Legends of Tomorrow: Phone Home

"You won't hurt me. I'm just a kid."

Now that is more like it, Legends.

Just about everything that was a problem in the previous episode was done absolutely perfectly here, in one of the most enjoyable episodes I've seen of anything in quite some time.

I'm tempted to take credit for having saved the show by pointing the faults of the previous episode out, since it appears that the Legends powers that be read and responded to every one of my criticisms with this episode. No, the fact that I didn't actually write that review until after 'Phone Home' aired in no way invalidates this theory. Because time travel, that's why.

One of my chief complaints about the previous episode was that it had too many elements that just didn't gel together in any way.  'Phone Home' shows us how much better an episode works when all of its elements are pulling in the same direction, complimenting and echoing one another instead of just all happening in the same hour. The Plot, Character development, and Theme this week all are in some way pivoting around a larger discussion about one specific thing. Optimism.

The question at the heart of this episode is simply this: Is optimism an objectively valid viewpoint?

Would you call this trellis half full, or half empty?
The debate over this question is framed through Ray and Zari, who might loosely be described as the case for optimism and the case against it.  Ray, with his wide eyed enthusiasm, is very much an anthropomorphic personification of the belief that everything will work out just fine because the universe is generally 'good.' Zari, having grown up in a future dystopia, very much represents the viewpoint that no, things are probably not going to work out just fine, because the universe doesn't work that way.

On terms of simple plot mechanics, the question of the validity of optimism is bounced back and forth between those two characters. For example, young Ray's unflinching belief that his new alien friend wouldn't hurt him initially has us firmly on Ray's side, simply by virtue of the fact that the plot is lifted from ET, and we've all seen ET, so we know the alien is one of the good guys.  Also, we saw young Ray getting shot by the government agents in the opening, so we're reassured that we're playing in the 'adult humans bad/kids and aliens good' end of the pool.

It's very clever of the script to then immediately turn that on its head by revealing that the alien friend was in fact a Dominator.  At which point we're suddenly on Zari's side, because we've all seen the Dominators before, so we know that they're the bad guys. Then when we get back to that initial scene where we thought we saw young Ray get shot and see him get away, so it's starting to look like the alien is the one who killed him after all, so we're back in 'aliens bad/humans good' territory, and the implication is that it's foolish if not stupid to have faith in things.

A couple of things to note here – first, it's clear that in the original version of things, it was the government agents who killed Ray. When we see the gunshot scene for the second time, adult Ray and Zari interrupt them before the scene gets as far as we saw it run before. Therefore, they've changed what happened to young Ray at that stage. Therefore, we were sub-textually told that it was the humans – and not the alien – that had killed Ray. I would have liked if they had spelled that out a little clearer actually, but I suspect it was deliberately left opaque to preserve the reveal that Gumball the Dominator was one of the good guys.

It's also worth noting that by this point, Zari has been proved right and Ray has been proved wrong. Older Ray has come to accept that his earlier optimism was foolish and fundamentally wrong. It begins when he's forced to confront that the two older boys that he'd convinced himself were his friends were just bullying him. It continues when he's forced to watch his younger self walk blindly into danger just because he adamantly refuses to stop believing the best about everyone. By the time older Ray has to try to convince his younger self that optimism is something you have to abandon in order to grow up you can feel how much of his essential personality was tied up in that belief. Great job to Brandon Routh in that scene. You could really feel what it cost Ray to have that optimism stripped away.


Speaking of the neighborhood bullies, it was a nice wrong-footing that the boys he thought were his friends were shown not to be his friends immediately before he had to decide if the alien he thought was his friend was or not. By the final dance number I genuinely couldn't have told you if Gumball was going to come through for Ray or not. That's good writing and solid structure.  Also, anyone that can find a way to resolve a thematic dilemma with a dance number is someone to be feared and respected.

The B-plot, while not having much of anything to do with the young Ray storyline, had very much the same thematic basis – is it defensible to believe the best about someone based solely on optimism, like ET and The Goonies* would have us do, or are we all better off being cynical and trusting no one – as certain genre staples of the 90s would recommend?

*Yes, I know he didn't direct it, but it was based on a story he came up with and executive produced, so I'm going to say it counts.


Jax worries that something is up with Martin, since he seems to be disappearing all the time.  It's worth noting that this is stirred up by a chance remark from Zari, as she's the focus of the anti-optimism side of the coin.  Mick offers to help him find out what Martin is up to, and the two of them eventually conclude that Martin is betraying everyone to the Time Bureau in order to get himself off the ship. Martin, meanwhile, is deleting all evidence of his communications with his pregnant daughter because he doesn't want Jax to think that he isn't 100% committed to staying on the ship because he knows that's what Jax wants.  They're both expecting the worst from one another's reactions, and are both rewarded with their opposite number's complete and unflagging support instead.  When Jax says, 'Gray, it's your first grandkid.  Why would you think I'd want you to miss that?', it's just about the most touching moment the show has yet achieved, and this show has had some pretty damn touching moments.

Note that their thematic journey is the opposite of Ray's – they start from a place of distrust and then are proved wrong, whereas Ray started from a place of optimism and was ultimately proved right.  That is not a coincidence, that's proper exploration of a theme that works through the plot, as opposed to instead of a plot, which can so often happen when a TV episode tries to discuss a theme in any depth. Plus their plotline directly affected the A-plot by having them take the Waverider, thus furthering both stories without it being at the expense of either.  Honestly, I just cannot give enough praise to how solidly this episode is structured.

Sara, Nate, and Amaya all had less to do, but I will say that Nate and Amaya as animal control was the source of most of the good jokes in this one, and did an effective job of keeping their romantic entanglement on the radar without being intrusive to the story at hand.  Sara... well, Sara got to look incredible in her 80s duds, and she got to drive in accompanied by 80s rock in a bitchin' Camaro IROC-Z, so Sara did just fine tonight.

More broadly speaking, as far as the season-wide plot goes, this installment had one significant job to accomplish. At the start of the episode Zari is not part of the team. At the end of the episode, Zari is part of the team. They accomplish this by showing us who her character essentially is. And they show us that by pairing her almost exclusively in this episode with someone whose worldview is fundamentally opposite of hers.  It's by no means a new trick, but it's an effective one. By the end of the episode, thanks to the journey she and Ray have gone on together, her place on the Waverider feels as earned as Mick's or Sara's.

What have we learned today?

Going on the assumption that Gumball's presence there was one of the aberrations – which was strongly implied but never overtly stated – the mechanics of what happened to adult Ray seem to break out as follows:

-- Adult Ray, when on the ship in a time period after Halloween 1988, ceases to exist as soon as the aberration catches up with him.

-- When the ship moves back to before Halloween 1988, Ray pops back to existence, presumably because the ship is now existing in a moment of time before that death occurred.

This is kind of bonkers if you think about it from a relativity standpoint, but – and this is the important point – it makes perfect sense aesthetically.  It's perfectly obvious to the viewer that there's a causal relationship between having gone back before the death and adult Ray's reappearance, which is all that really matters.

When I complain that something in the show doesn't make sense, this is really what I'm talking about – that it doesn't make aesthetic sense. And even then it's really just a matter of the fact that something not making aesthetic sense takes me out of the narrative, which detracts from enjoying the story.

By way of illustration, take the following example: when The Doctor gets in what is for all intents and purposes a magic box and travels years forwards in time, it makes much more sense aesthetically than Matthew McConaughey traveling at speeds relative to gravitic fields to get the same effect, even though scientifically the exact opposite is true.  Like a very wise man once said, I'd rather be happy than right, any day.

Everybody remember where we parked:

This week the Waverider took our team to Ivy Town 1988, and then some of our team to Central City 2017 for a little childbirthing.

Mick giving a cigar to the baby was priceless, btw.

Quotes:

Ray: "We need to grow as a team.  First up is two truths and a lie. It's gonna be fun."
Mick: "Lie!"
Ray: "I haven't started yet.  Look, I know you guys probably think this is lame..."
Sara: "Truth!"

It's endearing that even though they made fun of the game, Mick was still willing to do the trust fall for Ray.  He would absolutely not have done that for just anyone, no matter how much money they'd promised him.  Mick is genuinely fond of Ray.

Jax: "Trust Ray to find the bright side of dying."

Nate: "We got hostile incoming."
Ray: "What is it?  Assassin?  Time Bureau?"
Nate: "Almost as bad.  Bullies."

Sara: "The last time we faced them they almost wiped out all metahumans.  And made us fight each other."
Mick: "And worse, fight together."

Zari: "Who's Billy Jo-El?"

Ah yes, Bill Jo of the House of El. I laughed about this for a good five minutes.  Nate's wrong, by the by. Glass Houses is clearly Bill Joel's best album.  By a mile.

Nate: "Dude, you never mentioned your mom was hot."
Ray: "Why would I ever mention that?"

and of course...


Nate: "Is there a... cougar on the premises?"

Bits and pieces:

-- The choice of doing a Spielberg pastiche in order to explore the question of whether optimism needs to be discarded to grow up is inspired, since that's exactly what most of his movies of that period were about. Even Raiders of the Lost Ark, when you think about it.

-- I was initially going to do a list of 'Spot the Spielberg visual nods,' but it's much more fun to find them on your own.

-- I'm loving the new variation of the saga sell, although it does remind me of an old joke involving sheep which I am absolutely not going to retell here.

-- When Ray's mom confesses her fear that Ray will never have real human friends, she does it to Nate, who is by far the best friend Ray will ever have.  I found that touching.

-- Mick's little eyebrow nod to young Ray while he was shoplifting... there are no words.

-- Nate washing the DeLorean while wearing a tracksuit in the neighbor's driveway was a nice touch, but it irritated me that it wasn't the same tracksuit Biff Tannen was wearing.  Honestly, why wouldn't you go all the way with that visual?  It's also a little unbelievable that anyone in that suburb and living in a duplex would have owned a DeLorean, but that didn't bother me in the slightest. This is what I was talking about a minute ago vis a vis logical sense versus aesthetic sense.

-- Ditto the bike flying across the moon business. It was a little shoehorned in, but who cares, it was flipping wonderful.  Not least because it was new girl Zari who played the ET role, underscoring that we're supposed to like her.

-- The Legends standing up for young Ray at the end was heartwarming. And means that the Legends were Ray's friends long before the Legends became Ray's friends, which is pleasingly ridiculous.

-- Serious bonus points for finding a way to get Zari into the official Isis costume.  We're still absolutely never, ever going to call her that, though.

-- Nice callback to Ray's childhood love of Camelot.  And it said a lot about Zari that she was both willing and able to play along with it.

-- Zari being the one to say 'We're his friends,' to the bullies absolutely cemented her as a member of the team.

So much fun. So well structured.  Why can't every hour of television be as satisfying as this?

Four out of four unexpected dance numbers

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

6 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Terrific review of an excellent episode, Mikey.

There was nothing I didn't like about this episode. It was practically perfect, one of their best. As is Singin' in the Rain, which is indeed the best musical ever. As you said, Also, anyone that can find a way to resolve a thematic dilemma with a dance number is someone to be feared and respected. So true, and lol.

Although it was almost all overshadowed by the reveal of the horrible fact that there is only one bathroom on the Waverider. :)

Mallena said...

I was totally delighted by this episode - everyone bobbing their heads to the music was great in addition to the sudden dance scene. I like Nate and it doesn't bother me that he just seems to be the comic relief, nowadays. He should be given more to do on the team, but in the meantime, he's pretty cute and amusing. He and Ray make a good team, they seem to back each other up and keep things from being so serious all the time like in season one.

Gary said...

One thing nobody has mentioned yet -- this episode is the perfect setup for a sequel when Ray is reunited with an adult Gumball years later. *That* I would tune it for!

ladydmaj said...

I'm with you; this was possibly the best episode Legends has ever done. You did a terrific job laying out the thematic structure it's based on, and your differentiation between aesthetic sense and logical sense was inspired. (And you're right; logical sense can go hang if the aesthetic sense is grounded.)

The bromance of Ray/Nate is a great one (although macking on your bro's mom like that in front of your ex? NOT COOL, NATE); it just doesn't hold the fascination for me that Ray/Mick does. I do love that even though Ray/Mick is on the back burner for now, the writers are still putting in those little nuggets like the trust fall - and you're right, Mick wouldn't do that for just anybody even with a price tag attached - and Mick's genuine surprise and delight at Young Ray's shoplifting skills. The show hasn't forgotten, which is all I was worried about, and I hold out hope they'll do another episode focused on their odd-coupledom yin/yang dynamic one of those days (which we haven't really gotten since the Russian prison).

One callback I loved: when Jax says that line about "easy as taking candy from a baby", Mick responds, "But not as fun." Then at the end, we see him having the time of his life as he shakes down Young Ray's bullies for their candy and allowance money. And then they cut to everyone on the Waverider (minus Ray) eating the candy - which means nobody from the team bothered to try and stop him, LOL. You mess with Young Ray, you are literally playing with fire (from Mick's heat gun).

It's not hard to tell Mick is my favourite character on television, huh? (David Mazouz's Bruce Wayne/proto-Batman is a close second.) By the way, the revelation that Mick loves musicals and particularly Fiddler on the Roof was just beautiful. Now I really need to see him sing "Sunrise, Sunset" at the top of his drunken lungs some day while everyone on board prays for death (theirs or his, dealer's choice).

If this show ever has the Legends being saved by an adult Dominator who goes up to Ray and starts projecting "Singin' in the Rain", I will leak so much alien goo from my eyes it'll short out my TV. (That was an inspired character beat too - Nate getting all verklempt was funny with the "alien goo" excuse but still expected; immediately cutting to Sara getting verklempt as well was sheer artistry.)

By the way, Kevin Mock (the person who directed this) also directed "Moonshot" with Victor Garber's delightful "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" non-sequitur excuse for a distraction (complete with the distracted faces of everyone in the vicinity, friend, foe and bystander alike). One can only hope Mock puts in an inspired musical choice in every single Legends episode he does from now on.

I'm going to link to this review on the subreddit for Legends, as you do some of the best reviews I've read for this show. Thanks for reading my ramblings!

Billie Doux said...

What an enjoyable-to-read comment, ladydmaj. And thanks for posting your ramblings!

larielromeniel said...

This was a fantastic review of what was a fantastic episode. I have not really been happy with the direction of Legends for a while, but this episode more than makes up for previous disappointments.

Off to look for your other reviews!