Legends of Tomorrow: 105 “Fail-Safe” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
“This isn’t my first prison break”, snarks Captain Cold at the start of Fail-Safe. It’s an irresistible nod to Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell’s career-making roles on the show of the same name – and with these two actors on board as regulars on Legends, it must have been hard for the writers of Legends to pass up the opportunity to once again set Miller and Purcell on a prison break. Only this time, the prison is a gulag, the year is 1986, and it all revolves around the Soviets creating a burning nuclear man.
Fail-Safe takes that tantalising premise and crafts a taut, exciting episode that marks the best hour Legends has produced since the second half of the pilot, even if the storytelling becomes a bit muddled in the final act. It’s a considerably more focused and purposeful instalment than the last few episodes, which felt distinctly choppy as the split-up team worked to accomplish their own missions, with only a few members working towards the episode’s main objective. Here, at least for the first half hour of the episode, the entire team is either working towards the same purpose or imprisoned in the same place, which means that Fail-Safe has a far better grasp on the overall team dynamics than the last couple of episodes have displayed, allowing each member to chip in with their own skills to the overall objective. This focus does slip a little, as I’ll talk about below, but for the vast majority of the episode, Legends is telling a simple story of a prison break, which allows for a more complete and fleshed-out narrative as opposed to a set of slightly unsatisfying half-stories.
It’s almost becoming a cliché in these reviews to talk about how great Captain Cold was this episode, but he’s once again the star of Fail-Safe, even with a decreased amount of focus on his character. As the series has highlighted before, Snart essentially defies black-and-white ‘hero/villain’ categorisation, and he’s therefore Legends’ most malleable character, able to hop from selfish to caring to downright cruel depending on what the episode demands. That means Fail-Safe is able to present Snart as both Sara’s moral compass, talking her down from shooting Stein in cold blood, and as someone who appears to be more selfish than his psychotic partner, attempting to leave a wounded Ray in his cell with only his ATOM suit. Both portrays add a little to our understanding of the character, and crucially, due to this malleability, neither feels like something Snart wouldn’t do. He’s equal parts compassionate hero and selfish crook, and it’s always intriguing to see just which side of his character Legends will portray at any given time.
Not that his partner was any slouch either this week. Mick Rory has basically been the series’ comic relief up to this point, spending most of his time either with the whole team or with Snart, and most of his dialogue has consisted of brief, slightly psychotic quips. Fail-Safe finally gets Rory away from his partner for a sustained period, and the result is some much-needed development for his character, even if it’s not wholly complex. It’s a small character arc that entirely revolves around his willingness to help Ray rather than anything grand, but it’s effectively illustrates Rory’s powerful sense of honour – he may be completely nuts, but he’ll always have the back of the people who help him, even if that personally inconveniences him. Dominic Purcell plays Rory’s slow attack of conscience effectively, laying the groundwork for what should be something of a long-term character journey for Rory himself as his more human side is revealed.
In many ways, Fail-Safe feels like a capper on the first five episodes of the season, in that it ties up conflicts associated with Firestorm and Sara to some degree. The episode provides satisfying developments for both – in Firestorm’s case, Fail-Safe provides the well-acted reconciliation and re-assertion of Stein and Jax’s dynamic that we’ve been waiting for, and in Sara’s case, her decision not to shoot Stein despite her training as an assassin shows a growing conscience that’s preventing her from cold-blooded murder. They might have benefited from a little more time to breathe a little and add nuance to arcs that play out in fairly predictable fashion, but it’s satisfying to see the show’s character development progress significantly beyond the initial conflicts that Legends presented back in episode one.
A growing criticism of Legends is that Rip’s a pretty bad leader. He’s manipulative, prone to tactical errors/weird decisions, and has been proven as someone who’ll deceive to get people onside. Fail-Safe doesn’t fix that problem, but it at least confronts it to some degree, as Rip’s decisions throughout the episode are clearly shown to be shortsighted and cold-hearted in turns, with the team’s on-the-fly decision-making being the factor that actually saves the day. There’s some solid arguments against Rip that are made here that show a growing self-awareness of the notable flaws that are bogging down Rip as a character, and a clear attempt to show that the team are far better at making their own choices than Rip. This is encouraging stuff that points to an understanding of where the first few episodes stumbled a little – importantly, Legends is going to have to follow up this display of self-awareness with a clear change to Rip’s troubled character. If it can do that, then it’ll have fixed a major early problem, and it’s certainly laid the foundations for that fix with Fail-Safe.
For all its strengths and focus, however, Fail-Safe starts to become tangled in its final act. It’s entertaining to watch, certainly, but the plotting becomes convoluted and downright questionable towards the end, which mars what could have been an outright season-best instalment. After taking a break last week, Legends once again pulls the tedious twist where Savage is temporarily killed even though he’s defeated and unarmed and could therefore have been taken out by Kendra. It’s a regressive storytelling choice that once again appears like a flimsy attempt from the writers to wriggle out of a scenario that could quite realistically have ended the whole Savage conflict there and then. Likewise, Vostok’s nuclear explosion after she’s defeated is a potentially tragic pyrrhic victory that’s completely passed off in the following scene, with no exploration at all of the consequences of a massive explosion that took out an entire prison that would still have been standing if it hadn’t been for the team’s investigation. It’s storytelling choices like this that display that Legends isn’t matching its strong characters with effective plotting, consistently making frustrating decisions that could so easily have been alleviated with just a few lines of dialogue.
For the second time in a row, Legends of Tomorrow ends on a cliffhanger here, and it’s a whopper this week. The team’s excursion to a war-torn Star City in the year 2046 has been anticipated for a while now, and Fail-Safe does an excellent job of teeing that up with a final scene that presents us with the effectively jolting visual of a Green Arrow… that’s not Oliver Queen. It’s a very fun way to whet viewer appetites for next week’s instalment, and it’s undoubtedly very exciting indeed to see the other Green Arrow, Connor Hawke (at least, I’m assuming that’s Connor Hawke) in live-action for the first time. There’s still a Green Arrow running around Star City in 2046, which is certainly a good thing… but just what happened to Oliver? He’d be pretty old by this point…
Fail-Safe is the best episode of Legends in a good few weeks, with a stronger narrative focus and great character work alongside a cracking cliffhanger, but poor storytelling choices in the final act see the show’s bad habits once again crop up. It’s interesting to note that the show’s characters are far surpassing the actual storylines in terms of entertainment value, with most of Legends’ flaws residing in the not-entirely-compelling conflict with Savage rather than in its character development.