If you had told me at this time last year that the best episode of Arrow Season 5 would be a flashback-heavy one, I would have laughed in your face. “Kapishuon” proved me wrong by giving us a thematically-resonant episode that made Oliver — and the audience — face the stark darkness in his crusade without the rose-tinted glasses.
Arrow has often prided itself on being the “dark” part of the CW’s superhero universe, and it is, partially because there is very little competition (though Barry is trying really, really hard to unseat Oliver from his throne). But there is a difference between the aesthetics of darkness and making your characters face uncomfortably brutal truths. For the first time since Season 2, Arrow is committing to the latter.
Adrian tortures Oliver into the truth.
In a flip of the ordinary Arrow structure, the present-day aspects of “Kapiushon” were the smaller story within the episode. Adrian’s six-day torture of Oliver acted as a frame tale for the flashbacks that revealed a “truth” Oliver has been afraid to admit to himself and his closest friends: he likes/has liked killing.
It’s not exactly a hard jump to make, given how much we’ve seen Oliver do it. (Guys, Oliver has killed so, so many people). But there’s a difference between knowing that Oliver probably has a killing problem in some abstract way, and hearing the main character admit it to himself while seeing the show shape an entire episode and season around that fact. It not only makes Season 5 stronger, it makes all of the story that has come before stronger, too. Because, like Adrian, we have been waiting for Arrow to admit this truth to itself for a long, long time. Without it, it’s been increasingly hard to take Arrow seriously as a show — especially the gritty one it so tried to be in Seasons 3 and 4. This feels like a real turning point for this veteran superhero drama.
How does Adrian get Oliver to admit that he is in murder addiction recovery? Basically, by being the biggest Arrow fanboy ever. Like, this guy has not forgotten an episode and he has the meticulously organized crazy wall to prove it. (Remember: Prometheus went to law school. He’s got the organizational skills.) With his compendium of Arrow knowledge, as well as a fake death cameo from Evelyn, Adrian is able to torture a confession out of Oliver. While I always like to push back against the TV-sanctioned idea that torture produces the truth rather than exactly what the torturer wants to hear, I believed Oliver in this moment … if only because we had the flashbacks to back the confession up.
Oliver skins a guy.
This is how you do flashbacks, people.
When Arrow first launched, it was still that era of TV when pretty much every show was still trying to be Lost. “Kapushion” felt like Lost in its use of flashbacks to bolster the main story. You can tell that Arrow saved up all of its narrative energy (and set dressings) for this flashback-centric episode and, while the story was muddled, it was worth the effort. Yes, there were Bratva shenanigans. Yes, Oliver got yet another member of Taiana’s family killed. Yes, Dolph Lundgren and Malcolm Merlyn were there.
Frankly, none of the plot mechanics mattered very much. This episode was all about the excuses Oliver Queen has made to avoid using the phrase “serial killer” to describe himself. The flashbacks used their greatest mouthpiece to hammer home the point: Anatoly, the flashback gift that keeps on giving.
Anatoly has long been a favorite. From his introduction on the Amazo when he watched Oliver perform surgery on himself to the Russia-set episode of Season 2 to his prominent role in this season’s flashbacks. Anatoly has always been a friend, someone Oliver can count on, but never without snarky, heavily-accented comment. Anatoly has often been critical of Oliver’s actions, and in-character element this show tends to have when it’s at its best.
From the moment Oliver showed up in Russia, Anatoly has been telling him to go home, he has been questioning why he would spend his time trying to kill Kovar when he could go home to his family. Tonight, Anatoly stopped beating around the bush (as much as Anatoly ever beats around the bush) to spell it out for Oliver: “You are fool to think a piece of cloth can separate man from monster. Dividing yourself in half can only make monster stronger until he’s stronger than you … This man I see now has more resemblance to Slade Wilson or Anthony Ivo.”
Oliver should have listened, but he didn’t want to. He couldn’t then. Now, after years working towards creating a team and family, after Adrian’s psychological and physical torture, Anatoly’s words finally seem to be sinking in. They provide some emotional distance to Oliver’s confession. The protagonist of the show is allowed to admit his murder addiction because he is in recovery. He still has issues, but, man was he messed up when he first came back from his five years away. In this way, the flashbacks give us a chance to have our cake and eat it, too.
I’ve said it before, usually after a terrible flashback episode of Arrow: the flashbacks only work when they inform the present-day storyline in some way, and when they are conceivably something present-day Oliver could be thinking about. “Kapiushon” was a master example of this, seamlessly interweaving the flashbacks into present-day until the climactic sequence that saw flashback and present-day intercut a la Slade and Oliver’s fight in the Season 2 finale.
Here, there is no line between the past and the present. There is no priority between the flashback and the present-day storylines. They are one in the same. They are the tragic, layered story of Oliver Queen, the man and the monster.