Never mind the Buzzcocks, here’s the Dragon Girl!
“The Ex-Factor,” co-written by longtime Legends writers Grainne Godfree and Tyron Carter, isn’t the wildest episode of this series we’ve ever seen, nor the most moving, but it nestles comfortably alongside episodes like “Wet Hot American Bummer,” “Slay Anything,” and yes, “Séance and Sensibility” in the category of thoughtful character studies done Legends-style. Perhaps it’s because one Sara Lance has always been in the mix, but this show has always done an admirable job of giving its female characters a prickly complexity without ever tipping over into dour, bewildering, or blandly tragic, even back in the season-one days. (No small feat in the Arrowverse, it must be said—sorry, Laurel and company.) These character explorations aren’t always stumble-free*, but the stumbles don’t matter all that much when the core is so solid.
Here the core is Zari Tarazi, who we Legends stalwarts tend to think of as an entity wholly different from Zari Tomaz. But as “The Ex-Factor” expertly reminds us, they’re the same person, albeit with very different histories. John Constantine and Nate Heywood may have little in common***, but they draw something similar out of the woman/women they both love, and “The Ex-Factor” serves as a sort of mirror universe companion to “Séance and Sensibility.” Think of them as “The Ones Where Zari Sings And Has Feelings, Begrudgingly.”
How! Can! You! Not! Love! That!
So let’s start with the quibbles, then. The divide in the show between Sara and Gary’s adventures in Amelia Earheart Poison and the happenings aboard the Waverider continues to be a bit of a stumbling block; while everything that happens on Planet Ava Clone is pretty damn compelling, it’s hard not to sense some dragging feet, and consequently hard not to wish that Legends had just let Sara and Gary crash-land and vanish for a few episodes before giving us all these events in one go. Imagine getting bitey Amelia and the Ava clones revelation in one episode! Here, it’s still a big, big story, but with subplot energy. Sara has to take out an Ava clone, we meet the season’s big bad, and Gary gathers some nice traumatic memories, and while that’s all pretty great, it’s also as if each is an afterthought.
That split affects the A-story, as well, but again, it’s difficult to be too grumpy about it when the end result is such a delight. (Nor are the two totally divorced from each other; “Ava is my other side” echoes throughout the episode, particularly in that jubilant cover song.) The conceit here is the best kind of stupid, like an episode of Black Mirror injected with sitcom energy (which, now I come to think of it, is also the vibe of much of Doctor Who, which gave us a very Lord Knox-esque villain in Tzim-Sha.) Zari’s terrible assistant Les-Lay calls to tell her that her ex, DJ S’More Money, has been brutally killed on live TV by a terrifying space invader, and it turns out that the mecha-suited guy in question mistakenly believes that the marshmallow-headed guy is the king of the planet because he’s sitting on da throne of “Da Throne,” a visually overwhelming singing competition in the style of The Masked Singer, sort of. (Legends, folks!) Ava rallies the team to stop him with a pretty ingenious plan, but it falls apart when Lord Knox is revealed to have a) superior tech and b) surprisingly flexible views on what kinds of battles for control of the planet are acceptable.
And just like that, Zari has to sing her way to saving the earth and her brand—but actually winds up singing her way to a b-o-y-f-r-i-e-n-d. Admirably, Carter and Godfree manage to resist the urge to make this episode entirely about Zari’s journey, making room for Constantine’s considerable baggage as well. She’s forced to slip back into a life she forged for herself but which didn’t make her happy, and John finds the return of Zari the mega-influencer pretty off-putting. But it’s not Zari stunting in her Cartier**** that rocks the boat, but a conversation between Zari and her mother Nasreen that he happens to overhear, in which Nasreen expresses dismay that her daughter is dating a “street magician” and Zari attempts to reassure her by saying it will never last. But John only hears that remark, and doesn’t see the hollow, weary look on her face as she says it.
So they have a blow-out, and this particular ship seems to be on the verge of sinking, and all before Gary can get inappropriately emotionally invested in their love. But then it’s revealed that DJ S’More Money has set Zari up to fail (and, inadvertently, the planet up for annihilation). It’s a turn that forces both John and Zari to confront their own feelings, and Z takes to the stage to sing a punk anthem John loves, just before he joins her on guitar. It’s a goddamn delight.
The choice to include Nasreem Tarazi in the proceedings proves an ingenious one, offering more insight into this Zari’s hangups and sore spots while also anchoring the absurdity of “Da Throne” in something more immediate and human. (Don’t worry, it’s still plenty absurd.) So is the subplot which sees Spooner pushing Ava to stop making excuses for Mick, a turn that allows Legends to draw on the strength of the Mick/Ava friendship and the history the former has with Sara and the show. Everyone’s got baggage, everyone has wounds. It’s what you do to heal them, to keep going, that counts, and how you can help others to do the same.
“The Ex-Factor” isn’t a flawless outing, but it’s a deeply human one. And deeply human stories are one the things this dumb, wonderful show does best.
* – Except “Here We Go Again,” which is basically perfect. Put it on the shelf next to “Teddy Perkins”, “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?”** and “Dance Dance Resolution” where it belongs.
** — Okay, pretty much any episode of The Americans.
*** – both hot, tho
**** — Song of the summer?
- First, two new weekly check-ins: Does Nate use his extremely helpful superpower in this episode? The answer, this week, is yes! It’s usually not!
- Dark Gideon watch: she loves eviscerations, folks. I am worried.
- Uh, “Fruit” is a banger, and I’d like the whole single, please.
- Tyron Carter shared a whole bunch of info about the episode—inspirations, cut scenes, easter eggs, etc.—on his Twitter feed.
- EW’s Chancellor Agard has a great interview with Tala Ashe about tonight’s episode; he also asked about dark Gideon, Zari 1.0's totem life, and more. Well worth a read.
- Loved Nate as S’More, and loved Nate and Behrad as Johnny C’s glam team even more. So fun.
- Confirmed: Legends exists within the Young Rock cinematic universe.
- Episode MVP: Matt Ryan was great, but anytime the powers that be let Tala Ashe have feelings and sing/play an instrument, she’s the automatic MVP.
- Why the fuck not?: Mick steps on Lord Knoxicrillion. Just steps right on the little guy. (Very Men In Black.)
- Line-reading of the week: “NOOOOO! WHY DID YOU TASTE SO GOOD?!”
- Gideon, what’s the most meta moment?: “...Or the fact that network TV still exists.”
- Episode title ranking: 1. Meat: The Legends. 2. Ground Control To Sara Lance. 3. The Ex-Factor.
- Our weekly aftershow will be back next week!