The folks behind Legends Of Tomorrow have never been shy about unabashedly returning to stuff that works, confident that familiarity is trumped by, well, general awesomeness. Why shouldn’t they be? As long as nothing gets stale, there’s no reason not to revisit successful formulas. And yes, I am of course referring to the show’s habit of putting Sara Lance in a cowboy hat, but not only to that. Some of the show’s best episodes are of the “Stressed Western” sort—efficient, thoughtful, fun, and the best kind of stupid, without much of the audacity (that characterizes its showier hours. It’s a business-as-usual episode, which for Legends, means two things: A tighter focus on the characters, and the buddy system.
I’ve always been fond of “Wet Hot American Bummer,” the show’s peak buddy system episode, both for itself and as an example of the skill of this show’s writers. (And, okay, also because it’s the episode that quotes a D+ A.V. Club review from the first season.) The goofiness of Legends is so sparkly and ostentatious that, if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss how much craftsmanship is at work beneath all that ludicrousness. Episodes like “The Good, The Bad, and The Cuddly” and “The One Where We’re Trapped On TV” understandably get a lot of attention from fans and critics alike, but it’s hours like “Stressed Western” that make those episodes possible in the first place. This is when relationships grow and change, where characters make new discoveries or overcome private battles. It’s not when the fate of the universe is at stake. It’s in the “classic Legends romps” Nate loves so much. For both the time-idiots and their writers, it’s just another day at the office. But here’s the thing: the writers, at least, are very good at their jobs.
Here’s some of what I had to say about the team’s time at Camp Ogawa back in 2018:
Amazing thing, isn’t it? Writers, looking at a scenario, stop to ask themselves what the people about whom they’re writing would think and feel about that scenario (or alternately, writers look at their characters and imagine what scenario might be most dynamic), and look what happens. And there’s one last element to this episode’s success—it succeeds, as the Legends themselves do, because it uses the buddy system.
Absolutely all of that applies here. If it’s perhaps not quite as tight as “Wet Hot American Bummer,” that’s understandable—this is a covid season, after all. But it comes damn close. Credited writer Matthew Maala has a lot to accomplish in this hour. Lots of boxes to check as the gang passes the halfway mark for this season. And while a few of the items on his to-do list require some stretching and bending, it’s still an impressive, accomplished hour, and it begins with one of the year’s best cold opens.
Sara and Ava’s storyline is, like most of the other stories in this episode, about the difficulty of adjusting to a new equilibrium. But refreshingly, it’s an adjustment that starts almost right away. Maala sets us up for Sara keeping her new alien-clone-hybrid status a secret, because keeping enormous secrets for no good reason is the Arrowverse way. But Sara blurts it out when Ava tries to initiate some good old-fashioned reunion sex, and we smash right on into the credits. Sara wants to ease back into the team before dropping her Bishop bombshell, so they both set out to pretend that nothing’s changed, even though they both know it has. That’s the first pot set to boil.
Then there’s the resurgence of Behstra, which sets the Behrad/Zari storyline into motion. In theory, this is all about Behrad’s tendency to gravitate toward “bad girls” and Zari’s new apparently world-class relationship-having skills, but you could sum it up by basically saying that these two are siblings and roommates and coworkers and have a bunch of unaddressed issues they should probably, you know, address, given that Behrad died twice and there were two Zaris and you get the idea. So that’s another pot boiling.
Then there’s John and Gary, who don’t actually need the
MacGuffin magic-restoring fountain known only to aliens as the basis for a spat, given that Gary was John’s apprentice and in his D&D campaign and was apparently lying about who he actually is the whole time, but the magic fountain helps, and it seems Gary is a little tired of always pissing people off, since he hasn’t wanted to eat a human in years. That’s boiling, too.
Then Spooner and Astra, our two newbies, get paired together so they can sort out their shit, but the anger-sensing, gold-shitting Tremors worm makes it essential that they and their short-tempers stay out of town. So they head to the woods for a nice little lesson about the different forms of power, thanks to a chance meeting with Bass Reeves, the man thought to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger and an apparent ancestor of John Diggle. But it’s a lesson they bicker a lot while learning. Another boil.
And then there’s Nate, who’s been a little adrift this season. Nate, the show’s extremely handsome and dopey Charlie Brown. Nate, who’s pretty much cool with everyone all the time, unless you’re his bro-ul mate and you’re leaving the ship and he’s in denial and very sad. Nate, who’s gotten so good at keeping it together that he manages to absolutely lose his shit right on cue, and uses it to help ensure the gang can live to romp another day. Reader, I fist-pumped.
What a brilliant little character moment. Nate gets to let it all out, air his grievances, but with a purpose! Rage saves the day! After taking care of everyone else’s feelings, he takes care of his own, and even then it’s still to help others! What a delight. What a perfectly Legends conclusion.
That’s not to say there aren’t some issues here and there. We race right through the Spooner/Astra powers journey, and it doesn’t quite get there. Mick is sidelined once more, without any apparent concern for Kayla. And while it’s wonderful to see David Ramsey, Bass Reeves is little more than an afterthought here, a huge missed opportunity. But thanks to Maala’s sharp script and David Ramsey’s stylish, thoughtful direction—inspired by the Coens and greatly reminiscent of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs—“Stressed Western” transcends its missteps. It’s a joy to watch, start to finish, cathartic and efficient and clever and stupid all at once. It is, in fact, a classic Legends romp. D+. (Kidding.)
- As always, Chancellor Agard’s post-mortem interviews for EW are not to be missed. This one’s with David Ramsey.
- And I’m talking about the episode with Chancellor, uh, right now. (There’s also a replay, if you want to watch after the fact.)
- Behrad using his portal privileges to dry-age meat > the Doctor using the TARDIS to make finish cooking a turkey.
- I felt Sara’s joy so hard when she got to catch up on all the hot Legends goss.
- So... how are we feeling about Nate’s totem pass?
- Does Nate use his extremely helpful superpower in this episode? He does. HOWEVER. I am offended on Ray Palmer’s behalf that Nate doesn’t steel up, get eaten by the worm on purpose, and then punch his way out of its insides like the Atom exploding Rasputin. Would have been a nice tribute.
- Episode MVP: This is an ensemble episode, and they were all great, but let’s say Nick Zano for his big 11 o’clock number.
- Why the fuck not?: You know, Ava, a really fun captain would let them keep the cowboy narrator.
- Line-reading of the week: Tie: “Must be our alien. Or gentrification. Either way we should stop it.” “Hell, I might know someone from... hell.”
- Gideon, what’s the most meta moment?: “So a classic Legends romp. On it.” [many scenes pass] “Gang! Remember! We’re romping!”
- Episode title ranking: 1. Stressed Western. 2. Meat: The Legends. 3. Ground Control To Sara Lance. 4. Back To The Finale: Pt. ii. 5. Bishop’s Gambit 6. Bay Of Squids. 7. The Satanist’s Apprentice. 8. The Ex-Factor.
- Tonight’s episode in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song form: Too good not to use.