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There’s a scene in “The Other Woman,” one of many excellent episodes of Mad Men, that works a very specific kind of wizardry. It’s the scene in which Peggy quits. (Yes, I am comparing Legends Of Tomorrow to Mad Men, and I have no regrets.) Watch those few minutes and you’ll see two people dealing very specifically with the thing that is happening to them right then—it’s all what’s happening in the moment. Negotiation, manipulation, honesty, clarity, defense, gratitude—all part of navigating a tricky personal and professional moment in a personal and professional relationship. But it is, mostly wordlessly, also evoking many other moments in the story of those characters and that relationship. It’s the scene in which Peggy quits, but it’s also a scene from the pilot, a scene from “The Suitcase,” a scene from the hospital. It’s immediate and it’s history, all in one.

Legends Of Tomorrow is not Mad Men; its aspirations are entirely different. But the show with the voltron Beebo and Zaricat and film student George Lucas and special guest star John Noble has that one thing in common with Matthew Weiner’s masterpiece. (Okay, two things.) And in its way, it’s equally as subtle—while the parallels and connections may be underlined with a thicker pen, they announce themselves slyly. In one hand, it’s got Mick’s flame-thrower Ray’s Chicago fandom and references to Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, and it waves that hand back and forth with cheerful insouciance. In the other, it’s got the trauma, heartbreak, confusion, passion, love, loss, and despair its characters have experienced in their lives, placed carefully behind its back, ready to draw them out just when you’re least prepared.

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So, greetings, and welcome to Legends Of Tomorrow, the show that wraps an ’80s slasher homage around a story of one traumatized, angry kid being counseled by a woman who was once much the same. It’s so good at being dopey and ridiculous that its sleight of hand is incredibly effective: One minute you’re giggling about the score, the ponies, and “promo code: laceration,” and the next, you’re suddenly in a place you didn’t know you were always headed. It’s nice in here, and they have snacks. Well, crudités. But the broccoli’s spoken for.

After its surprisingly dark, straightforward cold-open, “Slay Anything” moves in a fashion familiar to anyone who’s been watching this show for a while. We’re introduced to the subplots—Constantine leaving the ship to try to sort out the Astra situation, where he’ll “need to walk alone, with Gary,” Zari locked up in the brig, Nora’s frustration with her new gig—and then an alert that tells us what the A-story is going to be. This episode’s “encore” is not a historical figure, but is instead a pile of horror tropes rolled up inside a jumpsuit and stuffed under a mask. (That is not a complaint.) The Prom Night Slasher, Ava delightedly steals Gideon’s thunder to inform us, is one Freddy Meyers (bless), who killed seven of his fellow students on prom night in 1989 with a kitchen knife while wearing a mask. He was executed by the state and now his body’s missing and he’s on the lam. Please leave StabCast a review on iTunes.

Ray’s advice to Constantine earlier this season comes into play right quick—it’s time to try reforming the encores before their souls are condemned to hell. It’s the Legends as the Soul Squad. (This is not the first time it has seemed that Legends Of Tomorrow exists in The Good Place universe.) In this case, it’s a test that arises out of necessity, when the killer uses their new, hell-granted power of telekinesis to lock all the doors to the school from the outside. Episode writers Tyron B. Carter and Matthew Maala continue to pull from Carrie and many other horror classics, but they also trot out tropes from and references to other high school stories, from Napoleon Dynamite to Footloose.

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All in all, it recalls no episode of this show so much as “Wet Hot American Bummer,” a terrific fourth-season outing that also plays with horror tropes but centers on even younger youngsters. (Carter is also a credited co-writer on that one.) Like that episode, this one eventually lands on something deeply personal to one of the characters, and does so in a way that feels totally organic. In that story, it was Ava’s anxiety, insecurity, shame and grief about her past (or lack thereof) that served as the episode’s emotional engine. Here, it’s the story of Nora Darhk (Courtney Ford, as good as she’s ever been), whose inconceivable childhood trauma made her a monster, but who is no longer. And then, when the admittedly pretty predictable twist is revealed, it shifts again, because the killer Nora Darhk is also the daughter of a murderous parent whose love for her didn’t stop him from being a force of unbelievable darkness.

“Being truly okay with myself, scars and all, is how the right people truly found me,” Nora tells the teenaged Freddy (Seth Meriwether, very good). And then she gives him one more wish. What happens next is a little pie-eyed, a little too easy, but so are the ends of many high-school stories. Survival doesn’t necessarily mean being the final girl. Survival can just mean finding the right people, or letting them find you. And if that happens, then when an even greater horror arrives, you’ve got people there to hold your hands.

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“Dysfunction doesn’t get to choose who you are. You do.”

There are other great things in this hour. Ava is apparently filling the Time Bureau void with StabCast, and watching AvaLance do battle with the Prom Night Slasher is a lot of fun (“We’re final girls!”) Zari not only flashes back to her pre-Hey World self for a moment, she also displays some of the fast-thinking and determination that other Zari had in abundance. There’s loads of great Ray/Nate banter, and Zari and Behrad come to some kind of understanding. All good. There are really only two off-notes: Mick’s storyline, in which it’s revealed that he went to Central City High and was a student (albeit in juvy) around the time of the murders but missed the team meeting, feels pretty underbaked, and while I’m glad he’s feeling some feelings, it still feels as though the writers have kind of run out of Mick stories.

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The bigger issue is the tonal inconsistency with Mrs. Meyers. That first scene is so upsetting, her grief so palpable, that the shift toward camp strikes a sour note and never really course-corrects. Legends has managed to make the ridiculous also emotional and affecting in the past, and it does so here in places, but it’s hard to reconcile the distraught mother with the sneering, wild-eyed slasher. The big fight scene, in which editor Talia Lidia deftly tosses us back and forth between 1989 and 2004, is entertaining enough to make it all workable, but then we’re back with a distraught Freddy, and there’s some tonal whiplash with which to contend.

Still, it’s a minor complaint overall. “Slay Anything” isn’t quite for Nora what “Here We Go Again” was for Zari, but it’s not far off—an emotionally rich character-driven story wrapped inside a winking, self-aware romp. It tells a fun story, then lets the richness of its characters and history do the heavy lifting. It might not be Mad Men, but it’s marvelous all the same.

Stray observations

  • Ray, Nora, and Nate all get to go to prom together, Ava uses a cymbal as a weapon, Blue Ivy gets clapped back at, Behrad is being haunted by a forlorn mariner, Ray loves raw broccoli and swiss army knives, and Nora gets that sick jacket. What’s not to love?
  • The posters on Freddy’s walls are perfect.
  • Gives the idea of kids being shoved into lockers a whole new meaning, huh?
  • I said it on another show last year and I’ll say it again here: No one should use “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” for at least the next five years. That song belongs to “San Junipero.”
  • Man, Blake Neely and Daniel James Chan’s score was working overtime this week. So fun.
  • Episode MVP: Courtney Ford, but she can share with that Seth Meriwether. Great guest star.
  • Why the fuck not?: Well, the dance. But also, Ava records her podcast while searching for the killer and then declares they have to answer for some serious gaps in their psychological profile.
  • Line-reading of the week: Let’s call this a tie between “Maybe next time you should say ‘neigh’” and “Medium? Medium concerned?”
  • Gideon, what’s the most meta moment?: “I also said no musical numbers.”
  • Season five episode title ranking: 3. Miss Me, Kiss Me, Love Me 3. Meet The Legends. 1. Slay Anything. An all-timer.
  • This week’s Legends in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song form. Two for one.

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.

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