Last week’s episode ended with something we’d been waiting for since the season 6 premiere — Slade calling on Oliver to help him find his son — and tonight’s “Deathstroke Returns” follows through on that promise. Not everything in the episode works necessarily, but it’s still a fairly compelling hour that sees the return of one of the show’s best assets: Manu Bennett’s Slade.
One of the worst things to happen to Arrow was having to sideline Slade Wilson. Given his history with Oliver and the Mirakuru, he’s an immediately compelling antagonist whose motives and state of mind remain intriguing. In the fifth season finale, Slade told Oliver that the Mirakuru’s effects had worn off and that he’s finally back in his right mind, but even up to this episode, it’s still not clear how much we should trust him.
It’s clear Oliver certainly doesn’t completely trust him. Oliver keeps his distance from his old Lian Yu buddy throughout their entire conversation as Slade shares what he’s learned about his son Joe. Short story shorter, Joe followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Australian secret intelligence; however, his recent mission landed him in trouble in Kasnia and now he’s in prison. But it’s a fairly tense affair, and both men convey that they haven’t simply forgotten everything that went down in season 2. That painful history hangs over all of their conversations throughout the episode.
Obviously, Oliver doesn’t jump at the idea of helping Slade, especially since Slade was the one who told him he couldn’t operate in two worlds anymore. However, Slade assures him that he needs Oliver Queen, not the Green Arrow, because he has a diplomatic solution in mind. Oliver’s other main concern is that he promised William he was out of this life, but Felicity suggests he simply tell William a version of the truth, that he’s helping a friend find his son. Oliver does just that and then jumps on a plane to Kasnia with his old buddy.
Over the course of the episode, we’re shown flashbacks to Slade and Joe going camping together 15 years ago. Joe doubts they’ll make it the entire weekend because Slade usually gets called off to work, but Slade assures him that won’t happen. Actually, he knows it won’t because this camping trip is a cover for a mission, which involves Slade trying to get information on Yao Fei’s whereabouts from a Chinese foreign official. In all honesty, you wouldn’t lose much if the flashbacks were removed from the episode, because Bennett does a good job of conveying the guilt he feels over the terrible job he’s done as a father in the present. The flashbacks feel gratuitous and redundant and stop this episode in its tracks.
When Oliver and Slade arrive in Kasnia, they meet with one of Slade’s old buddies, who gives them necessary intel to find his son. The moment this friend, whose name I didn’t catch, enters the scene and starts talking about Slade and the Mirakuru, it’s clear there’s something more going on. Anyway, Oliver and Slade head to a hotel room, where Slade tells Oliver his plan to free his son: Oliver must go into the prison under the pretense of being an American mayor on a humanitarian mission to free Joe, who goes by the name Kane, and then once that happens, Oliver is to take Joe to the airport and hop on a flight to London without revealing Slade’s involvement. Oliver doesn’t want to lie to Joe, but Slade insists. (Next: Vigilante’s identity is finally revealed )
Obviously, this plan doesn’t work out. The warden tells Oliver that Joe died trying to break up a prison fight, which breaks Slade’s heart because he’s worried his son died not knowing he loved him. Oliver reminds Slade that he can still say goodbye, so the two men return to the prison, where they find out the warden lied. The group Joe was investigating, the Jackals, apparently kidnapped him from the prison, which sends Slade into beast mode. Slade suits up as Deathstroke and drugs Oliver so he can’t follow him as he goes after the Jackals.
Slade storms the Jackals’ hideout in a bloody action sequence that’s shot as a series of slow-motion long takes that look fantastic and really convey how this man is a walking war machine. His rampage eventually ends with him being surrounded by gunmen as the source he met with earlier reveals he’s part of the Jackals. Eventually, Oliver wakes up and makes his way to the hideout, arriving just in time for the big reveal: Joe makes his grand entrance and reveals he’s the leader of the Jackals, which is the last thing Slade expected.
That big Joe reveal — he isn’t the man Slade believed he was — thematically connects with what’s going on in the other half of the episode. Vigilante makes his big return in tonight’s episode and targets the councilwoman behind the anti-vigilante bill. Dinah eventually corners him and discovers that Vigilante is Vincent Sobel, her former partner (professionally and romantically), whom she last saw getting shot in the head on the night of the particle accelerator explosion. It turns out he didn’t die and instead became a crazed vigilante.
What hurts this big reveal, however, is that the show did very little to tease it. It’s been quite a while since we heard about Vincent, so the moment he takes off his mask in his first confrontation with Dinah doesn’t really work. Dinah’s reaction doesn’t work as well as it should for the same reason. She’s basically in shock because she can’t understand how the man she loved and grieved, who used to make her cute matchboxes, became this monster she barely recognizes. That feeling is only amplified when they discover his huge stash of handmade bullets, indicating his war goes far beyond one councilwoman.
After realizing how far gone Vincent is, Dinah decides she has no other option but to take him down. Diggle realizes this is a lot and reminds her not to close herself off to the possibility that the man she loved is still in there. At first, it seems as though Dinah has done exactly that, but then she comes face to face with him once again when he tries to kill the councilwoman at a news station at the end of the episode. During this confrontation, Vincent reveals that the particle accelerator gave him healing powers, which is how he didn’t die that night. After he survived that death, he realized they accomplished nothing as cops and decided to take matters into his own hands, hence Vigilante.
When they start to hear sirens, Dinah reluctantly lets Vincent flee the scene and tells the team he simply got away. Her merciful gesture ends up confirming that the man she loves is still in there; she finds a cute matchbox waiting for her in her car at the end of the episode.
Vigilante isn’t the only struggle Team Arrow faces, though. Agent Watson continues her investigation in earnest. She meets Diggle, who foolishly believes his answers shut down the investigation. He’s wrong. Next, Agent Watson turns her sights on Felicity. No surprise here, but Agent Watson has no patience for Felicity’s humor. By the end of the episode, Agent Watson has started suspecting that Dinah is actually the new Black Canary, which can’t mean anything good.
There’s a lot to like in “Deathstroke Returns,” but as the episode’s cliffhanger — Slade learning that his son Joe is the leader of the Jackals — conveys, this was part one of a slightly bigger story that will be concluded in next week’s episode. Tonight’s outing was all about sowing the emotional seeds for what will be explored next week, which is why everything here ends up feeling somewhat disappointing.