Legends of Tomorrow Binge Watch Intermission: Plotting A Team Story

legends-binge-logoIf you think of a TV season as a novel, the episodes as chapters, you can take apart a season and see where the plot stumbled and where it hit its marks. After “Marooned,” Legends had completed six episodes of a sixteen-episode season and it was way past time for a turning point.

And now we pause for a diagram about story acts and turning points:

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The four act structure means dividing a story in four increasingly shorter parts (or five or whatever) to build in turning points to continually make the story new, arc the characters, and escalate the stakes and the pacing.

So a four act plot is:
Act One:
Introduce the protagonist and the conflict.
Show the protagonist fighting the good fight as you introduce new characters and subplots.
Write a First Turning Point that makes the story new, the stakes higher, the fight harder.
Begin Act Two by showing the characters adapting to the new reality created by the turning point, still fighting the good fight and being changed by it, becoming a team.
Develop characters and subplots while increasing the tension in the main plot struggle.
Write a Mid Turning Point that makes the story new again, the stakes even higher, the fight even harder.

And so on until you get to the Last Turning Point which is the Climax, where the plot turns out of conflict and into stability. Later for that, let’s look at the first half (nine episodes) of Legends now.

The beginning of Legends introduces all the characters and gives them a mission: find and kill Vandal Savage before he can conquer and ruin the earth.
But then the story becomes a string of pearls plot, dragged down by static relationships.

A string of pearls plot is one in which each conflict event returns the characters to where they were before. So they try to kill Savage in Norway and it doesn’t work, so they go back to the ship and decide to try to kill Savage in Russia and it doesn’t work, so they go back to the ship and decide to kill Savage in Oregon, and it doesn’ work . . .

The annoying thing about this is that the reason it doesn’t work, even though they actually do kill him most of the time, is that he’s immortal. They know this. They know if they kill him, he’ll just be born again in another time. And since they’re killing him in the past, they’re not stopping him in the future. I know I keep saying that Rip Hunter is the Worst Team Leader Ever, but I’m even annoyed with Sara and Snart for this mess: Somebody should have said, “Our problem is his immortality. Let’s figure out what to do about that.”

Instead they do a string of Savage murders, propped up by some of the deadliest relationships ever put on screen. The Hawks are by far the worst, followed by Ray and Kendra, following by Stein and Jax yapping at each other. Buried in all of that are Sara, Snart, and Mick who are doing good work on the smaller tasks and missing the Big Picture. By the time they reach the midpoint of the story, they should know things about Savage they didn’t know before, they should have injured him in ways that make him angrier and increased their conflict with him, they should have been injured in ways that make them more focused and more of a team.

Some but not enough of that happens. Look at this plot:

Act One
1-1 & 1-2 “Pilot:” Rip kidnaps eight people and tells them they’re a team, they fight and talk about their feelings while taking a nuclear weapon away from Vandal Savage in Norway. Because.
1-3 “Blood Ties:” Still in Norway, Rip splits up the team and doesn’t listen to anybody again, and everybody argues. Carter dies. They learn only Kendra can kill Savage permanently, which they forget in most episodes.
1-4 “White Knights” & 1-5 “Fail-Safe:” Rip splits the team up, but they form alliances anyway: Snart, Sara, and Mick doing a coordinated theft from the Pentagon, Snart and Ray tag-teaming the physicist, Mick and Ray saving each other in prison, Snart talking Sara out of killing Stein, Kendra helping Jax get into the prison; the bonds are tentative but they’re forming, none of them with Rip. All of this is for nothing because even with the team being a lot more effective in the individual parts of the plan, when they blow up Savage it’s meaningless because Kendra didn’t stick a knife in his heart, so he’s gonna come back.
1-6 Star City 2046: The team works together to help Oliver Queen, most of them not quite sure why; Mick decides to leave the team and Snart knocks him out to drag him back onboard the ship. Savage has nothing to do with this story, and I’m not even sure why it’s in here since the only important thing that happens is that Snart pressgangs Mick back onto the team when he wants off.

That’s the first six episodes of a sixteen episode/chapter story. Definitely time for a turning point, an event that will swing the story around in a new direction and make the stake higher and the conflict more intense.

1-7 Marooned: The team is suckered into a time pirate trap and work together until one of them betrays the rest. They battle the pirates together and win, and then have to decide together what to do about the traitor, discussing it soberly and maturely.
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I think it’s interesting that the first time the team acts like a team, they’re all looking at Snart. This team needs an effective leader; if Snart says he’ll handle it, he’ll handle it; he solves the Mick problem and they move on.

So what does that turning point mean?
They were betrayed as a team, they responded as a team, Snart flat-out tells Mick he betrayed the team so even he feels a part of something now. The fight with the pirates and Mick’s betrayal is the crucible that forges the first real team bonds, but it also makes them a little nervous around Snart. Because he’ll handle them if they screw up, too.

So they go into Act Two sadder but wiser about team relationships, but no wiser about Savage. Their team character arc is moving but their main plot is a joke. Imagine if they’d made progress in each of those seven episodes, learned something so that each time they faced Savage again they got closer, did him more damage, found some way to inhibit his regeneration, anything so that there was a sense of forward movement in the plot instead of each episode starting with “Where in the world is Vandal Savage?” You build the forward movement in a plot incrementally, so they don’t need to defeat him each time, they just need to learn more each time, move the game pieces closer to the finish line.

ACT TWO

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Episode 8: “Night of the Hawk”
A lot of this episode is fun because Vandal Savage finally does something interesting: he turns a trio of 50’s era teenagers into giant fanged ravens in an effort to build a bird army to fight the Hawks. This seems like overkill since the Hawks have the survival skills of parakeets, but at least Savage has a plan. So we get a fifties horror movie complete with an asylum with a restricted wing, Space Ranger Stein as a psychiatrist and a small but lovely subplot about lesbian nurses (that would be Sara and Lindsey). Also Ray and Kendra go undercover as a married couple. In 1958. Nine years before the Loving decision. I’m sure nobody will notice. Stein loves the time period, calling it idyllic, and Jax and Sara remind him that’s because he’s white, male, and straight. Meanwhile Rip and Snart are FBI agents come to investigate the slasher murders. They’re still bickering, all of them, but they’re working efficiently together. Jax gets a date with the Peggy Sue whose boyfriend disappeared (turned into a giant fanged raven), Ray and Kendra move into their ranch house and dance, Sara shuts down a lecherous doctor who’s harassing a nurse, who appreciates it (that would be Lindsey). And wouldn’t you know it, Vandal Savage is not only the head doctor at the mental hospital, he’s Ray and Kendra’s neighbor across the street. The coincidence is strong in this one. Also, everybody’s a little edgy around Snart. Lindsey kisses Sara.
legends_of_tomorrow_1-08_night_of_the_hawk_6 Then Jax gets turned into a giant fanged raven and Snart refuses to kill him, and Stein creates a giant-fanged-raven serum that cures him. Stein calls Snart a hero and Jax tells him that now he understands he was just protecting the team. Snart throws up in his mouth a little (I may have read that between the lines.) Oh, and they don’t kill Savage because Kendra is terrible at killing people, not only losing the knife to Savage but needing to be rescued when he turns it on her.

Then Chronos boards the ship, kidnapping Snart and forcing Rip, Jax, and Stein to abandon Sara, Ray, and Kendra in 1958. With Savage.

That’s bad.

What have we learned from this episode that moves the plot forward and will help the team against Savage next time?
[Crickets.]
Well, points for giant fanged ravens anyway.

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Episode 9: “Left Behind”
Chronos sabotages the Waverider and leaves with Snart as a captive. Rip fixes the sabotage by rebooting Gideon (“Have you tried turning it off and on?”) but the ship crashes into the temporal zone. Yeah, I don’t know what that means, either. Meanwhile, Sara, Ray, and Kendra are stuck in the fifties. Ray rigs up a time beacon so the rest of the team can find them, and it blows up. Sara blows up, too: She’s sure the rest of the team is dead and she’s leaving.

Two years later, Ray gives Kendra the time beacon to destroy before he proposes, but it activates instead. The Waverider comes back for them. Kendra’s thrilled, Ray’s hurt she’s thrilled. She’s a black woman from the 21st century, Ray, why would she want to stay in the freaking fifties? They go to find Sara who’s back in Nanda Parbat with the League of Assassins, which is fine because Rip knows all about the League, he did his master’s thesis on it. (REALLY? There’s more handwaving in this show than a Broadway musical.) In Nanda Parbat, Sara attacks them and imprisons them to be executed shortly.

Now the only team member who isn’t in imminent danger of dying is the missing Snart, who wakes up somewhere ship-like cuffed to a metal bar. He asks Chronos what the hell is going on; Chronos takes off his helmet and its Mick. For once, Snark is speechless. (There’s a mini-flashback of Snark firing on Mick and deliberately missing.) Mick says the Time Masters found him and took him to a place out of time, the Vanishing Point, where he spent “lifetimes” being brainwashed and trained to work for them as a bounty hunter. His plan is to kill the team and then take Snart back home so he can kill Snart’s little sister Lisa over and over again in front of him. Yeah, Mick’s in a bad place.
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Back in Nanda Parbat, Kendra and Sara fight as champions for their groups and Sara remembers who she is. Which is good because Cronos attacks. Back on the ship, Snart manages to get his freeze gun and fires on his cuffs, freezing them and his hand. When he still can’t break the cuffs, he smashes his frozen hand into flesh cubes. There’s screaming. The League releases the crew and they defeat Chronos just as Snart staggers in and shouts, “Don’t kill him!” They take Mick back to the ship and put him in the brig where he swears he’ll kill all of them and Gideon grows Snart a new hand, a brand new kind of handwaving (I know, I know).

What have we learned from this episode that moves the plot forward and will help the team against Savage next time?
The team’s separation gives them each the opportunity to choose joining the team, this time in full knowledge of what they’re getting into, they find out Snart didn’t kill Mick so they trust him, and the team together decides to rehabilitate Mick instead of executing him because he’s part of the team.
Go, team.
No, really, that will help move the plot because they’ll stop dicking around with their personal beefs and get serious.
Plus there’s only one mini-flashback as Snart remembers firing past Mick instead of at him. I’ll allow it.

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Episode 10 – “Progeny”
The team travels to a dystopian future where they refuse to kill a child who will unleash a terrible virus that wipes out most of the world’s population and enables Vandal Savage to conquer everyone because the world has been weakened by the disease. They don’t do it because killing a child would be wrong (and those billions of other kids who are going to die because they don’t kill this one?). Also, Ray and Kendra discuss the relationship (LONG FLASHBACK WITH HAWKS), Mick’s in the brig enraged, Snart and Sara are efficient as they help Rip kidnap the monster child, Ray has a meltdown over a child he didn’t know he had, Kendra has another FLASHBACK, Gideon tells them that kidnapping the kid hasn’t changed the future, Sara tells Mick that Snart saved him and Mick snarls, Rip takes the kid and leaves the ship, Kendra has another FLASHBACK, Ray finds out he didn’t have a kid after all, Rip wimps out and doesn’t kill the monster child. Sara confronts Snart about Mick–“Stop being an ass and go deal with him”–and Snart goes. “People seem to think we should have a heart to heart,” he tells Mick. “We don’t have hearts,” Mick says. “Where does that leave us?” Snart offers him a fight to the death. Mick says yes, and . . .
Then for some reason the writers cut to Ray and Kendra discussing their relationship. They’re not just boring, they’re IN THE WAY. Vandal tells the monster child to kill his father. WHO CARES? The monster child kills his father early and Savage releases the virus early. Well, that’s just great.

Meanwhile Mick and Snart beat the hell out of each other and Mick puts Snart on his back. “Kill me,” Snart says, “That’s what you want.” “I don’t know what I want,” Mick says. So much for therapy, just beat the crap out of each other and bond again. And anyway, it doesn’t matter, Mick says; since he didn’t bring the team in, the Time Masters will send out four killers to kill them all, mercenaries called The Hunters. He gives the assembled team the details and then says, “Run.”

What have we learned from this episode that moves the plot forward and will help the team against Savage next time?
The really big leap forward: Mick’s had decades (centuries?) as time maater bounty hunter, so now he’s the MVP on the team: he knows everything about the Time Masters and time ships and the time stream and the Vanishing Point, in fact, now we don’t need Rip.
Another small but important move: When Sara talks to Snart about Mick and says, “What are your feelings?” Snart says, “About you?” which is almost talking about the relationship they don’t have. Sara says, “About Mick,” so that’s their entire relationship conversation: Two words. Ray and Kendra, listen and learn. That’s important because what Snart is going to do in the penultimate episode is crucial to the main plot and it needs to be incrementally set up. Turns out Captain Canary is part of the main plot after all.
And, finally, the entire team’s back together again, everybody choosing to be there with full knowledge and free will.

The next two episodes don’t do much to advance the Savage plot, which I think is why they’re pretty good stories. Here’s my theory about that:
When somebody attacks the team, they make a plan, work together, and defeat the bad guys; they’re efficient and effective.
When they chase Vandal Savage, they’re idiots.
So the good news is, they’re under attack in the next two episodes. The bad news is, after that they go back to chasing Savage.

Next up:
Act Three which is where the team moves into higher stakes conflicts (a lot of people are trying to kill them to stop them) and find out new information that makes everybody want to kill the writers slowly with dull spoons. At this point the team is well enough established that the writers can have a lot of fun with characters not named Kendra or Rip, which they do in the first two, “The Magnificent Eight” and “Last Refuge.” Then they go back to fighting Savage, but let’s just enjoy the fun stuff first.

7 thoughts on “Legends of Tomorrow Binge Watch Intermission: Plotting A Team Story

  1. Haven’t seen the show but agree re structure (although I would add resolution after that final climax bit in diagram). Generally, I work in three-act form but the major turning points etc. really fit the same framework.

    But your book to show comp also got me thinking about the hook that sometimes comes at end of season to get viewers to tune in to next season. Think this is also done sometimes with series books and each can work well so long as main storyline is resolved & can stand as complete story on its own.

    Since I just finished the new Gilmore Girls this is on my mind because their season structure was interesting too.

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    1. I really hate the open-ended TV season with the cliffhanger. The best showrunners don’t do it–Joss Whedon and John Rogers come to mind–because if you like the characters, you’ll come back the next season, and if you don’t you won’t. I remember one show that just got more and more irritating and the last scene of the season, all the characters apparently died. Then the show was cancelled so the cliffhanger did them no good, and I never wondered at all what had really happened to them.

      I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the same thing in books. You get all the way to the end and suddenly there are new characters there, clearly setting up a sequel. I have nothing against sequels, that’s just a lousy way to give readers a sense of completion in a story.

      Neither of those are resolutions, of course, and I agree most plots need a SHORT one;the problem is that people turn them into epilogues and it all goes to hell.

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      1. Agree. If the storyline doesn’t stand complete, it feels like a cheat.

        I might be thinking a bit differently, though, re hook vs cliffhanger. I’m okay with hooks that hint at future fun with the characters I already know. Cliffhangers, on the other hand for me are different beasts and don’t work to gain my interest so much as frustrate me. The whole “who shot JR thing” not really my thing although it did seem to cause a stir at the time & get the cliffhanger idea out there in a big way.

        As for introducing new characters to set up sequels, not sure I’ve seen a lot of that in book or TV at end of season. Seen it done in general re spinoffs (ie Maude & the Jeffersons from All in the Family or Laverne & Shirley from Happy Days) kind of thing, but in those cases while the new shows grew out of the original, I don’t think of them as launching from a last season episode so not sure that counts as what you’re referring to.

        In the case of the new GG show that got me thinking about hooks, I don’t want to say too much re spoilers for those here who haven’t seen it yet but could take their ending in a few ways.

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      2. I find, if anything, that the cliffhanger ending is a count against a show in my mind. I’m more likely to come back and watch the next season if I left the last season feeling satisfied. If it ended on a cliffhanger, I’m more likely to spend the months until the next season feeling annoyed with the series, which doesn’t induce me to come back.

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        1. Especially since so many of them are stupid.
          “Will the hero of the show survive?”
          Uh, let me guess . . .

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  2. Dammit, I completely forgot about Snart and Rip, FBI, which is a travesty. They should be an Eliot/Sterling level of delightful odd couple, and yet this pairing does NOTHING for either Snart or Rip’s characterization. What a waste. I mean, I get that the writers were much more interested in the societal flaws of the 50s for that episodes, but phoning it in for the others is not good.

    And then you can clearly see the intent behind the Sara/Kendra fight in the writing, but it falls flat because the choreography for each of their fighting styles isn’t customized to character at all. (Another plug for Nikita, which did, and has some truly spectacular hand-to-hand combat!) So the fight doesn’t reflect their internal conflict, and Rip has to exposit all of the supposed characterization it represents. A literal tell-not-show. Even Ray’s character conflict was better portrayed than this.

    The other big problem is that jumping back and forth between past and future does not work for hunting a single person, because now Savage can’t grow as a person, either, but is just whatever level of evil or ignorant the plot wants this time.
    Also, Savage’s plots don’t reflect the internal conflicts at all. Bird-people army have bupkiss to do with the “problems with the 50s” stuff. The “do we kill baby Hitler” plot is way overdone and has no impact on Rip’s decisions going forward, so it’s fake characterization. Savage wasn’t responsible for the Palmer Tech subplot. Savage has nothing to do with the Rory subplot.
    Again, this is kind of weird considering how much better they are at tying plot/villain to character/theme in Supergirl.

    It’s like in the new Star Wars movie, where the destruction of several planets has bupkiss personal connection to our protagonists, so it has none of the gravitas that the destruction of Alderaan had in the original, despite artificially higher stakes via body count. Similarly, we don’t open with the death of Luke’s aunt and uncle.
    Another hark back to Leverage: Leverage does not open with the death of Nate’s son. Instead, it opens with understated character emotion, shown-not-told. Nate is very drunk and apathetic, until Victor taunts him into rage. Key point: the rage makes Nate more deadly, not less. Not only do we not see the full flashback of his kid’s death until the finale, but we also don’t see it until after we witness Nate and Maggie’s chemistry, so that we have emotional investment in seeing their past anguish.

    So Legends opening with a woman and kid we don’t know, don’t care about, have never seen interacting with our subsequent protagonist, gives us no hook. It’s akin to the nameless Rebel grunts that got shot down by faceless Stormtroopers at the beginning of Star Wars. And those cannon fodder extras aren’t made key to Leia’s characterization.

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    1. Yep.
      Snart and Rip have zero influence on Night of the Hawk episode; they might as well be extras. It was time Jax some focus all to himself, but it did feel as though the writers got finished with the script and said, “Well, hell, we forgot Snart and Hunter” and just added them in.
      I think almost everything wrong with this show goes back to the way it was conceived and in some instances cast. Nobody started with “There’s this protagonist and he has a driving goal to solve this problem and there’s this antagonist and he has a driving goal to achieve this thing, and they’re locked in combat, so the protagonist assembles this team to defeat him. They started with “Well, we’ve got Sara Lance, Captain Cold and Heatwave, Firestorm, and Ray Palmer we can put in a show. There’s a guy named Rip Hunter in the comics who travels through time and an immortal bad guy named Vandal Savage in the comics, and we can use Hawkman and Hawkgirl, so let’s do a team of superheroes because the Avengers movies are huge.”
      It’s not that that was an impossible task, but they had to look at Hunter vs. Savage, plot an arc for the struggle that escalated, and then figure out how the team they were stuck with could be shifted to showcase the skills they need. They did that with Sara who became a leader and Snart who became a hero and Mick who became an expert on time travel, but everybody else was pretty much who they started out as (okay, Firestorm stopped nagging each other) and Rip didn’t learn a damn thing. I think lousy plotting and three weak actors were the big problems here, closely followed by intermittently bad writing (flashbacks and relationship discussions and handwaving, oh my).

      At least they fixed a lot of that this season.

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