REVIEW: Legends of Tomorrow, Season 1, Episode 14, “River of Time”

 

A 40-minute episode with a trifecta from Hell: characters’ foolish decisions, an infuriating cliffhanger, and a failure to address toxic masculinity. And to top it off, not only are flashbacks awkwardly inserted that should have been placed in Episode 1 and yet another dumb joke about Stein roofying Jax, but this episode could have skipped directly to the conclusion without leaving holes in the plot. What a disappointment.

Legends of Tomorrow has struggled to explain why viewers should root for this team. And when the characters are shown to be far less capable than most superheroes, it’s not treated as comedy or to make the characters flawed. Instead, when the superhero genre is filled to the max of alternative stories, it can make viewers like me switch to a different TV show or pick up a film or comic instead.

In “River of Time” alone, count the instances of poor decisions by the characters, as those characters then tell you in dialogue, rather than show you, why those actions were dumb:

First, Rip (Arthur Darvill) does not dampen the “time radiation” (whatever that is) before having Jax (Franz Drameh), who while an engineer has far less experience fixing the Waverider, do the repairs. And Rip doesn’t mention the time radiation at all and, just for the sake of it, instead have Jax and Stein (Victor Garber) merge into Firestorm, the man who can contain radiation itself, so that any exposure won’t risk accelerating Jax’s age.

Second, everyone goes to say hi to Savage (Casper Crump) so that the man, with centuries of training in physical and mental sparring, can manipulate them to his advantage, such as slowly turning Sara (Caity Lotz), then Snart (Wentworth Miller) and Mick (Dominic Purcell), against Rip, and cause Ray (Brandon Routh) to have a crisis of faith about his relationship with Kendra (Ciara Renée).

Third, Ray, instead of thinking that Savage is getting to him, confronts Kendra, does not let her talk, saps her of her agency in her own love life (or, if she so chooses, not to pursue Ray, Carter, or anyone else), then returns to Savage to say that he will let Kendra make her own decisions–when he did nothing of the kind and actually silenced her and broke up with her instead of letting her make her own decision. All of this I could have stomached if the show repeatedly, obviously, and directly admonished Ray for his Nice Guy schtick and revealed the underlying misogyny that often hides within that trope. Instead, Ray gets to conclude the episode bemoaning directly to Kendra how Carter (Falk Hentschel) took “my girl”–the very woman to whom he is speaking–and all is forgiven for at least this episode. Inviting a look into the violence of toxic masculinity is great for Legends of Tomorrow to do; to not immediately and forcefully shut down that toxic masculinity is a failure that has to be admonished.

Finally, Ray opens the door to Savage’s cell–when Savage, an immortal, knows far more ways to kill an opponent than Ray, with his minimal training in fighting, has no chance of defeating.

And the buffoonery persists just to fill up 40 minutes of an episode, except when flashbacks are inserted that should have been placed into Episode 1.

Flashbacks are supposed to touch on a theme, introduce a well-done twist, or fill in needed information to show (not tell) character motivation. While the flashbacks were along the theme of those left behind, little new information or character development was offered. Episode 1 made its choices about which characters it thought were most important to show the team members were saying goodbye to. To wait so late in the series to reassure viewers that, no, Ray didn’t forget about Felicity, and no, Jax didn’t forget about his mother, and no, Sara didn’t forget about Nyssa, and no, Stein didn’t forget about his wife is not only poor storytelling but a cynical way to pull at viewers’ heartstrings and plant into their heads that maybe these heroes won’t get to return home to their loved ones.

Save the shocking twist to the end, and the jettisoning of the one black and much younger character on the team (now aged prematurely) for a rejuvenating soak in the time ocean, this episode is a waste and could have been used instead to, I don’t know, have an episode in which Kendra’s story is not centered around her romantic relationships with men in her life, or give her something to do other than be stuck in a dull love triangle?

What was actually gained in this episode? The conclusion reveals that Savage had formed an alliance with the Time Masters, but we the audience are left in the dark until the next episode to know how. That kind of twist, so late in the episode, is infuriating storytelling. As comics writer Ty Templeton argues, a twist tends to work best not at the very end but earlier in the story; I think Templeton said in the first third, although I could tolerate it in the last third of this story. The setup is awkward as well because the show waits until this episode, with only two more left, to reveal that Vandal Savage, already an immortal, also is able to time travel.

Honestly, it is the kind of twist I, like Rip, should have seen coming: Savage has disappeared from the timeline (so the writers can conveniently have episodes with Rip’s team fighting minor villains or the Time Masters’ agents), and that is because Rip, when he went back in time, left enough of his time travel equipment for Savage to use his longevity to reverse-engineer it. That is a decent story, and to wait until the end of one episode to introduce it is cruel: it forces viewers to wait until the next week. If the series is good, that wait is met with anticipation, but if the series is not good, then the cliffhanger serves to breed contempt.

The week-long break also leaves viewers to hypothesize why the Time Masters and Savage are in league with each other–which means that, if the viewers happen to have a brilliant idea for the story, and that idea is Jossed, then the writers look all the worse in comparison.

Why would the Time Masters work with Savage? To say that they are both fascistic is not enough: there has to be a shared goal. The Time Masters have shown themselves willing to engage in scorched earth policies (after all, if you need to scorch something, hire Mick to be your Chronos). But Savage’s work, moving linearly, has been to bring the world to an end, while the Time Masters’ work has been to maintain the status quo. All of this confusion is fine to have in the middle of an episode, or if you are marathoning a series on Netflix, but in broadcast serial narratives, it provokes dissatisfaction rather than curiosity. 

Me, personally, my hypothesis is that Savage is the original Time Master–which makes it all the more infuriating as I was hoping that, when the Time Masters arrest Rip, that out of the shadows would emerge another Savage, announcing he is the leader of the Time Masters. That would have been an exciting conclusion. Instead, we return to the same beats in the plot: Rip’s team sans Snart and Sara are largely amateurs and are easily arrested, Mick gets a brief moment to say hi to his former time traveling mercenary cohorts, while the capable people on the team, Snart and Sara, manage to skeedaddle.

It’s not a sufficient conclusion to an episode: it’s not morbid enough to make me feel pain as Rip bangs against the walls of his prison cell, and my animosity towards the episode is not because Savage gets to twirl his mustache but because nothing happens–it’s all pointless. I guess my frustration mirrors that of Rip, to feel taken in and disappointed by the results, but my frustration lacks sympathy I should have for Rip and his teammates.

As a friend recommended to me, the script for this episode could have been trashed and instead start the episode with the team delivering Savage to the Time Masters, then reveal, nope, Savage made it all too easy because he wanted to be taken right there all along. As this was Savage’s plan, and as he was locked in a glass cage with his superhero interrogators on the opposite side, all of this episode invites comparisons to The Avengers, and this episode cannot match what that film did well. Loki, also very old, very shrewd, and very strong like Savage, locked in the cage, is able to manipulate Fury to get onto the Hellicarrier so his lackeys can find him and break SHIELD from outside, while he uses his golden tongue (and the Mind Stone in his sceptre) to amp up the hostility the Avengers already have to the manipulative Fury and to each other.

Here, Savage’s advantage is not Loki’s Mind Stone or the team’s persistent distrust of Rip: his advantage is that his opponents are really bad at superheroing. And if the show is not able to make this team interesting in its own way, while inviting repeated comparisons to a better team in a better story like The Avengers, then people are not going to watch this season and the show will not get a second season.

Stray Observations

  • When Rip leaves to join the fist fight against Savage, he leaves Sara to pilot the ship. Captain Sara Lance for Season 2 (if it happens), please.
  • Rip cites Protocol 52–and enough with the 52 references, DC Comics. The reason 42 works well as an allusion to Hitchhikers’ Guide (or Soul Eater) is because those series are built out of joy, not out of a cynical rebooting of a serial narrative because Geoff Johns and crew want to bring back Silver Age characters, eliminate more recent and far more diverse characters, and persist in a cyclical rebooting for big-money crossover publishing events.
  • The “caveman” references from Savage only remind me how much cooler he was when he was a literal caveman in the comics, the Justice League animated series, and Young Justice, complete with the Gargoyle-alluding claw marks on his face.
  • I was so busy typing notes that I did not follow Stein’s explanation how to cure Jax: evidently, he will expose Jax to time waves in the time ocean so that soaking up that time water will rejuvenate him. Or, to paraphrase: “Time, time, time time time, timey time time time.” There, now it all makes sense.
  • Oh, and screw off with the roofie jokes: they weren’t funny in Episode 1 or 2, they aren’t funny now.
  • “And I’m Leonard Snart, robber of ATMs!”
  • We need a YouTube series of Mick and Snart sampling snacks and sodas. And I agree with Mick: a future without sugar does sound unsavory.
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