Legends of Tomorrow: 204 “Abominations” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Legends of Tomorrow has hardly ever been a subtle show. It built itself upon big, bonkers sci-fi stories with broadly drawn character journeys and plenty of colourful action, and that mix often worked really well in the first season. Season two has hardly dispensed with Legends’ brashness, but it’s found a new jolt of life by quietening down a little in certain places to truly focus on the characters, which has allowed the show to handle some slightly subtler, even sensitive stories such as Sara’s rise to leader of the Legends and Ray’s inferiority complex.
This week’s episode, Abominations, reaps the benefits of that newfound ability. It’s an episode with a classically silly Legends elevator pitch – zombies in the Civil War – but within that story, Abominations nearly always ensures that character comes first, allowing the bonkers zombie action to merely act as the entertaining facilitator for the real core of the story. It’s summative of this show’s tick up in quality this season that a plotline in which Legends may have become lost in the technobabble nuts-and-bolts if it were handled last year sits so well with two other major character stories on and off the Waverider. By blasting through the set-up and merely assuming audience familiarity with zombie tropes, Abominations is refreshingly quick off the marks which allows the emotional stories more time to build naturally later on. When the zombie action comes, it’s undoubtedly a lot of fun and leads up to a strong pay-off as Nate summons his powers on command for the first time in order to detonate the horde of zombies, so the show hardly wastes its opportunity to mine zombie movie tropes for all they’re worth – the Waverider story serves as a fitting outlet for Legends’ typical onrush of meta references anyhow. Abominations is constructed a lot more precisely than similar episodes were in season one, and the balance between giving the premise its dues and not allowing it to subsume the more dramatically interesting action elsewhere is struck with surprising delicacy.
By far the most interesting part of the episode, and one that speaks to Legends’ evolution this year, is Abominations’ exploration of slavery through Jax’s eyes. Given how easily these kinds of stories can fall into didacticism or sanitising the period for entertainment value, the success of this plotline took me aback, exhibiting a sensitivity and emotional intelligence that Legends has only shown hints of before. Not only does Abominations tackle racism in a way that thoroughly condemns the horrific outward cruelty of slavery, it also manages to make a powerful point about the human tendency to condemn the ‘other’ with Jax’s pertinent point to Stein that there’s no period in history where he wouldn’t face prejudice. The exploration of particularly cruel and controversial parts of history in films and TV often amounts to ‘this is horrible, but look how far we’ve come!’, offering up a comforting distance between the horrors depicted on-screen and the viewer’s contemporary society, so Legends has to be commended for ensuring that its exploration of racism in 1863 has something to say about the continuing pervasiveness of similar kinds of prejudice in 2016.
Likewise, the actual exploration of slavery itself is some of the most resonant and affecting dramatic work that Legends has pulled off thus far. The dialogue exploring the slaves’ plight is hardly subtle, but there’s an economical power to the scripting that means every line of dialogue in these scenes counts. For instance, the simple answer to Jax’s stunned enquiry as to why the slaves don’t break establishes much more about their resilience and courage in the face of shocking treatment than a dozen lines of florid dialogue would elsewhere. Abominations is even surprisingly moving where it counts, even if it draws heavily from other depictions of slavery in fiction, with the episode lingering on the emotional power of the slaves communally breaking into song as a sign of their persisting faith in each other, or the deeply cathartic imagery of the plantation burning down as an embodiment of the minor victory that Jax has won over history’s injustice.
Most of all, though, the plotline works because it gives these horrific events the time they need to truly sink in, and then comes to a concluding note of unabashed idealism as Jax and Amaya defy the vague rule that history can’t be untouched in order to make the horrors of the past just a little less bad. Reshaping the past and meddling with the timeline in Legends often comes across as an example of its messy plotting, but Jax and Amaya’s changes are a rare example where an intentional change to the past is shown to unquestionably have improved things, offering up an optimistic portrait of time travel as a means to make little changes for the better here and there that add up to something powerful. Abominations’ approach to this story is summed up in the episode’s best line of dialogue, in which Jax informs a slave that things will get better in the future – not perfect, but better than their current situation. It’s uncertain whether the racism depicted here has truly gone away in the modern day, and doesn’t offer up any kind of definitive victory as only one plantation is taken out, but it places a huge importance on the power of saving a dozen or so lives and offering them hope of a better future. Other time travel shows might have handled a similar plotline with more subtlety, and with characters that are better fleshed-out, but Legends gets to the emotional core of the situation with such briskness and efficiency that it’s able to do a hell of a lot in very little time. And in such a divisive time where the attitudes seen in the seemingly cartoonish slave owner are all-too present and impactful in society, it’s kind of important that Legends pulled this off.
It’s fair to say that things aboard the Waverider are a little less weighty, and in places, Abominations suffers for that – there’s an abundance of comic relief and moments of questionable behaviour from the characters, and often that can leave the plotline feeling inconsequential in light of the visceral power of the slavery storyline. For instance, while Dr Stein’s fear of zombies does allow Legends’ designated secret weapon Victor Garber (who seems to unveil a new talent every week) to show off his impeccable comic timing here and there, it wears thin as a one-note joke that’s unconvincingly drawn into a serious plotline about Stein facing his fears. Nonetheless, it’s a story that does offer some strong character insights for Ray, who seems to be oscillating back and forth week-by-week from team irritant to one of Legends’ most likeable characters.
Last episode ended with a major status quo change for Ray with the destruction of his Atom suit, and that’s certainly something Abominations is conscious of from the get go – his lack of physical power is the reason he’s benched in the first place and reduced to making packed lunches for the team anyway. It’s not something the episode makes a huge deal of however, and thankfully, Ray is shown trying throughout the episode to surmount his clear physical disadvantage by moving forward and trying to find a new purpose – his all-too familiar insecurities are only mentioned in the light of Ray’s attempt to move past them. That’s a strong way to build off last week’s intriguing twist while heading into genuinely original territory for the character – not only is it satisfying to have a lack of moping on Ray’s part replaced by a sense of proactivity, but it also capitalises on Shogun’s promise that Ray’s character would stop circling the drain undergoing the same conflict over and over, acting as a rare example where Ray’s character is finally moving forward.
Most importantly, Abominations brings it home by not only showing Ray’s active quest for a new purpose, but actually giving him one as Mick hands over Snart’s cold gun to him and asks him to be his new partner. It’s a great moment for a whole mix of reasons, from the oddly touching insight into Mick’s gruff shield falling down to express genuine admiration for someone, but it’s particularly satisfying because it follows through and gives Ray a drastically new role in the team as a successor to Captain Cold. It’s the kind of status quo shift that it’s easy to see Legends backing away from fast, especially since it veers off the beaten track in terms of comic book adaptations, but I hope this is something that the show commits to in the long term, because there’s a lot of room for interesting new development with Ray as Mick’s new partner.
A lot of the emotional power of Abominations rests upon the strength of that slavery storyline, which is great enough for the slightly pedestrian plotting elsewhere to be mostly forgiven as a means to an end – Nate and Sara’s scenes, for example, are essentially passable stuff, but they doesn’t spark to life until the very final assault on the Union Army’s camp. Despite the slightly mechanical nature of certain plotlines, Abominations still goes down as one of the strongest episodes of Legends to date thanks to its deft balance of the show’s trademark silly comic-book action with a sobering and sensitive exploration of slavery – it’s no mean feat to interweave those two plotlines throughout without a sense of tonal whiplash. It’s a very fun episode with some great character interplay, as ever, but, atypically, there’s something deeper to Abominations than just thrills and humour, which shows just how far Legends has come since those creaky, exposition-filled early episodes back in season one. Let’s just hope the show can keep up this momentum when it dives back into the season arc next week with a trip to the White House in the 80s…