Oh, for a capable villain on this show.
One of the challenges Legends of Tomorrow has faced is the problem that most film adaptations of comics face: villains with short shelf lives. In less than one season the television series has sped through its set of antagonists rather quickly, which can make sense for a series that can take place in any historical time period: such episodic television means that the villains are one-and-done deals, such as Jon Valor, Valentina Vostok, and the Stillwater Gang, not all of them necessarily killed off, but scuttled away so we can move onto another episode. There is a logic to having them leave so soon: having cowboys follow the heroes to another time period doesn’t make sense, and the show has been rather dull when it stays in one time period for longer than an episode. However, as with most television in this post-Buffy era, there are also seasonal arcs that depend on having a Big Bad each year. Legends of Tomorrow has two main antagonists: the Time Masters, who intend to stop Rip Hunter’s (Arthur Darvill) attempts at altering the timeline; and Vandal Savage, whose fascism does so much harm that Rip would rather alter that timeline and, in the process, prevent Savage from killing his wife and son.
“Last Refuge” is an episode that introduces another one of the assassins that the Masters send to eliminate Rip’s team. The Pilgrim (Faye Kingsley) at least gets a moniker and much more dialogue than the nameless mercs sent to the Old West in the previous episode. However, as she is quickly killed off–even if, thanks to time travel, she could return–it is frustrating that a villain lacks the potential that a good writer could give to them so that they can persist beyond one episode.
In just about every adaptation of a DC or Marvel comic, the villain lasts for one film before they are killed off (Iron Monger, Whiplash, Fake Mandarin, Zod), or are missed opportunities to come back for more (the Lizard disappears pretty much after the first Amazing Spider-Man). There are exceptions in which their presence remains even after their deaths, such as the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, albeit as a hallucination. In other cases, the villain has to be retired for reasons outside of the writer’s control, whether Hugo Weaving expressing hesitance at reprising Red Skull in another Captain America film, or Heath Ledger’s death halting any chance for the Joker returning in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It is a common conceit in writing to have the villain die tragically and let that sacrifice redeem them, as with Doctor Octopus.
There also may be a bit of fear on the part of the writers that, if you keep a villain around too long and let them undergo enough character development and hence become a hero. Such a practice limits the conflict necessary for plot: what’s the point of having every single villain become a good guy, when all narratives depend on conflict? A villain does not need to become yet another hero when there is no shortage of heroes already present in the film franchise: the number of people who are in the Justice League, the Avengers, or just the Bat Family is enough that having Pied Piper, Captain Cold, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Magneto, or Sandman become a good guy shrinks the pool of villains to draw upon for future films. Legends of Tomorrow and the larger Arrow universe already has switched Snart (Wentworth Miller) and Mick (Dominic Purcell) back-and-forth between antagonists and allies, and the absence of those two characters makes me wish they were back on The Flash, if only to disrupt the monotonicity of this season’s Zoom storyline.
On the one hand, there is a certain logic to killing off the villain after one film: it forces the writers to not go back to that well. On the other hand, there is a cynicism to that tactic, as if, in terms of marketing, they think of each villain in each film as a new car model: you have to get the new model out to sell new merchandise with that villain’s face all over it. There are exceptions when the right mix of actor, writer, and character make it foolish to kill off the villain: it is apt that a trickster like Loki is too cunning to simply let himself be killed off.
Returning to the discussion about this episode of Legends of Tomorrow, the Pilgrim, unfortunately, is a flat character, and the acting and writing do little to accomplish something interesting with that two-dimensionality. With the episode alluding to The Terminator–Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh) saying to young Mick Rory (Mitchell Kummen), “Come with me if you want to live?”–I would have opted to direct Kingsley, in her performance as the Pilgrim, to amp up the chilly detachment necessary to provoke fear in viewers. The Pilgrim should be a character who operates on logic: she is told by the Time Masters her orders, she reasons that those orders will prevent Rip from doing more potential harm to the timeline, and she reasons, properly but by no means ethically, that killing Rip’s teammates will not harm the timeline, a point supported by Rip since Episode 1 when he said he chose these teammates because their contributions in the future are so negligible that, if they should die, they will not undo the future.
If that is the case, and if the Pilgrim is supposed to be so logical, then why is she willing to accept Rip’s offer to turn in his younger self, Michael (Aiden Longworth), when Rip said at the beginning of this very episode that the Time Masters will not kill his younger self or else risk undoing all the work he has accomplished maintaining the timeline in his however-many-years of service?
This is where the episode loses some quality. At least the episode provides a few moments of interest when the Pilgrim reveals her abilities to freeze time (which Rip can’t resist changing into a much longer bureaucratic phrase that shows, in his time travels, he hasn’t heard George Carlin’s comedy routines).
And Jax (Franz Drameh) is afforded an opportunity to intervene in his father’s (Eli Goree) life and decide, at least initially, to leave his father without informing him of his imminent demise. Thankfully, the interactions between Jax and his father are largely well-written, avoiding a lot of handwringing throughout the entire episode: Jax is aware not to warn his father, he leaves his father, and we see him mourning that decision. There is no delay of whether Jax will or will not warn his father: he has decided, the story can move on. And yet, even when at the end of the episode, reuniting with his father yet again, and deciding them to warn his father directly about his death, the moment feels earned. Jax makes definitive choices to move the story forward and which emerge out of his conflicting desires to save his father and not harm the timeline: both decisions, to tell his father and not to tell his father, demonstrate Jax is capable of nuanced choices rather than some silly ones that can happen in comic book stories.
The episode also tries to mask many of its flaws with some charm, such as the orphanage’s caretaker admonishing of her adoptive son Rip. Still, this charm does fall away with repeated viewings, leading to annoying questions such as how I as a viewer am supposed to believe her when she says she would rather protect the children than side with the Time Masters. There is an interesting character here in the Caretaker that could identify fissures within the Time Masters’ organization. And perhaps more will come of that: I hope that the Caretaker returns, since she gives a much needed opportunity to explore Rip’s childhood and what led him to the Time Masters.
Plus, for my own selfish desires, Rip’s childhood means an opportunity to introduce his father, who was already confirmed by name, albeit vaguely, in this episode: Rip’s father in the comics, Booster Gold, has as his real name Michael Jon Carter, and Rip is revealed to have as his real name Michael, suggesting that Rip’s name is Michael Carter Jr. I would hope that the introduction of Booster to the this season or next season of Legends of Tomorrow would set up that antagonism I find lacking in this season, not to re-invent Booster into a villain (goodness knows I’m still frustrated with the Arrow-verse turning Jay Garrick into a villain), but to show that you don’t need new villains to raise the stakes when the heroes can be their own worst enemies against themselves. And based on Rip’s remarks about his childhood, perhaps he would see Booster as an enemy rather than as an ally.
- Banter during training is great, as took place between Kendra (Ciara Renée) and Sara (Caity Lotz). However, it is disappointing that, even in this combat, every conversation between Kendra and Sara seems to be about men. While the Bechdel Test has its flaws, it is helpful as a guideline for writers to remember that it is a bit tedious to keep having female characters talk only about their romantic and sexual relationships with men: there are other topics that can be approached by these two characters, especially when earlier episodes emphasized that they both share a struggle with bloodlust and adjusting to lives as warriors.
- On a related note about pigeonholing female characters, part of me is bothered at having the only female characters be the ones to coo over a baby–but then again, if I saw Baby Snart, yeah, I would be cooing, too. Snart is one adorable baby.
- I also wish there was more debate between Rory and Rip about their experiences as time travelers. Rory was introduced as someone seen by his peers as too dumb to be a threat. After becoming an assassin for the Time Masters, he has that chance to be an extra and a more formidable challenge to Rip. Instead, that role of the foil (or the lancer) is left to Snart, which suits both his and Rip’s characters, yet leaves Rory still without much room to exist as a character.
- Nevertheless, I do appreciate the show giving some development to Rory, especially in the last minutes of the episode, as he contends with his past and his guilt for killing his parents with a fire gone out of control. Parcell’s little gesture, adjusting his gloves as he speaks, hiding the scars still on his hand from burning himself before, is a good touch by the actor to show his awareness of what harm he has done to himself and how forgiving himself is part of his ability to cope. I do wish that the show gave itself more room to explore these moments, along with Jax’s conflict over his father. Such limitations with 40-something-minute television demonstrates the benefit Netflix has, where an episode can be 60 minutes of actual airtime.
- The show finally addresses potential hypocrisy on Rip’s part in a desire to save his family and not allow others to save theirs. Jax admits to Rip that he warned his father about how he was fated to die. Whereas in earlier episodes Rip would have, well, ripped Jax apart for this action, the season has shown him, if not growing closer to his teammates, at least becoming more aware of his hypocrisy at changing the timeline indiscriminately and to save his own wife and son, while condemning Sara for trying to save future Star City or Stein for applying contemporary medicine to Old West diseases. That showing rather than telling is appreciated.
- The show’s budget constraints are showing, not in terms of special effects, which like The Flash continue to be impressive in general and not only in terms of a television budget, but in terms of casting. The Pilgrim claims to have kidnapped the loved ones of the team, yet aside from Sara’s father (Paul Blackthorne) and Jax’s father, we are treated only to the back of Clarissa Stein’s head, and Ray and Snart assuring us that, yes, Ray’s fiancee and Snart’s sister were totally on the Waverider and not just off-screen. This is one detriment that has long been apparent in the recent fixation on adapting comics for live action rather than, say, for animation. With animation, far more characters can appear on screen, even if they are not voiced. This owes to differences in live-action and animation casting. In animation, under current labor laws for voice actors, each actor can play up to three to five characters, depending on pay, for the same price. If Legends of Tomorrow had been animated, and depending on the range of the actors, you could have about eights actors handling all of these characters, plus actually have them play the family members who were awkwardly not put on camera. It is one of many downsides I have noticed since my childhood about live-action: comics and animation are not as limited by budget to show a far wider range of characters, superpowers, and locations, while current live-action television and film are limited in what they can do with casting, special effects, scouting locations, and physical reality itself.
- Wait–why did Sara have to give her father pills to make him forget this experience, but Jax didn’t have to for his father? Did Rip just shrug and say, “Hey, Jax, your dad’s going to die anyway–let’s let him see all this future tech and know time travel is possible, because his quickly approaching demise mans he won’t be affecting the timeline much”?