There was never doubt DC’s Legends of Tomorrow would be good. How good was the real question. Assembling superheroes (and villains) from Arrow and The Flash could have easily been a bunch of chippy adventures with special effects, and that is precisely what Legends of Tomorrow ends up being. But episodes like this week’s painfully good “River of Time” solidifies the third Arrowverse show as one of the genre’s highest works, an absolute can’t-miss. There are two episodes left, and I envy those who will get to experience this breakthrough sci-fi show for the first time.
After capturing Vandal Savage (Casper Crump) from 2166, the Waverider crew, led by Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill), traverse the Time Stream for the Vanishing Point, the HQ of the Time Masters. That’s where Hunter can turn in Savage, with real evidence to nail him. While Rip originally set out to kill Savage, an task with a simplicity level that draws the ire of Snart (Wentworth Miller) and Rory (Dominic Purcell), Savage’s ability to restore Carter Hall’s (Falk Hentschel) memories as well as Rip’s conscience compel him to take a more humane route: Justice.
Unfortunately, either because of his naïveté or because Joseph Campbell dictates protagonists be at their lowest point before the third act, Savage trumps the Legends with a devastating ace up his sleeve: He commands the Time Masters, and imprisons the Legends. Even more so, Savage is free to gleefully kill Rip Hunter’s family, all over again. Rip’s whole mission was pointless.
The knife-in-the-heart revelation was only the bold exclamation point to a roller-coaster episode that uses limited space, the Waverider, to its advantage, with paranoia and dissent seething within the team. Before DC’s Legends of Tomorrow premiered, there was talk that production surpassed its budget and the show wouldn’t live to Season 2. Eventually, enough the CW renewed everything, including Legends of Tomorrow. But throughout Season 1 there were obvious areas where the show cut corners, such as in the other bottle episode “Marooned”, and where the show pretty much sank all its money like last week’s TV-sized Pacific Rim in “Leviathan”.
Though “River of Time” isn’t strictly a bottle episode — touching flashbacks with guest appearances by Arrow and The Flash characters like Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards) prevent cabin fever — the episode is mostly confined to the ship, a ship holding a monster like Savage. The stakes not only feel immediate but delicate. A spaceship barely hanging on with an immortal, charismatic super-villain is an escort mission straight out of gamers’ nightmares.
Casper Crump continues to excel as Savage, even with a slightly hilarious accent that sounds like a strange blend of Mediterranean and Eastern European. He sews mistrust and deceit within the ranks of the ship, and while Kendra (Ciara Renee) unsubtly tells that to viewers, how characters like Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh) and Professor Stein (Victor Garber) act following brightly-lit The Silence of the Lambs homages is what makes “River of Time” work best. I sank when Stein spent the Waverider’s ace escape — a ship with a one-time jump back to 2016 — on Jax (Franz Drameh), who had just as much to lose as Stein dying out of his time. It was a perfect arc to their “partnership,” a rocky but affectionate one worthy of its own series.
Legends of Tomorrow is already a win, it only needs to stick the landing come the season finale in a few weeks. The show has already surpassed expectations; a fun but potentially lazy hackneyed team-up show has elevated to a superhero version of Joss Whedon’s beloved and short-lived Firefly, in which melodrama comes from character dynamics and stakes from delicate, if not bizarre time-travel rules. There’s a lot to love about Legends of Tomorrow, and I’m glad it will see tomorrow.