SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for “Abominations,” tonight’s episode “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.”
Sometimes, broadness suits "DC's Legends of Tomorrow" well. The show often works best when it recognizes how fun it is, valuing elaborate action sequences and camp over soberingly intense emotion. But when it chooses to examine a serious issue, the series can suddenly feel stuck, as if all those hours spent being broad have the left the writers ill-equipped to put on their poker faces.
"Legends" falls victim to that very problem tonight in "Abominations," which finds the team having to deal with a zombie virus that threatens to wipe out Union forces during the Civil War. There are undead Confederate soldiers, a cameo from Ulysses S. Grant, and Jax and Vixen witnessing the horrors of slavery firsthand.
The show has focused on tragic moments in history before with great success. The beginning of this season, for example, took place during World War II. But there's a difference between showing Nazis and showing a concentration camp, and when "Legends" hones in on Jax and Vixen's relationship with the slaves; when it tries to explore the human faces on a historical atrocity, it flounders.
The biggest problem is that the slaves themselves never receive any distinct characterizations. They're only placed in the episode to suffer. Jax and Vixen are of course right to want to help them, but the arc would have resonated more if they had come off as nuanced human beings instead of tormented plot devices. To be fair, "Legends" tends to simplify its minor characters even in its stronger episodes, but The CW's going to tackle something like slavery head-on, it's best to do so with storytelling that's more emotionally complex. Instead, the episode arrives at the blunt thesis that slavery was horrible, and that -- as heroes and human beings -- it's up to the Legends to fight such injustices. No duh.
There are a handful of moments that almost move "Abominations" beyond the Very Special Episode treatment, most notably when Jax compares the racism of the Antebellum South to the racism of today. There are still problems, he explains, but there's also a pattern of things getting more progressive.
Most frustrating of all is that the show actually has the opportunity to present a more emotionally and intellectually stimulating view of history, and it squanders it. Early on, the team meets real-life black activist and abolitionist Henry Scott. Although he led an eventful life and was one of the original members of the Niagara Movement, here, he's just another straw man; a sacrificial lamb to motivate Jax and Vixen. Like the rest of the slaves, he's there solely as a plot device rather than a true character with his own personality. His real-life achievements are glossed over, and he's gone almost as soon as we meet him.
Some of the zombie action is fun, particularly when Citizen Steel uses his still burgeoning powers to fight off a dogpile of the undead. But the horror elements also read as tonally incongruous when stacked alongside the slavery thread. And that's to say nothing of White Canary getting mentored in leadership by Ulysses S. Grant, whose cartoonish idealism reduces him to a vaguely defined caricature, just like everyone else new that we meet.
"Abominations"' one saving grace happens back on the Wave Rider, where Professor Stein and Atom have to contend with an infected Heat Wave. Besides resulting in what could be the partnership of the year, it sticks to what the show does best (outside of its fight sequences): self-contained story threads that hone in on an eccentric super-team who we've come to know and love. There's nothing wrong with tackling more serious subject matter. In fact, as a comic-book TV series, "DC's Legends of Tomorrow" should feel encouraged -- hell, even obligated -- to do so. But it could stand to be a lot more thoughtful and a lot more nuanced when investigating the uglier side of history.