The last three episodes of the first season of Legends of Tomorrow are: Episode 14: “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?,” Episode 15: “Now THAT’S a Climax,” Episode 16: “Oh, Yeah, We Still Have To Kill Vandal Savage.”
I think the reason this series made me so nuts when I finally watched the first season this year is that it had huge potential. When it was on its game, as it is in “Destiny,” it’s just terrific. Unfortunately, it was rarely on its game because it had too many team members, too many of those team members were annoying, the writers kept trying to make two blocks of wood the Greatest Love Story Ever Told, the crap crowded out the good stuff (Sara, Mick, Snart), Vandal Savage was a cartoon, and Rip Hunter was the Worst Team Leader Ever. Also, no plot and that damn reveal in Episode 14 that made me insane with rage. How do you fix a series story like this? Kill it with fire.
Well, no, we want to keep Sara, Mick, and Snart. And the time travel premise. And . . . Yeah, it’s worth saving for a second season.
But first we have to clean up this one.
1-14 “River of Time”
Warning: There may be swearing in the discussion of this episode.
I think the best way to start is to quote the Wikipedia summary:
“Upon the revelation that the Leviathan was technology from the distant future, proving Savage has manipulated time, Rip believes the Time Masters will finally ratify his mission and sets course for the Vanishing Point. Jefferson fixes the damaged time drive, but is exposed to time radiation which ages him prematurely. Stein is forced to send him back to 2016 in the jump ship to reverse the process. Carter, now named Scythian Torvil, is kept prisoner while Kendra tries to restore his memories, causing a rift between her and Ray which effectively ends their relationship. Savage tries to manipulate some of the team members, allowing him to escape his cell. Just as Savage is about to kill Kendra, Scythian regains his memories as Carter and saves her, but is stabbed by Savage before Kendra knocks the latter unconscious. The team arrives at the Vanishing Point, where the Time Masters reveal that they have been working with Savage, who is to be sent back to 2166 to carry on with his plan while Rip and his team are put under arrest.”
Yeah. The Time Masters have been working with Savage the entire time. And here’s the part that’s going to send the showrunners to storytelling hell: The Time Masters manipulated the Legends so that the things they do make Savage stronger and safer. Put another way, the reason that the Legends are such idiots and Rip Hunter is the Worst Team Leader Ever is that the Time Masters stripped them of their free will in the beginning and have been using them like puppets ever since. Put another way, we don’t really know these people because they’ve never made any decisions on their own. Put another way, the writers are trying to handwave away the IDIOTIC things these characters did by saying, “Oh, that was the Time Masters.”
Put another way, they just threw the whole season down a garbage disposal and set it to “pulverize.”
You do not do this to readers or viewers. This is a Gotcha: “We knew this all the time and we were playing you, HA!” Yeah, screw you guys, I’ll never trust you or your narratives again. Listen, a storyteller is not the antagonist of his or her readers/viewers, we’re PARTNERS. The story teller puts the narrative on the page or screen and the readers/viewers participate, invest in characters and read meaning into the events based on their own worldviews and experiences. The reason stories are powerful is because we enter into them, trusting the storyteller will lead us on a journey that will transform us.
The Legends writers just yelled “Psych!” and laughed at us. And then said, “Seriously, here’s what’s going on. No, wait, where are you going?” We have a great episode next. Hello?”
One other thing about this episode:
Savage plays Psych 101 games with the crew and escapes his cell, finally facing Snart and his cold gun. I’ve quoted this dialogue before, but it’s important so:
Look at that exchange. You have your main antagonist, an immortal madman, raging through your heroes’ ship, He comes up against one of the team. And what does he do?
He declaims the most ridiculous dialogue in the history of modern TV.
And what does our anti-hero do?
Emphasize how ridiculous the antagonist by mocking him.
I love this exchange because it’s classic Snart, but what it does to the antagonist is just dumb. He should be striking fear in our hearts, and instead we’re pointing and laughing at him. Among all the crimes this series committed, making Savage a cartoon was probably the worst. A story cannot stand without a strong antagonist.
And then there’s the part where Sara confronts Rip and says, “Vandal Savage says you’d sell out the team to save your family,” and Rip says “He’s not wrong.” Rip Hunter, Worst Team Leader Ever.
Also flashbacks, ten thousand flashbacks.
But back to the big problem: The writers are trying to tell us that it doesn’t matter that Savage is a string of pop beads because it turns out that the real antagonist is the Time Masters. The problem is, we didn’t know that. If we’d known that at say, the first turning point, this would have been a much more interesting story: The Legends (rogue Time Masters) vs the Time Masters (the corrupt establishment) so that every move the Legends made would have to be second-guessed, they’d have to find a way out from under the Time Masters control, they’d be taking out Savage as a Time Master pawn so it would have been okay that he was a scenery chewer because he was just a game piece. All of which goes back to a basic tenet of storytelling: Suspense is much more powerful than Surprise. The guy who jumps out and goes “Boo!” is a shock for a second; knowing there’s a guy who’s going to jump out and shout boo, and not knowing where he is or when he’s going to jump, can result in story-long suspense that builds to that breaking point called a climax.
So at the end of this clusterRip of an episode, the Time Master’s army boards the Waverider and takes almost everybody prisoner. They miss Jax, who’s heading back to 2016 because that will somehow reverse some kind of time poisoning he has, and Snart and Sara because when Snart heard heavy boots boarding the ship, he didn’t say, “We must fight!” he said, “We need to find someplace to hide” and showed Sara a trapdoor he’d found the first day on the ship. My kind of hero, the smart kind.
If you want to know what this season could have been, look at the great episode we got once the Legends found out they were being played:
When last we left Snart and Sara, aka two of the three effective members of the team, they were hiding in the floor as the Time Masters captured the rest of the team. Sara says, “We go rescue them,” Snart says, “They’re dead, we escape while there’s still time.” Sara refuses and Snart pulls his gun on her and threatens shoot her, which the Snart at the beginning of the season would have done without batting an eye. She defies him, telling him he’s not the same cold-hearted bastard he was before, but she’s not begging, she’s going straight for the jugular. It’s Snart’s crisis turning point, and while I was sure he wasn’t going to shoot Sara, I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t get in the jump ship and leave. Then the phone rings and it’s Gideon (why is the ship’s computer calling on the phone?) with a plan. “This is a bad plan,” Snart says later as they’re putting devices on the Time Master’s fleet in the Vanishing Point’s hanger. “It’s Gideon’s plan,” Sara says. “You’re not helping your argument,” Snart says, and then they run back to the ship because . . .
The rest of the team is imprisoned in plexiglass cases that make them look like museum exhibits. Time Minions drag Mick away to be brainwashed and tortured back into Chronos, more minions come for Kendra who manages to defeat both of them while turning her back on the door (honest to god, Kendra) so the next wave of minions knocks her down and drags her off. Well, this is depressing. The Time Master orders everyone killed, but somebody attacks the base (that would be Sara in the Waverider) and then Snart shows up (“Somebody here order up a rescue?”) and takes out the guards. But then Chronos comes in, newly brainwashed and faces Snart. “Kill him,” the Time Master says, and Mick turns and shoots him instead, and then goes over and steps on the guy’s head like a watermelon (off camera, satisfying but not gross). The team escapes, and as the Time Fleet tries to follow them, Sara triggers the devices which make all the ship computers sing “Love Will Keep Us Together” like drunk barflies, grounding the ships. And back on the ship, Mick tells Ray that he withstood the brainwashing because the team wouldn’t survive without him.
So we have Snart’s character arc finalized, Mick’s emancipation from the Time Masters made clear along with his allegiance to the team, the team working together in a great escape, followed by Snart making the closest thing he’s going to get to a pass at Sara after he’s apologized for threatening to shoot her–“I’ve been thinking about what the future might hold for me. And you. And me and you”–followed by Sara saying, “You want to steal a kiss from me, Leonard? You better be one hell of a thief.” Considering the reason he’s on the ship is because he’s a master thief, this is not so much a rejection as it is an invitation, porcupine style.
The key piece of info Rip took away from his meeting with the Time Masters is that the only place free will is possible is the Vanishing Point, which is also where the Oculus (the thingy that makes it possibly for the Time Masters to control time and destiny, try to keep up). So clearly, they’re gonna have to go back and blow up the Oculus.
No, really. That makes sense. A lot of great stuff happens–this is a good episode of TV–and then they reach the Oculus which has a failsafe device that prevents it from being rigged to explode.
Here’s Ray deciding to sacrifice himself instead of finding a rock to prop up the failsafe device, only to be knocked out and replaced by Mick, who decides to sacrifice himself instead of finding a rock to prop up the failsafe device, only to be knocked out and replaced by Snart, who decides to sacrifice himself instead of finding a rock to prop up the failsafe device . . .
But at least we got this:
Sue me, I’m a romance novelist. I needed that kiss even if they killed him immediately after it.
Which they do: in the next two minutes, Sara drags Mick to safely, the Head Time Master comes running in at the last minute yelling, “Stop that,” which shows you just what jokes the Time Masters are, and Snart snarls “There are no strings on me,” and dies in a flash of white light to save his team and the future.
Okay, they gave him a great death, but from a storyteling standpoint, that was annoying. You have three excellent characters that could carry a whole show, you do not kill one of them. I know it was in Miller’s contract that he’d leave at the end of the season, but back up the money truck, don’t take out one leg of your three-legged story stool.
Back on the Waverider, having destroyed the Time Masters and everything to do with them, the team is dealing with Snart’s death. Mick says he wants to kill somebody, and Ray points out that Vandal Savage is still alive and has Kendra captive. Mick says, “He’ll do nicely,” which leads to the last anti-climactic episode . . .
Episode 16: “Legendary”
They go to kill Vandal Savage and make a plan where they need to kill him at three different places in three different times while he’s standing next to a meteorite SIMULTANEOUSLY because they still don’t understand time travel, or at least they haven’t explained it to me. This is Rip’s plan, so of course it involves dividing the team . . .
Yadda yadda yadda, they kill Vandal Savage. There’s some other stuff, the team members check in with their loved ones and then they assemble on the rooftop where they started and Rip invites them to join him as the last guardians of the timeline since the Time Masters are kaput. The Hawks say no because they want to start their lives again and fly off, and Mick says, “Every time they do that, I get hungry for chicken.” Never change, Mick. (One thing: Mick goes back to Snart in a time before they got on the Waverider to say good-bye and tells him that he may not think he’s a hero, but he is one to Mick, which leaves the old hostile Snart frowning and perplexed. I’m wondering if that’s the Snart that’s going to be part of the antagonist team next time, and if that little bit of interaction won’t pay off then.)
So they’re all ready to go, but then somebody appears from the future and tells them not to get back on the ship; if they do, they’ll die.
Pretty sure that in the second season premiere, they’ll get back on that ship.
How I’d Fix This:
Reveal the Time Masters have obliterated free will at the first turning point. Make the Time Masters the antagonists for the entire season. Have the team on the run, finding out how to subvert the Oculus, trying to put down Savage since he’s the point man for the Time Masters, until finally they get to the Vanishing Point and blow up the Oculus, freeing everybody. Do not kill Snart.
New Season: Get rid of the Hawks (done) and Rip as leader. Put Sara in charge with Mick as second-in-command. Keep Stein and Jax because they’ve stopped bickering and because Jax is now a time ship mechanic, very useful. Tell Ray he can stay as long as he doesn’t fall in love with anybody because these doomed loves–Anna, Felicity, Kendra–are just depressing. Make Ray Mick’s new partner. Establish some rules for time travel and stop handwaving. Get a strong antagonist. Embrace the absurdity that is Legends of Tomorrow. Plot the whole season. Bring back Snart.
What I learned from this:
• No gotchas. I already knew that, but it bears repeating: NO GOTCHAS. Play fair with the reader, giving him or her all the information that your PoV character has. And whatever you do, don’t have your characters doing inexplicably dumb things that you intend to give a reason for at the third turning point; your readers will loathe them by then and you won’t get them back. (See the Cordelia Beast plot on Angel, the first half of the first season of Agents of Shield, and Legends.)
• Write your first draft and then identify your strongest characters; yes, you can strengthen others, but the ones you make strong instinctively are the ones you’re most interested in. Rip was pretty clearly intended to be the protagonist here, but the juice was Sara, Snart, and Mick. I’d had Dag planned as Nick’s right hand guy, but I have infinitely more fun with Rab. Rab’s moving up the character list.
• No Hawks.