Stephanie Corneliussen as Valentina, Victor Garber as Professor Stein.
A few days ago I was rewatching the Justice League cartoon, and its terrific rendition of Kendra/Hawkgirl. She’s snarky, complex, and fascinating — which is why it pains me to see such a pale adaptation of the character on Legends of Tomorrow.
“Fail-Safe” is the show’s best episode so far for many reasons, but high on that list is the decision to sideline Kendra, who has proven to be a weak point. Sure, she’s somewhat useful when she suggests that Jax try to contact Stein, leading him to cut a “we’re coming” message into his own arm, which then appears on Stein’s, too. After she and Jax were pretty much benched from the main mission, she also flies them into the Russian prison to help save Stein. But being helpful doesn’t make her much of a character. Kendra is one of the least-developed characters across the CW’s DC Comics Universe. Same goes for Rip Hunter and Vandal Savage, who essentially serve as plot devices to keep the show moving.
So despite all of that, why does this episode work so well? Because it has an intense focus on the other teammates, rather than on Savage or some MacGuffin. In many ways, “Fail-Safe” suggests that Legends of Tomorrow is succeeding in spite of itself.
We open with Professor Stein talking to Cisco in S.T.A.R. Labs about stabilizing the Firestorm matrix. But it’s pretty clear this isn’t Cisco. He’s subdued, his hair slicked back, and he’s oddly lacking in the quip department. Once he calls Stein “sir,” the ruse is up. Stein realizes he’s still in 1986 Russia, imprisoned by Valentina, who is hell-bent on creating a Soviet Firestorm. Valentina is far more loyal to Savage than I would have initially thought; She goes to great lengths forcing Stein to reveal the formula she needs. It’s only when he sees Jax’s “we’re coming” message that Stein is able to hold onto hope.
While Stein is busy contending with Valentina, the rest of the team is stuck with their own issues. Ray is only slightly less annoying this time around, but he’s written to be so stupidly naïve and chatty. It’s kind of ridiculous. Dude, you’re in a Soviet prison. Why are you trying to make friends? I felt zero sympathy for him when he got a beatdown in the prison yard. Ray tends to think he knows how to handle situations better than he actually can. It would’ve been smarter to just listen to someone like Mick, who has been in prison before. Ray may be a scientific genius, but he’s an idiot when it comes to people. He’s another character the show is begging to be revamped or sidelined. Nevertheless, Ray later proves himself to be slightly worthwhile by badmouthing the guard who tortures him and Mick. He takes the brunt of it while a helpless Stein watches. This sacrifice endears Mick to him, at least temporarily.
Meanwhile, Hunter tasks Leonard and Sara with breaking the others out of prison. Sara is given an additional side mission that tests her morality: If they can’t save Stein, she has to kill him to preserve the future. The dynamics between Leonard and Sara continue to be the show’s most interesting. It’s fascinating to watch him become the self-aware moral center of the crew. “Fail-Safe” highlights the best details of these characters: Leonard’s wit, loyalty, and cunning; and Sara’s impressive fighting skills in that great White Canary outfit, along with her moral struggles as she tries to heal from recent tragedies. It’s Leonard who convinces Sara not to kill Stein, even when she has the shot at the end of the episode. It’s Leonard who understands Sara best, perhaps because he contends with his own darkness and criminality. Watching them interact always makes me wonder: Do they represent a better, different direction for this show?
After watching Mick and Ray be tortured, Stein gives Valentina the formula. But when Valentina sees the message carved on Stein’s arm, things quickly go south. She realizes he’s the other half of Firestorm and now wants to merge with him — whether he wants to or not. Luckily, their merger isn’t stable. That’s not too much of a surprise, given how hard it was for Stein to find another match after Ronnie’s death. Valentina’s fun as Firestorm is short-lived: Jax tries to speak to Stein, who is able to stop her from the inside. After Stein forcefully splits from Valentina, she grows unstable and explodes. And ultimately, the gang escapes the prison alive.
“Fail-Safe” ends on a tantalizing note, after the time ship is knocked from the temporal zone by a blast from Chronos. The crew lands in Star City in 2046. Sara is in shock; her home looks like a war zone. But what’s most interesting is who the team sees first. Standing atop a car, bow and arrow drawn, is a very different Green Arrow: Connor Hawke. In the comics, Connor is the mixed-race son of Oliver Queen and Sandra Hawke. I’m interested to see how Legends of Tomorrow frames his character and the future of Star City. Will we find out what happens with Barry Allen? Will Sara’s sister Laurel appear? How has the future changed?
Going forward, I hope Legends of Tomorrow leans into its strengths. I’m all for sidelining the least-interesting characters to give others the spotlight. There is a lot holding this show back. The villain at its center is, somehow, both too overwrought and too bland. Too many of its important characters, like Kendra and Hunter, aren’t being developed in rich ways. And yet we’re seeing sparks between the other characters — especially when Sara and Leonard are onscreen together. Even Jax comes into his own during this episode. I’m skeptical that Legends of Tomorrow will ever be a great show, but for now, it’s getting better.