Legends of Tomorrow: 214 “Moonshot” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Time travel is difficult. It’s a fascinating idea that lends itself to big, weighty philosophical questions of predestination and free will, but it can just as easily turn into a mess. For it to work as a valid story device, it requires a rigid set of internal rules that can often feel constrictive and arbitrary just in order to work. Too often, sloppy storytelling means that internal logic is lost in the wash. That happened on season one of Legends, which never articulated a coherent point of view on time travel and eventually became tangled up in itself. Season two has vastly improved this by bringing a classic time travel question to the fore – is saving history worth the personal sacrifices it requires?
That question was at the backbone of Moonshot, which pondered the central paradox of time travel, a form of wish fulfilment that offers the potential for a perfect, orderly life with, but all too often magnifies every regret, mistake or injustice instead. It’s thoughtful in the way it’s constructed as an episode that’s one half rollicking adventure and one half character-driven bottle story, allowing it to balance the silliest and most emotionally mature sides of Legends in a way that allows them to complement each other
The central crux of Moonshot was the quest to obtain the final part of the Spear of Destiny from Commander Steel, which sent the Legends into space, 1970, to intercept a hijacked Apollo 13. It’s important to this episode’s propulsive pacing that the premise is so simple – a trip to the Moon and back that throws in obstacle after obstacle to put the Legends to the test and to bring some simmering emotional conflicts to the fore, although the sheer breadth of tones and stories that Moonshot wants to explore requires a handful of visible contrivances. It’s all too easy to see the hand of the writer in the long series of unfortunate events that traps Ray and Eobard together, or the specific circumstances aboard the Waverider that require Commander Steel’s sacrifice, and it does take the viewer out of the episode when Moonshot should be at its most gripping. Moonshot is a strong episode across the board without a weak plotline in the mix, and it earns the numerous leaps in logic it takes to get to its destination eventually. Still, the mechanical plotting on display indicates some basic flaws that Legends has yet to address.
Moving into the story, then. After last week’s concentrated, even sparse plotline, Moonshot is a much denser instalment, but it’s able to bear the load where, in season one, it might have collapsed under its own weight. The emotional crux of the episode rested in Nate’s interactions with his grandfather, and it proved to be a fruitful pairing that built impressively on the basic foundations laid back at the start of the season. Stargirl was barely explored in her ‘sequel’ episode in Camelot, but Moonshot takes the time to dig deeper into the humanity of Commander Steel. Matthew MacCaull, underused in his previous episode, does well with his expanded role here, foregrounding the (ahem) steeliness and single-minded focus of a man who’s defined by his stubborn commitment to his mission and his crew, but never forgetting the quiet, wistful vulnerability stemming from his myriad regrets that informs all of his actions. He’s an admirable character, but imperfect, and his sanguine acceptance of his own failures is the kind of attitude that’s rarely seen on a show (and shared universe) founded on broader and more expressive emotional attitudes. His scenes with Nate establish a genuinely convincing dynamic that’s both fatherly, with Steel as the calmer, dedicated professional while Nate is more emotional and impulsive, and respectful as they acknowledge one another as equals with a valid viewpoint on what time travel means. The result of this emotional groundwork is that, when it’s time for Henry to make his grand sacrifice, we care, and feel Nate’s utter grief despite the relatively short amount of time that Henry has been around. That’s no mean feat, especially given how packed Moonshot elsewhere, it speaks to the smart, well-written scripting that efficiently fleshes out Henry’s contradictions and complexities in little time.
Steel’s story lent itself to a continuation of the conflict between Nate and Amaya, which is informed by their growing romantic attachment, but not dependent on it as their argument doesn’t actually have all that much to do with their feelings for one another. Together, they represent the two sides of Legends’ ongoing debate about the ethics of meddling with time for personal gain, and both of their sides are articulated well, making convincing points that are nonetheless fraught with their own complications. For Nate, it’s the fact that his points are that of a lonely kid who has conjured up a vision of a better childhood that’s overpowering for him. And for Amaya, it’s that her moral righteousness looks shaky in the face of her own impending personal tragedy once she returns home, which she views at the end of the episode in a sign of her emotions surrounding her future outweighing her principles of impartiality. Their conflict is solid drama that meaningfully develops a philosophical argument that’s informed by their own character development, and it reminded me of how well Legends has done with restocking its roster of characters in season two. Nate and Amaya are both new characters, but they’re likeable and complex enough that Legends can easily hang a pivotal storyline on them with no reliance on the older characters. It’ll be a shame if either leaves the Waverider at the end of the season, though it seems likely that Amaya is on her way out sooner rather than later.
The other important drama aboard the Waverider came between Sara and Rip as they inevitably butted heads over their leadership roles in the team. This was a plotline that Legends essentially had to do, but it’s surprising just how underplayed it is. Older Legends would have made this into a centrepiece of the episode with a bigger and louder dispute that might not even have been resolved within the hour. Moonshot places their simmering resentments in the background, content that it’s implicit in every big decision made about the Waverider here, and culminates in the satisfying resolution of Rip ceding authority to Sara on whether to trust Thawne, a decision that’s ultimately proven right. There seems to have been an effort to recalibrate Rip as a character now he’s back full-time. He’s more entertaining, with a wry sense of humour that plays into Arthur Darvill’s strengths, but also more self-aware, able to articulate one of the most common fan observations – that he was a terrible, awful captain who has since been vastly outstripped by Sara. Once again, Legends succeeds by taking the quieter path and by allowing its characters to act like adults capable of mature introspection off-screen, and the result is a streamlined arc that entertainingly gets through this inevitable, transitional conflict and paves the way for more dynamic conflicts later on.
Down on the Moon, Moonshot came up with its biggest surprise, which is the humanisation of Eobard Thawne. Legends took a big step a few episodes back with the revelation of Eobard’s vulnerability due to the Black Flash, and Moonshot deepens that by spending time with Eobard Thawne, Regular Guy as he works with Ray. Matt Letscher is great at playing a comics-faithful version of one of the DC Universe’s most iconic bastards, but he finds something much more grounded here, akin to Tom Cavanagh’s rueful performance as Thawne in The Flash which acknowledged Thawne’s genuine emotional attachments to the people he manipulates as opposed to just playing up his megalomania. Thawne can be seen as a complete monster, as he notes, but his motivations have always been very simple – first to get home, now to live – and he’s only done harm to the people who’ve gotten in the way of those things, as shown by the way in which he plays by his agreement and works with Ray. He doesn’t fundamentally change in any actual way as a result of his experiences, sprinting off out of necessity at the end rather than out of honour, but instead his humanised portrayal is the result of delving a little deeper to gain a richer understanding of what makes him tick. It’s an approach that maintains the appeal of his unrestrained villainy but grounds it within understandable emotions of desire and fear that complicates the feeling of pure hatred he inspires – just the kind of development the villains need before the season’s endgame kicks in.
Moonshot, despite its density of plot, is also successful because it remembers to be fun and light in a way that feels increasingly vital given the dour direction The Flash has recently taken. Victor Garber sings The Banana Boat Song as a distraction, for instance, because that’s the kind of show where things like that can happen. Ray gets a trip on the Moon (despite the hokey green screen effects, the shot of the ATOM grasping the American flag was a perfect full-page image ripped from a comic) where he skips across the Sea of Tranquillity and moonlights as Matt Damon by taking a video of his plight. First and foremost, this is a snappily-paced adventure with some fun action and solid effects that keeps a lightness of tone even as it deals with some heavy emotional drama, demonstrative of the way Moonshot is able to balance all of Legends’ impulses in a way that exemplifies season two’s greater understanding of this show’s strengths.
With just three episodes left, this was an excellent prelude to the final push to the end of the season that offered a well-rounded and compelling character arc for Commander Steel, a guy who we barely knew before this episode, and a development of the themes of the imperfections of time travel that demonstrates a rare thoughtfulness and maturity for a show that prides itself on being big, loud and dumb a lot of the time. It might have to jump through a lot of hoops to contrive up specific conflicts and obstacles, but given its balance of joyous fun and genuine emotional heft, this was an ideal take on the classic Legends formula. Next up, it’s World War One as the Legends attempt to dispose of the completed Spear… and finally, it seems as if our old friend Captain Cold is set to make his return. Even if he’s intent on killing all of the good guys and rewriting reality for malicious purposes, it’ll be great to have him back. We’ve missed you, Leonard Snart.