Arrow Season 3 lets loose its 14th installment of the year with “The Return,” as the Queens return to Lian Yu and find Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) waiting for them, while in the past Oliver arrives back in Starling City, and checks in on his loved ones.

Last week, “Canaries” saw Count Vertigo (Peter Stormare)’s breakout complicating Laurel’s efforts as Black Canary, while Oliver bristled against the team’s new structure, and questioned telling Thea the truth, so what does the 14th episode of Arrow Season 3 bring?

Read on for your in-depth review of everything you need to know about Arrow Season 3, episode 14, “The Return!”

Once Oliver returned to Starling in last week’s closing flashback, it struck me how much less complicated Arrow proved in its first season, and how tonally different the series felt in its early days. The initial concept added a hefty dose of Batman Begins to an otherwise CW soap, an admittedly underdeveloped vision, but one that seems much simpler in retrospect than its overstuffed and unfocused present. This week, we’re treated to “The Return” of the classic Arrow title card and musical cue, partially for superficial reasons of the hour’s titular switcheroo, but also appropriate for the return of a much more emotionally-connected vision, amid some hearty nostalgia.

The lingering secrets unveiled last week (along with the final blow of Thea learning her role in Sara’s murder) very much fed into that feeling of classic Arrow, which itself kept a fair bit of secrets, but never failed to let their consequences resonate. Tonight’s revelation of how Malcolm had used Thea enables her to achieve the most strength and relevance we’ve seen from the character yet, fervently defying any familial affection for the elder Merlyn, and standing up to her father just as well as she’d gone physically toe-to-toe with Slade earlier. Not only that, but the bond between Oliver and Thea has grown more honest than ever, a refreshing change from the pair’s previously walled interactions.

The same return to emotional form rings true of Paul Blackthorne’s Quentin Lance, as the flashbacks offer a nostalgic glimpse at the character’s surlier, angrier past, spewing some harsh accusations at both Thea and Laurel for forgetting how Oliver and Sara’s shipwreck had ruined all their lives. Season 3 has seen the character heavily marginalized and willing to leave matters to the Arrow, and however flawed the flashbacks present Lance, I can’t help missing some of the character’s original fire. It certainly helped that “The Return” gave a chance to check in with post-Sara Quentin and Laurel in the present day, even if the confrontation proved a heartbreaking emphasis on how badly Laurel’s lies had damaged the unique father-daughter bond present through the very pilot.

Nostalgia soaks every inch of “The Return,” not solely by the many familiar faces* popping up in reprise, but also a number of familiar-looking locations, and plenty of winks and nods to Oliver’s future return to Starling. It feels much more like home than anything prior of Season 3, which is fitting, given that both Olivers end up returning to a home that no longer feels as much. Season 3 hasn’t quite landed its point on which of Oliver’s identities will win out, the man or the Arrow, though Slade certainly makes an interesting point that the many people Oliver loses strip away at any identity he envisions for himself.

*It’s almost unnerving how easily Willa Holland can be made to look younger with extensions, wardrobe and some choice framing, though the same couldn’t necessarily be said of a beefier post-Affair Colin Donnell. As to the other appearances, Felicity’s seemed the most superfluous (and questionable, continuity-wise), while Robert Queen’s taped message seemed hastily shot on Jamey Sheridan’s own balcony, and quite odd, taken out of context as something Robert might record for his son.

Phrasing! No, wait. Framing?

Slade's reappearance, meanwhile, helps to cement the sense of familiarity inherent to “The Return,” though the more peaceful version glimpsed tonight served mostly as a cipher for Oliver and Thea to work out any lingering issues of trust, which connected nicely when Oliver convinced his sister to show Merlyn they’ll never be the killers he envisions. It’s also of interest that Slade chose not to kill either, given the chance, though it’s a shame the character’s more balanced transformation seemingly won’t lend itself to a Suicide Squad appearance anytime soon.

It’s tough to say where exactly Arrow Season 3 goes from here, now that Oliver and Thea will undoubtedly return to a more convoluted conflict with the League of Assassins, while Ray Palmer and his A.T.O.M. suit jet off into what feels like (but hopefully isn’t) another series altogether. There’s still plenty of hours to go this season as well, but “The Return” proved a wonderful reminder of how well Arrow can keep in touch with its grounded roots, and keep sight of the complicated emotions swirling around such a tightly-wound family dynamic. The nostalgia and winking references offered up a lot of fun as well, provided we don’t think too heavily on the incredible coincidences of everything Oliver would overhear.

AND ANOTHER THING…

  • I’ll forgive the guilt-tripping nature of what every character unwise to Oliver’s presence seemed to say, but present Laurel referencing her father’s past criticism of the San Francisco offer seemed like the biggest cheat of the night.
  • Really, how difficult could it have been for Oliver and Thea to find an escape from that cell, given enough time? And why, for shoulder-dislocating sake, would no one try to reach the button with a shoe first?!
  • The grease paint reference put it over the top, but it was nice to see Oliver formulating his early Arrow persona against Thea’s drug dealer, neck-break and all.
  • I miss the Queen mansion. Did Oliver sell it in the present day? Are we working on getting back Queen Consolidated at any point?
  • China White continuing the auction through all the gunfire was pretty great.
  • So, what do we make of this Army chap? Laying some early ground for Season 4 flashbacks, perhaps?

Well, did Arrow hit the mark with its 14th Season 3 installment? Was Slade’s return worth the wait? Stay tuned for the latest, and check back next week for our review of Arrow Season 3’s “Nanda Parbat” on The CW!