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Legends of Tomorrow: Paranoid Android

"Guys! If we don’t stop this, all of these people… They’re gonna live!"

The Legends return after the holiday break. Except they don't. The actual Legends aren't in this one. Like, at all.

This was way more interesting than I was expecting.

Some episodes of television improve the longer you spend thinking about them, and this is definitely one of those episodes.

Having established the existence of evil alternate versions of the Legends at the end of last episode, and then leaving us to spend the entire holiday break wondering about the specifics, the show makes the absolutely perfect decision to devote the entire first episode back exclusively to those same Evil Alternate Legends. And by doing so they not only show us exactly the specifics about what's up with them and how they fit into the larger plot of the season, but they also manage to tell a kind of lovely small-scale story about identity and existential crisis.

One of the tricks that they use quite successfully to tell us about who these new Alt-Legends are is by cleverly falling back onto a few old Legends tropes that the show itself hasn't used in quite some time. For example, the saga-sell at the opening of the episode. Back in the day they used to open every episode by having one member of the team read a little speech explaining the premise of the show in the first season, and then the basic setup for the season for the next couple of years, and then they eventually stopped doing it altogether once it no longer felt necessary.

This episode, they go right back to it as if it had never been away, with Alt-Sara explaining the premise of the show, as the Android Legend Duplicates understood it. This was a really great idea, as not only was it a handy way to clarify what the Alt-Legends thought was happening vis-a-vis the real Legends and their mission, but it also immediately put the viewer in a nostalgic headspace and really underscored the feeling that these Alt-Legends were re-booted versions of where they originally started, much like Alt-Gideon is a re-booted version of where she started. It simultaneously made them feel like characters we were familiar with and had history with while also highlighting the jarring differences.

So as far as the Alt-Legends are concerned, they're the real versions of the team, and the real team are the androids. These 'android copies' of themselves had been created by Bishop to go back in time and destroy history, because Bishop hated history. And so, the Alt-Legends were tasked with tracking them down and fixing all the history that they'd broken. Because 'history is like concrete.' This sentiment used to get used quite a bit in the early seasons to explain why they could go back and fix changes in time, but still maintain some sense of dramatic tension by limiting the amount of time the team had available to do so. Back then 'History is like concrete' meant that it took a while to solidify, so you can change things now, but not after it's had time to firm up.

The point is, back then the phrase meant something. Here it's just thrown out as a platitude to justify anything that Alt-Gideon needs it to justify, because the Alt-Legends never, even for a second, stop to question what it actually means. It's the same trick of pulling in a comforting old trope and actively using it to undermine to sense of familiarity that it engenders. Having the Alt-Legends repeatedly called out on the fact that they don't even know what they're talking about when they say it was cute but might have been a little too much underlining of the gimmick. Maybe. That might be a personal taste thing.

And so, having established what the Alt-Legends think they're doing, the script very slowly and deliberately begins peeling back layers in service of telling what's actually a tight and intimate story about one woman gradually coming to the realization that she doesn't really exist. I thought that the title of this episode was just a cute allusion to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but it turns out it was genuinely the story of an android. Who was increasingly paranoid. And that android was our own/not our own Alt-Sara Lance.

That's just one of the deliberate internal contradictions built into this episode. It's a big reveal of the Big Bads for the back half of the season, revealing who they are and what their motivations are, but it's also a small character piece about Alt-Sara Lance coming to terms with truths about how her existence has been built on a lie, and taking a stand against it in a very Sara Lance way. And then, because this is Alt-Sara, they're allowed to get away with the one gut punch ending to that journey that they never could with the 'real' Sara. She loses. Completely. She takes a stand for her own self determination and gets destroyed, in large part due to the betrayal from her own team. Depending on how you read the ending she's either replaced with a more compliant Sara-bot, or has her personality and free will ripped from her.

That's some pretty dark territory, particularly after how competently and effectively they'd managed the careful build of her slow, creeping, existential dread throughout the story. I have no idea if this broken version of Alt-Sara will play into the plotting of the rest of the season, but as this stands that final scene is the perfect ending for the story they're telling here. It has a very Black Mirror quality to it that really worked.

But it's the other internal contradiction that they've built this story around that I'm really fascinated by, and which I suspect I'll be thinking about for quite some time. Specifically, even though Alt-Sara defiantly announces to the Alt-Legends that she's realized that they're the bad guys, the episode clearly also wants us to be asking, 'Yeah, but... are they...?'

Fundamentally, Alt-Gideon's mission has never changed. She's trying to preserve the timeline, whatever the cost, in order to keep time itself from collapsing into chaos. Objectively, I think we'd all agree that it's kind of important that not happen, so as a goal we'll call that a good thing. At the same time, torturing and killing someone's children in order to force them to make a fake news broadcast designed to lure thousands of people back to their deaths... I'm going to go ahead and assume we can all agree to call that objectively 'bad.'

But, thanks to the fairly reckless actions of the real Legends a few episodes back, the one does kind of require the other.

So... does the end justify the means here? All of those people were 'supposed' to die after all. Their survival threatens the timeline. Is it 'murder' or is it just 'putting things back the way they're supposed to be'? Obviously, the answer is that it's both, but we're in some seriously deep 'ends v. means' territory here. And I think it's interesting how they've put the alt-Legends in such a strange place regarding whether or not we should be rooting for them. Undoing the damage to the timeline that resulted from Gwyn's Chernobyl interference is exactly the sort of job the Legends themselves are generally tasked with doing, although to be fair they're usually fixing damage they caused themselves. The fact that the Alt-Legends are kind of disturbingly bloodthirsty about it, doesn't make the job itself that they're doing wrong. Does it? Well? Does it?

I honestly don't know the answer to that. And more interestingly, the episode itself doesn't want me to. It wants me to sit with the moral contradictions and try to parse through them, which is so much more interesting than receiving a pat, didactic answer.

Similarly, that one last aberration that Sara is sent to clean up. The woman who should have died, and whose existence threatens the timeline. She isn't selling nuclear secrets, or weapons of mass destruction. She's trying to pass on the secret of how to dispose of radioactive waste, quickly and safely. Possibly the most beneficial discovery we could possibly have made in 1992. Or now, for that matter. In order to protect the timeline, the Alt-Legends have to kill this woman, and prevent this incredibly positive thing from happening. Hello, moral dilemma, how have you been?

Alt-Sara's discovery of her own self determination is interlaced directly with all of those moral questions, and that makes her total defeat at the end so heartbreaking.


Everybody remember where we parked:

Well, that depends on which 'we' we're talking about. As for the real team, who knows? We don't get even a hint of a clue as to where they are at the moment. If that expression even means anything in time travel.

The Alt-Legends, on the other hand, do a tour of the Legends' greatest hits from the season thus far. First Seattle, 1943 for a reenactment of the last episode's big finale, but from the other team's perspective. Then on to Chernobyl, 1986 in order to clean up all the historical damage that the Legends did by saving all of those people who should otherwise have died in the disaster. See above, re: moral ambiguity.

And can I just say how happy I was that they addressed this huge change to the timeline that the Legends made and then never bothered to address the consequences? It really bothered me at the time.

After that, a quick jump to Oslo, 1992 for some soul searching, personal discover, and brutal stabbing.


Quotes:

Alt-Behrad: "These dicks are having a party."
Alt- Zari: "Idiots."

Alt-Nate: "One thing I do know. Red ain’t good."
Alt-Sara: "It’s that kind of insight that makes you my right-hand man."
Alt-Nate: "I thought it was ‘cause I’m strong as steel. And always hard."
Gross, Alt-Nate. Gross.

Alt-Spooner: "The Robo-Legends caused a meltdown?"
Alt-Zari: "Worse. They tried to save the people from it."
Alt-Behrad: "Those monsters!"

Alt-Zari: "They know we’re still alive, right?"
Alt-Astra: "I think it’s best to just let them get it out of their systems."

Alt-Sara: "No, listen to me. We are the bad guys!"
Alt-Nate: "Or, are we the better guys?"


Bits and Pieces:

-- I'm not 100% sure why Gideon would create copies of the Legends with such interesting and specific differences from the originals. Astra's hair, for example. Although again, there is apparently not a hairstyle that Olivia Swann can't pull off. Whatever the reasoning, it was totally worth it for the sight gag of Nate's arms.

-- Also, it's an interesting insight into how Gideon, absent her emotional connection to the team members, thinks of each of them.

-- The incidental music in this one really deserves its own shout out. You can't pull off existential dread effectively if the music cues aren't backing you up properly, and they 100% nailed every moment.

-- I love how reasonable and logical every step of Alt-Sara and Alt-Zari's reasoning was as they put together what was really going on. Every new discovery felt like they'd properly worked it out and earned it, as opposed to someone just revealing it to keep the plot going.

-- Alt-Zari felt much more like Alt-Zari Tomaz, even though Gideon identified her as Zari Terazi. I wonder if that was deliberate, or just a side effect of playing 'Zari, but evil.'

-- I'd be very interested in knowing how the end cap joke about Steel doing a 'One to grow on' style morality message played to anyone who didn't grow up in the eighties when those things were just everywhere in kids TV. My personal favorites were on He-Man, when Orco (or someone else) would walk on screen and basically say 'In case you missed the subtext in this one, the message is "don't cheat in school." See ya next time!' They were not subtle.

-- Nice that there is no Alt-Gwyn, because this version of Gideon has never met him and doesn't think of him as being on the team.

-- I loved the alternate opening title sequence featuring the Alt-Legends. Is every genre show required to do at least one episode with a gimmick title sequence a la that one with Jonathan in 'Superstar?'

-- I would bet that the regular cast members had an absolute ball playing different versions of their characters. Nick Zano in particular is clearly enjoying every second of playing 'Nate, but Wolverine.'

-- I didn't track at first that Alt-Nate wasn't 'steeling up,' but was just made of steel internally. Of course, Gideon wouldn't have been able to replicate that sort of power and would have to adjust for it. Similarly, we never saw Alt-Astra do any magic.


Like a lot of Legends episodes, this one had a lot on its mind, hidden deceptively just beneath the surface of a jokey romp. I really liked it, and even better, I suspect I'll be thinking about it for quite some time. My only real criticism is that Alt-Behrad and Alt-Spooner didn't really get much to do, but hey – there's only so much time in an hour.

Four and a half out of five destiny restoration devices.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.

3 comments:

  1. This was a really enjoyably profound dissection of a patently ridiculous episode. The Legends writers are clearly operating on a completely different plane of thought than most, and I love them for it. Such deft multitasking.

    Fun fact, according to his Instagram, Nick Zano specifically requested "John Cena arms" when he learned about the second half of the season, and he got them--as in, they looked up Cena's arm dimensions.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mikey, nice review!

    I didn't like this episode very much. It felt like I was watching actors I like playing characters I didn't care for.

    Your review found some hidden depth, though. You made me like it a bit more.

    ("Paranoid Android" always makes me think of Radiohead!)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I liked it, and I didn't. How's that for definitive?

    ReplyDelete

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