Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Astra tries to escape her Legends Of Tomorrow montage with body-swapping and, inevitably, song

Olivia Swann in DC's Legends Of Tomorrow
Olivia Swann in DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow
Photo: The CW

“The Satanist’s Apprentice” feels very much like an episode of TV written by a bunch of people who just lived through 2020 and needed to work some things out. While not a ‘Covid episode’ in a conventional sense, the threads tying Astra and Sara’s adventures to this particular era don’t stop at the creative means by which director Caity Lotz and writers Keto Shimizu and Ray Utarnachitt limit the number of actors physically present for any given scene. This is an episode shaped by, ah, topical questions. What happens when we feel, or actually are, helpless? What’s the cost of isolation? When we feel a lack of agency, how do we compensate? And of course, the big question: Which season of Wynonna Earp is the best?

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There’s one more, however, and it’s one with which fans of the show (and readers of these recaps in particular) will be intimately familiar. Legends is always* the why-the-fuck-not show, but “The Satanist’s Apprentice” is a big swing even by WTFN standards. If quarantine made many of us feel isolated or helpless (or like bingeing all of Wynonna Earp), it made even more of us go just a little bit stir-crazy, and if it had that effect on the average person, what did it do to the magical, maniacal writers behind this show? It made them go full Disney and full Ex Machina in the same damn episode.

“The Satanist’s Apprentice” marks the second time Lotz has stepped behind the camera, and while the first time was also entertaining and technically impressive, this episode takes much bigger swings. The result is an hour that’s perhaps not quite as consistent as Lotz’s first attempt; that messiness also keeps it from reaching the heights of the show’s very best episodes, but only just. Shimizu and Utarnachitt handed Lotz a story with two very different stories and a pack of influences far more contradictory than the John Woo-influenced “Mortal Khanbat,” and she and the show’s always-game cast manage to make the wildly disparate elements blend and fuse in a way that’s both disorienting and incredibly satisfying. Beauty And The Beast, Alex Garland, Saturday morning cartoons, hard sci-fi, ’80s movie montages, racism, meta-commentary, Freaky Friday, Aleister Crowley, Pagemaster, a bad wig, and a presentation via projector that the A.V. Ava worked really hard on? None of those things should go together.

But here we are, and somehow, they do. “The Satanist’s Apprentice” checks a lot of familiar TV boxes, but rarely are all those boxes checked at once. You’ve seen that montage, but have you seen it with demon internet outages? You’ve seen the big bad with the savior complex, but how often (outside of Ex Machina) does he dance himself to sleep? You’ve watched a woman fight to be her own rescuer, but has she done so by inciting a body swap and by gaining the ability to read a magical de-magicking spell because all cartoon princesses can sing? It’s a lot, but it doesn’t over-stuff the episode; it would be easy to wish that both Astra and Sara got more time to work through the bizarre realities in which they find themselves, but removing either story would negate the marvelous dissonance and resonance produced between them.

And really, who cares about messiness or a teeny tiny bit of underdevelopment when the results are this fun, let alone this emotionally engaging? Astra’s out of place “topside,” and John, her only regular connection to her old life and the only help she’s likely to get in her new one, can’t be bothered to take the time to listen when she explains how much she’s struggling. That neglect creates a void, as Astra’s increasing frustration and isolation make her an easy target for the talking painting that is occultist Aleister Crowley (played in turn by the voice of Matt Lucas and the personage of Matt Ryan, the latter of whom is especially great here). Before long, she’s learning magic from a very wily guy who jumps at the first opportunity to murder a racist neighbor and turn his soul into a portable battery in amulet form, and when she objects to Crowley’s plan to add her friends to the amulet—oh, yeah, she also turned all the Legends into objects, Ava’s a binder, Behrad is Lumiere, it’s great—he turns her into an animated Disney-style princess.

It’s! Amazing! (For more on how the sequence was created, read this terrific interview with Lotz from EW’s Chancellor Agard!) Lotz and the WB Animation department kicked the shit out of the animated segment, I have to say, and so did the show’s actors, all of whom modify their vocal performances slightly to suit the change in style and tone. The song is great. The design is great. The transition from live action to animation is great, and the transitions within the animation from the sleepy no-magicky night night song to the ranting of Crowley? Those are great, too. No notes. I can’t imagine that it’s feasible for Legends to often return to this well, given the time and cost demanded by animation, but wow, I sure wish they could do this once a season. It’s terrific.

The Sara storyline doesn’t get the bonus of a flashy animated sequence, but it’s still pretty solid. That’s due in no small part to Raffi Barsoumian’s performance as the nefarious, self-obsessed Bishop, who we learn in this episode is the inventor of the AVA clones. (Messed up!) His goal is to create the ultimate unkillable human, able to adapt to any circumstance, but the selflessness of this deeply creepy pursuit is more than a little questionable, since he views the Avas as programs he designed and nothing more. He needs Sara and the other beings that were aboard Gary and Kayla’s ship because he wants to essentially mine their DNA for parts, taking the useful bits and shoving them into his Frankensteins. It’s a lot.

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But none of it would work half so well without the Sara/Ava relationship. Jes Macallan here plays another Ava, one who, like Astra, sees herself as unable to change her circumstances—but this Ava doesn’t see that as a problem. It’s disturbing, and a great place to begin a complicated story; if the complexity doesn’t get fully explored here, that’s perhaps to be expected. But Macallan and Lotz give it a lot of weight all the same.

All in all, this episode marks a new high for Legends in its ambitions, if not totally in its execution. That, coupled with the typically strong performances and usually WTFN-ery, makes “The Satanist’s Apprentice” the highpoint thus far of another solid Legends season.

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* Season one excepted.

Stray observations

  • Does Nate use his extremely helpful superpower in this episode? Yes! AS A CHEESE!
  • Episode MVP: Olivia Swann is as good as she’s ever been here, but Lotz is just as good, and she directed, so it’s not even close. Matt Ryan was also excellent, especially in that final scene.
  • Why the fuck not?: I repeat, Ava is a binder.
  • Line-reading of the week: “I miss my blood pool.”
  • Gideon, what’s the most meta moment?: Nurse Ava was right, in the second season the show really figured out what kind of show it was and things just got better from there.
  • Episode title ranking: 1. Meat: The Legends. 2. Ground Control To Sara Lance. 3. Bay Of Squids. 4.The Satanist’s Apprentice. 5. The Ex-Factor.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!