Even if you don’t find much else to praise in Legends of Tomorrow’s first season, you have to admit that it’s consistent on at least one front: from week to week, the show had a lot of promise that it didn’t quite live up to. Somewhere under the surface—beneath the bland sets, the clunky exposition, the placeholder feel of some episodes—is a really interesting show about different kinds of heroism, the things that drive people to drastic actions, and the way we take care of ourselves and others. But a poorly chosen central plot and a tendency to tell rather than show make Legends’ first season often more fun to pick apart than it is to watch.
That is, until the end.
Spoilers for the entire first season follow.
I stopped reviewing Legends on a weekly basis after “Left Behind,” in which Kendra, Ray, and Sara are rescued from the special hell of 1958—a process complicated by Sara’s choice to return to the League of Assassins. It’s an enjoyable, frustrating episode, and essentially every complaint I have about it applies to the season as a whole. Kendra is forced to have all the feelings; Mick and Snart are rarely as relevant to the rest of the team as they are to each other; Jax and Martin are sometimes a narrative afterthought; telling visual moments are often doubled-down on with overwrought dialogue.
But the positives remain true as well. Mick and Snart, smoldering angrily, a pair of self-chosen brothers who can’t live with or without each other. (Let us not underestimate the power of Wentworth Miller’s charismatic over-enunciation.) Sara going in circles, trying to be a team player only to get hurt and strike out on her own, again and again. Ray as the unexpected true heart of the team; every sentimental speech given to Ciara Renee’s Kendra would be better given to Brandon Routh, who makes Ray both hero and homebody, an overgrown boy with an overdeveloped sense of hope to balance out his lack of self-confidence.
And then there’s Rip Hunter, untrustworthy team leader, Time Master, enigma. Part of the show’s first-season trouble is in the pacing: reasons to care about these characters needed to come earlier in the season. For so long, Rip’s entire character is defined by his desire to save his family from their eventual murder at Savage’s hands. It isn’t until “Last Refuge” that Rip makes sense—when we meet his younger self, with his deadly drive for self-preservation. Ferocious little Rip isn’t given enough time or weight in the show, but his action, more than any drippy, sentimental flashbacks, explained where Rip got that burning drive to save his family. They’re an extension of himself—the self he guards fiercely.
When Legends is at its best, this is what it does: gives us a moment, in each episode’s time-traveling plot, that expands our understanding of one or more of the characters. Sara, in 1972, basically rolling her eyes while taking down bad guys, never mind that she’s high as a kite. Ray, in 1958, revealing in his reluctance to leave how much he yearns for stability, for love, for someone to make him feel worthwhile. Snart’s desire to sneak off to the past and give his younger self advice that might lead him into a better life.
But the team spends a lot of time on the Waverider, hunting Savage through all of time and history, and the writers rarely find a way to give us something new in this static scenario. Instead, we get mopey, leaden hallway conversations between Kendra and Ray about their already awkward relationship. Put two characters in a truly stressful situation, like Snart and Sara freezing in the cargo hold, and we’re back in growth territory—but change also happens in the little moments, and Legends would benefit from making more room for those.
Rip’s character arc, from angry runaway Time Master to a man who rediscovers his will to live, is quietly satisfying. Sara’s is arguably even more so, though a detour near the end raises a few annoying questions I can’t ignore. (Why, if they’re in Star City in 2016, when Damien Darhk is trying to blow up the world, would they not help? Does this just imply that obviously he’s defeated, and Rip’s always known this? Why can’t Sara see Laurel?) There are few single moments in this show as delightful as Sara strapping herself into the captain’s seat—other than maybe when Rip tells her to stay on the bridge; he needs someone who can make swift decisions under great pressure. She’s not any of the people she’s been trying to be. She’s a leader. She just hasn’t figured that out yet.
But she will. Or at least she can. Underneath its heroic trappings, its diversions about family and romantic love, Legends is a show about control versus free will. When the true villain is revealed, it’s not campy Vandal Savage, who is just as much a pawn as anyone; it’s the Time Masters, who think they can control time, history, humanity. Everything is written in their uptight, overconfident hand; nothing Rip told his team mattered. Not that he told them they would be legends; not that that was a lie. The true evil is all the work of the Time Masters: the loss of self-direction.
I suspected Vandal was a misdirect, and frankly, this makes it all the more frustrating that we had to spend so much time with Caspar Crump’s scenery chewing. (He still gets to be the focus of the final episode, which is notable mainly for Rip’s aborted self-sacrifice and Sara’s beautiful solo handling of one iteration of Savage.) But there’s a real grace to the way the season’s overarching theme plays out in hindsight, even among the clunky dialogue and unnecessary relationship drama. Eventually, our heroes wrest control of their own future—and their stories. And when push comes to shove, they choose each other.
Rip chooses to live, to find another fight, another purpose. Sara and Mick both kill a version of Savage, who supposedly only Kendra or Carter could kill. Snart, in a moment I hate for the charisma vacuum it creates, chooses to sacrifice himself for Mick, who already tried to sacrifice himself in place of Ray—angry loner Mick has chosen to care about people. Jax, sent back in time to save himself, finds that he doesn’t need to be half of Firestorm to be a hero; he gives Martin the tools to save them all, while Martin chooses to keep adventuring when he could just stay home. (I feel so bad for his wife.)
This all points back to the very beginning of the season, when Rip lied to them all, saying that in the future, they were legends. They didn’t know it then, but they had no chance of that. Eventually, Rip had to come clean: they had, in the Time Masters’ view of the future, no effect on the timeline at all, so he’d recruited them so as not to screw anything else up.
And what a hint—invisible, magical—that was. Of course they had no effect on the timeline the Time Masters saw. When Rip’s team got done with it, there was no more timeline, no way to see and shape the future. You can’t have free will and know what’s going to happen.
For all the show’s hand-waving about how time travel works, this makes a peculiar sort of time-travel sense: how could the Time Masters foresee the end of their control of time, which would, by definition, be outside the controlled timeline? I suppose you could also argue that all the time travel nonsense is because the Time Masters were controlling everything, but if that’s the case, it’s all the more reason to codify the rules a bit better for next season.
There’s one thing about all of this free will vs. destiny plotting that doesn’t quite gel, and in that not-gelling, explains another of the season’s flaws: The Hawkpeople don’t fit. And it’s not because Falk Hentschel is about as compelling as dry toast and Ciara Renee rarely has much to but look concerned and/or conflicted about her love interests. (She did get some satisfying punching in late in the season.) It’s that the focus of this season was on freeing people from the notion of destiny, but the Hawkpeople believe they’re destined to be together. Their narrative may have been intended to provide tension, to suggest an alternative to the scary looseness of free will, but if so, the writing let them down.
It’s a relief, in the finale, when Kendra says they won’t be sticking with the team; maybe they need to go off and hash out how immortality works if you’re not actually fated to be with the other immortal. (Assuming they’re still immortal, anyway.) The team gets smaller and more manageable, Kendra no longer has to play the love interest pinball, and no one’s convinced they have some fated destiny. Though they obviously have some things in store for them, what with the arrival of Rex Tyler, member of the Justice Society of America. His appearance is a dirty, delicious tease, one covered in excellent detail here. We’ve been promised a massive Arrow/The Flash/Supergirl/Legends crossover event; we’ve got a more focused team; we’re free of the tiresome Time Masters. If we can just get some sharper writing, a better villain, and someone to fill the hole left by Snart’s tragic departure, Legends might just level up.
Molly Templeton will continue to believe in a better future where this show is concerned, and has not yet given up on Snart entirely.