Legends of Tomorrow: 205 “Compromised” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Opinions are always numerous and often divided on any superhero show, but it’s safe to say that Legends of Tomorrow’s second season has been an agreed-upon improvement. That’s partly down to, as mentioned in previous weeks, a willingness to loosen up and use the huge sandbox that the premise of time travelling superheroes provides. Yet as Legends continues on its improved trajectory, it’s clear that it’s also majorly improved another key element, which is its roster of characters, with a lot of season one’s deadwood cleared out to create a much more interesting team dynamic that’s allowing the characters to click in a way they never did last year.
This week’s episode, Compromised, dialled back the enjoyable pyrotechnics for a slightly quieter feel in order to reap the benefits of those improvements in terms of character development. It’s an episode with no particular focus on any given character, which was a recipe for problems in season one with a cast that was only partially working – but now that we have a team of almost entirely likeable figures who all have distinctive reasons for continuing their crusade on the Waverider, the ensemble focus leads to an instalment filled with satisfying character progression. While it doesn’t reach the peaks of prior episodes, it’s a solid episode that gets the ball rolling on the season’s arc plot once more as we head towards the mid-season finale in a few weeks’ time.
One of the reasons that Compromised manages to deftly juggle its spotlighting of so many characters is a precise focus on the links between the struggles the characters are facing. These are unruly and jumbled people, and there’s certainly a different shape and emphasis to, for instance, Stein’s story compared to Ray’s, but broadly speaking they’re all grappling with the tension between the powerful connections they’ve made with others and the obligations the team face aboard the Waverider.
That’s a descriptor that certainly applies to Sara’s arc, which returns to the season premiere’s focus on her grief after her sister’s death and how easily it can turn into murderous rage when she’s confronted with her killer. Early on, with the scene where Sara peeled off from the team at the first mention of Dahrk’s name, there’s a frustrating sense of repetition as we get the same ideas of Sara as the blindly furious crusader throwing all reason out to get revenge. Yet Compromised soon twists that repetition on its head by taking that familiarity and layering on the huge change that’s taken place for Sara subsequently, which is her ascension to team leader. Sara’s rage is much more interesting when there’s a tangible tension between those feelings and the newfound need to moderate and responsibly protect the timeline as it leads to a much more complex story than the premiere served up in which Sara finds herself torn between, essentially, her season one and two selves; the unruly assassin and the responsible captain.
Caity Lotz is reliably great here, portraying Sara’s pain and moral confusion as she struggles to repress the violent impulses that previously defined her role in the team, communicating the significance of Sara’s decision at the end to take a great leap forward from her past by choosing the non-violent solution in defeating Damien Dahrk. It sheds a light on just how far she’s quietly transformed as a person, revealing the way in which her time aboard the Waverider has shaped her in ways even Sara doesn’t seem to fully comprehend. Beyond the character value of Sara’s decision to be a hero first and assassin second, Sara’s spiteful revelation to Dahrk of his future failures is just a really satisfying scene, with McDonough shifting into barely-disguised horror as his aura of cocky confidence shatters at the possibility of his life’s work being a failure. It’s a small but powerful victory, and it’s a really strong way to push Sara beyond her furious vendetta with Dahrk and thereby keep striving forward with her continuously engaging growth into the Waverider’s sure-handed captain.
As Sara finally broke through with one of her main struggles in Compromised, Ray also finally reached a turning point with his ongoing existential crisis. The twist last week of Mick giving Ray the cold gun and naming him Snart’s successor was exciting, but as this episode points out, it was always a flawed idea that was never going to last in practicality. Compromised plays with the partnership for comedy for a while, which allows Brandon Routh to flex his comic muscles as golden boy Ray tries and utterly fails to try and bring out his ‘inner darkness’, but the story truly gets interesting once the partnership is revealed for what it is: an attempt for Mick to reconstruct a friendship that’s gone, and an attempt for Ray to find any kind of purpose that’ll take his mind off his existential worries. As with Sara, the pay-off is where the arc truly takes shape – and while it’s predictable early on that Ray will need to rediscover his own scientific skills and value to the team in order to save the day, it’s still cathartic when he’s able to defuse the bomb with his own ingenuity. Ray’s character development has been much stronger this year thanks to more ruthless pacing that’s seen him pushed forward into a new status quo each episode instead of kept in place, and Compromised clearly shows how that more propulsive approach is benefiting his character as his worries reach their natural conclusion. The episode takes an interesting situation, mines as much drama from it as necessary, and then moves on – a simple thing to do, but still significant given how Legends kept running in circles with a lot of its character development in previous episodes.
Another character to gain the spotlight here was Stein, whose arc played as something of a sequel to his encounter with his younger self from season one. Yet while that story mostly explored the differences between the past and present Stein for comedic shock value, Compromised used the younger Stein in a much more dramatic function, speaking to the way in which Legends has grown in its ability to be sincere where it really counts this season. Again, the main source of drama revolves around Stein’s wife, Clarissa – and while there’s problems with leaning so heavily on a female character defined solely by her relationship with a man with no inner life, Compromised makes it work by smartly paralleling Sara and Stein’s stories. Though the stakes aren’t life and death, it’s clear that the younger Stein has fallen into the trap of mistaking his obligations and pursuing something selfish and ultimately destructive– just like Sara, Stein Jr. needs the older Stein to act as his moral compass and remind him of what really matters. Graeme McComb, once again, delivers an eerily reminiscent impersonation of Victor Garber as the younger Stein, expertly mirroring Garber’s distinctive cadence – when the two Steins spark off each other in the med-bay, there’s a tangible sense that these really are two versions of the same man, identical at heart yet opposing deeply on the surface. Stein doesn’t often get a solo story for himself that revolves around his inner life, so it was nice to see Compromised flesh out the importance of Clarissa to his existence and the way in which his maturity has led to a belief that his impressive accomplishments are just a secondary achievement to the human connections he’s made.
One part of Compromised that struggled to achieve the same resonance as those main three plotlines was the re-introduction of an older version of Obsidian, the last remaining member of the JSA. That’s a fascinating premise right from the off that’s rife with potential for an interesting mystery, an exploration of survivor’s guilt, legitimate conflict between him and Vixen etc., but the execution is deeply prosaic – Obsidian only plays a utilitarian role of dispensing a bunch of mildly interesting exposition with some small morsels of insight. Lance Henricksen does what he can, bringing an authority and weary gravitas to the role that at least makes Obsidian into a credible veteran figure who’s been chiselled by all the suffering he’s faced after, hinting at much more interesting character material beyond the surface-level insights we’re offered here. Yet in reality, the character plays a very mechanical role here that doesn’t rest in much real sense (was Obsidian hanging around the JSA facility for 30 years?). Perhaps this older version of Obsidian will return to play a more substantial role later on, and the hints of the JSA’s mysterious disappearance in 1956 at least provides an intriguing mystery to hint on, but it’s a bit of a limp re-introduction of a group that were hugely exciting in their first appearance.
A much more interesting tease for the future occurs on the villainous side of things, where Legends seems to be finally ramping it up. Damien Dahrk steps into the main villain role again, and it’s easy to remember just how much fun Neal McDonough is, especially in a show where the overall tone supports his goofy nonchalance. He’s an engaging villain throughout, and provides the sense of jovial urgency that Compromised needs even as it spreads its focus far and wide with its character development. The real kicker, though, comes with the first and final scenes – most specifically, the return of everybody’s favourite speedster, the Reverse Flash. It’s thrilling to see these two totemic bad guys sparking off each other face to face, and Compromised does an excellent job of pulling back the curtain to reveal that their brief, terse negotiations are the beginning of something huge. The Legion of Doom plotline hadn’t had any attention in past weeks, but it’s becoming abundantly clear that big things is on the way as the team comes closer to bringing on its other half, Malcolm Merlyn and Captain Cold. Season two’s opening act has been fun, but it’s clear that with Compromised, the main arc is done with running in place while the team hop around time, care-free – the Legion of Doom are coming, and the real fun is about to begin.
Compromised is a solid episode of Legends of Tomorrow that focuses heavily on character development with mostly great results, while still keeping the show’s ruthless pacing and fun embracing of its past settings at the fore.