Throw the plots of Footloose and The Sixth Sense in a blender and you pretty much arrive at the premise of this week’s Legends of Tomorrow. More than just an installment that checks off another name on the list of obligatory historical guest stars, “Amazing Grace” served as an effective rumination on death, the constantly changing nature of life and the transformative power of rock and roll. Not bad for a single hour of television.
I’ve mentioned before how I’ve been a little iffy on the whole totem element driving this season’s conflict. But the idea of the sixth mystery totem being a death totem affixed to the same guitar that Robert Johnson sold his soul to possess and that launched Elvis Presley’s career? That’s pretty nifty. The supernatural angle really helped this episode stand out. We’ve already seen Legends episodes where the team travel back to help an artist bring their defining work to life. “Raiders of the Lost Art” comes to mind. It wouldn’t have been enough for the show to simply recycle that formula and swap out George Lucas for Elvis (Raising Expectations’ Luke Bilyk). But by setting up a conflict where Elvis has to play his heart out in order to stop an army of the undead? That’s a whole new ballgame.
Granted, the stakes never felt particularly high in this episode. That’s mostly due to the lack of a true villain, unless you count Elvis’ blowhard but ultimately well-meaning Uncle Lucious (Texas Rising’s Geoffrey Blake). The writers probably could have spiced things up with well-timed appearance by Damien Darhk. But would that ultimately have served much purpose? I’m inclined to say no. “Amazing Grace” is a largely character-driven episode. Keeping things relatively low-key helped the writers highlight some of the major character dynamics fueling the show right now.
Nate and Amaya benefited a lot from this episode. Nate’s quest to save rock and roll itself felt real and urgent, as did his need to make Amaya understand what power this music had in his life. And as much as the climax bordered on being too cheesy for its own good, there’s a lot to be said for a conflict that resolves with Elvis singing hymns to restless spirits. Like many great episodes of the series, there was a real earnestness and sense of heart offsetting the goofier trappings.
I will say, though, that it was strange to see this episode completely ignore the racial hurdles inherent to a mission like this. With Nate and Amaya in particular, it seems pretty hard to imagine that the two of them could stroll about the streets of Memphis circa-1954 and attend a white church without raising any eyebrows. There’s always been a sense that the writers prefer to downplay the level of racism in these historical settings, and I get it. You can only delve so deeply into that subject matter before losing the show’s lighthearted, carefree tone. But to not even acknowledge the rampant racism and segregation at play in 1950’s Tennessee seems misguided.
Moving on, I was also pleasantly surprised by how Mick fared this week. Mick has too often felt rudderless this season. More often than not, he’s used as grumpy comic relief than an integral part of any given episode. The fact that Earth-X Leonard Snart came and went without the show giving us one last, epic Captain Cold/Heat Wave adventure still stings. But what began as a simple and literal rat chase this week dovetailed into a nicely emotional character arc for Mick. It quickly became clear that his struggle to handle Axl’s death is a sign of his larger issues dealing with the many changes and deaths that have struck the Legends in recent months. While neither Snart nor Professor Stein were mentioned by name this week, their absence was profoundly felt during that funeral scene.
“Amazing Grace” also serves as further proof that inducting Wally West into the mix is one of the best moves Legends has made this season. Wally fits this new setting perfectly. Keiynan Lonsdale has the right comedic chops to stand alongside the rest of the Legends. This episode opened strong by emphasizing his speed powers and how much they can both simply and exacerbate the team’s struggles. At the same time, Wally is also helping to improve another recent recruit. Zari has never entirely settled into her role as a Legend. She just doesn’t have the right energy to really bounce off the rest of the cast. But something about her dynamic with Wally is allowing Zari to click in a way she hasn’t in the past. The two characters worked really well together this week. It makes me excited to see how Wally might be able to boost other Legends in the weeks to come.
“Amazing Grace” embodies a lot of what this series does so well. This episode was less concerned with the larger Mallus conflict than it was celebrating the legacy of the King of Rock and the ways in which death transforms life and gives it meaning. In other words, there was plenty of heart to balance out the goofy humor. And in the process, Wally West continued to settle into his new role as a time-traveling misfit.