Leadership is a burden. Anyone who’s ever had to be in charge of another group of people, no matter what the situation, will tell you that’s the first tenant of being a leader. You’re in charge, but you’re constantly dealing with the complaints of others while trying to keep everybody happy and/or safe. It is a thankless job and if you think you’re going to be praised for being the leader, then you’re sorely mistaken. Though we always associate the leadership role of the turtles as inherently belonging to Leonardo (mostly because the theme song tells us so), the latest incarnation of our blue-masked hero isn’t starting from a natural position as the leader. The pilot showed us an eager young hero striving for greatness like his television role model, but “New Girl in Town” focuses on the consequences of being a leader as experienced by Leo and Raph.
Hey, Snakeweed is back! How appropriate that the first mutagen-created villain returns in an episode that harkens back in many ways to the pilot. While chasing Snakeweed through the streets of New York, Leo and Raph continue to disagree over how the situation should be handled. This inevitably results in them losing sight of Snakeweed and leads to yet another hashing out between the two “older” siblings over the role of leadership on the team. Leo, tired of Raph’s constant undermining of his authority finally gives up and let’s him take a stab at being the leader, which suits Raph just fine. Opting out of being involved at all with finding Snakeweed, Leo decides to let off some steam on the rooftops where he’s ambushed by a small group of foot soldiers and their leader, a teenage girl named Karai. Naturally Leo is smitten even if she does nearly kill him not once, not twice, but thrice!
Now in charge of the team, Raph seems to think that as the best fighter, leading his brothers into combat will be a piece of cake. But no amount of threats and intimidation prepare the hot-headed turtle for the pressures of being in charge. Though they manage to find Snakeweed’s lair and save the people he’s kidnapped, when the trio have to fight Snakeweed is where everything falls apart for Raphael. Normally the muscle of the group, Raph’s motivations have always been to have his brothers’ backs while he’s willing to take more risks with his own life. As the leader, he has to keep everyone safe while strategizing how best to take down Snakeweed. While it seems fairly straight forward, the parameters keep changing, especially when Mikey is injured. Raph can’t handle the pressure and he freezes. Only Donnie’s quick thinking snaps Raph out of it so they can get Mikey home and make Leo the leader again.
Though the rivalry between Raph and Leo has often been the centerpiece of many a TMNT plot, it’s a rare thing to see a story truly hammer home why Leo is the most suited for the role, even if the turtle in question just wants to cut loose every once in a while. What I appreciate about the show is how carefully the creators have been exploring Leo’s growth as a leader. A lot of that has to do with making Leo a relatable character in a way other incarnations haven’t accomplished. Reducing the turtles to one defining character trait (the way the ’87 cartoon did) only makes for one-note characters incapable of moving beyond their assigned role. Leo’s the leader, which makes him the responsible one, the good son, the stalwart Captain America type. Ya know, boring. And most versions usually have Leo already set in his role, so there’s really nothing else for him to do except fight with Raph.
TMNT took the basic idea of Leo as the leader, but found a way to make his choice to lead the catalyst for his growth as a character. Leo volunteered for the position, but it’s obvious he didn’t truly understand the burden of responsibility he was undertaking. His reality isn’t the reality of Space Heroes or Captain Ryan where the rewards outweigh the risk. In Leo’s world, the safety and security of his family and the need to maintain secrecy but still fight to protect others are rewarded by nothing except a constant string of complaints from his brothers. It’s what makes his encounters with Karai an exciting contrast since her only concerns are with the thrill of taking what she wants when she wants. It’s the wonderful good boy meets bad girl dynamic that does double duty of setting up Karai as Shredder’s somewhat rebellious daughter (surprise!) and reinforces Leo’s boy scout mentality without belittling him.
Captain Obviously: We all know who Karai is, right? Riiiiight?
- Mikey’s more upset about the pizza guy being gone than Leo walking away
- Donnie is suitably motivated by the threat of hitting
- Space Heroes has Captain Ryan entertaining a lady friend
- Leo’s not the best at comebacks
- There’s a very Princess Bride vibe to Leo and Karai’s fight
- Mikey doesn’t like learning where things come from in the sewers
- “She’s in the FOOT CLAN!” – April O’Neil, the voice of reason
- April texted Donnie – best day ever…relatively speaking
- “She threw a knife at your head.” “She threw a knife near my head.”