written by Kate Spencer
SPOILER WARNINGS ARE IN EFFECT
Previously on Legends Of Tomorrow, Nate got super. Ray got less super. Amaya joined the team to track down Rex Tyler’s killer. Rip Hunter is missing, so the rest of the team has to take turns doing opening narrations to explain the premise of the show. All caught up? Good.
The episode opens with a time pirate of some sort abandoning his time ship after pulling off a heist in the future. He sends out a distress signal to someone saying the rest of the crew is dead or infected or something before his pod crashes in an unknown time and place. See, this is more like it. The plot isn’t being driven by our own heroes screwing up, it’s being driven by actual bad guys. Time pirates have already been established, so this is an excellent use for them! All right, when does he crash?
Middle of the Civil War…Mississippi…with two black people on the team…I’m just going to sit over here and clench for a while, ‘kay?
Jax and Stein re-watch Future Barry’s message and we get a little bit more of the message – there’s a war coming. Jax turns it off, and he and Stein are about to debate telling the crew when Sara calls them about the distress signal from the crashed time pirate. She benches Ray, because he doesn’t have his suit anymore, and Stein tries to convince Jax to stay behind because of “the horrors of that era”. But Jax drops some hard truth: “I’ve been black my entire life, Gray. And honestly I can’t think of a time period we could go to where I wouldn’t face some sort of racism.”
Uh…wow. I didn’t expect them to be that upfront about it right away. I know they didn’t shy away from the topic of racism in the 1950s episode from last season, but bringing up 1860s racism and saying that racism is hardly an era-specific problem? Maybe I didn’t need to clench.
The rest of the team goes out to explore while Ray stays behind to coordinate…and immediately gets himself muted by Sara. They find the escape pod and burn it, because burning metal things always removes all traces of them. They hear a cry for help and Amaya takes off in that direction, making the rest of the team worry that her interference might mess up history. REALLY? NOW you worry about little things screwing up history? All right, what’s the plan here? Jax and Stein become Firestorm, who then flies into the air and throws a fireball at Confederate soldiers chasing a courier.
Miss you, Rip.
The man is Henry Scott, a free man working as dispatch for the Union army. Just as the team is about to leave after possibly killing a lot of peoples’ ancestors, the Confederates get back up looking and acting a whole lot like zombies. A short fight ensues, in which Mick seems to be the only person who has seen a zombie movie before (he smashes one of their heads with a rock). Henry is mortally wounded and passes his satchel containing valuable information to Jax before dying.
Back on the ship, they actually research the thing mentioned in the distress call. TX-90 is a virus that induces zombie-like symptoms in whomever it infects…all right. Look, “future zombie virus” is fine with me as a plot point. Actually, it’s less ridiculous than Vandal Savage’s meteor plan at the end of last season. Mick collapses and they discover a bite mark on his shoulder. He demands Ray fix him before he turns into a zombie. But they have another problem – history has been altered and the South now wins the war, either because of the zombies or because the information Henry was carrying was vital to the Union’s victory. Henry was supposed to infiltrate a plantation to gather intel about troop movements, so to restore the timeline, Jax volunteers to take his place with Amaya going along as backup. When they get to the plantation, they see a slave being whipped for burning a tablecloth she was ironing, but are forced to stand back to avoid blowing their cover.
This is already much more than I expected the show to do, and I probably should have given the writers a lot more credit. I’ve said before that there’s a problem with setting a science fiction or fantasy story in a historical setting, but to summarize: if the science fiction elements overshadow the actual factual events, you’re doing a disservice to history and the people who lived in the era. If, for example, you’re writing about wizards in early America and you ignore or downplay things like war, racism, slavery, and genocide, you come off as a bit clueless at best and completely ignorant and insensitive at worst. This is a lesson some authors could stand to learn. However, to Legends Of Tomorrow’s credit, they’re managing to tell a superhero story and a zombie story while not shying away from the very real and horrible things that happened in that era. In fact, they’re shining a great big spotlight on it. I’d even say parts of this episode make me feel uncomfortable – and they should.
Nate and Sara go out to make contact with the Union army and warn them about the Confederate zombies…yeah, no matter how many times I say it, it still sounds goofy. They bicker about who should do all of the talking, what with the gender inequality of the time period, and somehow manage to have Union soldiers sneak up on them from all sides. For Nate, this makes sense, but a League Of Assassins member just got snuck up on by a bunch of army dudes while she was looking in their direction. They’re taken to a Union camp where Nate talks history – 300 out of the three million people who fought in the Civil War were women in drag. I looked this up, and it’s historical fact. Actually, the estimates are anywhere between 400 and 750. Huh, Legends made me learn something.
Anyway, they meet with General Ulysses S. Grant and Nate introduces himself as Colonel Sanders with the 31st Pennsylvania infantry. Even Sara rolled her eyes at that one. She tells Grant about the zombies but he has no idea what a zombie is, so she goes to get proof before telling Grant that if she doesn’t come back, he’s free to shoot Colonel Sanders. Heh. She returns a while later with a decapitated (but still animated) head and warns there are more right outside the camp.
Kinemortophobia! Stein has it, it’s apparently a real phobia, I Googled it, and gosh darn it, I’m going to use it in this review. It’s a fear of zombies. Stein’s is so severe he can’t even bring himself to say the word, but he helps Ray find a cure for Mick anyway. Ray administers it, but it doesn’t work, and Mick goes full zombie so they lock him in the med bay. Stein doesn’t want to go back in to try the cure again, but Ray convinces him by playing on his kinemortophobia by saying if he goes back in alone, he could be bitten and then Stein will have two zombies to deal with. Unfortunately, Mick isn’t in the med bay anymore and ambushes them in a corridor, forcing them to retreat to the galley.
Amaya stays outside on comms while Jax goes into the plantation house during a party. He’s unable to locate the plans and accidentally bumps into a white woman. He apologizes and briefly takes her hand, which gets the attention of the plantation owner who yells at him. Jax doesn’t take any of his shit and tries to walk away but that draws further ire and punishment. He’s taken outside to a stable and chained up. Through their connection, Stein feels Jax is scared but he and Ray aren’t able to help him – or Sara, who calls for backup. Jax introduces himself to the slaves locked up with him and one comments on him sharing names with two slave owners. Daaaaaamn. When he asks for their help, they tell him about slaves who tried to escape and were mutilated as punishment but not killed because the plantation didn’t want to lose the workers. Yeah, I’m clenching for a whole other reason now. The episode is laying down some cold, hard, horrifying truths about history and they’re barely scratching the surface.
After going into the house to find Jax, Amaya is talked down to and perved on by one of the slave owners. Oooooh, I smell catharsis coming. She’s led to where Jax and the slaves are chained up and starts pummeling the man. She frees Jax, but he wants to free the slaves. Amaya asks about causing an aberration to the timeline. Jax says it’s worth the risk. “The way these people are being treated – that’s the real aberration. I can see that now. This is the history that needs to be fixed.” When one of the slaves hesitates to be freed, citing what happens to those who try to escape, they swear to protect them. Jax also tells him that it gets better – nowhere near perfect, but better than this.
You guys…this may be my favorite episode.
One of the women recognizes Amaya’s totem, realizes she’s a warrior and protector of her people and decides to trust her, which convinces the others. They’re about to leave when the zombies attack…I know, but it’s still a pretty damn good episode. Jax and one of the slaves enter the house to get the intel Jax was initially after and then watch the plantation owner get attacked after refusing to give them weapons to help fight. After throwing a lantern into the horde of zombies, Jax takes a moment to watch the plantation burn before escaping with Amaya and the freed slaves.
Back at Grant’s camp, Sara sends Nate into the horde of zombies with a torch. “Run fast. Run hard. Don’t die.” Nate promises her two of those things. He runs around distracting the zombies and herding them all toward a crate of nitroglycerin, which he then detonates after turning into Steel. When morning comes, Sara and Grant survey the carnage, wondering if Nate survived. A zombie gut-covered Nate stands up with surprisingly intact clothing for having been at the epicenter of the explosion.
Ray has a plan to cure Mick by…administering the cure via a fire extinguisher? Look, whether you’re curing a zombie plague with a serum, a fire extinguisher, or a rubber ducky, it’s still a zombie plague you’re curing, so don’t knock the fictional science. Ray is knocked out, leaving Stein to cure Mick himself. The cure works and Mick is back to normal.
Jax (posing as Henry Scott) delivers the plans to Grant and he adjusts his own plan to make good use of the intel. Grant then gives Sara a pep talk about not regretting making tough command decisions – like sending her people into harm’s way as long as it’s for the good of the mission.
Ray checks on Mick, who thanks him for curing him. Ray also talks about the loss of his suit and he questions whether he still has a place on the team. Mick says being an outsider can be a good thing, and offers Ray the weapon of the greatest outsider he ever knew – Captain Cold’s cold gun. Mick wants a new partner. Ray powers up the cold gun and says, “Cool.” Damn it Ray, that was almost a badass moment and you had to ruin it.
The episode ends with Stein checking in on Jax, admitting that even with their psychic connection, he can’t possibly imagine what Jax is going through. Jax says what he saw broke his heart, but he also saw in the slaves hope against even the worst parts of humanity. Stein says he sees that same hope in Jax.
Damn. I was ready to rip this episode apart if it didn’t treat the subject matter properly, and you know I would have. But apart from the time travel, the superheroes, the time pirates, and the zombies, the episode manages to touch on subjects that a lot of shows don’t. The episode is set in a time period many people would rather forget, but I think it’s important to confront the bad parts of history and learn from them. As I’ve said, there are a lot of ways to do a story like this wrong. They could have easily side-stepped the entire slavery issue, or made a casual reference to it and had the whole episode be a wacky fight against Civil War zombies, but they didn’t. Aside from the zombie attack on the plantation at the end, Jax and Amaya’s plot was removed from the science fiction elements of the episode. Jax wasn’t Firestorm, Amaya didn’t use her powers, and apart from their comms, nothing high-tech was used. The focus remained right where it should have been, on the plantation and the horrors of slavery.
It’s not a perfect episode, but it’s probably one of the better ways to do a story like this. Props to everyone involved for not only going all-in on a very tough subject in history, but also doing so respectfully.
Next week: an episode set in the ’80s in the Reagan White House. It’s probably too much to hope that Reagan ignoring the AIDS epidemic will be a plot point, but after this episode, I don’t know.
Legends Of Tomorrow airs Thursdays on the CW at 8 ET/7 CT. Kate can be reached on Twitter @WearyKatie.
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