Legends of Tomorrow: 217 “Aruba” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Legends of Tomorrow has had quite the second season. Capitalising upon the potential of that promising but turbulent first run, it’s been an endearingly manic run of TV that’s benefited hugely from an overriding philosophy of throwing everything at the wall, whether that means Civil War zombies, the fictional kingdom of Camelot with the spear in the stone, or a story about convincing George Lucas to make Star Wars in order to save the world. Legends took the stabilisers off this season, and it’s been all the better for it. Did it stick the landing with a satisfying season finale?
Rest assured, Aruba is a very good season finale with a killer premise and an intriguing hook for next season. There’s some sloppy writing to be found here and there – perhaps an inevitably of an episode that’s deceptively dense, crammed to the brim with individual pay-offs for both its heroes (times two) and villains. Aruba needs to do a lot, so it’s impressive that it’s so light on its feet, breaking from the darker tone of the last couple of episodes to return to something much more self-aware, winking at its sci-fi conventions and embracing the idea that season one never came to grips with: that the Legends are terrible heroes, and are liable to break everything if given half the opportunity. It’s the finale this season needed – heartfelt, thrilling, and most importantly, incredibly silly television.
All sci-fi shows have to have some kind of rules in order to prevent their plot devices from becoming a get-out-of-jail-free card for anything. Legends is looser than most, to say the least, but it’s always been pretty adamant about the idea that revisiting locations is a no-go. There’s always exceptions to a ‘cardinal rule’, however, if the scenario is dire enough – and an alternate reality governed by super-villains was certainly one that qualified. Aruba keeps a keen sense of the consequences of the rules it’s breaking with the ‘time storms’ that hold back the Legends as the scenario spins further and further out of control before underlining the weight of the Legends’ actions with that final cliffhanger. The episode isn’t free of blemishes in terms of simple plot logic, but it was important that it followed through on the big things it promised would follow a trip back to 1916 to maintain its own credibility – the fact that it keeps that internal logic allows the rest of the instalment to go crazy as it saw fit.
The crazy in question came from some unique interactions between heroes, as they met our heroes for the first time. Despite the weightiness of the Legends’ situation, a lot of Aruba plays as a fun and whimsical farce in which the future Legends plot increasingly elaborate plans to grab the Spear without alerting their past selves, only to be foiled time and time again. It’s a risk to go so overtly comedic in a season finale, but both the darker tone of the past couple of episodes and the strong comic timing of the actors (Caity Lotz and Franz Drameh are great in the scene where their deception falls apart entirely and they’re left only with terrible excuses about radiation leaks) justifies that decision. Even after the Legends of past and present link up, there’s a lot of silly fun to be had in the chaotic visuals of a double-sized team milling around the Waverider, whether that’s with both Saras going for the captain’s chair or, inevitably, Mick almost getting into a fight with himself. Most shows and movies that play the ‘crossing the time streams’ story are carefully constructed and tense, with the consequences of past and present mixing shown to be catastrophic. Legends, being Legends, has the two teams interacting with each other before the halfway mark. This is a mark of a show that cares nothing for the intricacies of plot, and that’s just fine.
Aruba does, however, use its two-teams conceit for more than just comedy. Season two has been preoccupied throughout with the human consequences of time travel and the question of personal regret versus responsibility, and there’s no better way to explore those themes than with characters having heart-to-heart conversations with themselves. Sara’s character arc had somewhat fallen by the wayside in the last few episodes as other members of the team were fleshed out, so it was surprising to see her journey of recognising her own moral value from within her own murky and morally queasy past as an assassin put to the fore again. Even if it hasn’t been as much of a through-line as it perhaps should have been, there was little to fault with her character arc in Aruba. It’s an arc that squares a difficult circle for Legends – taking stock of the entire journeys of its characters who began on other shows while maintaining a focus on how they’ve changed on their time on this show in particular. To do so, Legends cheats a bit, but, to be fair, this was an episode all about cheating.
Throwing in a return appearance by Katie Cassidy as Laurel could be a cheap attempt to gain emotional resonance via shortcut, simply because Laurel died on another show, rather than anything Legends itself has earned, but their scene together is heartfelt and satisfying, navigating Sara’s complex emotional situation to find the core truth of her character that’s been the case since she appeared on Arrow; that she’s a better person than she’s willing to admit to herself. Admittedly, the scene wouldn’t have been nearly as resonant with a character who’s only appeared on this show, because none of them have had the time to grow an emotional rapport with Sara in the same way Laurel could – but the scene works because it’s just as much about her Legends arc of accepting her status as an authoritative and trustworthy leader as it is about Arrow’s unfinished business. Sara was one of the characters who was compelling out of the box in season one, but season two has really focused on the specific aspects of her character that work best in her new role as captain. Aruba’s story, thanks to the time it takes to tell it amongst all the chaos of time quakes and alternate realities, is a satisfying way to cap that off.
The surprising breakout character of this season has arguably been Mick, whose last few episodes have been a rollercoaster of defections and betrayals. Aruba doesn’t foreground Mick as much before, acknowledging that his decision to go with the Legends in Doomworld stuck, but it delivers a very effective pay-off to his relationship with Snart in their final scene together. For one, it’s jolting to see Mick so genuinely sincere in his interactions with his former partner, hammering home the seriousness of his emotional change on the Waverider despite his typically glib exterior of bad jokes and suggestions of travel destinations (so that’s why they called the season finale ‘Aruba’). Mick describing the way in which he becomes a better man as a ‘punishment’ is a poignant way to summarise the unusual, rough nature of his moral change into something antithetical to everything he used to stand for, which was represented here by the callous and unfeeling Snart of 2014. Given how long ago Snart was announced, it was perhaps a shame he only made it into three episodes this season (hallucination excepted). Yet Aruba does its job well at clarifying his role as a ghost from the past that Mick would have to reject in order to become firmly integrated into the Legends, and it even suggests that it’s been telling a short prequel of sorts to Snart’s equally significant character arc in season one. Rather than undercutting the finality of his sacrifice, Legends’ choice to double down on the classical portrayal of the character as greedy and selfish makes his journey more impactful in retrospect by showing just how intrinsically he changed as a person across season one in order to make that final sacrifice. Legends has been keen this year to distance its protagonists from the term ‘hero’, and that’s quite right: it’s found some of its most rewarding character material within the bad guys.
Nate and Amaya’s wrap up is somewhat less convincing. Nate’s dynamic with himself is enjoyable, and allows him to impart the lessons he learned in Doomworld in order to give Amaya’s sacrifice some weight beyond the parlour trick it turned out to be. His process of decision-making in doubling down on his relationship for Amaya makes sense, as we understand why it changes and see that process in action – a solid, effective character arc that does exactly what it needs, even if it breaks little new ground. The problem here is Amaya, which is frustrating, because she’s had a far more complex character journey this year after the reveal of her destiny in Zambezi. Aruba doesn’t allow us to spend the same time with Amaya as she makes her crucial final decision – as her Doomworld self is dead, she’s mostly just an object of Nate’s affections to make him feel emotional and change his own decisions right until the very end. And when Amaya finally makes a defining decision for herself, it’s… curious. It’s undoubtedly surprising that Legends plugged this much time into Amaya’s ‘destiny’ as an imminent problem before opting simply to kick the can down the road in season three, and that’s clearly the intent to show just how deeply Nate and Amaya feel for each other. However, a storytelling feint like this requires a finesse that Legends doesn’t really have to work, meaning the sum total of Amaya’s character arc is naught, ending up exactly where she was a few episodes back when she began a relationship with Nate. I’m glad to have both characters back for season three – they’ve been solid additions to the cast, and their friendships with some of the other Waverider members are ones I’d like to see explored in further depth. It’s simply that the way Aruba chose to bring about that return was clumsy and unrewarding.
Aside from character development, what every good DC season finale is a final showdown worthy of all the skirmishes and battles that have preceded it. Last season cooked up an ingenious three-pronged battle to finish off Vandal Savage, and Aruba is a worthy successor with its bloodbath of a final act. The genuinely effective shock of Ray’s death early in the episode makes all the Doomworld Legends fair game for the rest, so the episode can’t really be blamed for indulging and killing off every single future member of the team aside from Sara. Dramatically, these deaths are a bit weightless – we know they mean nothing, and the episode knows they’re only props. Yet the pile-up of bodies adds an enjoyable variety to the final showdown that gives it a grander sense of stakes distinguishing it from the many battles that the Legends and Legion have fought to a score draw. There’s actually a sense that the Legion are dangerous here, and that’s important for the final battle to feel consequential. The final flourish of Eobard Thawne and his army of Reverse Flashes (Legends, once more beating The Flash at its own game) is a gloriously dumb way to bring an end to the fight, even if the episode doesn’t really do much with their threat. We can quibble about power levels all day, but for me, the fact that Eobard Thawne showed up in World War One with an army of time remnants was enough. His thematically appropriate death at the hands of Chekhov’s Flash was the right way to bring an end to his threat, too. After playing surrogate to Tom Cavanagh throughout his time on The Flash, Matt Letscher has been allowed to play the classic super-villain version of Eobard this year from start to finish as the dominating villain in a group full of them and it’s been a delight.
We’ll miss you, Legion of Doom. Season three is going to have a tough job finding villains who fit the arch, self-aware tone of this show quite so snugly as the Legion, and Eobard, in particular have.
Aruba doesn’t have a huge comic book reference to drop like last year’s finale did with the JSA, but its tease for season three ain’t bad at all. It’s hard to beat the Waverider stuck in a futuristic yet desolate Los Angeles infested by dinosaurs as a final shot, and “I think we broke time” as a final line – a clear statement of intent for an even wackier and looser season three. On a storytelling level, it’s a good choice to have the consequences of the Legends’ meddling with time hit this hard, justifying just how fast and loose Aruba plays with the show’s ‘cardinal rule’ for most of its run-time. The idea of a completely broken timeline is also rife with potential for the typical ‘travel to a historical period, meet a celebrity’ formula to be completely upended. Who’s to say Victorian England, for instance, would be anything close to the history books if dinosaurs are still around in 2017? It’s been a pretty unusual season of TV, but it’s clear that Legends isn’t aiming to slow down in that regard, at all. That seems about right.
Aruba is a strong season finale that’s light on its feet and full of fun storytelling ideas despite its dark storyline, managing a mostly successful conclusion to most of this year’s character arcs before completely breaking the show once more to leave it in one hell of a place for the third season to pick up. Season two has been a genuinely great season of TV from start to finish, unrecognisable in places from the awkwardness of the show’s early episodes. It’s gone from odd duck of the CW’s DC universe to its most consistently enjoyable within the year. Here’s hoping that’s just the start…