Arrow Recap: Oliver's Dark Side Returns in Season Premiere

"Arrow" returned tonight with a season premiere that came out swinging. After the last two seasons of fighting the immortals Ra's al Ghul and Damien Darhk, Oliver finally got to fight some regular-powered -- but completely ruthless -- bad guys. The premiere featured incredible stunt sequences (who knew Oliver had a parachute arrow?) all thanks to the brilliant direction of James Bamford, the show's stunt coordinator. For the first time in two seasons the flashbacks felt like they were a part of the story. Oliver wasn't being held hostage in Hong Kong or trapped back on the island, he was in Russia of his own free will, which somehow felt truer to who Oliver was than being forced to work for Amanda Waller. Everything about this episode felt grounded, which made the danger and the stakes even riskier. A new criminal master mind was revealed -- Tobias Church -- who felt more like a "Luke Cage" villain than a CW one. The pacing was fantastic, Oliver's decisions and motivations all made sense, this finally felt like the "Arrow" we all signed up to watch back in season one. It was dark, gritty, and felt like a street-level hero show, which is exactly what "Arrow" is supposed to be.

The episode kicks off with Oliver fighting Lonnie Machin/Anarky, who had set up a bomb inside a building. While Oliver was beating up on Machin, Felicity was working to shut down the bomb. This scene clearly established that neither Thea/Speedy nor Diggle/Spartan are working with Oliver anymore. Together Felicity and Oliver are able to thwart Machin and stop the bomb, but not without being interrupted by a new vigilante in a hockey mask. As Oliver discovers later, this vigilante is Wild Dog. After the takedown of Anarky, Oliver shows up at a city event as his other alter ego, Mayor Queen. When questioned by the press about his upcoming policy plans, Oliver calls out the rumor that there have been a wave of corruption in the Star City Police Department. As we see later in the episode, many of the police have become corrupt, especially in the absence of Captain Quentin Lance. Some of these bad cops are killed when a new mob boss comes into town and infiltrates all the separate gangs -- Tobias Church. Church single-handedly unites all the gangs in Star City, including the dirty cops, for a mission to take down Mayor Queen and the Green Arrow.

This mission leads to the capture of Mayor Queen and other city officials. The irony of Church thinking he can kidnap the Mayor in order to draw out the Green Arrow is pretty hilarious, considering they are the same person. The kidnapping happens at the public unveiling of the Laurel Lance/Black Canary tribute statue. Mayor Queen is presiding over the ceremony when Church's crew breaks in. The ceremony itself was a fitting tribute to Laurel's memory, though it still doesn't feel real that she's dead. Captain Lance was able to make an appearance at the ceremony, despite battling severe depression and alcoholism. The scene where Oliver found Lance in his apartment, drunk, broken, and alone was heartbreaking. Lance has been one of the most formidable characters on the show over the last four seasons, and the subsequent deaths of both of his daughters continues to take a toll. It was wonderful seeing him jump back into the fight to rescue Oliver, even though all he wanted to do was crawl back into the inside of a bottle. Lance was able to mobilize a team of clean cops who could help rescue the hostages from Church. Seeing Lance calling plays from inside the Arrow cave was pretty amazing, considering he used to be opposed to the Green Arrow's vigilante ways. Does this mean Lance has officially joined Team Arrow?

Lance wasn't the only person who got out of the game when Laurel died. Thea had also hung up her cape and bow and exchanged it for a place at Mayor Queen's side. Much like her mother before her, Thea was made for politics. Watching her coordinate Oliver's schedule and walk him through policy was a joy to see because Thea is a strong, intelligent, capable woman, who was meant to run companies and Mayorial campaigns. Laurel's death affected her greatly, but she was willing to put on her Speedy suit again in order to save Oliver. She was shocked to discover, however, Oliver killing a man, when she finally found his location. After an entire season of Thea working through her blood lust and overcoming the urge to kill, now Oliver is back at it. This is quite a roll-reversal for both of them, since Oliver stopped killing in season three. When Thea pulls Oliver aside to question him about it, he says that if he had been willing to go all the way before, maybe Laurel would still be alive. While Oliver didn't hang up his hood after Laurel's death, he was certainly affected by it and is allowing the guilt of it to steer him towards leaving no line uncrossed for justice.

With Oliver and the hostages safely out of harm's way, Oliver put in a phone call to Diggle. After Felicity and Curtis had both been hounding Oliver to recruit a new team, Oliver finally decided to ask Diggle if it was OK. When Diggle said yes, Oliver came to the realization that the "old band" was never getting back together. This decision to move forward came as Oliver reflected on the Russian proverb that Anatoli told him five years ago in Russia, "A shark who doesn't swim, will drown." This concept echos that of Pops in "Luke Cage," where he said, "Forward, always forward." This seems to be a theme in the current superhero genre at the moment. Oliver's choice to move forward will be seen most clearly in next week's episode, "The Recruits," where he brings on new vigilantes. One of these new vigilantes will be Curtis, who got mugged while looking for information on Wild Dog. Another new recruit will be Evelyn Sharp, the young women who pretended to be the Black Canary last season after Laurel died. That brings us to Laurel Lance's last words, "Don't let me be the last Black Canary." Oliver's promise to Laurel on her deathbed was to raise up strong women like Laurel, women who could carry a piece of Laurel with them so her memory can live on.

The final two elements of this season premiere include the Russian flashbacks and the masked man at the end of the episode. The flashbacks in tonight's episode were absolutely perfect. For the first time in a long time the flashbacks are revealing a story that audiences have been wanting to see since season one: Oliver as Bratva. In the flashbacks Oliver is fighting for money. When he kills a member of the Bratva, this puts him in the crosshairs of Bratva leader Viktor. Viktor takes an interest in Oliver's father's book -- the one with all the names that has not been seen in a long time. Thankfully Oliver has a friend in Russia -- Anatoli -- who not only teaches Oliver how to break his own thumbs to get out of handcuffs (ouch) but who allows him to initiate into the Bratva himself. This initiation comes as Oliver tells Anatoli that he will need an army to take down Kovar -- the man he promised Taiana he would kill in season four. Oliver will likely begin his initiation next week, just as in the current timeline he will begin training his own new recruits. I wonder if he'll teach them the thumb trick? The final minutes of this episode also introduced a secondary threat -- someone who appeared even more ruthless than Church: a masked man in a tattered hoodie. While this guy may look like the Green Arrow or even a version of Malcolm Merlyn, he appears to be something else entirely. While "Arrow" has not revealed his identity yet, based on interviews with the cast and crew, we know his name is "Prometheus."

"Arrow" airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW.

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