Legends of Tomorrow: Curse of the Earth Totem

“Every step I take, it feels like it could just have disastrous consequences."

The Legends serve up an overstuffed and disjointed episode that definitely adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

One thing you really have to give Legends of Tomorrow credit for – when they fail, they fail big.

As I think I mention in at least two out of every three reviews, this episode would have been much better served if it had been two or three episodes. I usually follow that up by blaming the lower number of episodes they have to work with, and then wishing that they were given a few more episodes a year so that episodes like this could get split out into the two or three episodes they deserve.

In this case, however, I think the best way for "Curse of the Earth Totem" to be improved would be to split the extraneous two or three episodes worth of plot out of it, and then throw those two or three episodes worth of plot in a deep, black hole, somewhere where they can never bother anyone ever again.

That's probably too harsh, but honestly – it feels a lot like they took the first draft of three different episodes and pulled scenes from them more or less at random. The resulting shifts in tone and characterization more or less pulled this episode apart. Add to that the sheer number of times in which characters suddenly do something seemingly at random solely because the plot two scenes from now requires that they do so, and you have a convoluted mess that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be.

Okay. Taking a deep breath, let's try to be a bit fairer and give some legitimate examples of the problem.

On one level, it seems like this episode was intended to be a 'what everybody does on their night off' sort of thing, where all the characters have their own mini plotlines that run more or less concurrently.  This format of episode is good for light comedy and demonstrating character development.  Gunn's storyline in "Players" is an example of this sort of thing, albeit in that case the 'night off' scenario is limited to just his character. "Provider" is another good example of this structure.

The thing with this kind of structure, and "Provider" is actually a good example of this, you have to be careful with the tonal balance between the various plotlines. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (remember him being in Angel? Those were good times) had a plotline that was very serious and touching, but they balanced it with the wacky 'Let's decapitate Fred' plotline by not whiplashing between them in a way that took you out of the episode.

Apologies for the mild 2002 spoilers there.

The point is, if you're going to run four separate plotlines, you need to commit to the structure and be very deliberate about splitting them up clearly and then be deliberate about how you bring them back together, usually underscoring some sort of character points about how the characters grew (or discovered that they had grown) over the course of their own story.

In "Curse of the Earth Totem," we have the following plotlines, in order of appearance:

1: Mick and Amaya search for the Earth Totem, along with special guest star Captain Jack Sparrow Blackbeard.

2: Rip and Wally have a bromantic night on the multiple towns and go from being complete strangers to close friends.

3: Sara and Ava finally go on their first date, only to spend the night being comically interrupted by their respective teams.

4: Nate, Ray and Zari get trapped in a damaged Waverider in the Bermuda Triangle, and pass the time with a repeated joke about whether it's called the Bermuda Triangle or the Devil's Triangle that isn't remotely funny but gets told four times.

Those are the plotlines as established in the first half hour, but they don't all start at the same time, don't end at the same time, clash violently in tone, and all seem perversely interested in wasting a lot of time on small details while completely glossing over huge plot developments in reported speech.

For example: Amaya and Mick attempt to convince Blackbeard to join with them on his ship to sail after the Earth Totem. He refuses for the sake of a sub-par Jack Sparrow gag and leaves. Amaya and Mick then go the pirate bar, give a rousing speech, and recruit Blackbeard's crew. Blackbeard then enters, at which point Amaya threatens him, and so he joins forces with Amaya and Mick to go after the Earth Totem in yet another sub-par Jack Sparrow gag.

That's two minutes and twenty-nine seconds of screen time. Which accomplished nothing that couldn't have been done in ten seconds, had Amaya just threatened him in the earlier scene. They wouldn't even have had to cut the joke, as it would have been just as not funny two minutes and a bit earlier with exactly the same setup.

On the other hand, early on in the episode we establish that out of our six important totems, the Legends have two, Darhk has one, and one is currently unknown. That leaves Earth and Fire out there to be productively dealt with. Ray, as it turns out, knows a bit about the Fire Totem, as it seems to have been a thing in the Vixen animated series that he was a part of.  Now, this is already awkward, since that's a pretty big piece of this season's flobotunum to be left with, 'Oh, it was on this other show that you probably didn't watch.'  However, if we're going to live in a regularly crossed-over universe the way we do now one has to be forgiving of that kind of thing.  After all, no one watching who doesn't watch Flash is going to know who Jesse Quick is either, but I doubt anyone spent any significant amount of time wondering what Wally's deal was.

But, and this is a big but, a few minutes later Mick and Ray literally walk into a scene and say something along the lines of, 'Oh, we went to get that super important Fire Totem and Darhk beat us to it, so it's gone now.'  Um, I'm sorry, show, but that's kind of a big issue.  That's a sixth of this season's plot coupons.  Maybe we could have seen that episode and skipped the karaoke.

On a similar front, after spending most of the episode undercutting his own reputation for the sake of attempted comedy, Blackbeard commandeers the Waverider.

That should have been huge. That should have been an entire episode in itself. That would have been awesome. While Amaya takes his ship, Blackbeard takes over the Waverider. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was the initial pitch for this. Unfortunately, somebody else appears to have said, 'Yeah, plus let's crap a lot of attempted light comedy over it! And Sara and Ava can have a series of wacky misunderstandings while having a date! And then Ray can straight up murder Nora Darhk out of the blue and have to deal with the guilt of that, because that's totally not a huge tonal shift that completely overbalances the episode. Oh, and we need to get that Keiynan Lonsdale kid in there somewhere, since we already have him on contract. We don't really have anything for him to do with the team yet, so... I don't know... I hear he sings real good. Maybe do that.'

And as if the wild plotting swings weren't frustrating in and of themselves, the steps the script takes to make them happen is even more frustrating. The Waverider is disabled because... it's in the Bermuda Triangle.  That's it. There's absolutely no other reason given other than that location causing an electrical something. Not even a handwave of a reason. Hey, the Earth Totem is nearby, currently being held by a zombie pirate who was never destined to wield it.   It's just possible that they could have used that situation to affect the ship. I'm just spit-balling here. Also, the Waverider is now vulnerable to cannonballs, because reasons, and those cannonballs are magic enough to only damage ceiling wiring inside the ship without breaching the walls or ceiling.

Ultimately, the most damning thing to be said about this episode is that they introduced a zombie-pirate-queen with Robert Smith hair and magic earth tentacles, and then did absolutely nothing with her besides stand there looking confused until Damien Darhk gets around to snapping her neck.

And that's really the thing in a nutshell, isn't it. The more I write about this episode, the angrier I get, because there are so many things here that should have been amazing but instead get either glossed over or ignored completely because somebody couldn't make up their mind how serious this episode should get.

Which leads me to the ending. The way the final moments are structured just leaves an incredibly muddy and confused mess. Clearly the Darhks have kidnapped Ray now in order to set up next week's episode. Fine, that's clear enough. And let's be fair, tonal issues aside, Ray wanting to save Nora's life after he experiences the guilt of killing her is completely in character for him, particularly after he and Zari bonded with young Nora a couple weeks ago. However, the staging of it, and the insistence of bringing Amaya's totem into the scene makes the whole sequence awkward. Why did Darhk throw Amaya's totem to Ray if he was just going to betray him? Fine, it was actually Nora that attacked Ray and Darhk was probably just rolling with the reversal of fortune. But, the fact that it was directed in such a way that the Spirit totem was introduced and then just left forgotten in the dirt out of camera shot was unnecessarily unclear. When Darhk threw Ray the totem we all thought, 'Oh, okay, that's how she's getting that back. That's a little grim for such a fluffy episode, but whatevs.' But then seconds later Ray becomes stupid for plot-expediency, gets captured, and we just don't mention the totem again.

Not only is it unclear what becomes of the totem at that point, it's equally unclear if we're supposed to be clear about what happens to the totem at that point. More than anything it looks like the director forgot about it. And it's such an easy fix.  If you want the audience to be uncertain what happens to the totem next, you pull a long shot of Damien and Nora gloating over Ray with the totem on the ground in the foreground.  Mystery established.  If you want us to just know that Damien just took it with him and still has it, either show him picking it up or don't have him throw it in the first place. In fact, Ray would seem so much less idiotic if he had to get closer in order to swap for the totem rather than tossing them the antidote and getting the Hell out of there.

Literally every single complaint I've made here would have been an easy fix at some stage of production, and that's an incredibly frustrating place for an episode to be in.

What did we learn today?

Well, primarily that you can change the mascot on a well known brand of rum without anyone caring much about the consequences to the timeline, even people for whom that's their ostensible job. Although, to be fair, Ava was working quite hard to pull at the time, so it's possible she'll care more about that in the morning

But here's the really interesting thing that was, if not learned, at least strongly implied. Buried in the detritus this week we definitely had a thread of Amaya learning to stop worrying about what the established timeline told her was her future and just enjoying the moment.  Indeed, that was one of at least six really good episodes struggling to happen this week, and it was the source of almost everything good that Mick contributed to the episode.

However, here's what sets my spidey-sense tingling about that.  We're told in no uncertain terms that Kuasa has the Water Totem and is with the bad guys. We are also told in no uncertain terms that Amaya has to go back to her time or Kuasa and the current Vixen will never have happened.

Am I the only one putting those two facts together? I mean, this week set Amaya on the path of not worrying about destiny. What if, at the end of the day, the only way to stop Darhk was to prevent his having one of the six totems by un-happening the current bearer of that totem, so that it's not there with him?

What would the knock-on effects of that look like? Would the series be willing to go there?

On a less ominous note, I noticed for the first time this week that the 'magic windows' the Time Bureau uses are called 'Time Couriers.' I like that.

Everybody remember where we parked:

This week the Waverider started off in Central City, 2018, where Sara and Ava went on their fancy date. From there, apparently, the jumpship took Mick and Ray to Detroit for a failed attempt to get the Fire Totem. Then the Waverider went to the Bahamas in 1717, where it broke down for no logically explained reason.

After a quick patch job by Zari, who really is coming along well as the ship's new mechanic in Jax' absence, the Waverider jumped back to Central City in 2018 from which point all communicating with Bahamas 1717 was done by Time Courier, until the coda when Ray takes the jumpship.

Time Courier windows, incidentally, always close immediately after you pass through them automatically, unless the plot requires your timeship to be commandeered by time-displaced pirates, in which case it will remain open indefinitely.

In a nearly completely unrelated plotline, Wally and Rip are in Yunnan Province, China, 2018. Then they get drunk, pop off to Central City, 2018 to pants Gary and pick up a coat. This is followed by a quick jaunt to Japan, 1992 – a good time period if you're looking for some karaoke – and then a return to China in what we assume is again 2018, although it's not explicitly stated. Wally loses the man-bun somewhere between China and Central City, for those who track such things. We assume they're time traveling via whatever Rip used to escape the Time Bureau, although I suppose they could be going by speed-force.


Amaya: "I don't know what I'm looking at."
Rory: "Looks like a hemorrhoid."

Ava: "I feel like relationships are complicated enough without time travel and super villains, don't you?"

Zari: "You know, for a megalomaniac, he has very lovely penmanship."

Wally: "Sounds like you're a bit of a douche. No offense."
Rip: "None taken."

Ava: "And from that point on no one would play paintball with me ever again."
Sara: "Well, it sounds like a hell of a 15th birthday party."

Ray: "Yeah, if you really like that mean Time Bureau lady, you shouldn't give up on her."

Which leads me to:

Ava: "You can dance?"
Ava: "I don't want you to be normal!"

These two lines, and the way they were delivered, made me care more about Ava than I would have thought possible. I can't believe I didn't really like her at the beginning.

Bits and pieces:

-- Jes Macallan was completely stunning in that dress. Which was incidentally my absolutely favorite color, the thematically appropriate (for Ava) gunmetal blue.

-- The awkwardness about who should pull out the chair for whom was a realistic and endearing detail that most shows wouldn't think to include. Those sorts of tiny awkward moments on a first date for a same-sex couple are very real, and were very well observed here.

-- Rip pronounced 'Van Gogh' the same way it was pronounced in 'Vincent and The Doctor.'

-- We still don't know what the sixth and final totem is. I want to repeat here, it had better not be Love.

-- Rory goes through everyone's phones. I enjoyed that no one was really surprised by this.

-- Sara was fighting Blackbeard with a flute during the final fight scene. Why was Sara fighting Blackbeard with a flute? Did I miss something? I can't bear the thought of re-watching to double check this point.

-- Amaya was very clear that Sara's date was with Ava, which Mick was enthusiastic about. But why was Ray so clueless about the fact? That seemed odd.

-- Zari and Amaya have switched hairstyles. Zari with Amaya's style works better than Amaya with Zari's, if that makes sense. I wonder why the switch?

-- It seems odd to say, as Maisie Richardson-Sellers is actually English, but Amaya's faux-English accent really seemed off to me. Probably because it wasn't really English as much as 'Arr, Pirate,' but still it seemed odd.

-- Gideon's phone call to Sara tattling on the rest of the team confirmed my suspicions that they're working to make Gideon a character instead of a plot device. I like that. Time will tell whether it's relevant to the season-long plot, or if it's just a nice upgrade.

-- We hear Amaya's last name so infrequently that I didn't recognize it at first.

A disappointing episode, made more so by how many details it included that should have been great, but weren't. You're better than this, Legends.

One out of four possibly stolen Spirit Totems

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.


Anonymous said...

Sara was fighting Blackbeard with a flute. I think she just grabbed whatever was nearest to her, which happened to be a flute and a walking stick (I think). I liked that she threw the stick to Ava, which arguably makes a better weapon than a flute, lol.

Patryk said...

Wasn't that the gun Ray and Zari were working on (the one that Ray used on Mallus possed Nora)? So I don't think it came out of nowhere.

Pirate episodes usually don't work that well. No budget for ship fights and TV shows never show the filthy living conditions and scurvy ridden teeth realistically.