Legends of Tomorrow is beginning to find solid ground. It feels more cohesive, the character arcs are gaining clarity, and Vandal Savage's villainous behavior is developing in curious ways. It's a young series, of course, and still has some glaring problems. And despite its noticeable improvements, "White Knights" puts a spotlight on those issues, illustrating why the show can be difficult to enjoy as a whole.
The biggest problem is that Sara, Leonard, and Mick are the only characters who feel dynamic and engaging. This may seem surprising: They have the least skin in the game, as far as Savage is concerned, and their abilities are low-key compared to their flashier companions. The rest of the cast remains dull: Despite his sob backstory, Rip Hunter is utterly boring, and seems more useful as a means to share exposition than as an actual character. Savage, whom we don't see this week, is a black hole of charisma. These problems are hard to ignore, but to its credit, "White Knights" is still a fun, well-paced episode.
The team travels to Washington, D.C., in 1986 to steal a file from the Pentagon, which will help them track down Savage. The mission goes smoothly until Firestorm (or, more apt, Jax) bungles his task — he's supposed to turn off the power source — and trips an alarm. This draws attention to Sara and Kendra before they can escape with the file. It gets worse after Kendra goes berserk, wings out and eyes red, then brutally wounds a guard. This failure characterizes what we see in the rest of the episode: whenever the team makes a plan, lots of things go terribly wrong.
Without Carter's influence, Kendra struggles to control her inner warrior goddess. This seems like an odd plot point, especially because Carter didn't spend much time training her. He always felt more interested in bullying Kendra to love him. I am so glad he's gone. The show will definitely find a way to bring him back — between time travel and reincarnation, death seems like an easy thing to overcome — and for now, I'm enjoying his absence. Also, where does this whole crazed-warrior-goddess thing come from?
On the bright side, the Pentagon file provides useful information for the gang. They learn that Savage defected to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and discover details about a scientist named Valentina Vostok, whose research is funded by Savage.
While that's happening, Hunter tasks Sara with helping Kendra learn to control her powers. It's meant to be a mutually beneficial pairing; Sara needs to rediscover her humanity, which has been obscured by the effects of the Lazarus Pit. I get the intent behind this story line, but it further illustrates why Kendra isn't that interesting of a character. This is a shame: Other portrayals of Hawkgirl have been excellent. (Legends of Tomorrow should have aped Justice League Unlimited's take on the character, rather than whatever they're trying to do now.) Kendra has the most intense link to Savage, yet the show doesn't make that link feel meaningful. When will she become a useful member of the group? When will she seem the least bit interesting? When will she stop mentioning how she worked as a barista two months ago?
The training sessions between Sara and Kendra keep them occupied while everyone else handles the main mission. I'm honestly not sure why Hunter thinks it is a good idea to leave them in the dark, though. At the very least, Sara could have helped get the team out when they later run into trouble — but that would have ruined the episode's cliff-hanger.
Considering how badly the team messed up at the Pentagon, I'm not sure this team is actually doing any good. They only seem to do a good job of messing up the timeline — even before Savage does. That's why it's understandable to see the Chronos tracking Hunter down for the Time Masters. Hunter's quest for revenge may be noble, but his decisions are questionable. After he outmaneuvers Chronos in Soviet airspace, the ship crashes. When his old mentor, Time Master Druce, approaches him with a duplicitous deal — if he gives up his pursuit of Savage, Druce claims everyone can go back in their own timelines — he could simply decide not to meet him. It's clear that the offer is a lie. Instead of dodging a conflict, Hunter instead brings crew members as backup. This leads directly to a fight with Chronos, and Jax gets badly wounded after he's split from Professor Stein. If Hunter just didn't agree to the meeting, they would have accomplished the same thing without any damage. Why should we believe he deserves his leadership role?
To make matters even worse, the fight with Chronos heightens the tension between Professor Stein and Jax. Although his body is on the line when they're Firestorm, Jax feels like he isn't respected. Professor Stein think Jax is arrogant and hotheaded because he consistently ignores advice. It's understandable that such different characters would have issues, but these mounting arguments feel forced. Also, Jax makes several good points: He didn't want to come on this mission, and Stein basically kidnapped him. He wasn't able to say good-bye to his widowed mother, who probably thinks he just ghosted. In turn, Stein goes for blood by cruelly insulting Jax. (The scene is shakily written, but Victor Garber really sells it.) Those barbs mask a lot of fear: Stein is worried that Jax will die just as Ronnie did. He feels immense guilt about kidnapping Jax — if only he would tell him that.
Back to the main story line. The moment I recognized Valentina as Mr. Robot's Stephanie Corneliussen, I knew she would be up to no good. The team isn't sure how much Valentina knows about Savage, but none of them speaks Russian. It's a problem that calls for ingestible translators, which let them speak and understand any language. And of course, everything they say sounds like English to us. (Ah, technology of the future.)
Ray is supposed to warm up to Valentina during the intermission of her favorite ballet. He fails in a hilariously way, even as Leonard gives him advice through an intercom while scoping the scene nearby. After Valentina coldly rejects Ray twice, Leonard cuts in. She says she doesn't need any saving from Ray's charmless badgering. "I'm not a white knight," Leonard responds.
Is anyone surprised that Leonard pulls this off? It calls to mind another issue with Hunter's leadership: He really can't recognize the strengths of his crew. Why would he think Ray was suited for approaching Valentina? Ray has no game, which is what that job needs. Leonard cozies up to Valentina, walks her home, shares a passionate kiss with her, and manages to swipe her wallet. He's that good. Maybe he should be the team's leader.
At Luskane Labs, where Valentina's research is conducted, Professor Stein goes on a recon mission. Once inside, he figures out that Valentina is trying to create a Soviet Firestorm for Savage — and she's already created a thermacore, so it's only a matter of time until she stabilizes a new Firestorm. Cue Leonard and Ray, who are tasked with stealing the thermacore.
Though Kendra's freakout at the Pentagon was bad, Ray ends up doing even more damage. When he sees Valentina, he decides he's willing to risk the mission to protect her. Leonard, as always, is the voice of reason. Ray doesn't know this woman. Isn't it a bit naïve to presume that she's worth saving? She does work for Savage, after all. I guess common sense isn't one of Ray's strong points. He convinces Leonard to keep Valentina away from the core as he takes it offline, then Stein steals it. In a move that surprises no one, she pulls a gun on Leonard and reveals that she knows exactly what Savage wants her to do.
Congratulations, Ray! You win the Worst Hero Award … again.
Mick comes to rescue his partner, but things quickly tailspin. Ray is knocked out. Mick is captured. Although Stein manages to contain the core, Leonard lets slip some information to Valentina that gets the professor captured. At this point, wouldn't it make sense for Hunter to send in backup? For some reason, he refuses to send in anyone else. So Leonard swipes the core and makes his way back to the ship. Which brings us to the cliff-hanger: Mick, Ray, and Stein are trapped in an impenetrable Soviet prison.
"White Knight" nails the excitement and epic scale that Legends of Tomorrow wants to create. But the show still has to address its problems if it wants to be more than an ocassionally fun, half-baked, forgettable half-hour of television. How can this be fixed? Recognize that Leonard, Mick, and Sara are the best characters in their arsenal, and make them interact more often. Give Hunter something else to do — he can't just ping-pong between walking exposition and ineffectual leadership. Let Kendra have some semblance of a personality. Dial down Jax's sniping with Stein. And, most important, embrace the zaniness of the show's concept without tipping over into stupidity.
We're only four episodes into the season, so Legends of Tomorrow has time to course-correct. It can still become the show it wants to be.