Arrow: Year's End (2012), Three Ghosts (2013), The Climb (2014), and Dark Waters (2015)
I saw Arrow's pilot back when it originally aired. I actually liked it quite a bit on its own merits, but was underwhelmed by the move away from comic book tropes. It felt like a really good dark and gritty take on a superhero origin, but I'd kind of had my fill of those. I decided not to follow it but to pick it up later if I heard it was worth it.
What actually got me back on board was The Flash, which was much more in line with what I wanted from the genre. A handful of crossovers convinced me Arrow would head in a more interesting direction given time. Besides, like I said before, the pilot was actually quite good for what it was.
Years End (2012)
The first Christmas episode occurs a little less than halfway through season one. The season started strong with a few missteps. But a few episodes before Christmas, it took a dive for the worst, and this one doesn't do much to correct that.
The episode primarily focuses on two plots. The first, and unfortunately more dominant, concerns Oliver Queen's attempt to throw a good old-fashioned Christmas party, just like his father used to arrange. I really can't stress enough just how far out of character all this is: Queen has pretty consistently viewed this part of his life as a sacrifice he has to make to continue his career as a vigilante. For him to proactively set a time and place he has to be present is an inexplicable move that of course comes back to bite him.
The better plot line revolves around a mysterious, evil archer who murders criminals Green Arrow (yeah, I know they don't call him that until season 4, but it's his damn name) threatened and who cleaned up their act. Essentially, he's removing the incentive for Green Arrow's targets to do what he says, all while framing him for the killings.
This of course comes to a head when he takes hostages during the Queen Christmas bash, which screws over Oliver. The twist was actually quite generous to the viewer, since until then we were stuck dealing with Oliver's issues with his parents, and the building relationship between Oliver's best friend and his ex.
Note to Arrow's writers: NO ONE CARES.
Back in the warehouse, Green Arrow manages to get everyone to safety by telling them they should probably leave. He stays to fight the villain, who kicks his ass. Green Arrow jumps out a window and calls for help before he falls unconscious. Mysteriously, he isn't found by the police who are surrounding the building due to the hostage situation, but is instead located by his partner, who takes him to the hospital and tells them he was in a biking accident. Presumably one that involved driving into a cart of arrows.
At the end, we learn the villain is Malcolm Merlyn, the father of Oliver's best friend. This would be more surprising if we didn't already know he was a villain and if the mysterious archer didn't have the same skillset as the comic book Green Arrow villain, Merlyn.
Like every episode so far, this one also featured several flashbacks to Oliver's time on the island. This time, his mentor battled Deathstroke (or at least a character based on him - my understanding is there's some retconning coming to give us a more accurate interpretation), Oliver learned more about the island, Hurley won the lottery, and the smoke monster made another appearance. No, wait. The smoke monster showed up in an earlier episode: I'm getting confused.
Where was I? Oh, yes. At the end, his family comes to visit Oliver in the hospital, where they forgive him for leaving the party he bugged them about all episode. So at least they're together on the holidays.
This show gets better again soon, right?
Three Ghosts (2013)
To answer my own question, it definitely gets better, though it still has issues. I'm picking this up having just reached the 2nd season Christmas episode, which is much improved, as is the series as a whole.
This is actually the second part of a 2-parter introducing Barry Allen and setting up the following year's Flash spin-off series. All of this made things a tad awkward, since I don't recall the previous episode taking place over the holidays, despite the fact they occur about 12 hours apart.
Setting that aside, this one opens on a cliffhanger. Oliver Queen is at death's door, having just received a beating from a super-soldier. To save him, his partners shot Barry Allen with a tranquilizer dart, brought him to the Arrow-cave, then revealed their secret identities and asked politely for his help.
If you're wondering why they didn't find a less stupid solution, I'm afraid you're on your own. At any rate, Barry Allen miraculously saves him, and Oliver is pissed off that his friends gave away his identity. Like I said, the show still has some issues.
All of that is in the first few minutes, but it sets up the concept behind the episode. Either because of the chemicals Allen used to save him or simply because he's messed up, Oliver hallucinates three ghosts over the course of the episode. We know they're hallucinations, because we learn one of them is actually still alive at the end. Those of us who know anything about comics actually knew this from the start, since the "ghost" in question was Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke, one of those characters geeks like myself insist is a major iconic character, despite the fact most of you have no idea who he is (I don't want to go over that here, so... just find someone who watched a lot of Teen Titans, and they'll explain).
In cast you were wondering, this is also the episode's primary tie to Christmas. Sure, there are a handful of decorations, a few characters randomly go Christmas shopping and Barry Allen gives Arrow's fans a present by forcing Queen to start wearing a damn mask (seriously - that thing is way overdue: we need to get on that thank you note), but I wouldn't even have written this up if it weren't for the Scrooge thing.
To their credit, it was quite a bit more subtle than Christmas Carol homages usually are. The ghosts felt integrated into Oliver's issues, and the scenes were pretty interesting. They actually could have dropped the Christmas aspects, moved this to a different date, and the ghost motif wouldn't have felt entirely random: that's a good sign the writers are putting in some effort.
The rest of the episode was kind of a mishmash of plot. Green Arrow took out the super-soldier, though he'll probably wish he hadn't: that guy's plot was an origin story for Solomon Grundy, so... never mind. Just... ask the nerd who explained who Slade was to clue you in on Grundy, too. They also continue to build up Speedy/Red Arrow, who's.... You know what? There's a decent chance that nerdy friend won't know what you're talking about, so you'll probably have to look him up online. Oh, then at the end Barry Allen was hit by lightning.
Well. As you can probably tell, I'm watching the series at a pretty quick clip, so there's a good chance this article is going to contain a third review. Either that, or I'll revise this and delete this paragraph before posting. So, if you're reading this, keep reading.
The Climb (2014)
Season three! Once again, we've reached a pivotal turning point for the series. Also, once again, the show runners demonstrate they're not too careful about holiday continuity. This one is set firmly in the holiday season, with decorations, parties, lights, and well wishes. The next episode starts three days later, and all that's gone.
This episode apparently solves the mystery of Sarah Lance's - a.k.a.: the Black Canary's - murder, which occurred at the beginning of the season. She was shot with arrows, incidentally; you'd think would limit the number of suspects, but about every other episode this season they run up against a new one.
Or in this case, an old one. Malcolm Merlyn, the villain from season one, was a suspect earlier in the season, but they were able to eliminate him after he pinky swore he wasn't involved. OR WAS HE? Apparently, he only meant that he didn't personally fire the arrows: he simply drugged his daughter - Oliver's sister, Thea - and got her to do it.
Yeah, so... Arrow is more or less a soap opera now.
This was all part of some massively over-complicated scheme to put Oliver in the position where he'd have to kill Ra's al Ghul to prevent the League of Assassins from hunting her down. It makes a little more sense in context, but not much.
Oliver challenges Ra's, who then gives him thirteen hours to put his affairs in order before meeting him at the top of a cliff to fight. Somehow, Oliver manages to go home and talk to his friends before taking off to duel the legendary warrior. How he managed to jump back and forth between three continents in thirteen hours is, of course, not explained.
At the end of the episode, they meet on top of a cliff, and Ra's al Ghul says some wise things meant to comfort Oliver, kicks his ass, then kills him.
To the show's credit, that's more or less how a sword fight between Green Arrow and Ra's al Ghul should go. Of course, he won't stay dead, but that's beside the point.
The Christmas elements were a bit more muted this time. There's a brief and ultimately pointless showdown between Green Arrow and Thea beside the over-sized Christmas tree in her apartment that felt significant, but otherwise it seemed more establishing than relevant.
That said, Oliver's death could be seen as connected to the solstice, as a symbol of the death of the year and the coming renewal. Or it could just be an attempt to keep the audience interested for the month and a half that elapsed between this episode and the next installment.
Dark Waters (2015)
Dark Waters is the season four Christmas episode and the third time in a row a holiday episode of Arrow ends with a major character appearing to die. Granted, this one seems a little more likely to stick - the character in question doesn't have a major role in the comics.
Dark Waters opens with Oliver at a campaign event. He's gathered a large group to help clean up the waterfront. This is interrupted by a drone, which shoots up the crowd. Oliver risks his life on camera to push a young girl to safety, and - oddly enough - this doesn't come up again. You'd think that would pretty much cinch the election for him.
Felicity deals with the drone by hacking it with her computer book and sending her dog, Brain, to... no. No, wait. I'm confused. She used an iPad. At any rate, she's getting a lot of screen time this episode, so you know things are going to work out alright.
Queen concludes Damien Darhk is behind the attack and retaliates by revealing Darhk's identity in a press conference, telling the public that he's the one responsible for this seasons' attacks against the city.
They mentioned "holidays" a couple times before the drone attack, but things get downright Christmasy after that. Well, actually they get Christmasy and Hanukkahy (or is it Chanukahy?) after that. Felicity's mom shows up to help decorate for the holiday party, and she makes sure her daughter's heritage is represented. While setting up, she comes across the engagement ring Oliver has been almost giving to Felicity all season. She shows her immediately.
Felicity and Oliver have a brief spat about this at the party itself, though Darhk shows up before Oliver can explain himself. He uses his magic to knock Oliver unconscious then abducts Felicity, John, and Thea.
Malcolm Merlyn, a.k.a.: the new Ra's al Ghul, shows up to help rescue his daughter. He suits up as Green Arrow and teams up with Black Canary while Oliver pretends to hand himself over. Darhk wants Oliver broken, not dead, so he tries to kill his friends while he watches. This goes poorly when Merlyn and Canary save them. There's some more fighting, and Oliver and Merlyn come surprisingly close to finishing off Darhk once and for all.
At a campaign rally, Oliver lights up a Christmas tree and proposes to Felicity, who accepts. Then they get in a limo and the song "The Little Drummer Boy" starts.
Hey. Have you've seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service? I've seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service. And I'm pretty sure whoever made this episode has seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service, because the car is attacked by goons with machine guns. Oliver manages to get them away, but when he opens the back to check on Felicity, she slouches over, bleeding.
It'll be more than a month before we find out whether they actually offed her. We know that someone's not long for the show, thanks to a flash-forward at the start of the season - they dropped a clip of that into the "previously on Arrow" montage that played before this. And they absolutely implied she was about to die the whole episode - arguably, the whole season. But... I don't know. I feels too obvious. Plus, she's a popular character. And, sure, those wounds looked fatal, but Oliver survives worse at least three times a season.
Still, it's not like they want to have Oliver Queen get happily married: that wouldn't fit with the brooding tone they like so much. I'd say it's pretty even odds she died, that she'll be fine after a few episodes recovery, or that they're trying to turn her into some kind of Batman-less version of Oracle. I really hope it's not the last one: I'm still holding out hope this will eventually acknowledge the existence of the Caped Crusader.
Ultimately, a pretty mixed episode. There were some good moments, but the drama lacked any real punch. The question of whether they'll kill off Felicity is more academic than emotional: I just hope that, whatever way they spin this, they do it without an overabundance of angst and melodrama.
There was more flashback in this one, but it was more concerned with a forced thematic connection than anything else (literal versus figurative 'dark waters'). Also, we got a few hints at Hive's plans when we saw a massive underground complex full of cornstalks.
The holiday elements felt more than a little tacked on for most of this, at least until they did the Little Drummer Boy sequence. Aside from tying this back to the death of Tracey Bond (don't forget - On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a Christmas movie), this mainly serves as contrast. We see and hear signs of the joyous holiday, but what's happening is tragic. Not original, but still the best scene in the episode.
We also got a glimpse of Darhk's home life in all of that. Turns out he's married with a daughter: they were getting ready to celebrate while Oliver and Felicity were getting shot at.