In Defence of Nate Heywood

In a rogue’s gallery of runaways and billionaires, clones and scientists, ex-assassins and not-ex-thieves, nerds and stoners, demons and reformed government bureaucrats, Nate Heywood is the worst.

Among examples of ever so slowly growing and learning and improving, he is also the best.

Legends is the wildest, zaniest, most diverse show on television. It’s as though the show were intent on filling every square on its story and character bingo cards with various nationalities, sexualities, faiths, and superpowers. Many shows have token women and/or gays, this one has more than you can shake a stick at (and they’d probably bite if you did). Until Nate Heywood, the Typical Straight White Dudes which would stand, chisel-jawed, as the only headliners in other series were few, consisting of

  1. Arrowverse imports*, particularly Atom

  2. Rip Hunter

  3. Martin Stein

After a semi-disastrous first season, Legends had to nail this transition or it wouldn’t get another. While the nature of Legends‘s ensemble and story means it has more of a revolving cast than any other show (possible exceptions Doctor Who and various Law and Orders), S1 to S2 was the biggest interseasonal shift, and a big part of the retool was Steel.

Joining the above Legend ranks is a big ask, and adding an unrepentant dudebro to the mix didn’t just seem unnecessary, but an overload for a packed ensemble with its fair share of Typical Straight White Dudes*. The first season’s TSWDs were grandfathered in and included literal Superman Brandon Routh. The others are an iconic sci-fi time traveler played by Arthur Darvill (famous for portraying an iconic sci-fi time traveler) and played by Victor Freaking Garber.

It’s an even bigger ask when your character’s main asset is turning his ass to steel on command, or at least as often as the SFX budget / arbitrary budget-saving impositions allow. The show needed to make the audience fall fast and hard for Steel without a Big Backstory or Wowza Powers; especially is tough when his personality could be charitably described as ‘equal parts bland and douchenozzle.’ The personality serves its purpose, of course. He’s bland to let some of the zanier established characters bounce off of him, and a douchenozzle because it makes sense with his backstory, but none of that makes him easier to play.

Enter Nick Zano: a delightful performer and by all accounts equally lovely human. 

It’s immediately apparent Nate the History Prof is still a frat boy at heart, an Indiana Jones wannabe, “nice guy” and “friendzone” rolled into a cute package who’ll hit on any female in a 10-mile radius. An audience member might expect Heywood to be a redshirt, or maybe a short-arc baddie (as his dad was originally slated to be . . . but that’s another story). Instead, he became a series stalwart, a lightning rod for audience ire, and one of the best and worst of the Legends and us.

Audience disdain for him as the most basic-ass and disposable of the Legends often raises his  current sometimes-smarm and historical frat-bro-i-ness which is detailed in flashbacks, past-personality-revealing escapades, visits to 18th Century France, and more ways only a show this wonky and ridiculous can manage. Those objections have some foundation, but they’re fairly flimsy, particularly when his crimes, misdemeanours, and demeanour are considered in the context of his compadres and everything they’re forgiven for.

To wit:

Nate’s captain Sara Lance is a LITERAL ASSASSIN turned intergalactic badass and paragon of destiny. Before killing other checkered-past-ninjas, she slept with her sister’s boyfriend.

(Speaking of Oliver, he too started as smarmy cheating playboy douchenozzle a la Nate Heywood, before growing into a respected and adored paragon, beloved husband and father, saver of worlds, beginner of franchises. Much of this came through his friendship with a more mature, wiser John Diggle, a role Ray plays to Nate in Legends; more on that later.) 

Mick Rory is an unapologetic thief attempting to set a bad example in every category of vice, a father trying to atone for 20 years of absenteeism (complicated by time-traveling insemination and several stints of imprisonment), and general rude crude misogynist.

Sure he’s trying to do better by his daughter and writes flaming bodice-rippers, but why is Nate’s collegiate dude-bro-ness less forgivable than Rory’s old-school dismissiveness?

Delving into the comics is beyond the scope of this post, but pre-Legends Constantine was and is hella problematic, in a way we all love. Constantine is a conman and liar, chronically thoughtless and rude, treats Gary like an android assistant, and oh yeah sent a young girl to hell. Sure, it was an accident. But so were the byproducts of Nate’s kegstands. 

All these characters are often accepted as better heroes / humans than Nate, and take less eye-rolling than he from fans. Before I argue why Nate deserves as much or more leeway, let’s first understand why he, amongst all the Legends, bears the brunt of audience disgruntlement.

One reason some characters are given more leeway than others is their worst transgressions and most boring and/or douchey phases happened ‘pre-story’, at least pre-Legends

Sara sleeping with her sister’s playboy boyfriend was a prelude to Arrow, a backstory blip several years ago real-time and in-universe. Sara was forgiven within that show by said sister Laurel, who was alive and then dead and then alive again . . . and Sara, too, has died and been resurrected since that particular transgression, and her Assassin Phase was mitigated by little things like brainwashing and imprisonment and other off-screen events. Mick’s criminal rampages happened on The Flash, which is also where his quasi-redemption arc began. Constantine’s bad habits were in fuller display on his own NBC show, though he couldn’t smoke either there or on Legend’s CW, which continues to find creative ways to work around showing it while still insinuating he smokes all the time

Whereas they all arrive fully formed, Nate is a blank slate, and the show needs to give us all his flaws up front along with his smarmy charms. We were introduced to all his flaws and drawbacks all at once. Boy, does he have some drawbacks.

Balance can also be tricky, and sometimes the characters are written as though they are from different universes, because they literally are. It works because the show stays fresh with a dazzling variety of faces and plots, and because writers and actors alike are blessed by Beebo with enormous talent, but in an ensemble so large, it does impact how we read certain closer-to-life characters. Caity Lotz, (perfect) manages to play both as if she’s the most self-aware and in-on-the-joke of an incredibly self-aware cast, and also perfectly swings to manage her serious emotional scenes. Mick serves as comedic relief, and is much more overtly cartoon-y; we don’t every day have to deal with jewel thieves, but we do have to deal with smarmy professors and Nice Guys. Whereas Nate is merely douchey, Constantine is a full Bad Boy, and we do love us some Bad Boys, particularly the demonic adjacent, bleached hair, trenchcoat wearing, anguished variety. 

Anyways, where were we?

Nate’s nowhere near perfect, and I want to be careful not to insinuate “trying” is a free pass for problematic behaviour or “being a slightly better dude” is a high enough bar to clear or “friendzoning” is actually a thing.

But Nate is actively on a journey to get better, and never transgres[sed][es] in a way which is irredeemable. We’re not talking a Brock Turner, or an enabler of such; Nate Heywood would never condone such a thing, he’d steel up and punch the guy. We’re talking a dude with no direction or good examples, with fantastic taste in women but questionable dating practices, who is happy to be a simple friend and stoner and playful compatriot while saving the world sometimes. He’s a tryhard, and used to be king of the frat bros before he learned better. For this, he cops a disproportionate amount of hate. 

As Nate grows as a person, so grows his unabashed bromance with Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer / Atom. The two openly express their affection verbally, physically, and emotionally, breaking down toxic masculinity stigmas without a shred of self-consciousness. 

Though Legends has never let things like realism stand in the way of its plotting – a giant rampaging Tickle-Me-Elmo knockoff, an evil third nipple, Marie Antoinette’s disembodied-but-still-chatting head, and the animated wax figure of Sisquo singing his “Thong Song” are merely a few of its treasures – what it does take seriously is mental health struggles, human relationships, moral quandaries, interactions with life and death, and personal development. In real life, we don’t change overnight. When we do become better humans, it’s not by releasing an apology (or a publicist’s approximation thereof) or by making an announcement we’ve decided to be better, or seeing a therapist one time. Realisations may be sudden, but the work itself takes time and involve plenty of backsliding. Nate didn’t meet Ray, realise his father’s abusive tendencies, break up with Amaya, etc., and suddenly wake up a good dude; anyone who claims or expects you can just voila! become a better person! is not to be trusted. His is a slow evolution, which all of those events have factored into, but which he’s had to consistently chip away at.

We should be celebrating Nate, but it’s easier for arseholes (particularly a specific type of dudebro) to simply dismiss him while embracing Constantine . . . because after all, then they wouldn’t have to put the same amount of work in as Nate has to be and do better, and they’re never going to have to face having to atone for sending various people to demonic dimensions. 

Over the course of the last few seasons Nate has grown and changed into a better man and superhero. He still indulges in adolescent jokes and basic-ass woman chasing (but then so does Sara, and so do we all), his sense of honour is sometimes overwrought and pointing in the wrong direction, and he’s probably not going to be a Paragon any time soon. But he’s acknowledged when he’s wrong, cognisant of not repeating his father’s mistakes, and willing to keep working to be a better man and hero.  

Heaven knows dudes like Nate don’t need me to defend them, but Nate’s exactly what we should want from his Type; slowly but surely improving in personality, action, and allyship. In telling dudebros or anyone their incremental, often-difficult growth isn’t worth as much as big gestures of murderers and conmen, we’re not only telling them we value them less, but not to bother with the hard yards. That’s not the story Legends or the rest of the Arrowverse has ever set out to tell, and it’s not the message we should be taking from it. 

Stray Observations 

– *At first glance it may seem there were three TSWDs – Ray Palmer / Atom, Mick Rory / Heatwave, and Leonard Snart / Captain Cold – but this is based on a default presumption of whiteness *and* hereronormativity. It’s really only Ray and Mick.

First, Wentworth Miller is multiracial. Second, Crisis on Earth-X shows Earth X Captain Cold is queer, and while not all characteristics, superpowers, tattoos, and sexualities cross over into all worlds, many do, and there’s no reason to believe Snart isn’t queer well.

Miller himself is gay and has been quite open about his struggle to be publicly gay, particularly in the film industry, so it’s lovely to seem him portray a queer hero in Earth X and a perfectly campy queer mixedbagofdeliciousquasivillainy in the rest of the Arrowverse. 

– While it’s true Legends covers a wide range of everyone, the big thing I’d like to see / which the show is perfectly situated to explore is more Legends with physical differences and more disabilities explored. C’mon, Season 6.

– Zano also had a stint on Happy Endings and a shorter-but-similar one on Cougar Town; not relevant exactly, just plugging in case you need more delightful quaran-binges.

– If you think I’d forget Sara and Constantine fucked: absolutely not.

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