[WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Legends of Tomorrow season 1.]
The debut season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow has come to an end - and if you were confused by the team's successful timestream-expanding solution to Vandal Savage's master plan, you're not alone. After pursuing the villain through the 20th Century and well into the future (the same future they were trying to prevent from ever happening) the way out, the way back, and the way to a satisfying conclusion became harder and harder to follow, as is usually the case in stories based on altering history and time itself.
In the interest of making sure that viewers and fans actually grasp what the writers came up with - in more than a handful of pseudo-scientific lines of jargon and editing - we've done our best to break down the beats, the time travel theories at work, the unavoidably confusing plot holes or sketchy details, and of course, that stunning cliffhanger ending. If you've got answers we've missed, or think a crucial detail has been omitted, don't hesitate to offer your wisdom in the comments, too.
See if you caught every twist and wrinkle in time in our attempt at Legends of Tomorrow Finale Ending & Cliffhanger Explained.
Vandal Savage's Plan
He spent a majority of the season working towards world domination in the form of nuclear arms sales, genetic engineering, biological genocide, and good old-fashioned manipulation, but the version of Vandal Savage who really posed the threat was the version from the year 2166. Having achieved catastrophic levels of destruction and unmatched power, Vandal set his sights on a do-over; a chance to make himself the ruler of mankind on the second round.
To do it, we learned in the finale, he needed a few key ingredients. Finally, the reason for keeping Scythian Torvil a.k.a. Carter Hall a.k.a. Prince Khufu becomes clear: to set his plan in motion, he needs the blood of all three ancient Egyptians irradiated by the magical meteorite.
A meteorite that has been sent by the aliens known as Thanagarians, and forever linked Vandal, Kendra, and Carter in a cycle of immortality and reincarnation.
The name of that alien race and planet carries particular meaning for DC Comics fans, since the planet Thanagar is actually home to a race of humanoid warriors - whose police force brandishes golden melee weapons, and sets of wings. Versions of the heroes Hawkman and Hawkgirl have possessed varying links to Thanagar, with some explicitly being alien cops serving a new mission on Earth.
In the Legends fiction, it may be possible that the "Thanagarian technology" contained in the meteorite passed those genetic gifts on to Kendra and Carter.
If so, then it would explain why their blood (and possibly their blood alone) could be used to 'activate' the meteorites sent from Thanagar. How, or why that would result in a world-ending explosion is never made clear, but acquiring the blood is just the first step of Vandal's timestream-spanning master plan.
The 'Time Quake'
With time travel finally added to his repertoire, Vandal Savage is able to use the collected blood to not only activate one meteorite, but three scattered across time - scattered across the time periods the show has followed him through, no less. By hijacking the time ship, Vandal is able to revisit himself in these points in time, instructing himself to acquire the meteorites, and wait for the appointed moment when - Martin Stein informs us - Earth and Thanagar are "in sync." Activate them at those times, he instructs, and the meteorite will end the world.
Why is that a good thing? Again, Martin Stein explains (sort of). One world-ending weapon would be bad - forever destroying the timeline and the version of history Earth had in store - but fire off three, and you've got yourself a time paradox (Earth can't be destroyed three different times). The result, Stein and Rip Hunter conclude, would be a "time quake, that would return the Earth to the point of the first chrono-thermic reaction: ancient Egypt." Once there, Savage has already revealed, he will get his second chance at dominating human history.
Now if you're already saying to yourself "that doesn't make sense" (even in the category of zany time travel logic)... you're not wrong. But we'll get to those problems (and more) soon enough. For now, Savage is launching a three-pronged attack: one which would require all three meteorites to be destroyed, since any one will end the world.
The Team's Solution
The answer to the team's problem lies where the story began (sans if Savage has his way, where it's headed next). Having spent weeks explaining how only weapons or items irradiated by the meteorite could actually kill Vandal Savage, Martin Stein realizes the actual reason why. In short, the radiation which gave the trio their powers is also their only weakness. So Martin arrives at the most obvious conclusion: why not cut out the middle man, and just use the Thanagarian meteorite radiation to weaken Savage, instead of a weapon saturated with the same energy?
It's suspicious that Vandal Savage apparently never considered this fact, but then, he's not a brilliant scientist. So with no concern for his immortality being weakened by his very plan (although with the world ending moments later, what does he care?), Savage activates the meteorites in 1958, 1975, and 2021 - the latter being the very same meteorite that struck the Egyptian temple, uncovered by Nazis.
The team's solution? Use the radiation's weakening of Savage to strike: not once, but three times simultaneously.
In the words of Martin Stein, Savage would be most vulnerable when "unleashing the radiation from three meteorites in three different time periods" - taking triple the exposure to the radiation - which "should be enough to render Savage mortal." Jax catches on quickly, realizing that to finish him for good, the team need only kill Savage in each of the three scenarios.
The Obvious Time Travel Problems
Enthusiastic fans should know we take no pleasure in saying that, while these explanations might sound okay when spoken in the heat of a TV finale, closer inspection shows they're also filled with plot holes and storytelling paradoxes of their own. For starters, as sketchy and flexible as Legends has been with the rules of time travel or altering history, Martin Stein claiming that Savage "can literally be in three places at once" raises serious problems alone, since immortality (as common sense would perceive it) just fundamentally doesn't work that way. There can be ONE Savage at three different points in history (or four, or five, or six), sure - but they are still separated by decades.
Because of that, the impression given in the final showdown - that these battles are happening simultaneously - is hard to rectify. It's clearly for dramatic purposes, but the scenes preceding the multi-time battle imply that's not the only reason. On an even larger scale, the idea that Savage could travel back in time to instruct his past selves to activate the meteorites together defies the show's very definition of the time stream. There is no "together"; no concurrent moment that could be synchronized to change the timeline three times at once.
The show's previous claims that changes to the timeline take time to 'set' could offer some idea of where the writers' heads are at, but take one step further, and the idea that Savage receives "triple the exposure" and must (or can) be killed in each time period is even more confusing - implying that time isn't linear (as the show previously posited). Fans of BBC's time-traveling series Doctor Who will recall the Doctor famously describing time as "a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff" - but that's not the interpretation of time that Legends of Tomorrow ever posited.
The fact that the team seems to succeed in killing a mortal Savage in each instance only makes it stranger. Why wasn't the 1958 murder the only one needed? Even if the show is using The Flash's notion of Time Remnants - Savage's 'present' self would be erased, but not the actions he has completed - the meteorites would need to be destroyed in each time period, but Savage should have experienced... something. Unfortunately, everyone in the show seems to understand the plan perfectly, meaning nobody raises these obvious questions (and we're not going anywhere near Rip's meteorite-sun-disposal/time jump resulting in the space rock simply winking out of existence, instead of seeing him return just after his earlier self flew away).
In the end, Savage dies three times, with Kendra delivering the final blow (as was needed to end the curse) in 2021. We say the 'final' blow, because Savage didn't actually die in 1958. Which we know, because...
The Future Hasn't Changed
Here's where things get murky on a level that might actually annoy fans. Watching the cast try to take down Vandal Savage after he already succeeded in essentially destroying humanity was a bit less powerful (Rip's family were literally the only people trying to be saved), but remember: the version of Savage killed in 2021 is actually the one hailing from 2166. That's the man who already succeeded in committing genocide and, as he reminds Rip, killing his wife and son (setting the 2166 version of Rip onto the course that brings him to this point, as well).
It's a surprisingly tight time loop on its own - the repercussions of which seem to be ignored completely by everyone in the scene. The team has only succeeded in killing Vandal Savage after his rise to power and reign of terror. At a time when, going by the Time Masters' glimpse of the future, the only function he had left to serve was to unite Earth against alien invaders. Oh well. Killing the bad guy is always satisfying, even if it's not what Rip actually set out to accomplish.
Fortunately, for the show, Legends of Tomorrow doesn't need to explain how the absence of Vandal Savage from the time stream could impact the future (such as avoiding the calamitous apocalypse of 2166) - since the series can just throw new time travelers and paradoxical conundrums at viewers to muddy the waters (such as the season 1 cliffhanger we'll discuss further on as well as the impending Thanagarian threat).
The other plot device most likely to be pointed to for answers is the Thanagarian meteorites themselves: could they have affected Savage's immortality? Do they have time-traveling properties that would deliver the aforementioned "triple dose" of exposure simultaneously, across time? Unfortunately, the writers have remained intentionally vague about the actual magic/technology driving the events so far. The technology Vandal Savage describes as beyond humanity's understanding may be to blame for their immortality, reincarnation, the weapons that can be used to kill them, end the world, and who knows what else, but the technology itself functions largely as un-explainable magic, for all intents and purposes.
Had the series been a bit longer, perhaps the exact technology would have been pinned down (or the energy wave expelled by Savage upon his death explained, or the 'alignment' of planets), but considering how the conclusion seems engineered to be vague, explanation probably wasn't a priority. Besides, Kendra decides to fly off into the sunset with Carter (who's not actually Carter), leaving fans to hope that there's no 2166 reincarnation of Kendra now left without a soulmate. Onto the twist ending!
As the crew prepares to set out and patrol time as the only honest Time Masters left, a different (but the same) Waverider comes in for a crash landing: depositing an unknown stranger before them. In classic time travel form, he seeks confirmation that it is, in fact, May 2016 - the exact time and place that Mick Rory, of all people, instructed him to arrive. Arrive, and offer a warning: that getting on board the Waverider for this mission will result in their deaths.
Without offering an explanation - whether he came from the future, the past, a parallel world, etc. - the man does offer a name: Rex Tyler (played by Patrick J. Adams in his long-rumored mystery role). Sensing that the name may not carry weight or meaning to everyone present (or watching at home), he continues listing his credentials as a member of the Justice Society of America.
The Justice Society of America
To the unfamiliar, Rex Tyler is also known by the superhero moniker 'Hourman', a fitting name considering his superpower. Well, less a power, and more of superhuman strength, agility and endurance as a result of a mysterious, and potentially dangerous, drug (Miraclo) which grants him powers for... one hour. Created in the Golden Age of DC Comics, Tyler soon became a charter member of the Justice Society of America - DC's first superhero team, later repeated with the Justice League - married a movie star and had a son, Rick, to carry on the legacy.
While his time with the JSA means Rex rubbed shoulders with comic book Jay Garrick, among others (whose name should send bells ringing for Flash fans), it's actually his son Rick who most DC readers will be familiar with. Having picked up the family business by necessity, Rick would develop a longtime love affair with Jesse Quick, and become a regular staple of JSA stories (it's Rick's costume which the show seems to be taking cues from, judging by the black suit and red striped arms).
Although this cliffhanger ending is clearly setting up the mystery of season 2 - what was Mick up to, and can this unknown, possibly drug-addicted hero be trusted - and cast of characters, it's safe to say that the writers haven't yet locked in their story for season 2. Still, an indication the JSA is on their minds is a promising sign for older fans (especially those whose dreams were dashed when those rumors of an Hourman series never amounted to anything).
That's our breakdown of what happened, and our outline of questions we're still asking in the season finale's wake. Again, we encourage every fan to offer their own answers, or point out theories and details that might shed some light on the logic, not to mention what may be coming next.
DC's Legends of Tomorrow is expected to return this fall on The CW.