Legends of Tomorrow 3×13: “No Country for Old Dads”, The Flash 4×15: “Enter Flashtime”, Black Lightning 1×07: “Equinox: The Book of Fate”, and Arrow 6×15: “Doppelganger” review.
This week . . . I can’t think of a good introduction this week.
Let’s just get into it.
Legends of Tomorrow 3×13: “No Country for Old Dads”
It’s hard to ignore the similarities between “No Country for Old Dads” and the Season 2 episode “The Legion of Doom”. It’s not just that both are villain-focused episodes, with most of our heroes relegated to a B-plot. They’re also both built on the premise that the bad guys have captured one of the Legends and, after a bit of torture-for-information, coerce them into coming along on their latest mission. But it goes beyond even that, as both episodes also center their emotional drama around a fraught father/daughter relationship, with the father learning that he needs to tell his daughter how he feels about her, rather than just assuming she knows it.
It’s all very familiar, but luckily “No Country for Old Dads” manages to be, not a rehash of “The Legion of Doom”, but a refinement of it. The earlier episode worked primarily because of the novelty of the concept: making our arch-villains the protagonists for an episode and focusing on their dynamics with each other, rather than having them serve as foils for our heroes. This episode uses the same concept, but marries it to much stronger character work that elevates, not just this episode, but our appreciation of the villains going forward.
The most obvious difference is in the nature of our bad guys. The Legion of Doom was a group of ruthless megalomaniacs, allied together out of convenience and self-preservation, but with no affection or loyalty, either for each other or for anyone else. We were never truly asked to sympathize with the Legion; their storyline was all about seeing three assholes jockey for supremacy over each other.
By contrast, this season has given Mallus’s as-yet-unnamed supervillain team (I have my fingers crossed for “The Monster Society of Evil”) a great deal more depth and sympathy. Kuasa is trying to prevent a legitimate atrocity committed against her and her family, and still has something of a bond with her grandmother, Amaya. Grodd’s actions have always been framed as a response to the evils committed by humankind. And, central to this episode, Nora Darhk and even Damien Darhk (despite being a holdover from the Legion of Doom) are humanized by their family bond.
The conflict between Damien and Nora is intentionally played very broadly, calling to mind countless father/daughter squabbles from a hundred other films and TV series. But that familiarity is what draws us in, gives us some groundwork for understanding and relating to the Darhks, even as they murder people, plot the destruction of the world, and argue about the time one of them handed the other over to a demonic cult.
When Nora tries to sacrifice her life to save her father, and in doing so unlocks the power of the Spirit Totem, saving both their lives, you actually want to cheer for these two getting a happy ending . . . then we immediately cut to Mallus wreaking havoc on the spiritual plane now that the totem is corrupted, and you remember, oh yeah, these two succeeding is a bad thing, isn’t it?
Beyond the villains, though, this episode also improves on “The Legion of Doom” because of the hero they’re partnered with. While I enjoyed Rip’s brief tenure as Phil the film school student, that persona wasn’t really developed enough to anchor a plot without any of our other main heroes. Phil was also a very passive character, being easily cowed by the Legion into almost anything. This episode, on the other hand, has the bad guys enlisting the help of Ray Palmer, a more familiar presence and someone who can hold his own against the Darhks. He even makes some very slight headway trying to convince Nora that, hey, being evil? Not a great thing.
But the biggest improvement this episode makes is that it’s friggin’ hilarious. Not that “The Legion of Doom” didn’t have some solid jokes, but “No Country for Old Dads” is one of those Legends episodes that’s a hair’s breadth away from going full sitcom. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Damien Darhk is at his goofiest and most demented here, whether it’s creating a dating profile for himself (“Hobbies: Destroying the world to remake it in my image; trying new restaurants”), having a heart-to-heart chat with a recently murdered corpse, or being such a card-carrying villain that he worries about Ray being a good influence on Nora. We also get our first exploration of Nora Darhk as something other than a scared girl or stoic, magical badass, and I adore how perpetually exasperated she is with everyone around her, which gets great comedic mileage playing off Damien’s gleeful exuberance and Ray’s earnest optimism.
I know I went on about this last week, but it really is amazing how Legends of Tomorrow has improved itself each season, and there are few better examples of this than comparing this episode to its Season 2 predecessor.
Black Lightning 1×07: “Equinox: The Book of Fate”
Consider all my complaints about Black Lightning’s slow pace rectified, ‘cause this episode was on a rocket train!
In the very first scene, we see that Anissa has already been briefed on the whole “your dad’s Black Lightning” thing between episodes. We can thus move right into Anissa’s enthusiasm for her budding superhero career clashing with her parents’ desire to protect her, with frank discussions about the dangers of superheroing, the toll it takes on your personal life, and the innocent people who can be hurt along the way. It may be a lot of talking, but it’s eventful talking, exploring the many different and conflicting perspectives each character has, and crafting believable reasons for Lynn and Jefferson to come around on their daughter’s superherodom by episode’s end.
I know secret identities are a staple of the superhero genre, but in every superhero show I’ve seen, revealing the hero’s identity to the other main characters has only improved the series. The hero having to obfuscate their identity all the time tends to result in repetitive character dynamics, and it eats up time in an episode that could be better spent on other things.
So it’s quite promising that, halfway into its first season, Jefferson and Anissa are already aware of each other’s superheroics, and with Gambi and Lynn in the loop, too, Jennifer’s the only member of the Pierce clan still in the dark (and given how quick she is to notice that something is up, I don’t anticipate her ignorance lasting much longer).
This episode also finally gives us a confrontation between Jefferson and Tobias. Even though it ends inconclusively, just seeing them come face to face in a big action scene is a treat, especially after a couple previous episodes ended with Jefferson being distracted by something else before a promised showdown could occur. And while Jefferson and Tobias both escape to fight another day, Tobias’s sister, Tori, is not so lucky, being struck and killed by a bullet meant for Black Lightning.
I can’t say it’s sad to see Tori go, ‘cause she hasn’t really done much of anything the few episodes she’s been in, but the fact that one of the few people Tobias cares for (perhaps the only one he does) is dead as a result of Black Lightning promises to escalate their feud tremendously.
But Tori wasn’t the only major death this episode. Lady Eve has been built up so slowly as a mysterious, threatening presence, seeing her assassinated by Tobias’s henchmen here was a major surprise. Now her, I am sad to see go (assuming she doesn’t get resurrected, because apparently that’s a thing in Black Lightning’s universe now). She had charisma and great mix of affability and menace, but the sheer chutzpah of not only killing her off, but framing Black Lightning for her murder, does a lot to shake up the series and finally make Tobias Whale seem like a genuinely formidable villain.
We also have Gambi assassinating one of Tobias’s henchmen and Lala coming back from the dead (complete with ghost Lawanda), and this episode was so jam packed I don’t even feel like I have time to talk about them. I don’t know if I’d call this the best episode of Black Lightning so far; the premiere was probably better for its richer themes and more artistic flourishes. But if the series can maintain this level of surprise, energy, and forward momentum in the episodes to come, then it has a very good future ahead of it.
The Flash 4×15: “Enter Flashtime”
On the one hand, I want to give the Flash writers kudos for doing this sort of high concept episode. Much as I love ‘em, one of my complaints with the Arrowverse shows is that they rarely play around with their format or their visual storytelling. It’s not often they give you an episode that feels markedly different from all the other episodes in the series.
However, I don’t think this particular high concept worked too well. The idea sounds great on paper: a nuclear bomb has been detonated in Central City, and in the fraction of a second before the explosion kills everyone, Barry and the other speedsters have to think of a way to stop it while, from their perspective, time seems to stand still.
The problem is that “Enter Flashtime” is both a time-stands-still episode and a race-against-the-clock episode, and while those are each fine concepts for an episode individually, when put together they end up undermining each other.
We’re supposed to be anxious for Barry to find some way to stop the explosion before it’s too late, but with the world around him essentially standing still, the only sense of urgency comes from the fact that he’ll eventually become too tired to keep moving so fast. And except for him getting progressively sweatier as the episode goes on (and Jay and Jesse having to bow out before he does) that’s not the sort of ticking clock you can see. We don’t have a concrete idea of just how long Barry can maintain “Flashtime”, so it’s never clear how close the destruction of Central City actually is.
Furthermore, when telling a race-against-the-clock episode, it helps to sell the urgency of the situation if we actually see a lot of hurried movement going on. But the nature of “Flashtime” means that only two or three characters can actually be moving at any one time, while the rest of the cast stands perfectly still. It just never feels as frantic as it probably should.
The episode might have been helped by taking a cue from the movie Speed. Establish that, to maintain his time-stands-still levels of speed, Barry has to constantly stay in motion, always running from one spot to another; if he lets himself stand in place, the city will explode. That would really help sell the urgency of the situation on a visual level and make Barry’s growing exhaustion feel like a more tangible ticking clock. Though, admittedly, that probably would have made shooting the episode an absolute nightmare for Grant Gustin.
But let’s look at “Enter Flashtime” from another angle: as a classic time-stands-still episode. Those have been a staple of sci-fi TV since at least as far back as the original Twilight Zone; there’s something inherently appealing about having the time to do or set up whatever you want while the people around you can’t do anything. But by mixing this premise with a race-against-the-clock story, The Flash can’t really take advantage of this. From the moment the bomb goes off until Barry neutralizes it, the episode occurs almost entirely in real time (from Barry’s perspective, anyway), and the situation is so urgent there’s no time to actually do much with time standing still.
While it would have upped their speed to even more insane levels, I would have liked it if, from the speedsters’ perspective, the split second after the bomb went critical didn’t take minutes, but days, maybe even weeks. Have them read through every physics textbook they can find looking for a solution. Have them try building a large machine around the bomb that they hope will contain the blast. Do a montage of them having all-night brainstorming sessions at Star Labs, covering the floor in junk food wrappers. Have them take occasional breaks from their city-saving research, recharging themselves by repositioning people into awkward poses and other time-stands-still hijinks. It would have been ridiculous, but it also would have been a lot of fun.
It probably sounds like I hated this episode and wish it was anything but what it was. I definitely wouldn’t go that far. Quality-wise, it was a pretty average episode of The Flash. But it’s such an untypical episode for them, only achieving average seems like some serious wasted potential.
Arrow 6×15: “Doppelganger”
How do y’all feel about Thea Queen and Roy Harper? ‘Cause how much you like this episode is going to depend a lot on how much affection you have for those two characters going in.
“Doppelganger” is largely about these two. Or, rather, it’s largely, nominally about these two. Roy’s return is what drives the plot of the episode, and Thea, for the first time this season, is directly involved in the main story and appears in most of the important scenes. But they don’t actually do a whole lot.
Roy is just the damsel in distress here, tasked with nothing much besides enduring stoically as Diaz’s goons try to beat him into compliance. Thea dons the Speedy suit once more and participates in the rescue mission for Roy, but while she kicks a few asses, her involvement is never truly pivotal, and it’s still Oliver making the important decisions and having an intense stare-off with the Big Bad.
They’re given just enough of the spotlight that fans who have been jonesing to see more of them will come away happy. It’s a major “Hell yeah!” moment when Thea suits up as Speedy again. Roy is good with both wisecracks and some tender moments. And seeing them rekindle their romance was very sweet. But take away the thrill of seeing them take center stage again, and their story this episode isn’t terribly interesting.
I’m on record as thinking Thea is awesome, and have been frustrated by how much she’s been sidelined these last couple seasons. As for Roy . . . I’ve got nothing against Roy. He’s a likable character, they’ve done some good stuff with him, but he’s not someone I was anxious to see come back. So I averaged out to mostly enjoying their storyline here; if you’re a fan of both characters (and especially if you’re a fan of them as a couple) you’ll probably like it a lot more, but if you’re not too keen on either, you’ll probably find it pretty ho-hum.
There is another character who got some heavy focus this episode: the titular doppelganger, Laurel Lance of Earth-2, now officially posing to the public as Laurel Lance of Earth-1, returned from the grave. And Katie Cassidy is once again on fire. The scene where she’s telling reporters about her “survival”, then rushes over to hug Oliver and Quentin (calling them “Ollie” and “Daddy”) is the definite highlight of the episode, equal parts hilarious and creepy. The way she slips so easily between sounding just like the original Laurel to this new Laurel’s cocky swagger is just amazing.
Her posing as Earth-1 Laurel also opens up a lot of possibilities for her going forward. Till now, almost all her encounters with the good guys have had to involve them trying to kill or imprison her, or her trying to kill or imprison them. By assuming the identity of a beloved public figure, and threatening to expose all of Team Arrow’s secrets if they expose hers, they’re now in a situation where they have to try to co-exist with each other. That makes for a lot more varied and interesting character dynamics, and makes the idea of her becoming attached enough to these people to consider changing much more plausible, especially since she’s now crashing on her “father’s” couch.
We see at the end that she’s still playing both sides, helping Ricardo Diaz manipulate Team Arrow, but the episode also made it clear that she has no real loyalty towards him, and which team she eventually chooses is still an open question.
Y’know, if you went back in time to when I was watching Arrow’s first season, and told me that in five years Laurel would be the character who was holding my interest the most week to week? I won’t say I wouldn’t have believed you, but it would have taken some convincing. Dying and being replaced by her evil double may have been the best thing that ever happened to her!
- I didn’t talk above about Wally joining the Legends, but despite it being a very short B-plot, he managed to fit in nicely. Or rather, fit in poorly, but in a way that fits perfectly on Legends. I especially loved that, coming to the Waverider from the more straight laced Team Flash, he needs to be told, “We allow light to moderate theft on this ship.”
- What do you wanna bet that Rip somehow orchestrated Grodd’s attack on the Time Bureau, in order to remove Director Bennet and secure his own return to the Bureau? I don’t want to believe Rip would do something like that, but he was pretty quick to point out how this left Ava in charge, and the end of the episode has him back to being shifty again.
- I talked last week about Legends often not having the best fight scenes, but the bit where Damien is fighting his younger self while trying to telekinetically keep Nora from falling was just a fantastic setup. It was both very tense but also a little silly, which is exactly what I want out of a Legends fight scene.
- One thing “Enter Flashtime” did undisputedly get right was Harry and Jesse. Their final scene together, where Harry still can’t bring himself to talk about Jesse’s mother, so he builds a device to let his daughter hear the things he can never say . . . I’m honestly getting a little misty eyed just writing about it here.
- Also an amazingly touching moment: Killer Frost saying, “Don’t let Caity die.”
- In “Equinox”, Anissa discovers that her digging into her grandfather’s research most likely got David Poe killed, at the same time as Jefferson’s attack on Tobias gets Tori killed. Seeing them both grapple with the guilt of causing such collateral damage is a great moment, but I buy it a little more coming from Anissa then from Jefferson. We did see him use a guy as a human shield in the first episode.
- It was a major WTF? moment when Tobias’s goons started firing electric beam weapons. Black Lightning’s worldbuilding is still very vaguely defined; this was our first indication that sci-fi technology like this exists in their world, let alone that some crime lord can get his hands on it.
- Despite how annoyed I was with New Team Arrow last week, the fallout from that episode is thankfully not much of a factor here. Rene’s still hospitalized, and Curtis only has one, short scene. Dinah’s a major presence throughout the episode, but with the revelation about Diaz corrupting large swaths of the police department, she’s enough of a professional to put dealing with that mess ahead of her personal issues with Oliver and Company, and thank all the gods in heaven for that.
- When Thea sees Roy again for the first time in two years, she immediately kisses them. Then immediately apologizes, since they haven’t been together for two years, and for all she knows he’s seeing someone else. I love that kinda joke, where someone behaves the way television characters do, then pulls back and tries to act the way a normal person would.
- Arrow has yet to really make me interested in Ricardo Diaz. He just seems very, very generic at this point. The fact that he’s allied with Laurel and Anatoly, two characters we have much more of connection to and who have very charismatic actors, makes him look even less interesting by comparison.
MVP of the Week: Damien Darhk.
Neil McDonough was chewing up the scenery like he was in Willy Wonka’s factory this week, and it was awesome. Just the way he says some words, like “Vogel” or “rocket man”, could make me laugh out loud.
Question of the Week: What is your favorite individual episode of each of these shows?