Synopsis of 1×8: Dropped in 1958, the Legends try to blend in with the times that may not be as perfect as we remember. Also, hawk monsters.
“Night of the Hawk” is the most poignant episode Legends of Tomorrow will ever air. Whether Kreisberg, Berlanti, guest director Joe Dante, et al intended it this way is hard to prove and ultimately inconsequential. In light of recent events and a glut of campaigns selling that we can Make America Great Again, “Night of the Hawk” drops its characters with the benefits of modern societal change into 1958 to do more than cock a few eyebrows.
I watched this episode the day Donald Trump had a rally in St. Louis where at least thirty-two people were arrested for a protesting a candidate they believe to be racist. Drumpf’s next stop was Chicago, but the city’s protests against the man were so forceful Drumpf cancelled his appearance. He and his GOP bedfellows are part of party known for claiming they will Make America Great Again. But what does that mean?
It’s not the 60s, where similar protests claimed the streets. Or the societal advancement of the 70s. And the sentiment really gained steam in the 80s so they must be talking about the 50s, about making our “modern, complicated America” more like the placid Americana the 50s have always been sold as.* 50s nostalgia diners first popped up in the 80s and are still around today. Have you ever been to a Steak & Shake?
*It should be noted the actual decade was much more similar to Mad Men than Leave It To Beaver!
Our fiction has never helped this vision. The movies from the era itself were forced by harsh codes to censor their material. Grease turns the era into a time for good guys and gals to dance and have fun at the local malt shop. It’s an idea that persists in most media to this day. And it’s just a lie. Coming from a guy who thinks Back to the Future is one of the most perfect movies ever made, all of that 50s nostalgia is nonsense. It’s a fantasy had by white people (to be more specific: white men) because they were on top of the world. They didn’t have to think about pesky things like treating people of other skin colors and sexualities with respect. It was a simpler time.
“Night of the Hawk” shows us how that fantasy pans out for everybody else. Because Legends is a proper TV show from 2016 and on a network like the CW, one of the frontrunners in television diversity, dropping its cast into the past is more complicated than it would be for, say, Friends. Snart, Rip, and Ray navigate around the place just fine. But Kendra is judged immediately. Sara is hopelessly harassed and meets a poor nurse who can’t express her true sexuality. Jax is the victim of police brutality based on the color of his skin… Huh. We still really have a long way to go.
The best point of reference for “Night of the Hawk” is actually a movie referenced by Jax early on in the episode: Pleasantville. Pleasantville is a pretty darn great movie from 1998 from Gary Ross and starring Tobey McGuire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, and Joan Allen. It begins as McGuire and Witherspoon’s teen characters are sucked into the TV and dropped into the idyllic TV universe of Pleasantville, where everyone is happy and the basketball team never misses a shot. Everything is in pristine black and white. To McGuire’s David, it seems perfect.
But quickly the seams begin to show. Witherspoon’s Jennifer deflowers a member of the basketball team. Citizens of Pleasantville become aware of the world around them, of the wrongs in their society. Color begins to enter the equations as people begin to acknowledge their sexuality. It all ends with a riot with imagery specifically meant to evoke the events of the Civil Rights movement.
The less traditionally white and male members of the Legends do the same thing to their sleepy town in 1958. Jax and Sara reach out into the world around them and try to make it a better, more accepting place. Sara brings a woman hiding herself a little bit of hope. Jax can take pride in some small success. Kendra doesn’t get to be the societal hero. She faces the brunt of more than a couple slights toward her based on how she was born.
It’s an amazing little piece of message-making that aired at the right time sadly brought down by a lame A-Plot and some persistent problems that refuse to go away. More unfortunate still is just how lackluster it makes this whole affair. The plot most integral to Legends of Tomorrow is so boring it can single-handedly bring down an episode by a star and a half. Savage doesn’t work. Kendra doesn’t work as MacGuffin or hero. It’s the plot we’re stuck with in Season One, but the CW’s network-wide renewal of its programming gives me hope that it’s something to be rectified next year.
Legends of Tomorrow is a peach, and I don’t mean that a 50s slang kind of way. It has a horrible core, but it’s flesh is so sweet that it’s worth forgetting that bad part to enjoy what works.