altogether. The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow only occasionally bring such scenes into play, and only when they can enhance the story being told in a given episode. With season five covering the last year of Oliver’s exile, maybe we can hope for as much in season six.

Or a time jump will give us a whole new set of flashbacks to deal with. Who knows…