Legends of Tomorrow: 104 “White Knights” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
For its first three episodes, Legends of Tomorrow stayed put firmly in 1975 as the Legends faced off against Vandal Savage for the first and second times, broke into a bank, prevented a nuclear explosion and generally made a bit of a mess of the timeline in the process. For episode four, Legends jumped a decade forward to 1986, in the midst of the Cold War…
There’s a lot to love about White Knights, an episode that’s, at points, as good as anything Legends of Tomorrow has served up thus far. ‘At points’ is the operative phrase, though – there’s no sense that Legends is about to truly drop the ball here, but this was nonetheless the most inconsistent episode yet, fixing some storytelling problems yet flagging up plenty of new ones. For now, though, let’s focus on what White Knights did well – chief among its strengths are its opening and closing action set pieces. The opening Pentagon heist plays to Legends of Tomorrow’s strengths, featuring a handful of fun character moments such as Heat Wave starting an impromptu arm wrestle as a distraction and Captain Cold revealing his skills at swiping both keycards and wallets (truly, a master criminal) at the same time, followed by a fight sequence featuring Sara and Kendra that’s, if admittedly brief, an exciting way to bring Kendra’s bloodlust into the equation. It’s a well-directed, zippy sequence that nails the enjoyably spiky team dynamics and comic-book silliness that have quickly become core strengths of this show, launching into the Cold War mission in a way that instantly builds up momentum well before the first commercial break. If nothing else, Legends of Tomorrow has displayed a knack for introducing its weekly storylines in cracking opening scenes, and this stylish heist scene certainly puts White Knights in a very good place early on.
Though it doesn’t get a lot more focus than the other subplots this episode, the main engine of White Knights resides in the mission focused on finding out what Vandal Savage’s secret Soviet project is all about – and, fortunately, it’s the strongest plotline here. Snart and Ray’s brief team-up worked well a couple of episodes back, and White Knights ably expands upon that dynamic by fleshing out their odd-couple dynamic in interesting ways. Wentworth Miller’s self-assured, coolly confident performance complements Brandon Routh’s earnestly heroic boy-scout heroics well, and there’s equal comedic and dramatic value in how the criminal is considerably more capable than Ray, with Snart constantly cleaning up the messes that the sentimental, insecure Ray makes across the episode. Their fun dynamic’s effectiveness is heightened by the addition of Stephanie Corneliussen as Soviet scientist Valentina Vostok. Corneliussen was a breakout hit on Mr Robot where she played an icily sociopathic Lady Macbeth figure, and she channels a great deal of that performance here, with a collectedly aloof energy that lends Vostok the ambiguity that’s required for the twist about her character to work despite the inherent predictability of the fact that (shock!) she knows about her research’s purpose. She’s a great addition to the show, and I’m glad that Vostok will be around for next week’s conclusion.
I have my concerns about the placement of this conflict at this particular point in the season, but the conflict between Stein and Jax does really have its strengths. The argument over Stein’s role as the one calling all the shots in the Firestorm pairing takes advantage of the potential this highly unusual relationship provides. It forces viewers to reconsider that Stein’s role in the pairing, which had always been presented as vital, sage advice for the more inexperienced guy taking the shots, is also kind of invasive and dictatorial, reducing the person whose body is actually on the line to a glorified goon doing the bidding of the ‘superior’ person in his head. This is a great idea, and it’s well-presented in the central argument scene between Stein and Jax, a scene which both Victor Garber and Franz Drameh palpably convey their tangled efforts to place the blame on one another while convincing themselves of their own innocence. This is arguably undercut a little by what came before, but taken purely on its own merits, the Firestorm subplot begins to delve into the meaningful emotional consequences of this unusual relationship with considerable dramatic output.
The final act of White Knights also works very well indeed, benefiting from a fight scene that feels a touch grittier and more grounded than the previous, more colourful brawls involving the entire team in less claustrophobic locations. As opposed to previous set-pieces showing the power of the whole team if they work together, the final fight of White Knights ably demonstrates the diluted effectiveness of a team that’s been split up by bad decision-making and internal conflicts, resulting in a conclusion that’s vastly more open-ended than recent weeks have been. I noted Legends of Tomorrow’s repetitive proclivity for finishing with fight scenes involving Vandal Savage escaping in a credulity-straining, tension-diluting manner, and White Knights’ more downbeat cliffhanger ending in which part of the team is captured by the Soviets, represents a genuine desire to mix up the traditional formula in some way. Temporary plotlines such as Vandal Savage’s quest to create his own Firestorm that last two episodes or so are exactly the kind of stories that Legends of Tomorrow needs to be telling if it wants to flesh out the threat posed by Savage without having the team confront him every week, and the indication that next week’s episode will be a continuation of exactly the same story rather than the beginning of new standalone missions shows an encouraging commitment to increased serialisation.
It’s unfortunate, then, that White Knights really drops the ball in some other areas. The appearance of Rip’s mentor, Time Master Druce, provided a huge amount of potential for the development of Rip’s character, but that plotline proves to be a bit of a non-starter, with Rip’s internal conflict over whether his destructive quest really is necessary feeling desperately undercooked due to the sparse amount of screen-time it’s afforded. The entire plotline feels like an overly abridged version of what could have been with all the complexities and exciting twists stripped out. There are next to no real surprises in this plotline, with Druce’s eventual betrayal and Rip’s reveal that he brought back-up guessable about 20 minutes before they actually happened, so the whole thing feels disappointingly tepid and uninspired, fizzling out well before the end of the episode. Druce could work long-term as a secondary villain due to Martin Donovan’s strong performance, and there’s lots of intriguing stories Legends could tell with the Time Masters, but the show will need to be more committed to delivering a fleshed-out and more expansive story rather than the rushed plotline that’s awkwardly crammed into this packed early episode.
Having finally healed from her wounds, Kendra was back this week, bringing her customary dullness into Sara’s more exciting storyline this week. The dramatic material here as the two women try and bring each other back from the brink is actually decent enough – even if the comparison is unsubtle, the two characters still complement each other well at this stage in their character development, resulting in an unstable, slightly destructive mentor/mentee dynamic where both the mentor and the mentee are suffering from internal crises of equal magnitudes. Despite this, the plotline’s success is only limited due to the fact that Kendra’s bloodlust is such a fundamentally hackneyed idea – there was very little mention of this in previous episodes, and it just kind of seems to come from nowhere in order to artificially drum up some conflict. It’s just an uninspired development, copying and pasting Sara’s arc in order to give Kendra something to do, which creates a sense of repetitiveness as Legends of Tomorrow is effectively giving two characters exactly the same problem – even if the small details are different, that’s dramatically unsatisfying storytelling that reduces the amount of character material Legends can tackle.
The problem with artificially creating conflict recurs throughout White Knights. Stein and Jax’s argument is executed well, but it really suffers from the fact that they seemingly patched up their issues in the previous episodes. This peaceful relationship would be pretty dramatically inert if it stayed as the status quo throughout the season, but Legends could have benefited from placing this conflict a few episodes later, when their resolution was out of viewers’ memories – as it is, the conflict feels like an artificial way to instantly undo the heart-warming scene between Stein and Jax a couple of episodes back and once again re-assert hostility when it wasn’t really required. No matter how well it tells them, a degree of patience and consistency is still needed – with this development, Legends of Tomorrow presents itself as floundering to find conflicts rather than letting them organically stem from the story.
Still, despite these flaws, Legends is continuing to be a fun hour of popcorn television that’s gradually adding layers to its characters as it goes on – and with this week’s cliff-hanger, we have the pretty exciting proposition of a character played by Wentworth Miller once again breaking a group of allies, one of whom is played by Dominic Purcell, out of jail. I’m sure I’m the first one to have picked up on this comparison…
White Knights is probably Legends’ weakest instalment yet, considering how it makes a real hash of a potentially compelling subplot concerning the Time Masters, introduces a boring character conflict for Kendra and slightly undermines past episodes’ development, but it keeps its head above water with a fun central mission that makes good use of Ray and Cold as well as continuously solid action sequences.