The title of this episode is, of course, a nod to John Sturges’s thrilling Western The Magnificent Seven. That film is a testament to the thrills provided by a great cast, chemistry, and a well-told story, and although “The Magnificent Eight” does not reach those same heights, it is the best episode of Legends of Tomorrow so far.
The success of “The Magnificent Eight” is a reminder of the show’s biggest weakness, too: It lacks a compelling villain. The narrative feels most engaging whenever Vandal Savage doesn’t figure in, which is a big problem. Whenever the focus shifts to Savage, Legends of Tomorrow suffers. It’s not just that he’s cartoonish — he’s just too boring. (This is something of a trend among the CW’s adaptations. Despite successfully bringing the superheroes from page to screen, Arrow and this show have completely bungled their respective depictions of Ra’s Al Ghul and Vandal Savage, two of DC’s most interesting, grand villains.) What does it say about a show when the main conflict and villain prove to be its weakest points? It’s certainly fun to watch these characters run amok in various time periods, free from Savage’s posturing, but it’s not really fodder for a cohesive story arc.
“The Magnificent Eight” is basically Legends of Tomorrow going full-blown Back to the Future Part III. They jump to the town of Salvation, circa 1871, because it’s effectively a blind spot from the Time Masters. Rip Hunter insists that they hide out until they can slip away from the mercenaries on their tail, but staying low isn’t really their style. As they enter Salvation, there’s a pretty stylish slow-motion introduction of the entire crew, sans Hunter, in period-appropriate garb. They’re ready to enjoy themselves, and quickly cause a ruckus when Professor Stein gets into a disagreement during a card game. (The scene adds some character texture to Stein, whose father was a gambler and criminal, which explains his success at the card game.) When the game gets ugly, Leonard doesn’t hesitate to shoot the other player.
Professor Stein: You killed him!
Leonard: You’re welcome.
The bar brawl that ensues has dangerous repercussions for our heroes, who land squarely in the sights of the Stillwater gang. With his annoying streak firmly back in place, Ray decides to do some John Wayne cosplay and play the hero. (He even takes the famous actor’s name.) After he accidentally becomes the town’s sheriff, he can’t help but talk about what being a good guy means to him. It’s all pretty dull. However, a fascinating character we haven’t seen before does emerge from the saloon: Jonah Hex (Johnathan Schaech).
A little backstory: Jonah Hex is a fun character in the comic books, but was completely squandered in a 2010 film starring Josh Brolin. It takes Schaech a moment to settle into the right groove, but once he does, his performance as Hex adds a great dynamic. He has just the right mix of gravitas and badassery to pull it off, so don’t be surprised if he becomes a regular fixture next season.
Unexpectedly, “The Magnificent Eight” episode reveals a shared history between Hex and Hunter: Not only did Hunter garner his signature coat from the renegade, but he also named his son after him. Apparently, Hunter spent a lot of time in the Old West of the 1860s and found it difficult to leave — especially since the town where he stayed was destined to be destroyed. Despite knowing this fate, Hunter left to be reunited with his future wife and remain a Time Master. This led to a major riff between him and Hex, who was also in the town.
Hunter’s tragic history is why he often veers the team away from heroic acts, lest they mess up the timeline and invite unwanted attention. Ray isn’t the only one trying to alter events in Salvation; Professor Stein uses more modern medicine to save the life of a young boy, who happens to be none other than H.G. Wells. While Stein accidentally ensures a future where The Time Machine is still written, Ray’s tenure as sheriff starts off okay enough. He faces down the Stillwater Gang and its leader, Jeb Stillwater. Things get ugly, though, when Hex, Ray, Leonard, Mick, and Jax try to arrest Jeb.
The worst storyline involves Kendra — surprise, surprise! Kendra bumps into an older woman (Anna Deavere Smith) in the saloon, who triggers some of her memories. With Sara acting as her partner in crime, Kendra tracks down this mysterious woman. Turns out she isn’t just from Kendra’s past, she is her past; she is Kendra from a previous life, although with some extra decades on her. Past Kendra is cynical, isolated, and hardened after losing Carter at a young age. In essence, the idea of Kendra meeting an older version of herself from a past life is a cool idea. Unfortunately, the execution undercuts its potential. It makes sense that Past Kendra is hardened and can cut to the bone more than the one we’ve been following through Legends of Tomorrow, but it’s hard to buy that these women are actually playing the same character.
The truly maddening thing, though, is how Past Kendra doubles down on the show’s flawed depiction of Hawkgirl. Past Kendra warns her younger self that she’ll find no lasting love with any man except Carter. It will always end in tragedy and heartbreak. Why? Because Carter is her soulmate. Arrow and The Flash definitely have issues with romantic story lines, but Legends of Tomorrow is next-level terrible. The idea that Kendra can’t find a fulfilling relationship beyond Carter is regressive, sexist, and utterly infuriating. This isn’t romance; it’s a gilded cage. Sara is right: Kendra’s past doesn’t have to define her future. But will she listen? Given the heartwarming scene between her and Ray at the end, the message seems to be sinking in. But will the show let her craft her own destiny? It’s only a matter of time until Carter comes back.
With Jax kidnapped by the Stillwater gang, Hunter is forced to face his own Old West demons. He’s emboldened enough to actually face off against Jeb Stillwater in a quick draw. He wins, with a killshot. The trouble is far from over, though, because a group of mercenaries nicknamed the Hunters show up. The sprawling fight scene that follows may be the series’ best yet, given the clarity of action, inspired setting, and propulsive direction. It also provides Mick and Firestorm some great standout moments. The only problem? Once again, Jax plays a minor role. With five episodes remaining this season, let’s hope he’s given more room to stretch out. Jax is a fun character, and, crucially, he lacks any romantic subplot baggage.
Just as everyone is celebrating their victory against the Hunters, a new wrinkle is added into their ever-expanding list of problems: The Time Masters have sent their deadliest assassin, the Pilgrim, to take down the team. Leonard brushes off this new threat, but Mick warns how dangerous she is. The Pilgrim is hunting past versions of themselves, when they lacked their current skill sets. Her presence is teased at the episode’s end, as a teenaged Mick stands in Central City, too entranced by a house fire to notice the woman behind him with a gun pointed to his head. In just a few moments, the Pilgrim is already a far more fascinating villain than Vandal Savage. It’s probably too late for the show to course-correct, but maybe it’s a smart idea just to keep Savage offscreen as long as possible. Legends of Tomorrow is at its best when he’s nowhere to be found.