One huge advantage of the frequent use of time-travel on “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” is that it allows for diversity — not just in terms of aesthetic, but genre. Whether it was intentional on the writers’ part or not, “Blood Ties” ended up nodding to the giallo horror films so prevalent in the 1970s, and “Fail-Safe” is even more explicit in its tribute to prison dramas (the Soviet variety, specifically), only with a superhero twist.
After the events of last week, Professor Stein, Heat Wave, and The Atom are incarcerated in a gulag circa 1988, with Stein being their captors’ most prized possession. Valentina Vostok (once again played to icy perfection by Stephanie Corneliussen) has captured him so she can obtain the theorem required to complete construction on a quantum splicer, which would allow her to create a Firestorm prototype. Her plan takes an insane turn when she discovers that Stein’s actually one half of the superhero, inspiring her to merge herself with him.
Throughout the episode, writers (and esteemed “Flash” and “Arrow” vets) Beth Schwartz and Grainne Godfree hit many of the visual and story hallmarks of the prison film, from star tattoos proving one’s street cred to gruel sloppily ladled onto prisoners’ bowls and fogged breath brought on by the chilly temperature. There’s also an interrogation complete with false information from Stein, a prison yard brawl where The Atom gets clobbered by a fellow inmate, and electroshock enacted on him and Heat Wave. That last genre standard is what finally convinces Stein to give in to Vostok’s wishes — he can withstand being tortured himself, but watching his comrades be put through such pain is a different story.
The other Legends suspect he might crack, so Rip Hunter comes up with a plan that becomes the namesake of the title: if they’re not able to rescue Stein, White Canary has to kill him in order to prevent an army of Firestorms from becoming weaponized in the future. While not thrilled at the proposition — she’s still struggling to keep her own brutality in check — White Canary agrees.
But agreeing to something and following through on it are completely different things, and Canary — with a little dissuading from Captain Cold — can’t bring herself to gun down Stein, despite the merging process already taking place. It’s up to Jax to literally talk Stein out of Vostok’s body as if he were talking a suicidal person down from a ledge. He reminds his mentor how intelligent and powerful he is, how he has more than enough strength to break free of Vostok’s grasp. It works, and without Stein’s assistance to temper her new powers, she implodes.
It’s meant to be a climactic moment of triumphant for both halves of Firestorm, but ends up being a hackneyed device in an otherwise magnificent episode. Villains simply aren’t as threatening when you can defeat them with conversation or by yelling at them. Yes, technically Jax is talking to Stein and not Vostok, but the whole thing feels too easy, similar to someone taking down a monster by saying they don’t believe in them (see “A Nightmare On Elm Street,” “The Babadook,” etc.)
Although the means of Firestorm’s victory are somewhat underwhelming, they contribute to what’s the first truly at-ease ending for any of “Legends”‘ episodes. When the team reunites on the Waverider over dinner and drinks, they aren’t just toasting to a successful mission, but to personal growth for many of the members. Ironically, most of this growth stems from compassion that ended up putting the mission at risk: Stein followed Vostok’s orders because he couldn’t bare to see his teammates get hurt, Heat Wave threatened to reveal his and Captain Cold’s escape plan by carrying out the battered Atom on his shoulders, Captain Cold urged White Canary not to kill Stein, and White Canary fought against her own bloodlust to do the right thing.
Some of this may have caused some viewers to yell at the screen in frustration, as every bit of sympathy had the potential to put the future of humanity at risk. Then again, if the Legends ever want to take down Vandal Savage (he gets temporarily dispatched tonight by Hunter), they need to work as a unified team, and “Fail-Safe” is the first time it feels like there’s a true sense of unity among all eight of them. And with them landing in the dystopian Star City of 2046 at the episode’s end — with the first appearance of Connor Hawke (Joseph-David Jones)! — they’re going to need all the unity they can get.