Legends of Tomorrow: 114 “River of Time” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
With the capture of Vandal Savage last week, it looked as if Legends’ main story arc was coming to a close. Yet, as many comic book shows and movies have done, the villain’s capture is often far from the end of the story – no matter how securely they’re incarcerated, bad guys always find a way to escape, usually because they’ve worked out a plan beforehand. And sure enough, that was the case here in the antepenultimate episode of Legends’ first season.
Considering how great last week’s episode was, it’s frustrating to note that River of Time is a bit of a clunker. It’s strangely disjointed despite taking place mostly in the same location, relies on some seriously contrived plotting in crucial moments and ultimately just feels like a narrative cul-de-sac; filler in the guise of a crucial arc episode. The basic level of competency that’s always underscored the Arrowverse shows is present and correct and there’s a handful of solid character beats, but on the whole this just served as evidence of the perennial inconsistency that’s plagued Legends all season.
On the bright side, an element that I’ve been disparaging all season was actually one of the best parts here: Vandal Savage. Casper Crump’s performance remains far lower key than his classically cheesy dialogue would suggest, but he’s developed an intriguing bland of innate complacency in his portrayal of the villain that really clicked with what River of Time was trying to accomplish. Just as last episode sold the idea that Savage’s army really did completely subjugate the world in brutal style, this episode made the idea that Savage is a master manipulator genuinely convincing. There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching Savage surgically aim for the weak spots that will spark discord with the team, effortlessly causing the crew’s unity to fall apart with just a few chance suggestions, and a lot of that’s due to the way that Crump absolutely refuses to show any kind of vulnerability in his performance. Savage consistently feels like he’s in control of every situation here even when he’s caged and being manipulated himself due to the way he’s impressively able to put everyone on the back foot within an instant of beginning a conversation, and as such his assertion that he’s a ‘master of time’ actually convinces as something that’s actually substantiated (there’s never any hint that he wanted to be captured, merely that he’s absolutely comfortable in the knowledge that he’ll make it out at some point). It’s at a pretty late point in the season, but it finally feels as if Legends has reconciled the foreboding rhetoric about Savage with his on-screen portrayal to some degree, and that’s certainly a good omen for the final battle to come.
While Savage generally works well, the storylines that spring from his manipulation… do not. I’ve talked extensively about the way Legends has consistently failed to make the Kendra/Carter/Ray storyline click, but instead of delegating that story to a subplot, River of Time doubles down on presumed audience investment in this love triangle and makes it an integral part of this week’s story from start to finish. The results of that storytelling choice are particularly poor, severely weakening the core of the episode as a result. The actual Kendra/Carter scenes as she tries to convince a brainwashed Carter of his true past are disappointingly humdrum; lacking any sense of emotional resonance as Kendra continuously recites and shows things to a completely stony-faced Carter, played in familiarly sleepy style by Falk Hentschel. There’s no sense of Kendra’s frustration at Carter’s lack of memory, nor is there any attempt to give the viewer a window into Carter’s tumultuous psychology as he’s torn between his destined past and the identity that’s been forcibly imposed upon him – the dialogue merely skims off the surface of the fascinating subtext and thematic ideas here, failing to offer anything other than bland mediocrity. A lot of that’s due to fairly rote writing here, but it’s again the problem of Legends relying on a level of audience investment it hasn’t earned with any of its character development – Kendra/Carter’s romance has never really convinced as the tragic eternal love story it’s been sold as because it’s always been crammed into relatively homogenous flashbacks, and the blandness on display here merely reflects that.
What really causes problems, however, is Ray’s involvement in all this. Put simply, River of Time requires Ray to act like he has the brain capacity of an eight year old, responding to ridiculously transparent, petty goading from Savage and promptly helping him to get free due to his utterly dreadful decision-making. It’s deeply contrived storytelling that’s completely inconsistent with Ray’s established characterisation, transforming him into a hyper-macho brawler to serve the plot’s needs and undermining his own character development in the process. Ray and Kendra’s relationship has been pretty problematic in of itself – despite all the time dedicated to it, it still feels oddly thin and one-note due to the way Legends has continuously replayed the same arc for the couple rather than adding new layers to their relationship, so Ray’s motivations in this moment are muddled and hazily-defined, failing to justify this vastly out-of-character moment. River of Time really tries to tie together the romance arcs with Savage by bringing them to a head, but it simply sinks because it takes the characters and plotlines that Legends has struggled with continuously and integrates their very worst aspects into a crucial part of the narrative.
The character arcs going on elsewhere feel strangely distant and scattershot, failing to add up to a satisfying thematic whole, but there’s bits and pieces to enjoy here and there. Rip’s story this week is, on the whole, a satisfying one, because it acknowledges the manipulative and selfish aspects of his character and genuinely challenges them. River of Time embraces the cavalcade of unpalatable decisions that Rip has made over the course of the season, even providing an instance of Rip’s selfishness with his decision to send Jax on a suicide mission he could easily have done himself. It’s a genuine critique of the character and the troubling undertones of the way he’s dragged eight people on what’s essentially a personal quest, and it’s somewhat cathartic to see Rip firmly called out on his self-centred actions by the majority of the crew as his decisions finally come back to bite him. The end-point that River of Time provides isn’t quite as satisfying as it could have been because it wraps things up a bit too neatly, dismissing all the intriguing issues flagged up here, but it’s ultimately a solid journey for Rip that displays a much better understanding on the part of the writers regarding Rip’s heavily flawed characterisation and an ability to use those flaws for interesting drama.
The Stein/Jax story, however, fails to really work. It’s all relatively diverting up until the end, giving Jax a brief moment of sacrifice while displaying the human cost of Rip’s selfishness, but it somewhat collapses with Stein’s sedation of Jax and his forced return to 2016. Stein drugging Jax against his will to get him on the Waverider was one of Legends’s most problematic early decisions, and it’s again the case here that it’s frustrating to see Jax completely robbed of his own personal agency and reduced to a completely passive role, especially with Stein’s claims that this is all for Jax’s good that ring completely hollow due to the clear opposition on Jax’s part and the wealth of alternative ways to resolve his ageing problem. This second rendition also dredges up a new problem – it’s coming after thirteen episodes of development and growth in the Firestorm partnership in which the two men have learned to work together and respect each other’s wishes, so to repeat the actions of episode one feels like a complete regression that undermines the impact of all that development. River of Time is clearly trying to go for a meaningful echo of the decision that sparked their participation in this mission in the first place that underlines how far they’ve come, but it just comes across as Legends repeating old mistakes and creating new issues in the process.
River of Time leaves us with the final twist that Savage and the Time Masters are working together, which is… fine, more or less. It’s certainly not that surprising, given how openly antagonistic they’ve been to Rip’s quest against Savage beforehand, but it essentially works as a decent way to tie together the show’s two disparate threats in a relatively cohesive manner. Considering the shocks Arrow and The Flash served up this week that were genuinely surprising, this big reveal seems a bit muted in comparison due to how little it actually changes the show’s status quo (Rip was already the enemy of the Time Masters, Savage is just going back to where he was last episode), but it’s an effective enough cliffhanger to elicit some level of anticipation for next week’s penultimate episode.
River of Time aims for grandiose pre-finale theatrics as the team are torn apart, but it can only offer up a haphazard and intermittent porridge of contrived storytelling, an overreliance on underdeveloped plotlines and ineffective character work. It’s buoyed to some extent by an entertaining showing from Vandal Savage and Rip’s subversive story, but this is a frustrating regression that stops the momentum built up last episode in its tracks.