Despite the finality suggested by its title, “Year’s End” is less a conclusion to the first half of Arrow’s debut season than it is a pause, a clearing of the breath before the real action starts up in 2013. The episode leaves plenty of plot points dangling, but nothing quite rises to the level of a proper cliffhanger. We learn the identity of the Dark Archer, and Oliver realizes that this mysterious foe is his true adversary. There’s some suggestion that a horrific master plan is afoot, something that will make millions of dollars’ worth of corporate crime and malfeasance pale in comparison. But whatever is next for Walter remains unclear, as does the question of whether Detective Lance will have to hunt down Arrow once Christmas passes with the Dark Archer still at large. And while we return to the island for another round of flashbacks with Deathstroke, we still seem no closer to finding out just whatever the hell really happened on that island. “Year’s End” may well work beautifully as a prelude for the rest of the season, but as a capstone for what has generally been a very promising run of television, “Year’s End” is a missed opportunity.
The episode introduces a second mysterious archer, who is killing in cold blood the very same people Oliver had just dealt with in decidedly less lethal terms. The possibly corrupt idiot police commissioner—Jim Gordon notwithstanding, there’s always a possibly corrupt idiot police commissioner—decides to blame these murders on Arrow, even though Detective Lance instantly recognizes that this is the work of someone else. Oliver recognizes this so-called Dark Archer as his biggest threat yet, a conclusion that is only strengthened when his investigations lead him to an exploding warehouse. The Dark Archer then makes the next move, using a cockamamie hostage situation to force a showdown he previously seemed intent on avoiding. Oliver is almost defeated and unmasked by his mysterious adversary, only to make a last-minute escape that preserves his secret identity. While recovering in the hospital, he tells Diggle that the Dark Archer is working for someone, someone who is behind the list—little realizing that the Dark Archer and his boss are actually the same man, John Barrowman’s Malcolm Meryln.
This is a big, if hardly unexpected revelation, one that should have big implications for the second half of the season, so it’s all the more troublesome that it’s couched in some seriously harebrained plotting. It’s never made entirely clear why the Dark Archer is killing these people, but that part isn’t so hard to work out: Malcolm is sending a message not just to Oliver but also to the people on the list that cutting deals with the Hood is a death sentence. That reasoning could have been made clearer—Diggle’s suggestion of this possibility is really the only time it’s made explicit—but the problem lies more in how the Dark Archer deals with the Hood. The incident at the warehouse seems like a fairly straightforward attempt to kill Oliver, but then the Dark Archer claims he set the hostage situation in motion because he needed to do something dramatic to flush Oliver out again after the warehouse. Arrow has generally done a solid job with its procedural mystery plotting, but here, the Dark Archer’s actions seem governed less by plot logic or by character than the need to make him as fearsome and enigmatic an adversary as possible. While this is the only truly egregious error, little bouts of illogic weigh down the entire story. For instance, we generally just have to accept that Felicity Smoak is the show’s designated magic computer genius, but her ability to identify the Dark Archer’s headquarters after a minute’s examination of the arrow strains credulity in a way that all her investigations for Walter somehow don’t.
Another problem for the episode is that, for all this heavy lifting with the show’s still enigmatic mythology, “Year’s End” wants to be a Christmas episode, too. While Arrow might seem like an odd fit for a yuletide special, there’s a strong idea at the core of this subplot: Oliver had to forget about things like Christmas in order to survive on the island, while the Queens and the Lances both allowed their grief to overwhelm them and wipe out their ability to enjoy the holiday festivities. As such, Christmas can serve as a time of healing for all the characters, a celebration that at once reaffirms old traditions and relationships while setting the stage for new ones. That’s certainly what Oliver has in mind when he plans the big holiday party, but “Year’s End” largely lets it slip to the wayside in favor of Oliver’s showdown against the Dark Archer, with his hospital room reconciliation with Thea the one vestige of this subplot that reaches a conclusion.
Now, it’s hard to argue with that storytelling decision in terms of the show’s ongoing narrative, as there’s no question that the Dark Archer and Oliver’s vigilantism in general are more important than the yearly Christmas celebrations. But “Year’s End” could have been the perfect moment to set aside the big mythology stuff and place the focus square on the characters, letting Arrow take on some relatively lightweight foes and perhaps leaving the existence of the Dark Archer as a closing revelation. This would have allowed Oliver’s Christmas efforts to let him reach moments of understanding with the people in his life, allowing them to find a moment of, say, “Comfort and Joy” before things inevitably get dark again next year. And while I realize Arrow almost certainly couldn’t have put out a standalone episode as unabashedly Christmas-y as that wonderful Justice League episode, the approach taken in “Year’s End” doesn’t work either. The Lances’ continuing trauma and grief over the death of Sarah is dealt with and dismissed in a single scene, with Tommy’s gift apparently providing a temporary Band-Aid for a much deeper pain. More to the point, Arrow has been flailing to come up with a direction for Oliver’s relationships with Moira and Thea, and this seemed like the ideal time to go more in-depth than another fleeting connection like Oliver and Thea’s impromptu candy cane competition.
The point here isn’t to do an armchair rewrite of “Year’s End.” Instead, the point is that Arrow tries to tackle two potentially rich subjects, and it ends up doing neither of them justice. As such, the episode would almost certainly have been better served picking either the Dark Archer story or the Christmas material and expanding one of them out to fill up the whole episode. And that still leaves the episode’s third undercooked element, as the latest island flashback gets us barely an inch closer to understanding what really happened to Oliver, including presumably a coming explanation for just how the hell he became a captain in the Russian mafia. The capture of Arrow’s protector Yao Fei and the reappearance of Deathstroke are just more incremental plot points, not the kind of big revelations that would seem appropriate at this juncture. “Year’s End” seems intent on revealing some game-changing cliffhangers to lead us into 2013, but the big reveals both past and present land with a dull thud. It’s not the ending one might have hoped for, especially when last week was such a strong outing for the show, but the great benefit of an episode like this that just doesn’t really do anything is that its mistakes can be quickly erased. All Arrow needs to do is pick up the pace and start getting to the point, and it should be just fine.
- The words “Green Arrow” are finally heard on the show when Malcolm suggests it as an improved codename for the Hood. Oliver rejects Green Arrow as lame, which I’ll admit I took as way more of a personal affront than any sane person should. All I know is, now that Green Arrow is officially out there, Oliver better adopt that name by the end of the season or I will be sorely disappointed.
- I’m going to wait until we see a bit more before going into too much detail on this, but whatever Malcolm has in store for Starling City sure sounds like we’re heading more into classic comic book supervillain territory, what with the thousands of people going to die and all. There’s also Malcolm’s mysterious solution to the Walter problem, which apparently won’t kill him—if that last bit is true, I’ve got to think something wonderfully preposterous like brainwashing is going to be involved.
- “Merry Christmas, sir. How are you?” “Proficient with firearms.” Oh Detective Lance, don’t ever change.