With Oliver’s fate unknown, Team Arrow struggles to stay together in “Those Left Behind,” Arrow‘s winter premiere.

Arrow is back, and Felicity, John, and Roy are keeping the Arrow Cave warm while waiting for any word from Oliver. Crime in Starling City doesn’t stop just because Oliver Queen isn’t in town, and the team is on the trail of a new criminal boss. Danny “Brick” Brickwell, an imposing and unrelenting underworld tough guy, is up to something shady. He was about to face trial, but all of the witnesses met a sudden and unfortunate demise. The team starts looking into Brick after one of his men shoots a cop. Trying to track down Brick and his gang helps keep the team moving forward, but the question of Oliver’s fate continues to gnaw at them.

“Those Left Behind” is all about how Arrow Team handles the crushing unknown of Oliver’s absence. Worry, fear, guilt, and grief accompany Roy, John, and Felicity as they face the mundane reality that life goes on. Roy, as Arsenal, finally gets a chance to really show off his fighting skills. His parkour acrobatics are presented as effective and, honestly, bad-ass, a welcome change from being limited to a cool flourish beside Oliver or played for laughs. Still, he’s obviously uncomfortable as the lead masked vigilante. John dons the green hood for a brief (but delightful) moment, but it’s clearly not a fit. John couldn’t become The Arrow any more than Roy could take over for Felicity. Each member of Team Arrow has their own role, but without Oliver as a focal point things get shaky, and then start to fall apart.

Oliver’s absence also has an effect on Malcolm Merlyn and Thea Queen. Malcolm’s plotting is what sent Oliver to face Ra’s Al Ghul, and he’s just as impatient as Team Arrow when it comes to knowing the outcome of their duel. The League of Assassins wants Merlyn dead, and Oliver was the only thing keeping Merlyn safe in Starling City. Sparring with Thea, Malcolm tells her, “When your opponent is the mountain, you must be the sea. When he is the sea, you must be the mountain.” It’s good advice, and something that Oliver could have used. Malcolm manipulated him into facing Ra’s Al Ghul, and then he went to face the League on their own terms, mountain to mountain, ocean to ocean. A hooded someone seems to be watching over Oliver, but it may be some time until Starling City learns his fate.

Arrow airs Wednesday nights at 8/7c on The CW. You can also watch the latest episodes on The CW’s website and Hulu. Read on for speculation about Oliver’s fate and Merlyn’s plans, but be warned: huge spoilers follow for both this episode and the fall finale.

First, let me say how fantastic Emily Bett Rickards has been this season as Felicity Smoak. As the hopeful, emotional center of Team Arrow she keeps Oliver, Ray, and John from giving in to the dark pit of despair that their vigilante careers circle around. Now that’s she’s losing hope of Oliver’s return, it’s breaking her heart, and the most powerful emotional scenes in “Left Behind” all came from her. Ray can brood, and John can smolder, but Felicity bleeds. Malcolm seems disappointed that Ra’s ran Oliver through, obviously hoping to stop the League from hunting him down, but I’m not convinced that Malcolm’s meddling isn’t a Xanatos Gambit meant to tear apart Team Arrow. He certainly seems eager to convince Felicity, Roy, and John that Oliver is dead.

In addition to all that emotion, Arrow can be counted on to deliver some incredible action scenes, and “Left Behind” is no different. The opening car chase, featuring John Diggle in the Arrow costume, and the later extended firefight with Brick’s men were exciting and daring and finally gave Roy a chance to use his parkour skills effectively. Despite all that, my favorite action moment of this episode has to go to John Diggle and his reaction to Malcolm Merlyn appearing in the Arrow Cave. You tell John Diggle to put down his gun? He draws a second gun. So smooth.

“Those Left Behind” is also our introduction to Laurel as Black Canary. The CW released teaser photos of Laurel’s new vigilante look back in November, but the winter premiere is the first time we’ve seen her in action. Wielding her sister’s weapons, including the sonic scream device and metal staff, she delivers some vigilante justice to Brick’s men who she couldn’t nail down in the courtroom. The big new villain, who seems rather impervious to damage, is Danny “Brick” Brickwell. Brick is an established comic book villain whose invulnerability comes from being a metahuman, like Barry Allen and his enemies on The Flash. Executive Producer Marc Guggenheim spoke about Brick, revealing that the villain’s plans to take over The Glades will be part of a trilogy of episodes. (As an aside, really? The Glades again? Are there no other neighborhoods in Starling City that attract a criminal element, or is there just some sort of underground seedy version of FourSquare where everyone is competing to be king of The Glades?). Producer Andrew Kreisberg previously told The Hollywood Reporter that episodes 10, 11, and 12 would be a trilogy focusing on Laurel, so it’s likely that this is meant to be a sort of crucible for the new Black Canary. With Laurel donning her sister’s costume and smacking down some of Brickwell’s enforcers, she has committed to operating fully outside the law as a vigilante. Personally, I don’t think we’ll see much of Oliver until this trilogy resolves. The Arrow Team needs space to grow stronger in his absence, and to begin to include Laurel as a vigilante. It’s a possibility that Ray Palmer may join the team as The Atom, but I’d bet that his foray into superheroism won’t be until later in the season.

Laurel doesn’t get to take the spotlight for very long, however. Overshadowing her appearance is the end-of-episode revelation of exactly who dragged Oliver’s dead body in out of the cold: Maseo Yamashiro. As Oliver takes a ragged new breath, we see that it’s Tatsu Yamashiro who is responsible for bringing him back to life. Well, that ends my Malcolm-Merlyn-drags-Oliver-to-the-Lazarus-Pit theory. Still, I think we’re looking at something near-mystical here. Oliver’s flashbacks have hinted that Tatsu has many unknown skills. We’ve seen her teach meditation for memory retrieval, and viciously fight off Triad gang members with a katana, but her history isn’t clear, and neither is what’s happened to her since we last saw her in the past. Sometime after Tatsu was kidnapped by Chen Na Wei, Maseo joined the League of Assassins. What happened between the two of them, and why she’s appearing now to help Oliver, is still a mystery, and it’s got me excited for what’s coming next.

Bottom Line: While I’m a little disappointed that Arrow didn’t leave us in the dark about Oliver’s fate for very long, this is a solidly fun episode with great action and emotional depth.

Recommendation: Things are starting to ramp up on Arrow, and fans of Laurel or the Birds of Prey will have lots to talk about in the coming weeks, starting with “Those Left Behind.”

[rating=4.0]

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