Legends of Tomorrow: No Country for Old Dads

Zari: "Hey, when we see him, do we tell him we didn't even notice he was gone?"
Sara: "Yeah... definitely not."

The spotlight swings toward Damien and Nora Darhk this week with their special guest, abductee Raymond Palmer.

I should be upfront about something before we begin. I have never seen the film No Country for Old Men. I'm aware of it enough that I get that 1962 Damien Darhk's haircut is a reference to Javier Bardem, but that's about as far as my reference pool goes. I'd watch it for comparison sake, but as far as I can tell from the plot summary on IMDb it doesn't really feel compulsory, and if I'm going to watch a Coen Brothers movie, nine times out of ten it's going to be The Hudsucker Proxy.

The tenth time would be O Brother, Where Art Thou, for anyone wondering.

What I'm saying is, if this episode was chock full of sly references to the film, either in visual tricks or throwaway references, I didn't get them. I'm assuming that the frequent partial screen horizontal screen wipes are a reference to it, but then they could just as easily be a running visual gag at the expense of Upswipz so far as I know.

Which is in many ways the problem I had with this episode. Or to put it another way, the problem I wasn't sure if I was having with this episode.

There's a reasonable debate to be had about how much background knowledge a viewer should be expected to bring to any particular episode of serialized television. The show should not, for example, be expected to explain to us why Berlin was separated into East and West in 1962 – although I did briefly wonder how much of that situation the younger, American viewership understood. But that's more of an indictment of the American school system than anything else, and so it's probably best left as a rant for another day.

On a weekly serialized show, however, it's not unreasonable to expect that viewers know things such as who the characters are, what the current storyline is, and some basic understanding of what's happened to the characters beforehand that's led them to this point. In some cases knowing these things just gives the viewer a little extra depth to a moment and doesn't detract from the casual viewer's ability to understand the story at hand. For example, it's not particularly necessary to know that Rip used to be the captain of the Waverider in order to understand how he and Sara interact on the ship, but having that information does add a little extra coloring to their scenes. Similarly, you don't have to have seen Nate and Amaya's previous vision quest back in Zari to understand that the vision quest world used to be pretty and now it's scary, but having seen it makes the point more viscerally.

On the other hand, larger issues like why anybody wants the Totems in the first place, while hinted at in the previously on segment, aren't particularly necessary to appreciate this week's episode either. If you're following the whole season, then you're already up on it.  If you're not, then 'everyone wants these things, because reasons' is all you really need to know to follow this particular segment of the story.

This is all well and good, and pretty much the status quo for any serialized television. What's less well and good is when the knowledge that you bring with you from previous television or film sources actually damages your experience watching the episode at hand. It's not uncommon, for example, for an actor to carry negative associations with them into any new show they appear in, regardless of how unrelated that new show is. This is known as Vincent Kartheiser Syndrome.

To be fair, there's not a lot a production can do about this sort of thing, short of never hiring any actors who have ever been irritating in anything, which is a fairly big ask. But, if we can go back to the episode at hand, if you title your episode "No Country for Old Dads," you're pretty clearly inviting a comparison. Always assuming that the viewer has bothered to watch the film, of course... Another instance where you're clearly inviting the viewer to remember previous episodes? When you wasted a quarter of the previous week's episode building up to something and then just throw it away in ten seconds this week.

If you missed the subtext there, I found myself profoundly irritated by Wally and Rip's entrance this week.

After spending way too much of "The Curse of the Earth Totem" building up Wally and Rip's friendship as a vehicle to get Wally to join the group, we get the payoff this week in which... Rip and Wally walk into the room and say, 'Hi, this is Wally.'

After spending way too long being irritated by this I realized that having them just walk into the room worked perfectly fine on its own, and that I was really only irritated about it because I was still irritated about "Curse of the Earth Totem."  Which begs the original question – is it valid for me to see Wally and Rip's entrance in this episode as a flaw, solely based on last week's episode?

There's a larger issue of this that we'll get back to in just a moment, but it should be stated clearly that almost everything unsatisfying about this weeks episode is only unsatisfying because of previous episodes – not only of Legends, but of Arrow and Flash as well. If we strip away everything but the essential knowledge that we need to follow the story being told this week, then what we have is a fairly well structured caper plot with some good jokes and interested revelations. Little moments from earlier in the episode pay off satisfyingly toward the end, e.g. the Legends explaining to Wally that they allow light to moderate stealing pays off with him happening to purloin the fire totem from Damien Darhk at the end, and we have a nice mirror theme about fathers for Nora.

That last one's actually particularly well done, as it kind of subverts expectations. We see Nora butting heads with her father, then she sees Dr. Bernhard Vogel who cares very openly for his daughter. The expectation is that she'll see what a loving father looks like, and that this will transform her understanding of her own father, and that this in turn will further her on the path toward siding against her father and with the good guys.

And indeed, we do get a little of this, as Nora is unable to torture Bernhard with the hammer after seeing how much he loves his daughter, but then they subvert the entire thing and have Nora see what her own father actually looks like if he didn't care about her in the form of Damien Darhk circa 1962. This in turn leads her to understand that her father does in fact care about her very much, and leads to both the plot and the theme resolving simultaneously when Damien is able to let her fall from the building, trusting that she's grown now and can save herself.

So, the big twist thematic revelation there isn't that seeing a real father's love can show Nora the error of her ways, it's that seeing an emotionally accessible father and then seeing the man she knows as her father with all love for her removed shows her that her father does actually love her very much, and is really much closer to Dr. Vogel than he is to his previous self.

This is all good stuff, and very well handled. Plus, the idea that parental love is a lot more complicated than 'good dad v. bad dad' is a rich thread for any show to mine, and a lot more nuanced than we should be allowed to expect from a show whose cast list includes 'time-travelling bi-sexual ninja.' If Damien and Nora Darhk were brand new characters this season named Bob and Judy McEvil then this would all work beautifully.

But I spent a lot of this episode remember that Damien Darhk straight up murdered Laurel Lance. Brutally.

And this is the main problem with "No Country for Old Dads." They're leaning heavy into the Nora and Damien as Faith and the Mayor thing, and fair enough – Courtney Ford and Neal McDonough have a genuinely charming chemistry that really sells it. Add to that that Neal McDonough has an abundance of what we might call 'Reverse Vincent Kartheiser Syndrome' and appears to have been born to play 'goofy, embarrassing dad' parts. If we just look at this episode, or even this season of Legends, then what we have here with them sings.

So, again, we're back to the same central question. How much of what happened two years ago on a completely different show constitutes legitimate criticism of what we have here?

Personally, I think the answer is subjective. Ultimately it comes down to whether or not the previous knowledge takes you out of the story being told. In the case of Damien Darhk this week, it absolutely did. Every time I got sucked into wanting Nora to just give him a chance and for him to trust her as an adult I remembered his murder of Laurel and then spent a few minutes trying to figure out if I really wanted him to get a happy ending with his daughter or not. It ultimately took away from the episode for me, since I could never stop worrying at it while watching. I'm not certain what the fix would be either in this case. Acknowledging it – as I believe they were trying to do with Sara's knife throwing target being Damien's face – runs the risk of also taking us out of this episode by essentially saying, 'Hey, remember that thing two years ago? Yeah, that was a thing.'

I don't know. Part of me is hoping that they're setting this up to explore the idea of what can and can't be forgiven. In this sort of show, at this point in history, we're kind of conditioned to be in the 'everybody can be redeemed' camp. There was a little show called Angel that was entirely built on that premise, as you may recall. It's probably fair for the show to point out that we're perfectly willing to forgive Darhk for killing a German scientist and having a bad haircut, so why is killing Laurel any different?

On the other hand, complicated villains. Big fan. So, there's that.

On the subject of Nora Darhk, it should be acknowledged that Courtney Ford has been given a thankless part and done well with it. Nora Darhk is supposed to be simultaneously possessed by a demon, wanting her father's love, attracted to Ray, possibly on the beginning of a redemption arc, and be a charming bad girl, all simultaneously, and she somehow makes it work without collapsing into a sloppy ill-defined mess. That's impressive. And it also makes it logical that she'd be paired off with Ray, as Brandon Routh has an equally thankless part to play and also makes it work. Ray is supposed to simultaneously be a lovable doofus, naïve and yet super smart, a super boy scout who likes making his bed and washing dishes, honest to a fault, and yet also adventure hungry and incredibly brave. On paper that sounds like the most punchable character in the universe, and yet it's hard not to love Ray. That's entirely down to Brandon Routh. Plus of course they're married in real life. That probably plays into why they're paired together.

Meanwhile, in the B-plot...

Sara and Ava are afterglowing all over the breakfast buffet, and the remaining Legends are for some reason pretending to be surprised by it. It's a little irritating that after spending the last four episodes making me genuinely like Ava that we now get Rip's big secret revelation about her. Or rather, we get the revelation that Rip has a big secret about her. Gideon apparently is in on it, and has a document on the topic. Perhaps this is why they've invested time and care this season in making Gideon a character in her own right – so that it made sense for her to ignore Rip's instructions and tell Sara all about whatever it is. I'm just hoping she's not a clone or an android or something. We know that she and Sara are Rip's favorite protégées – perhaps there's a clue there.

Meanwhile, Amaya and Zari vision quest themselves to a particularly useful info-dump dimension, and Mick and Nate get stoned.

Oh, and we get to see Alan from Upswipz murdered by Damien, and Director Bennett – whose first name was apparently Wilbur – get beaten to death by a super-intelligent gorilla. Thank you, show. I'm calling that an early birthday present.



So what did we learn today?

Quite a bit, actually.

Mallus was imprisoned 'by time,' which is an intriguing way to put it. It's unclear exactly what that means, except that we finally now know why Damien is creating and maintaining anachronisms – the more of them that exist, the closer Mallus is to being freed. That appears to confirm the theory that it was the Legends breaking time that started the whole Mallus plotline in the first place, as well as explaining what Darhk wants.

It's a little unclear how Darhk and Mallus' goals work together. Obviously as viewers we're expecting Darhk to try to betray Mallus at the last moment and take control of the universe himself, but how is that going to work exactly if time and causality are completely destroyed? For that matter, how does one rule/control a universe without time and causality? This is an endemic problem with big conceptual monsters – the vaguer and more 'other' they are, the more incomprehensible their endgame tends to become.

And speaking of causality –

Ray's method of getting himself rescued is ingenious, but it doesn't totally make sense. Destroying part of the Berlin Wall in 1962 triggers an aberration – or possibly an anachronism, they're getting muddy differentiating them. This alerts the Legends, who can now locate him. This is good plotting, and is exactly what Ray said would happen earlier, so nice scripting there.

However, this last abbernachronism turns out to be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and causes the disintegration of time. The Doctor Who purist in me insists on referring to this as the Causal Nexus. The Legends fix this by... having Wally run really fast and stop Ray from destroying the wall, thus preventing the disintegration from starting.

Now, aside from this being a causality paradox, there's one obvious problem. If time and causality have disintegrated, how can they use causality – i.e. the principle that one thing follows on as consequence of another – to prevent that disintegration from beginning?

Don't overthink it. That way lies madness.

Plus it doesn't matter even a little bit. Temporal logic can go hang in this case, as this sequence accomplished three huge things:

— It cemented Wally's place on the team by having him be pivotal to Ray's rescue
— It showed us visually and quite dramatically what the stakes are for the season finale. It's one thing for a character to say 'the collapse of time,' but it's quite another to actually see it in preview form.
— It set a ticking clock to the finale. We now know the timeline has just one last good kick left before it gives way completely. That's a hell of a good dramatic motivation to drive us into the endgame.

Everybody remember where we parked:

This week the Waverider actually didn't leave the time vortex. Have they actually ever called it that on the show, or has the name just stuck from Doctor Who so thoroughly that it's now like Coke or Kleenex?

The jumpship, one assumes, has been taking Mick and Nate to a variety of Grateful Dead concerts across time. Lovely transition, by the way, from them discussing the gravity of the situation to Mick and Nate walking in wearing their tour shirts.

The Darhk family and guest, on the other hand, use their time stones to go to East Berlin, 1962. Unfortunately, one of them takes a shot directly to the stones, so one assumes their ability to time travel is slightly curtailed going forward.

It's not 100% clear where and when the Darhks are holding Ray earlier on, but it's probably safe to assume in the same City and Time as the Upswipz headquarters, which I think was Central City 2018. Flowers and remembrances for Alan to be sent to the funeral home of record.


Quotes:

Zari: "Hey. Ava. You look great... in what you were wearing yesterday."

Damien: "Trouble is, I haven't had a single match yet. I think this thing is broken."
Alan: "If I may? You might have more luck if you talk about your hobbies."
Damien: "I just said that I enjoy destroying the world to remake it in my image. Oh... I like trying new restaurants."
Alan: "Also your profile says you're 199 years old."

Ray: "Now's probably not the right time to mention that I'm a terrible liar."
Nora: "Try and imagine my surprise."

Nora: "For the love of Mallus, will you stop with the hat thing."

Damien: "I am gonna kick my ass."
Honestly, a good therapist could live comfortably the rest of their life off of Damien Darhk's self image issues here.

Ray: "Well, look, it seems like you're having trouble with the knot."
Damien: "I am."
Ray: "Okay, well you're probably slipping the slack through the half hitch."
Damien: "How do you know that?"
Ray: "Because I'm an eagle scout. Trust me. Look, I fought you lots of times. Together we can save Nora. Just give me back my suit."
Damien: "Oh, sure. And after we save my daughter we can shoot some hoops and grab some brewskies."

Nate: "You're a delicate flower, Raymond Palmer. Take care of that heart of yours."
I found that line incredibly touching.

Bits and Pieces:

— I was worried at first that they cut off Ava and Sara's kiss during the 'previously on' as some sort of network timidity, but then Ava and Sara had a pretty full on snog later in the episode, so apparently not.

— Ray's message was his cell phone in a bottle. Hard to say if that's Ray or Damien's sense of humor at work but it was funny either way.

— You have to have a noble reason to wield the totems, apparently. Just wanting to use them as power isn't enough.  That's all fine, but Nora found the strength to use the spirit totem just to prevent herself from splatting on the sidewalk. Isn't that just using it out of self interest? Perhaps they were just hinting to us that the sixth totem is going to be the Sword of Gryffindor. I'd still prefer that to it being love, for the record.

— I liked that it was the original totem bearers that imprisoned Mallus in the first place. Shades of the original slayer.

— They had to have a line about Wally and Sara meeting at Barry and Iris' wedding to cover them knowing each other. Did they actually interact at all during "Crisis on Earth X?"  I don't recall, and I'm still too emotionally raw to re-watch it.

— Damien Darhk made a total dad joke. 'Hi, Annoyed. I'm Damien.' Damn you and your intrinsic likability, Neal McDonough.

— Cold Fusion in 1962 would indeed have been a huge deal. Like, having the blood of Christ be real kind of huge deal. They're certainly not afraid to go big.

— Neal McDonough is 52 years old. This is my polite lead-in to the fact that that was clearly a body double hiding his face in the 1962 work-out scenes.

— Wally really should have known that Amaya was the 'basic bitch' he was talking about, shouldn't he? Then again, Wally is supposed to still be mooning over Jesse Quick, so he was probably just over-identifying and not thinking about it.

— I probably should have cared about the implications of two Damien Darhks being together and what that's supposed to do to the timeline, but the episode clearly didn't, so I didn't either.

— Okay, I've been trying to get this into a review for ages, and the fact that they showed Nate doing bicep curls gives me the opportunity, Look, I get that a lot of these shows – and TV in general – is about casting eye candy in all the roles, but there's something we need to be clear about. A historian who grew up with hemophilia as severe as Nate's apparently was would simply not be in as good of shape as Nick Zano was from the moment he walked into the show. Lifting weights is all about tearing down muscle tissue and rebuilding it strategically, and while it is technically possible for a hemophiliac to lift weights effectively, it's fairly dangerous and you have to be really careful about it. Thank you. That's been weighing on me for a long time. Also, Nick Zano's form on these bicep curls is deplorable, but he's probably been stuck doing them for take after take, so I can forgive it.

— So what exactly happened to Nora at the end there? Is she more possessed by Mallus now or something. Time will tell.

All in all a very good episode on its own right that suffers a bit from existing in a broader context.

Two and a half out of four Grateful Dead concerts

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.

4 comments:

Patryk said...

I think one of the upcoming episode titles spoiis the Ava secret reaveal. I hope I'm wrong, but just a warning for the rest of You. Don't read the episode titles.

Anonymous said...

I don't see why Showing other sides to Dhark's personality is the show making us forget he killed Laurel..Even if that was what they were going for you as a viewer don't have to buy what the episode is trying to sell. I actually found him entertaining for the first time this season...I have a soft spot for Klaus on the Originals and guess im a sucka for the bad guys that have one big 'weakness'..The back and forth between Darhk and his daughter was hilarious if Cliche and i was intrigued by the humanity Ray was bringing out of Nora and his mini crush. Obviously this is laying seeds (been doing so all season infact) for when Darhk and Mallus's plans don't coincide so he will have to make a choice.

Billie Doux said...

Maybe I'm not taking this all seriously enough, but I laughed through this entire episode and enjoyed it immensely. Neal McDonough was hilarious while retaining his evil. And they really do seem to be setting up the married Routh and Ford as a couple. Oddly, it works.

"Vincent Kartheiser Syndrome." LOL.

Katie Hart - Pinterest Manager said...

Great review! I thought the "noble reason" was Nora choosing her father over her own life. He was going to die at the hands of his younger self if he kept trying to save her. The situation nicely parallels Nora basically giving up any part of a normal life for 23 years to try and bring her father back.

I don't have any issues with accepting Darhk as a loving (in a twisted way) father of Nora and the murderer of Laurel Lance. How is this any different from Malcolm Merlyn and Thea and the murder of Sara? Yes, Nora is far more accepting of her father's evil ways than Thea ever was, but she grew up knowing exactly who her father was and still loving him.