Legends of Tomorrow: 211 “Turncoat” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
What does the American dream mean today? It’s a question that no-one is able to agree on these days, as the differences in competing visions of what the United States is meant to stand for have become starker and more polarised. Some see it as a rigid ideal, while others see it as malleable to any given individual’s hopes and dreams. Legends of Tomorrow’s answer, unsurprisingly, was a little scrappier than that.
Turncoat comes at just the right time and place. It’s a formula episode in so many ways, sometimes to a fault, but it’s surprisingly timely in its choice to probe at the origins of America, and to actively embrace an open-minded view of the land of opportunity as a melting pot for misfits. Add to that some punchy character drama that adds a compelling emotional wrinkle to the serialised Legion of Doom story with Rip’s turn to evil, and a few moments of classically silly Legends fun here and there, and you have a rock-solid midseason episode that’s rough around the edges but confident enough to ride through the messiness.
A major hook of this episode was Rip’s brainwashing by the Legion, and Turncoat takes great advantage of this inversion. Having spent a couple of episodes as a clueless source of comic-relief, Rip’s shift to full-on villain is notably seamless. Arthur Darvill seems to actively relish playing Rip’s single-minded, unapologetic evil that’s untouched by any kind of humanity, and his retention of some of the old Rip’s mannerisms, specifically his accent, ensures a nicely creepy sense of dissonance that hammers home just how unsettling the experience is for the Legends. Furthermore, Turncoat takes care to explore the emotional impact of his turn on the Legends, and this leads to a welcome focus on Jax, who always had a connection to Rip as his protégé of sorts. Having laid that emotional groundwork in season one, Jax’s turmoil and shifting emotions at seeing his mentor, shifting from optimism to fury as he comes to the realisation that the old Rip has gone, provides a powerful emotional through-line for the episode.
Turncoat takes the harder but more satisfying option to the new Rip, which is to portray him as intrinsically linked to his old self as opposed to a different character wearing the same face. His return here, and the emotions it evokes, is explicitly presented as a betrayal, even if Rip had no part in it, and that feels like the more emotionally realistic option as it communicates the impossibility in distinguishing the personality from the face. It forces the Legends, specifically Jax, to ponder the reasons for their actions now that the man who united them has turned from hero to nihilist who doesn’t place any importance in history, and to find their own individual motivation beyond that now-inert initial mission statement, mirroring the show’s own successful search for identity in season two. Therefore, it’s exactly the kind of emotional and thematically rich plot point that the overarching threat of the Legion, which was fun but shallow beforehand, needed in order to remain a potent threat.
The aberration of the week is George Washington’s death, and it’s a generally successful take on the typical celebrity historical formula of season two. That’s not necessarily down to Washington himself. Turncoat presents Washington not as a psychologically realistic character, but as more of a symbol of the Founding Fathers’ ideals of democracy, and that works well enough, even if it’s a bit of a safe choice to present him as carved out of a history book instead of humanising him with some realistic flaws. The real trump card here is Mick, whose scrappy and crass persona proves the ideal fit for an exploration of just what America means. The idea that Mick Rory could inspire an original Founding Father to the point of becoming a celebrated hero with his own statue in Washington is just absurd enough to work, and it acts as a fun tribute to Legends’ practiced brand of sometimes counter-intuitive, always messy heroism. This season has done a lot to humanise Mick and explain the psychology behind the persona, but it’s often just enjoyable to lean into his comic brutishness as Turncoat does here. That it’s done in service of a timely embrace of the scrappiness at the heart of America is even better.
In an episode with several major character turns that are substantiated and logical, such as Jax and Stein’s role reversals and ability to flourish beyond their defined skillsets, the less convincing ones stick out further. That’s the case for Nate and Amaya’s romance, which starts promisingly but suffers from rushed execution. There’s a lot of promising ideas in their storyline, such as the engaging contrast between the rigid formality of 1940s ‘courting’ and ‘chill’, liberated modern day dating, but the actual moment where they get together is so transparently contrived to the point that it’s laughable. For a plotline that covers its tracks regarding its rushed pace so well, it’s a shame that it has to completely warp both characters and disregard the rest of the episode’s events (they’re tracking Washington and Mick, and they stop off for that long?) in order to get to its end-point It’s a nice twist to make their relationship far more casual and understated than the typically operatic romances of these superhero shows, but Legends still displays a lack of certainty in really committing to a different type of relationship, which undermines the end result a great deal.
For better or for worse, one of the most noteworthy things about Turncoat is that it’s a true ensemble episode. Just about everyone gets a chance to shine and something to learn or confront, as opposed to the rotating focus of previous episodes. In some respects, that works well for fun mini-stories, such as Ray’s travails when miniaturized that finally takes advantage of his unique powers in the inventive little sequence with the rat – a story that doesn’t need a three-act structure to come off well. It also means that there’s a sharper sense of the peril the characters face, as we see every member of the ensemble pushed up against the wall and forced out of their comfort zone. In other respects, that means stories that would have benefited from greater focus fall by the wayside. Sara’s wounding by Rip appears to be a genuine point of tension, but Turncoat doesn’t have enough time to spend with her, and therefore her ‘death’ and recovery are too rushed to really have that much impact. There was never any danger that she was going to die, but the broad-strokes approach deprives the episode of a chance to provide a reason to still invest in the story as a meaningful addition to her character arc.
Turncoat is an ideal summation of where Legends is at now. It follows the season two formula to the letter, but finds ways to innovate and to add emotional stakes to the action in a way that season one so often failed to do, making for a well-rounded and complete episodic story that progresses the Spear of Destiny arc nicely. It has a clearer sense of the strengths and vulnerabilities of its characters and finds stories that show them in a new light, though the result is a slight pile-up of stories that are individually strong, but don’t sit particularly clearly together. And it has a savvy sense of social awareness in line with its more grounded counterparts, using its time-travel premise to provide a unique and entertaining take on hot-button, divisive issues that dominate the headlines. It’s too flawed to truly deliver on its ambitions, but it’s far more cohesive than the sheer amount of spinning plates going on would suggest.
While it lacks the thrill of the new of the last couple of episodes, Turncoat is a sign that Legends has a formula that can deliver solid stories week-in, week-out. Even more so than before, that’s a reason to feel truly encouraged.