Legends of Tomorrow: Amazing Grace

"What happened to the instrument choosing me, sir?"

"I was just building a moment."

The Legends go all Rock and Roll, and on the way deliver a shining example of what they do best – a zesty blend of ridiculous, touching, unlikely, and just a tiny bit stupid.

In a really good way.

There is almost nothing about this episode that I didn't enjoy. Okay, one small thing, but we'll get that in a minute.

At the end of the day, this episode really had one main thing that it needed to get done. Specifically, it needed to establish what the sixth totem was, and if possible throw in where and when for bonus points.

Not content with just doing that, the writers also threw in a goofy romp with young Elvis and a legitimately touching meditation on change, loss, and death.

First up, credit where it's due – I cannot thank the writers enough for not making the sixth totem 'Love.' As I might have mentioned once or twice recently, I was not down with such a saccharine idea;  Luc Besson only barely got away with it by virtue of being French. I should really have had more faith in the Legends' writer's room. As this episode alone amply proves, they're really only willing to do 'sentimental' if it's in stealth mode.

So. Death, then.

I can't believe that the option of 'Death Totem' hadn't occurred to me, as it feels so fundamentally right. In the view of whoever it was who created the totems in the first place, the six essential elements of the universe were; Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Spirit, and Death.

That just feels right on every level. Particularly if you read 'Spirit' to mean 'Life Energy,' which is more or less how the show has always used it when demonstrating Amaya's powers. It similarly feels exactly right that the sixth tribe of Zambesi would have been lost through the powers of the Death Totem falling out of balance in some way. Out of all the items on that list, Death has always been the one that humans have feared most. So we now know that the sixth Totem is the Death Totem, which gives its bearer power over death in the same way that the Water Totem gives power over water. This then begs the question, if the totem gives the bearer power over it, what exactly does that mean? What does having power over death look like, exactly? In short, what actually is death?

The answer the show gives us this week is simple. Death is change. You move from one state of being on to another.

This is, by the by, an incredibly healthy attitude to have toward death and loss, and speaks highly of those long lost Totem Forgers. There's a tendency, in modern Western cultures, to view Death as a hard line. One day you are here, the next day you are gone. Death is a loss to be overcome, and those that have died are lost to us forever. The ones who created the totems clearly didn't see things quite the same way.

This all ties, somewhat magnificently, into music generally and Rock and Roll specifically.

One of the main complaints about Rock and Roll at its inception, at least from the religious front, was that the entire thing was viewed as a transgression against God.

Transgression, if I can be tedious for just a second, technically means 'to step across', i.e. to cross a forbidden line. It's deeply connected with the taboo against hybridization as well, i.e. combining things that should be clearly separated by an unbreachable divide. For as long as there have been stories there has been the moral 'Mind your own business. Stay where you belong. Don't go further than you're allowed.' Crossing a forbidden line has always been viewed as a punishable offense, whether it's flying too close to the sun or creating your own new life out of sewn together corpse parts.

So, when Rock and Roll was shake, rattling and rolling itself into being, the main complaint from the religious view was that it was a sinful combination of sacred musical tradition with popular music. This is obviously an enormous oversimplification of the issue – and remnants of this persist today – but for the sake of discussing this episode, that's a good place to start. This is why Elvis is such a startlingly good fit for a wielder of a Death Totem, and this is where music and death intersect in a profound way.

You see, one of the fundamental functions of music is as an aid to memory. It's how oral tradition is kept alive and has been for thousands of years. Music can evoke a place, a time, a meal, a tragedy, or a loved one long gone. When we listen to music, we remember. And the ability to remember is what allows the wielder of the Death Totem a measure of control over death. Remember, when Elvis wields the Death Totem to send back the ghosts at the end he does so in large part by acknowledging that all they want is to be remembered. And he does so not by singing Rock and Roll, but by singing Gospel, while simultaneously showing how artificial the division between the two forms is. He brings the dead back by providing the medium that allows us to remember them. That's a powerful linking of plot and theme, particularly when you think about how counterintuitive the linking of 'Elvis' and 'Death Totem' initially appear.

But that's just the A-plot. Death and Loss resonate throughout the entire episode. Which means it's time to talk about Axl. Poor Axl. Oddly enough, I was just thinking a week or two ago about the life span of rats – long story – and it made me wonder about the show's long term plans for Axl the Rat. Ray was very right, he was already well past his extended life span. I found it incredibly touching that out of all the Legends it was Mick that was having the hardest time adapting to all the change and loss happening lately. The passing of Axl was a great way to explore that, and I particularly loved the funeral. God bless Ray for knowing that Mick needed it even if he couldn't say so, and God bless Sara for understanding both Mick and Ray well enough to go along with it. Axl was the best of us, indeed.

You know, between the pet rat and the very Dementor like ghosts, there was a very Harry Potter feel over the entire episode. Not least because Elvis apparently got his guitar at Olivander's Music Shoppe, as referenced in the quote at the top. Harry Potter, as everyone already knows, is also deeply about acceptance of Death as a natural part of life, and so I suspect the similarities are not accidental.

A couple of thoughts about Rock and Roll:

If that was indeed Robert Johnson's guitar, does that imply that Robert Johnson was also a totem bearer? The story of him selling his soul at the crossroads for the ability to play guitar feels an awful lot like the Tale of the Three Brothers, i.e. a legend that has grown up surrounding an extraordinary man. Did he perhaps find the Death Totem, or was perhaps given it by a tall, dark stranger? We don't have any evidence, but it feels right – particularly with the vagueness here about whether it was the totem that gave Elvis his initial guitar skill or whether he already knew how to play. The episode seems to go back and forth on this point, but it's within the realm of possibility.

Also, we would be remiss to not remember – and it felt too important to leave for the Bits and Pieces section – that most of what became Rock and Roll owes its roots to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who laid most of the groundwork well before Elvis came into the picture. Removing Elvis from music history wouldn't really have had nearly as much effect as shown here, since a lot of what we saw being lost wasn't really down to him anyway. Sure, as a black woman she was never going to get proper credit at the time, and we would probably have to have waited for another white male to 'pioneer' what she was doing for it to take off into the mainstream, but it's at the very least worth our time to give her the proper credit here.

Which leads us to...

The one thing that I didn't love as much:

Look, this is Memphis in 1954. Specifically a Baptist church in Memphis in 1954. I understand that they were glossing over a lot of things for the sake of not letting the story they were telling get sidetracked, but...

An interracial group of strangers in the back row during the service might – might – have gotten away with as little as a disapproving look from the woman across the aisle. It's just about conceivable that that same church might have allowed their heavenly hymn night to get sidetracked by a sock-hop, given that it was the preacher's nephew on the radio. And maybe – and this is a huge maybe – that same congregation would politely turn a blind eye to a man and woman of color dancing among them in the spirit of the moment.

However, Nate and Amaya getting up to dance to Amazing Grace would have started a riot.


Either Uncle Lucius' church was astoundingly progressive, or the writers were being extremely polite about the situation.

On a similar note, Uncle Lucius, as a Baptist minister, was surprisingly easy to convince about the positives of Elvis' music career. I was absolutely convinced he was going to break the record before the radio station could play it. He also was surprisingly respectful to Wally and Zari – who were really not the ideal team to send in to persuade him. Again – Memphis, 1954. It would have been nice for the show to at least acknowledge that racism was very much a thing. I remember a time not long ago when I might have ended that sentence with 'at the time.'  Sigh.

Uncle Lucius, by the way, appears to be a creation of the writers, and not a person who actually existed.  I wonder if this was so that they didn't have to deal with the implications of attributing possibly uncomfortable actions to a real person for the sake of drama. After all, James Cameron apparently had to apologize to William McMaster Murdoch's entire village for pretending he'd shot a civilian and committed suicide on the Titanic.

So what did we learn today?

I was left more that a little confused about how the timeline was originally supposed to go if the Legends hadn't gotten involved. It's strongly implied that Elvis was always supposed to have the Death Stone to start his career, and that the Legends were always supposed to step in and relieve him of it after he got started in order to prevent him from accidentally raising the dead all the time. Just imagine that on the Ed Sullivan show.

Certainly there's no evidence at all of anyone altering the timeline before 1954 when the Legends show up. We see Elvis buying the guitar in 1950 all by himself. No sign of Darhk anywhere in the picture. We also clearly see that Elvis isn't capable of playing without the Death Totem guitar in the juke joint scene.

I think this adds up to being the first example we've seen of the Legends actually being part of proper, established history.

Which leaves us with even more questions, since the knock on effects we see in the Waverider that alert them to the problem definitely appear to indicate that a change has been made to history that they need to fix. Had they just missed their cue to investigate Elvis and so time thought they weren't going to do it and reacted by changing?

And on the subject, why do physical objects on the ship change in reaction to temporal changes, but not the team's memories? Are their brains protected by virtue of being in the vortex? Remember – Ava's memory of Beebo day definitely changed back in "Beebo, God of War" as a result of temporal interference. But then we also saw her memories change on the fly during that story while Sara's – who was standing right next to her – did not.

I probably just need to roll with this one and relax, particularly as it gave the world Trombone Hero, which I am now absolutely desperate to play.



Everybody remember where we parked:

This week the Waverider took us to Memphis, 1954.

You know, until I typed that a moment ago it hadn't struck me how long it's been since an entire episode took place in one time period. When was the last time? Technically 'Here I Go Again', I suppose, but I don't feel like time loops count.

Quotes:

Ray: "Come on Mick, what did I say about having him in the kitchen."
Mick: "Not to."

Nate: "What happened to my trademark volume and sheen?"
Mick: "Who changed my rat's name?"
Zari: "Yo, who switched my game?"
All: "Gideon??"

Sara: "Shhh yourself lady. Have you heard your singing voice?"

Nate: "That's it Elvis, put a little sauce on it."

Sara: "So, Elvis is the bearer of the long lost sixth totem. Consider me all shook up."

Ray: "Just imagine what the music totem could do for my upper register. I could finally give local theater a shot!"

Zari: "So, we're gonna vanquish a time demon with our killer harmonies?"
Yes please! Can I see that finale?

Zari: "So, I'm not the only one who finds that annoying, right?"
Nate: "So annoying."
Zari: "Right."

Ray: "I still remember the first time I met Axl. It was in the vents. I was tiny Atom, he was a big rat. And he tried to eat me. I knew we'd laugh about it one day together. Sara, I believe it's customary for the captain to say a few words."
Sara: "Oh... No. You... You're doing a great job."
Ray: "Thank you. Well then, please join me in a chorus of 'Sweet Child of Mine.'"
I legitimately had to stop the recording for a few minutes and compose myself after this exchange.




Bits and Pieces:

-- I came across something on the internet referring to the Totems as some kind of cheap infinity stones knock off. Personally, I think that that's a ridiculous claim. Outside of both sharing the same basic 'we need to collect these X number of things to complete the set to fulfill the quest' story outline – which goes back significantly further than either Marvel or DC – there really isn't a lot of overlap between the concepts. And basing superpowers on each of the classical four elements is hardly a new thought either. Take the Fantastic Four, just for the easiest example.

-- "Life is made of ever so many partings, welded together." I'm not huge into Dickens, and so I'd never read that. Very touching.

-- Ray's chore wheel has been updated to show the current team lineup.

-- Speaking of the current team lineup, I can't help but notice that we've got six team members and six totems. Are we going to end up with each Legend wielding a totem in the finale? Mick would obviously get fire. I'm guessing Sara would get Death, although I'm avoiding spoilers, so it's just a guess. That would leave Earth and Water for Wally and Ray. I dunno, maybe I'm reaching here.

-- Apparently the opposite of Rock and Roll is Josh Groban. I have a reasonable suspicion that he would think that that's as funny as anyone.

-- Nate's hair does indeed change between shots in the anachronism o'clock scene. That's nice detail work. It would have been very easy to just not clearly show his hair until the relevant line.

-- Nate and Amaya are apparently just openly boning their way through history now. And Amaya is saying things like 'We have lots of time' which pretty much guarantees one or both of them will be dead soon, right?

-- I find Nate's contempt for Ska to be unreasonable.

-- The Legends should really know better than to not care if Elvis' contributions to history are destroyed. The would be a bit of an anachronism.

-- So ghosts and EMF are real in the Berlantiverse now. Had we ever had previous confirmation of that?

-- Constantine mention! The fact that he keeps getting brought up means that my hopes for a Mick/Constantine 'ship are not yet dead.

-- Making Amaya watch Friends should count as willful damage to history.  And a cruel and unusual punishment.  Honestly, he deserved the fake Zambisi music punishment at the end just for that.

-- The Axl memorial montage at the end was the greatest thing I have ever seen or will ever see. The sentimental string arrangement of the theme tune was the icing on the cake.

This episode was a ridiculous amount of fun, had a lot of great jokes, and still found time to move the larger plotline toward the finale.

Three and a half out of four giant ghost rats.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

3 comments:

Patryk said...

I think ghosts were a thing ever since the spirit totem was made canon by Vixen appearing on Arrow. Or even earlier with Constantine crossing-over. I would not even take it past them to retcon Slade's mirakuru visions as an actial angry ghost of Shado. :)

I doubt Elvis would destroy rock history, the UK would take care of it for the US in that case. After all almost all notable bands are from.

Good job on the Harry Potter allusions, I haven't noticed that. Olivander's Music Shoppe lol.

ladydmaj said...

This was an absolutely beautiful review. You hit all my favourite parts.

Although I feel cheated that we didn't get to hear Brandon Routh belt out "Sweet Child of Mine" - oh, what could have been! And as Ray appears to eschew rock 'n' roll for "nice show tunes", it is my head canon that he hunted up and learned that song solely for Mick. I would enjoy Mick/Constantine, but Ray/Mick will always be my OTP of choice.

Unknown said...

Again, love show. But Elvis was naturally blonde, so shown at such a young age... And show Elvis brainstorming songs in jail. Wasn't really much of a writer. And if uncle, preacher, and others,saw rock and roll music raise the dead, and gospep music put them to rest, wouldn't that actually reinforce the idea that Rick and roll is devil's music?