With Hawkgirl on the mend and Savage on the loose, Rip Hunter and company jet out of their best episode to date and into another solid installment. While "Blood Ties" succeeded mostly in exploring the backstories of its characters, "White Knights" has both its feet firmly planted in the here and now--that is, if now is 1986. While the episode has its share of action sequences--"Legends" could accurately be called "Legends of Probably Fighting Some More Tomorrow"--it feels curiously subdued, no doubt because it spends most of its time building to a cliffhanger that promises fireworks aplenty in part two. But any lessened momentum aside, "White Knights" offers more than a few great scenes, thanks to one simple fact: when you give great actors time to act, they really don't need special effects.
Gideon sends the team hurtling into the Cold War on the hunt for the original version of a heavily redacted file, one that promises to clue the the would-be Legends in on the current location of their mutual nemesis. To get that file, they have to pull off the not-at-all-intimidating task of breaking into the Pentagon at the height of the Cold War. It's a fun little infiltration, with Captain Cold showcasing his pick-pocketing and lady-charming ways, The Atom not being even sort of a spy, Heat Wave arm-wrestling, Hawkgirl and the White Canary kicking a little too much ass, and Jax and Stein butting heads (and eventually blasting right through the roof. While the whole "oh crap, we're kind of a mess" thing is getting a little stale at this point--seriously, how many times do we have to listen to these people debate about which one of them screwed up the most?--it has the benefit of setting up the pairings we'll stick with for most of the episode: Sara and Kendra, Palmer and Snart, and Jax and Stein.
These separate stories, along with Hunter's collision with his former mentor Zaman Druce (Martin Donovan), lead to a climax that divides the team in half. How well these stories work depends both on the level of suspense involved and on the level of skill and charisma possessed by the actors involved, but the end result works like gangbusters regardless.
First up: Rip Hunter's adventures in learning that he can't trust pretty much anyone. After detecting a temporal anomaly, Hunter and Heat Wave head off into the woods to find Chronos and his ship. Instead, they encounter Druce, who says he's authorized to make the former Time Master a deal: give it up, get a pardon and some help fixing the mess he's made to this point, and see his teammates safely transported back to a healed 2016. This leads to yet another "hold up, should we really be doing this?" conversation, a topic that got played out in episode two. But Heat Wave clues Hunter on what he thinks is really going on: Druce is simply there to kill him, and is only giving him a chance to choose to come willingly in hopes that he can take out the whole team in one fell swoop.
Druce's plan doesn't go all that well for him, as part of the Legends team is waiting in the wings. They emerge victorious, but not without some trouble--and it's that trouble that sends us into the second big storyline. Tired of being bossed around by an old guy who is, by the way, "not [his] Dad!", Jax disregards Stein's advice and gets injured, leading to the best scene of the episode.
Victor Garber is a damn national treasure, and any opportunity to watch him do his thing is a welcome one. When Jax and Stein arrive back at the Waverider, they tear into each other--Stein accusing Jax of recklessness and being shortsighted, and Jax shutting down Stein's argument as yet another instance of how their partnership is really a dictatorship. As Jefferson, Franz Drameh has been fine to date, but with Garber in this scene, he rises nearly to the level of his accomplished scene partner. But it's really all about Garber. This one ugly conversation, followed by an equally well-acted (if brief) scene with Palmer, sets off the rest of Stein's arc for the episode. Driven by guilt, fear, remorse, pride, and his own paternal instincts, Stein heads out on a reconnaissance mission by himself--and what mission is that, exactly?
It's one set up for him by our next pairing, one that's by far the most charming--Snart and Palmer, the dueling ladykillers. Snart favors a blunt approach, suggesting they simply shoot Valentina Vostok (Stephanie Corneliussen) in the head and wash their hands of her, Palmer convinces him that he can connect with his fellow scientist by combining his smarts with a nice tuxedo. He... fails. Epically.
Routh and Miller have a great, breezy comic rapport, each making the other more charming in their own special way. When Palmer's game falls so terribly, terribly short, Snart swoops in with some steamy ballet talk and a declaration that he's no white knight, earning a smooch and a chance to steal her laboratory key card (and her wallet for good measure). Miller's odd, smarmy, wryly funny performance doesn't always seem to belong to the same show as the rest of the cast, but in pairing him with the golden-boy appeal of Routh, "Legends" gives Miller the perfect foil. They're both funnier, more charming, and terrifically appealing. Opposites, it would seem, attract.
So Palmer, Snart, Rory, and Stein head off to infiltrate the lab, where things, as they always seem to do with the Legends, go very, very wrong. Vostov's project, Stein discovers, is building a Soviet Firestorm--an interesting take on the arms race--and becomes convinced that he's got to remove a vital reactor's core by himself, right then, without waiting for help. Palmer convinces Snart that they need to save Vostov, but it turns out she really isn't a damsel in distress, and promptly takes Snart hostage, forcing Palmer to put the core back online, thus putting Stein's life at risk (and giving Garber another great scene). And when Snart's forced to leave Rory, Palmer, and Stein behind, it further fractures an already fractured team.
Where, exactly, were Hawkgirl and the White Canary during this epic battle? Working their rage issues out on each other by fighting with pipes. Caity Lotz is one of the series' best performers, and both characters have plenty of dark stuff with which to wrestle, so why was this story so underwhelming? Some of it comes down to the fight sequences themselves. Near-choking or not, none of the rage-sister battles felt the least bit dangerous. But beyond that, the story promised that these two complicated women would be working on their very serious issues, and while that may have happened,we saw basically none of it.
Still, if that's the only real sour note in the episode, it's a minor complaint. Though it may not have packed the emotional punch of last week's installment, "White Knights" does succeed in giving a few great performers a chance to shine, and devotes some much-needed time to letting the audience get to know where these people are at now, not where they were in the past. Hopefully with the next installment, we'll be done fitting in exposition at every possible opportunity and on to racing through time in hopes of saving the world.
One last note, unrelated to the review: I'm covering for Dan Caffrey this week, and just wanted to thank him for letting me step up. And since Dan'll be back on duty next week, this is my one opportunity to say that hearing Arthur Darvill call someone "Mr. Rory" while inside his time machine is a thoroughly confusing experience. It's thoroughly wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey--especially when the magic translator pills started making everyone speak Russian even though it still sounded like English. I guess Gideon is bigger on the inside?