This double episode is a good team story that’s mostly a lot of fun, but before we get into why, let’s talk about plot and subplot in team stories.
Team stories are naturals for subplots because the supporting characters of the team (assuming the team leader is the protagonist) are naturals for protagonists of smaller plots that support the main conflict. The key is “support the main plot.” The main plot of Legends is about saving family, changing the past and future, risking everything for an outcome that’s worth dying for. So any subplot should echo that to reinforce it, reverse it to act as a foil or contrast, or play off of it in some other way that enhances and deepens it. Let’s look at those potential subplots, taking one team member at a time.
The Hawk: Carter’s dead and that makes Kendra sad even though her memory is spotty on the whole endless-love-through-time thing. She could be an echo to Rip, mercilessly pursuing Savage through time to kill him before he can kill Carter, but she just doesn’t have the oomph. She’s lovely and she’s sweet and she’s sad, but the only strong emotion she sells is when she hawks out and starts slashing Pentagon guards as a savage demi-goddess, and even then she just looks like she’s having a spot of bad PMS. Kendra just doesn’t have the passion to support a subplot at this point, and since we’re on episode four, it’s getting late in the game to start one. (Unfortunately she starts one later.)
Then there’s Martin and Jax, still bitching at each other about who’s in charge. This could actually be a subplot if it had anything to do with the main plot, but it doesn’t because their arguing never stops them from becoming Firestorm and fighting the good fight. They’re annoyed with each other, but they have the same goal–to fight the bad guys–so instead of having a compelling conflict that echoes the main conflict, they’re just those annoying guys who bitch at each other in the background until they come through and save the day, which is a real shame because the actors deserve better.
Which brings us to Ray. He has a navel-gazing internal conflict that does not make a subplot, it just makes him alternately endearing and annoying and an excellent foil for Snart and Mick, who calls him “Haircut.” There is hope for Ray in Episode Five because he becomes a supporting figure in somebody else’s escalating subplot. Unfortunately, shortly after that he becomes a major character in Kendra’s stolid subplot, which circles the drain endlessly. Ray cannot catch a break.
Like Ray, Sara’s subplot is mostly internal—she has that blood lust problem that overwhelms her sometimes when she’s fighting—but Sara has so much control that I never really buy this as a problem or even a complication.
And then there are the wild cards of the team. Snart and Mick start a subplot here that is so much better than the main plot that I’d like a supercut of season one that’s just them. These loners formed a team of two a long time ago, Snart’s cold, calculating, emotionless intellect balancing Mick’s hot temper and animal nature, each providing the other support and connection. They are bonded in a way nobody else on the team is, trusting each other completely. But traveling through time begins to change Snart; through his interactions with Sara, he becomes more human. And it changes Mick; because of his frustration and anger, he becomes more out of control, even more of an animal. It’s not that Sara or the mission comes between them, it’s that they evolve away from each other, and their efforts to hold onto the partnership that’s so important to both of them leads them to try to drag the other person over to their new way of thinking. That struggle builds their conflict into a subplot that threatens to overwhelm the main plot because it’s so much more interesting.
That subplot begins in the two Russia episodes we’re looking at here, when the pressures of the action of the story drive Mick to defy Snart to save Ray, and Snart to leave Mick to save Sara. It doesn’t break the team, but it puts a crack in their bond, one that steadily widens in each subsequent episode of the story until at the point of no return in their story, they become enemies, the rest of their subplot completing a strong character arc for Snart and an astonishing one for Mick. (The character Mick most reminds me of is Fusco on Person of Interest, whose first appearance as a murderous thug doesn’t begin to hint at the layers he’ll achieve.) I didn’t care if Rip saved his family, but if Snart and Mick hadn’t managed to connect again at the end of the season, I’d have been seriously upset. This is the plot I’m invested in.
And this is why I get so frustrated with this series: all the discussion of feelings and the flashbacks smother the stuff that’s working beautifully here and could work beautifully in the main plot. The Snart/Mick subplot echoes Rip’s main plot because when they lose each other, they lose their most important human connections just as Rip did when his family died, and the fallout from that fuels their travels across time trying to right the wrongs they feel have been done to them and that they’ve done to each other in much the same way that Rip travels across time trying to kill Savage. “You took something from me,” both plots say, “And I’m going to get it back or get vengeance for it.” This subplot shows what the main plot could have been with a stronger, better written protagonist and antagonist.
I know, get over it, Jenny, it is what it is. Back to this post’s episodes.
We’re looking at a double episode set mostly in Russia, and once again, the MVPs in these episodes are Mick, Snart, and Sara, with a side helping of Ray not being annoying. Also not annoying: Martin going solo and doing his damnedest to survive in a situation that’s way out of his league. Without Jax to patronize, Martin is great. And in fairness to Jax, without Martin to whine about, Jax is also terrific, making smart decisions back on the ship. That means that six of the team are doing good work here, while Kendra and Rip are still annoying and Carter is still dead. You know what’s a good size for a team? Six.
Episode 4, “White Knights,” starts in the eighties with the team breaking into the Pentagon where Snart dazzles a woman in uniform and lifts her key card and her wallet, handing the card off to Sara, looking good in similar uniform, who uses the card to steal the file they need which she can do because Mick creates a diversion. This is Leverage, the Time Traveling Team: Three efficient, active people working together to get a document that will allow them to exploit a weakness of the antagonist. We like these people. We want to see them work together more. If something happened to destroy this team, we’d be upset. (Hint: We’re gonna be upset.)
Then Stein and Jax accidentally shut down the power system while arguing, and Kendra goes insane bird woman on the guards. Back on the ship, everybody bitches at each other. Well, it was fun while it lasted.
But the good news is that they’ve learned that Savage is in Cold War Russia. The bad news is that Chronos is following them, Ray quotes Top Gun, and they crash land. But nobody’s making an exposition speech and we’re staying in the now of the story, so I’m liking this a lot. Then Rip brings out ingestible translators so they can all speak Russian—“I’m speaking Russian, aren’t I?” Ray says, delighted. “Now you’re annoying in multiple languages,” Snart says—and they head out to the Russian opera. Ray tries to pick up a beautiful Russian physicist who shuts him down; Snart smiles at her and gets an invitation back to her place and a kiss. That’s fun. Not as much fun: back on the ship, Kendra whines about being a crazed demi-goddess and Sara tries to help her, although at least Sara’s idea of helping is kicking her ass. (Also good: an annoyed Sara calling her “Big Bird.”) Rip takes Mick out to fight Chronos and meets the Head Time Master for a lot of annoying expository dialogue, which a so-much-smarter-than-he-looks Mick points out is all lies: the guy’s going to try to kill them. I vote for Mick taking care of the lying Time Master and the story going back to Russia so Snart can get more action with the physicist (action is always better than dialogue).
But no, we’re back at the Soviet lab, where Stein goes against orders to steal a thermal core (because nobody listens to Rip, Worst Team Leader Ever), and Eagle Scout Ray makes Snart try to save the Soviet physicist who pulls a gun on him while a creepy Soviet officer knocks Ray out. For once the antagonists are deadlier than the exposition. Mick rescues Snart but then gets captured along with Stein and Ray while Snart steals the thermal core in a very nice action sequence, staying beautifully silent while he does so. Then Rip pulls everybody not captured back to the ship to talk to them again. Argh.
Sara and Snart point out that if Rip had just sent the whole team in, they wouldn’t be in this mess and vote for more action, less speech. Rip makes a speech explaining that Stein, Mick and Ray are now in a high security prison that it’s impossible to break out of and the first of this two-episode story ends on a cliffhanger, except that Wentworth Miller has four seasons of Prison Break under his belt, so no need to worry.
Episode 5, “Fail-Safe,” opens with Stein in prison under psychological attack by Savage, who tells Stein he learned about torture from Joseph Stalin. (Vandal, bragging about your famous friends is a form of performance anxiety. It makes you look flaccid. Stop that.) Gideon, the ship’s computer, tries to exposite all over the crew until Snart tells it to shut up and get to the point. Sara says they need to go to the Bratva, Snart approves, action ensues. There’s a lot of stuff going on, but it’s all about breaking the good guys out of prison and stopping Savage from making a Russian Firestorm, so it all works, and even the annoying members of the team are effective.
Plus there are a lot of great small moments in here, like Rip facing down the brutish head of the Bratva, and when it looks like the brute is going to attack, calling Snart in to fight for him; Snart says no and Rip has to fight a guy twice his size, pretty much getting his ass kicked while Sara’s outside fighting six Bratva guards, and Snart watches. I wondered at that point whether the writers weren’t as annoyed with Rip as I was, it was that much fun.
In fact, it’s pretty clear at this point that Sara, Snart, and Mick get all the good stuff. I think it might be intrinsic in their characters; they’re not physicists or time masters or tortured reincarnated goddesses, they’re killers and thieves, so they’re task-oriented, not theory expositors. They lay back snarking until there’s a problem and then they act, and they’d rather fight the Bratva than discuss their feelings. Not only that, the other characters improve when they interact with the Killer/Klepto/Pyro team:
• Ray’s earnestness can be wearing, but put him in a Russian prison with Mick, and it’s a Disney film about a puppy and a pit bull in the Russian pound.
• Rip is a pain in the ass, but put him together with Sara or Snart, and then watch while they alternately ignore him or slap him up side the head. Sara tends to push him to action while Snart just likes watching him twist in the wind, but Rip is always better value when he’s with one of them.
• Martin and Jax don’t wrangle as much when Sara becomes the third in the group because she doesn’t have time for that crap and because she keeps the action moving; she also tends to connect with Jax since they’re close to the same age and to affectionately tease Martin as a grumpy grandpa, making that team dynamic fun.
•Not even Sara can make Kendra fun, and Mick and Snart avoid her like the plague, which is interesting all in its own.
So the team is forming those needed interrelated bonds, they’re just forming them through the three most action-oriented team members. Hmmm, action. Maybe that’s key? ARGH.
But back to our story. Finally provoked to act by Sara and Snart, Rip sends them in for the rescue, first pulling Sara aside to tell her to kill Martin if she can’t get him free from the Russians. Worst Team Leader Ever.
Fortunately, Snart knows what a putz Rip is, and he argues with Sara, telling her not to kill Martin in a good sharp scene. The strongest parts of the rest of this episode are the intense interactions between Sara and Snart, and between Mick and Ray, about concrete actions in the now, not about exposition or back story. Snart talks Sara out of killing Stein, and Mick refuses to leave Ray because Ray took a beating for him. Meanwhile Rip sits around waiting for Sara to kill Stein until Jax and Kendra convince him to let them help. After that, it’s all action all the time and the good guys win, blowing up Vandal Savage.
Who is immortal.
It’s like they’re missing the point here
The Rip vs Savage main plotline is always going to be a loser for so many reasons, but since this episode focuses on a clear goal and antagonist, it rises above the awful premise. In particular, it’s full of character and important relationship developments demonstrated in action that begin to evolve into that legitimately important Mick-Snart subplot that’s really fun here in its early stages because of two new relationships that we get to see the start of (and therefore invest in):
• Mick and Ray: Mick’s not happy about being stuck aboard a timeship and wants off. He’s not a team kind of guy, and now his partner is connecting with others on the team, and it’s making him tense. So he stays detached from Ray when they end up in prison together, ignoring him while he’s getting beat up in the prison yard. But then Ray distracts the guard about to torture Mick and takes that beating for him and Mick recognizes a debt. He defies his partner Snart to save Ray, and he begins a tentative bond, not just because Ray took the beating but because Mick has been watching Ray in action, bumbling most of the time but steadfast and true. Mick thinks Ray’s a schmuck, but now he’s Mick’s schmuck.
• Snart and Sara: After Snart watched Sara dance and beat up bikers in the seventies, he began flirting with her as only he would do: distantly but intensely with eye contact and body language and without any emotion whatsoever; he’s the coldest Hot Guy in the history of the CW. By the fifth episode they’ve seen each other in action enough to respect each other even when they disagree and know each other well enough to correct each other’s courses. That would be enough to make them the natural leaders of the team, but Snart adds character growth to the mix: his loyalty to Sara is much newer than his bond with Mick, but the man he’s evolving into is much more Sara’s partner than Mick’s now. And since Lotz and Miller have strong screen chemistry, their bond is also romantic in the least romantic way possible: they’re two emotionally damaged porcupines thinking about possibly maybe probably not mating someday after they’ve saved the world and are done playing gin but definitely never discussing their feelings about it. The romantic aspect of their relationship is subtle, communicated in body language and small details in action, and yet it’s one of the most intense relationships on TV; infinitely more powerful than all that “We’re destined to be together if Vandal Savage would just stop killing us so let’s discuss it a lot” Hawk Love that doesn’t work at all. Okay, I’m a romance novelist so I’d be all over this anyway, but this is a terrific subplot within a subplot.
And yet both of these relationships are secondary to the Mick/Snart partnership. It’s fun to watch Mick bond with Ray, really fun to watch Snart flirt/not flirt with Sara, but the emotional heft is in the conflict between Cold and Heatwave, and the tension is in waiting for them to explode. (Okay, there’s a lot of tension waiting for Sara and Snart to explode, too.)
How I’d fix this episode:
Rip would get laryngitis, and Sara and Snart would take over the mission.
Okay, the truth is, I like this double episode, so I’d cut the exposition and the whining and leave everything else.
What I learned from this that will help with Nita’s story:
Build inner team relationships through action subplots.
A team is the sum of its parts, and the team’s bond is the sum of its inter-relationships, so using the most compelling of those relationships as subplots not only intensifies the main plot–there’s a lot more to lose if you have a special bond with your teammate–it provides a chance for variation in the kind of stories that can be told and spurs character arc. The Snart/Mick partnership is the strongest relationship on the team, the Sara/Snart dynamic is the most fun to watch, but the Mick/Ray stuff is also great, plus it’s another indication that Mick is going to be more than just dumb muscle and a smart mouth. So I need to look beyond the Nita/Nick relationship to see Mort and Rab, Button and Max, Mammon and Vince, and all the other connections that form and pull the team together.
In a story with multiple major characters, start the character arcs with simple basic characters and then arc them through the action of the story and through the relationships the character forms. In a single protagonist story, you can hit the ground running with a complex character, but in a single-protagonist-with-a-team story, you need to sketch in the team as quickly as possible, differentiating them as much as possible. I used to do one rewrite at the end where I went through and read the story from the point of view of every significant supporting character, checking to make sure they were alive and acting like themselves whenever they appeared. I think maybe I have to do that at the end of the first draft instead, maybe approaching them the way an actor would: I’m portraying this character, and this character has to do certain things; how can I make this interesting and new and distinctive so my character is alive on the screen page without unbalancing or derailing the story? For Nita, that means finding out who Mort and Button are, who Dag and Rab are, who Mammon and Max and Sequins are, and then pulling the team from them.
Develop those relationships through action and body language, not through talking about feelings. Seeing Lotz and Miller doing the small physical things that sell a relationship arc was a reminder to put that body language on the page in little details, in particular repeated moments that show that they’re developing a pattern together (the card games, Sandra Bullock’s “Beets, beets, beets!” in Three Weeks Notice, etc.), but also in the small acts that show they know and understand each other. Mick and Ray sell their really-not-a-friendship the same way.
We’re skipping Episode 6 “Star City 2046” by Marc Guggenheim & Ray Utarnachitt
If you’re an Arrow fan, this is fun. If you’re not, you’re just left wondering why these guys with arrows are fighting guys with guns, why they have an underground lair, and why Sara is so invested in saving Oliver Queen’s ancient ass (he was her sister’s boyfriend, she slept with him on his yacht which was blown up by Malcolm Merlyn. after which she ended up a lab rat/slave to a mad scientist until Oliver blew up his ship, at which point she was rescued by the daughter of the head of the League of Assassins with whom she fell in love and was trained by the League and worked with them killing people until she came home to screw up Oliver’s life again and fight beside him only to be killed by Oliver’s little sister who was under hypnosis by Malcolm Merlyn, and then dug up by her own sister and Oliver’s regretful little sister and taken back to the League of Assassins who put her in the Lazarus Pit and raised her from the dead, only she came back from the dead a crazed killer driven by blood lust, which she’s now trying to keep under control as she travels through time making eye contact with Leonard Snart and cleaning up after the Worst Team Leader Ever. You’re welcome.)
Meanwhile, after being trapped on the Waverider, the only place he can’t set anything on fire, Mick loves the lawlessness of 2046 and goes a little nuts; as Sara says later, it’s like Disneyland for him. So after the team saves the city and puts the Green Arrow back into action, Mick refuses to leave. The Snart who boarded the Waverider in the beginning would have probably joined him, but the evolving Snart can’t leave Sara and the team and can’t leave Mick, either, so he knocks him cold and drags him back on the ship.
This will have Consequences, but for once, they’re integral to the story, evoke excellent reversals, and arc not just the characters of Mick and Snart but stresses their crucial subplot to the breaking point. So there’s that.
Next: Time Pirates. So. Much. Fun. Except for the endless back story that pretty much demonstrates that Rip Hunter has always been the Worst Team Leader Ever, and which is therefore unnecessary because We Knew That. Also forging team bonds under pressure.
Also, here’s Caity Lotz on that body language that launched a thousand ‘shippers: