Legends of Tomorrow: 208 “The Chicago Way” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
As Legends of Tomorrow comes to the end of the first half of a sophomore season that’s widely been acknowledged as an improvement on the first, it’s worth wondering just why Legends is so much more confident this year. In a lot of ways, it’s the more episodic structure that’s created some fun, standalone stories that have worked by throwing the Legends into an established historical setting with a sci-fi twist. And in a lot of ways, it’s the reshuffled deck of Legends, with the dull Hawks swapped out for Nate and Amaya, who have fit like a glove into the wider ensemble. Yet for all those improvements, it’s hard to look past the villains as the most improved player of this season.
Case in point, this week’s midseason finale, The Chicago Way, a solid but relatively standard adventure of the week lifted by the presence of entertaining, well-chosen bad guys who all possess about ten times the charisma of Vandal Savage individually, let alone when they’re united. Legends has rejigged a lot about itself in season two, but its smartest decision may have been one of the simpler choices: to sift back through the greatest hits of Arrowverse villains and throw them all on screen to do what they do best.
As befitting of the significant status of a midseason finale, The Chicago Way is the first time that Legends’ Legion of Doom has really been united, albeit still missing one member in Leonard Snart. That means we have a new member joining the fray in Malcolm Merlyn, who slots effortlessly into this collection of psychos thanks to a turn by John Barrowman that dials the hammy tendencies of his Arrow performance up to eleven to match his co-stars. Indeed, the Legion of Doom isn’t lacking for over the top scenery-chewing, as Neal McDonough and Matt Letscher also go full supervillain in their smirking turns as Damien Dahrk and Eobard Thawne, and that’s what makes them such a fun group of villains – the fact that they’re so utterly comfortable with their evil acts and are always an inch away from breaking into maniacal cackling really fits within Legends’ self-consciously silly tone. Beyond the fun factor, though, and The Chicago Way benefits purely from the sheer level of threat that these collected foes bring. After all, these are all bad guys that managed to plague the Green Arrow or the Flash for an entire year before finally being taken down, and the manipulative ruthlessness evident in those first appearances is well-established here throughout as the Legion effortlessly play the Legends into a trap.
It’s fitting that, as a group of villains who can combine brute force with sheer cunning to overcome every strength that the Legends possess, the Legion actually win here, successfully using the Legends’ attachment to one another to get away scot free with the amulet they needed. Allowing the bad guys to win is a smart move for the overall story, raising the stakes immediately and providing a tangible sense that the capability of these villains has been magnified tenfold by their ability to pool their collective talents. And back to the plot, it’s nice how simple and stripped-down their evil plan is, as it’s revealed here to be a hunt for an uber-powerful MacGuffin, the Spear of Destiny (never accuse DC Comics of being unoriginal with their names) that can manipulate reality. The lack of a convoluted plot allows Legends to keep focusing on these entertaining characters and their enjoyably silly evil plotting together, and that’s absolutely the right approach when you have actors who have honed unrepentant megalomania into a fine art form in their roles on the other Arrowverse shows.
The presence of the Legion also feeds nicely into The Chicago Way’s central preoccupation, which is the differing attitudes that our heroes and villains have towards the ethics of manipulating time for their own ends. Obviously, the Legion fit onto the most extreme end of that spectrum, representing the chaotic forces who see time as their personal plaything to warp to their own ends, so the question here is whether a line can be drawn between changes to time that are ‘good’ and the Legion of Doom’s evil manipulations. It’s a question that the show has been playing with all season, befitting of the team’s new role as the fixers of time aberrations, but it’s given nuance and reason to take either side of the debate through the example provided by Stein, and his creation of a daughter who counts as a ‘time aberration’ in the orthodox sense.
The scenes in the crossover in establishing Lily as a likeable character with a rich inner life pay off nicely here, as Stein and Sara’s debate over the legitimacy of changing time for their own ends is genuinely double-sided, with each person providing justifiable reasons for their viewpoint. The Chicago Way makes sure not to pick a side for the most part – for instance, Sara’s speech about time being ‘sacred’ might come in the middle of an admirable rebuke to Malcolm’s selfish offer that reasserts her ability to put others’ needs first, but it’s also a little absolutist and dismissive of Stein despite the fact that he started in a similar headspace last week. The answer the episode offers isn’t definitive, but that feels about right for a question that’s so abstract and philosophical that to answer it completely would be reductive. What Legends seems to conclude with, instead, is that there’s no clear way to prove beyond doubt that one’s actions are for the greater good – all anyone can do is to be selfless and to do their best to help others. It’s a strong conclusion to a difficult story that could come across either as simplistic or simply pretentious in tackling ideas way above this show’s station, providing the kind of good-hearted, optimistic answer that still proves that Legends is smart enough to play both sides of a complex debate without putting either side down.
The Chicago Way’s character scenes were split between two partnerships that have fast emerged as season two’s go-two pairings: Nate and Ray, and Amaya and Mick. Legends’ newfound tendency of pairing off its characters is working as a strong way both to boost the amount of fun interactions that a show like this needs, and to grow our understanding of the individual Legends. That’s often on full display in this episode, particularly with Nate and Ray. Their partnership can become a little silly sometimes in its deliberately heightened rivalry, but Brandon Routh and Nick Zano are a lot of fun together and they manage to craft their endless competitiveness into a likeable scrap between two sibling figures instead of something a little more toxic. Nate and Ray serve as a good medium for most of Legends’ pop-culture references and moments of meta-awareness about the nature of heroes, and that formula is proving to be a reliable success for the show to rely on, no matter what the plot of the week is.
Amaya and Mick’s partnership is more complex, but also more problematic. The Chicago Way, to its credit, uses their pairing to grow each character in surprising ways. For Mick, that means the emergence of an old friend in his subconscious, as Leonard Snart returns to him in hallucination to reprimand Mick for his new life choices. While hallucinations as an externalisation of a hero’s inner conflict are a pretty worn-out trope, it’s still a lot of fun to see Wentworth Miller slip back into the role, weird cadence and swaggering demeanour and all, and Snart’s presence provokes some thoughtful questions about just what the ‘real’ Mick actually is – hardened criminal, which he keeps insisting is his nature, or gruff-but-goodhearted team player? It’s a pertinent question to throw up in an episode where Mick succumbs further to the beneficial influences in his life and begins to work well within the team, and foreshadows some exciting conflict to come as Mick has to definitively answer that question for himself. And for Amaya, Mick’s presence allows her to slip a little from the by-the-book, lawful nature of a trained JSA member, dipping into Mick’s much-vaunted criminal methods to get the job done far more effectively than her more rigid approach would ever had allowed for. Like with Mick, The Chicago Way mostly seeks to tee up conflicts with Amaya, but it makes them involving in the here and now by making that future potential abundantly clear, posing thought-provoking questions about these characters that we as viewers can ponder even if Legends itself holds back on an answer for the time being.
There’s just one issue with the Amaya/Mick pairing, but it’s a troubling one. It’s the prospect of their relationship becoming a romantic one, which becomes all-too likely with all the hints of attraction that The Chicago Way piles up throughout. On paper, admittedly, a relationship between two characters who contrast so much is a classic odd-couple scenario that could be both entertaining and dramatically rewarding, but in practice it’s hard to get past a couple of things here. For one, there’s the age gap between Mick, played by a 46-year old actor, and Amaya, played by a 24-year-old actor, which stretches belief and introduces some slightly problematic subtext that would make a potential relationship seem just a little bit creepy. And then there’s the fact that Legends keeps hinting at these relationships with Amaya, having heavily hinted at similar things with both Ray and Nate in past episodes, which in itself isn’t a great sign. Amaya is clearly an interesting character, and it’s a bit frustrating that Legends keeps drawing blanks on how to use her beyond defining her by her relationships with men, which is a reductive and disappointingly old-fashioned idea. Seeing how great Sara’s character arc has been this year, it’s unusual that Legends is struggling so much with Amaya’s own individual stories.
One other problem that weighs down The Chicago Way from reaching the upper echelon of Legends episodes is its uninspired use of its time period. Legends has made some smart use of its sparse budget to craft time periods that have at least been relatively convincing this season, so it’s disappointing that its version of Chicago 1927 is so unconvincing, consisting of one exterior, a near-empty speakeasy set and a dockside. It’s hard to pick on a show to a great extent just because it doesn’t have a big budget, but there’s something slapdash in the setting to this episode, a lack of effort in crafting a world that at least vaguely resembles something real that people would have lived in. While the episode’s stories may be engaging, it suffers from a bland backdrop that leaves The Chicago Way’s attempts to tell a gangster story feeling a lot less dynamic and accurate than they could have been.
All those nitpicks aside, however, this was a solid episode, and it certainly ended on a high note with a cliffhanger that took a leaf out of this week’s Arrow’s book and threw in a shocking return with just about no context. The sight of Rip Hunter, resurfaced as an American-accented movie director in 1967 Los Angeles is a thoroughly intriguing way to end this midseason finale – not because the return of Rip is surprising, but because it’s such an off-kilter reveal, throwing off expectations entirely and therefore proposing a means to bring Rip back into the team that justifies his absence and changes his character entirely. Just why Rip is now holed up as a sci-fi movie director, and why he’s needed for the Legion of Doom’s plans remains to be seen, but it’s clear that there’s a hell of a lot more mystery to dive into once Legends of Tomorrow returns in 2017. Until then…
The Chicago Way is a solid midseason finale that benefits hugely from the engaging presence of the Legion of Doom at the centre, while bringing this season’s themes of just what changing time can mean to an interesting place. It’s not a dazzling conclusion to the first half of the season, but it’s more than enough to ensure that Legends will power into the back half in January with plenty of momentum.