Tonight’s episode splits itself neatly between three very different storylines. While each of the de facto teams has to deal with a deadly threat, there’s a decided gulf between the seriousness of Jefferson and Amaya’s encounter with the horrors of slavery and the relative levity of Sara and Nate hobnobbing with Ulysses S. Grant and Professor Stein freaking out about zombies back on the Waverider. In theory, there’s an intriguing opportunity here to put these three very different stories in conversation with one another, to have the proceedings in one inform the others. As it is, though, everything remains so isolated, with only the flimsiest connections beyond the basic fact that they all have to do with the zombie menace. The result is still a solid enough Legends Of Tomorrow entry, but one that feels like it falls far short of its potential.

Let’s start with the pivotal story here, Jefferson and Amaya’s nightmarish visit to the plantation. Legends Of Tomorrow has long distinguished itself by confronting head-on what it means for the show’s non-white and female characters to interact with the even more overt bigotries of the past. Placing the show’s two black characters in the heart of the Confederacy is a bold move, and one where it’s not really possible to approach with a soft touch. Simply depicting the reality of slavery can feel didactic, and Franz Drameh, likeable as he is as Jefferson, doesn’t necessarily have the chops to convey the nuance of their initial situation. By Jefferson’s reckoning, saving a single slave from brutal punishment isn’t worth the risk such action might pose to the already damaged timeline. He’s basically arguing the needs of the many—the needs of all, since he and Amaya are trying to protect history itself—outweigh the needs of the few.

This is a show about superheroes, so that argument is transparently intended to be unsatisfying. Jefferson is a time traveler, sure, but he’s no Time Master, nor does he especially want to be. He and Amaya are going to throw caution to the wind and save the damn day, and I think I get at least the skeletal structure of what his arc is supposed to be here. As Jefferson insists to Professor Stein at the outset, he has been black his entire life and there’s nowhere in time that he is ever going to be free of the sting of racism. But slavery represents a hatred and a dehumanization above and beyond anything he has yet encountered, and he refuses to abandon those who would otherwise be slowly reduced to nothing by its evil. That all makes sense, but Legends Of Tomorrow’s limited budget—not to mention the fact that this plotline can only get about 10 minutes total of screentime—makes it difficult to get this across properly. The story could be so much more powerful if the show could show us what slavery means, or even just to show a slave society that consists of more than four or five people.

Instead, outside of the one whipping scene and the admittedly very effective creepiness of the plantation owners, the episode is mostly forced to rely on Jefferson’s fellow prisoners in the barn telling him of the terror of their existence. It’s difficult to buy into the idea that Jefferson is being confronted with the reality of history when the show is so limited in what it can show us. This storyline could be something truly special, but it needs to hit the audience on a visceral level, or at least make a noble effort at that kind of authenticity, allowing for the show’s restrictions. This just doesn’t get all that close to that, although there are moments. The most effective moment is actually one of the very last, as Jefferson admits to Amaya that he just wants to watch the plantation burn for a moment. That unchecked and entirely justified hatred toward all that house represents crackles ever so briefly with an energy that the rest of the story only aspires to.

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Sara and Nate’s story is more along the lines of straightforward historical romp, complete with celebrity guest star in General Grant. Here again, there’s some acknowledgment of the precariousness of Sara’s position—or at least how it would be precarious if she weren’t too busy kicking ass and throwing knives—but mostly the pair just hang out with a mostly friendly future president and fight zombies. Grant comes off very well here, with no hint of the drinking habit that often colors depictions of the general. Indeed, he’s shown to be easily the most forward-thinking person in 1863, welcoming the fugitive slaves and giving Sara advice as one leader to another. Legends Of Tomorrow doesn’t shy away from depicting the Union as the unambiguous good guys and the Confederates—at least the non-zombie ones at the plantation—as the unambiguous villains, but it doesn’t really want to dig much deeper than that, instead using that setup to let this story be the relative light, zombie-fighting respite from Jefferson and Amaya’s situation.

And really, that’s understandable. I’m not asking Legends Of Tomorrow to be 12 Years A Slave, or even Django Unchained. But the show did decide of its own volition to come to 1863, and does itself few favors by being so unabashedly small-scale in its depiction of the time period’s horrors. The episode doesn’t need to be epic in its presentation to succeed, but it doesn’t stretch hard enough to turn its limited resources into more of an asset. The episode could have used the same basic elements but made things claustrophobic instead of just small. Indeed, given the one other big fantastical element added to the proceedings are honest-to-goodness zombies, it really shouldn’t be difficult to have the proverbial walls closing in on our heroes. Such a pressurized environment could have brought to the surface more of the tensions and contradictions that underpin this era, the same ideas that are already there in the episode in a more neutered form.

I’m being harsh, probably more so than the episode strictly deserves. But part of what makes Legends Of Tomorrow so intriguing is just how many different assets it has. It can be a time travel show and a superhero show, a hard sci-fi and a fantasy show, and it’s got seemingly endless permutations of main characters to drive different kinds of stories within that broad framework. Tackling slavery, particularly with a pair of characters for whom it can’t help but be personal, is exactly the sort of thing Legends Of Tomorrow should be trying to do. But “Abominations,” like too many episodes before it, doesn’t employ the show’s assets as intelligently as it ought to, making milquetoast decisions in the writing and directing that the natural charms of the cast can only do so much to compensate for. Tonight’s episode is fine, really. But it ought to have been more than that, and only so much of that can be explained by the decision to turn Mick, everyone’s favorite lovable psychopath, into a zombie for most of the hour. Legends Of Tomorrow can do things no other show on TV can do. Now I’d just like to see it actually start doing them.

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Stray observations

  • Professor Stein’s zombie phobia is deeply, deeply silly. I know Stein has never exactly been portrayed as the strict rationalist you might at first glance expect him to be, but that whole thing feels a tad too dumb for him.
  • I realize we’re long past this, but it really is a shame that Arrow didn’t get permission to make Brandon Routh’s character Ted Kord way back when, because his general insecurity and charming uselessness is just perfect for the second Blue Beetle. The prospect of him teaming up with Mick is also a delight.
  • If you want to argue this episode should get the highest grade possible purely on the strength of Sara dropping a still-moving zombie head on Ulysses Grant’s desk, I’m not going to argue the point.
  • So, are we just not going to bring up the question of why Nate’s clothes weren’t destroyed in the blast? Because I refuse to believe gratuitous nude Nick Zano is something The CW would be against.
  • I’m curious what you guys see as the best comparable for Legends Of Tomorrow. While I realize the show should first and foremost be evaluated strictly on its own terms, I can’t help but compare its time travel aspects to Doctor Who—Arthur Darvill’s onetime presence made that particularly unavoidable—while the dysfunctional team on a ship aspect feels more Firefly or Farscape. All of which is to say it’s really hard for Legends to not suffer by those comparisons, particularly in terms of how it handles the squabbling team dynamics, and I do wonder if there’s a fairer comparison out there.

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