Legends of Tomorrow: 110-111 ‘Progeny’, ’The Magnificent Eight’ Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
As Legends of Tomorrow headed into the back half of its season, it returned with an impressive episode that displayed the show at its best – a fun yet character-driven episodic adventure in which a set of superheroes jaunt throughout time, getting into scrapes. The problem here is that this ideal version of the show is one that heavily marginalises the central premise and villain of the season itself, as it’s become evident that the Vandal Savage storyline is a weight upon Legends, with episodes drastically improving when they’re allowed to be generally standalone and sagging when Savage has to enter. The next two episodes of the show more or less proved that troubling thesis right, as the episode with Savage struggled heavily while the Savage-free instalment proved to be an extremely fun and streamlined hour of TV…
Episode 110 – Progeny
The aforementioned episode featuring Savage, Progeny is not necessarily a ‘bad’ episode as it’s still relatively entertaining and features a handful of good character beats. It is, however, the show’s first real misfire in that it fails in what it sets out to do. It aims to be a morality piece focusing on legacies and destiny, but Progeny badly fumbles some of its moral debates to the point where it all feels like a missed opportunity for Legends to prove that it can balance fun superhero action with thoughtful ruminations on morality.
It’s the first episode to be set in the far future, but the future setting is unfortunately a bit of a let down. After some impressive period design in recent episodes, the set design here is hopelessly generic and cheap – the standard-issue Apple version of the future where everything is sleekly designed and painted in some shade of grey or white. Likewise, the social order mentioned briefly of nations being taken over by conglomerates is fascinating, but Progeny skimps on a chance for some efficient world-building and resorts to merely telling rather than showing – sure, it’s all interesting, but there’s a feeling of potential lost when ideas such as the population expanding to the point where a controlling virus is under legitimate consideration are only window-dressing, spoken of and then rushed past in a way that completely fails to exploit the rich potential of these ideas.
The main crux of Progeny is the classic question: would you kill a ruthless dictator as a child? This moral debate has been the focus of dozens of TV episodes and movies, and for good reason – it’s a naturally thought provoking moral question that lends itself easily towards frequent usage because it’s easy for a show or movie to put their own spin on such a simple idea. Progeny’s presentation of this debate starts well, with the large ensemble contributing to a stream of complicated and varying viewpoints that adds complexity to the debate from the off as we immediately have several answers to the same question. However, as the episode goes along, this plot point fizzles out because Progeny seems dead set on a particular conclusion very early on, which makes it feel forced and contrived; when Per Degaton’s kidnapping does nothing, necessitating the ‘kill him’ option to come back, it’s not really clear why that kidnapping hasn’t affected anything, with the story’s explanation that ‘time wants to happen’ and that Savage will rise to power seemingly invalidating the idea that Per’s assassination will change things at all. Likewise, the conclusion is fairly flat because it suffers from a distinct lack of tension – try as Arthur Darvill might with his palpably bitter, raw performance, there’s no tension as to whether Rip will actually kill Per, and this lack of tension is compounded by clichéd villainous dialogue that just underlines the sense that this is all just by the numbers. It starts well, but what we have here is the pre-packaged, personality-free version of ‘would you kill Hitler?’, lacking any engaging individuality or intrigue for most of the run-time.
Likewise, Ray’s story a big disappointment. Ray’s story proposed the really interesting thematic idea of his tech being used for evil, immediately lending itself to the compelling question of whether someone is culpable if their work is used for something they did not intend. Unfortunately, this plot quickly goes down the far less interesting path of focusing all of Ray’s angst on the fact that he may have a child, meaning that all the potential of an exploration of Ray’s guilt and culpability in suffering quickly evaporates as we’re left with the boring, soapy storyline of a pregnancy scare that offers very little dramatic meat. The ending to this storyline where Ray discovers that it was his brother all along makes for a good gag (Brandon’s Routh’s comic timing is excellent), but it’s ultimately turning an interesting thematic idea into a cheap punchline, just underlining the waste of potential evident here.
Progeny does pick up the interesting thread of Mick’s imprisonment nicely and there’s an immediately intriguing parallel between his and Per’s story as the Legends cynically disparage people for not being able to change, only for one to be proven right and one to be proven wrong. However, like most things here, Mick’s story ends on a bumpy note. The idea of Mick losing the willingness to fight against his former friends is a fine one on paper that makes sense, but the resolution is so rushed and the immediate change in personality so drastic that it all feels a little awkward, which is exacerbated when Mick suddenly becomes the beacon of exposition just so the episode can have a tantalising cliffhanger despite the fact that role as helper to the team does not feel earned at the time.
This episode isn’t a total bust – the action is as sharp and exciting as ever, and there’s a particularly good airborne set-piece with the Atom and Firestorm that shows an increased level of ambition on the part of a show already pushing boundaries for network TV in that regard. Likewise, the future storyline comes to a surprisingly effective ending which is unusually dark and twisted. It’s an intriguing and impactful look at how the Legends’ manipulation makes matters worse, a nice variation on the usual tropes that adds a substantial level of moral ambiguity by ending the episode in a very uncertain place.
Progeny is probably the weakest episode the show has served up thus far by delivering weak and uninspired takes on potentially fascinating idea, and is laden with rushed and unrewarding character work that fails to stick the landing. It’s entertaining enough and packs quite a punch with the ending, but this, overall, was an episode to skip.
Episode 111 – The Magnificent Eight
Thankfully, the following episode, The Magnificent Eight, was significantly better in every way – with greater thematic depth, good character development and a rollicking sense of fun and joy as the episode explores a Western setting. The plot here was quite clearly, unashamedly thin nonsense and that’s quite clear from the get-go with vague exposition about ‘fragmentations’ immediately thrown in to justify the team’s trip to the Old West. The story here was less a plotline and more a string of increasingly tenuous excuses to wheel out old, well-trodden Western clichés… and yet, that’s part of the episode’s charm.
With no complex storyline or involvement from Savage here, The Magnificent Eight was free to be a gleeful and enthusiastic pastiche of Western tropes clearly written by people with a deep love for the genre – an episode that’s entirely self-aware about the fact that it’s basically a tick-box exercise for every standard trope (saloon fight, tick, pistols at high noon, tick) and covers up for that with an evident sense of excitement for this setting. That enthusiasm is generally channelled, smartly, through Ray who gets to be the audience viewpoint character as the one who’s thrilled by the chance to re-enact all the Westerns he saw as a kid, contributing to the episode’s sense of fun and wish fulfilment; due to this clear enthusiasm, the episode feels more like a loving homage than a tired rehash.
Speaking of Ray, The Magnificent Eight was the first episode in a while to somewhat unchain Ray from his romance with Kendra and play with other aspects of his character; more specifically, his classical brand of selfless, deeply likeable heroism. The episode mines this, as usual, for comedy, but it’s interesting to see Ray’s heroism play into the episode’s central theme, being used far more for serious drama than it has been lately. In a sense, The Magnificent Eight is deceptively clever because, through Ray, it plays into the simplicity and familiarity of all these well-worn tropes, quickly creating a ‘good vs evil’, clear-cut atmosphere reminiscent of classical Westerns and then plays into that atmosphere with a thematic exploration of the innate allure of good old-fashioned heroism that the period allows for. This also dovetails into Rip’s conflict, creating some really intriguing drama as Rip explains the way he was torn between logical pragmatism (leaving the town and letting time run its course) and irrational sentimentality (staying and upsetting the timeline) due to how attractive the Western era is for living out your own power fantasy as a hero and saviour of many. The fact that The Magnificent Eight is such a loving and enthusiastic homage, therefore, actually plays into Rip’s big character conflict here because the Old West is presented in the sentimental and nostalgic way that Rip perceived it as before he was eventually torn away. It’s clever writing, and a great usage of classic tropes for something more substantial than just a homage.
Other elements here were really just window-dressing, and that includes the first appearance of famous DC character Jonah Hex. The portrayal of Hex here is perfectly fine – Jonathan Schaech’s turn is entertainingly gruff and no-nonsense and the actor plays off the lighter and less grounded characters nicely, but he’s more or less shoehorned in just because this is a Western episode. He adds little to the episode on a thematic level, and there’s nothing special about his characterisation here which barely rises above standard ‘gruff hero’ tropes – and his role on the story once he’s made his entrance is relatively minimal, adding to the sense that this was just an excuse, if an entertaining one, to cram a popular DC character in. Kendra’s conflict plays out mostly on the margins, and like Hex, it’s decent but not special. Meeting an older version of Kendra helps to underline the tragedy of the way Kendra and Carter echo throughout existence but only find happiness for brief periods, and the theme of destiny versus choice that’s continued from recent weeks is finally giving Kendra’s storyline with Ray some shape and substance, even making her angst about Carter at least somewhat diverting. However, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Legends of Tomorrow is kind of circling and waiting to land with Kendra’s character right now – her plotline isn’t bad per se but it’s covering very similar beats episode by episode in which she’s hit with her destined bond to Carter yet rejects it in favour of Ray who represents her abandonment of destiny, which means the episodes are rehashing similar character conflicts again and again, making less rewarding viewing each time. What’s being rehashed, again, is perfectly competent stuff, but for all the illusion that Kendra’s character is progressing, it’s hard to escape the feeling that she’s just waiting in line to finally, substantially move forward.
The episode concludes, after a final fight with the much-vaunted Hunters that’s very fun and exciting but acts as a bit of a damp squib after the villains were hyped up as extremely strong adversaries (here, they’re basically just souped-up goons), with a really intriguing cliffhanger in which the Time Masters send out the Pilgrim, an assassin who’s set out to kill the Legends’ younger selves. It’s a very intriguing idea that lends another classic yet enduringly interesting time travel premise to next week that should certainly give us a few illuminating character insights as we take a trip to their past, and once again begs the question – why do all the exciting premises for Legends episodes lack Vandal Savage?
The Magnificent Eight is, after the previous episode’s stumble, a peppy and entertaining return to form, enthusiastically paying tribute to Westerns while using this homage feel for a substantial thematic exploration of the romantic black and white morality of the era. Jonah Hex was relatively forgettable and Kendra’s arc is mainly a competent rehash, but this was the version of Legends that really works; shorn of all unnecessary trimmings and streamlined.