Legends of Tomorrow recap: Marc Guggenheim directs a gloriously meta yet sad hour
“Life is beautiful and terrible all at the same time. If we’re only living part of it, then we’re not living at all.”
That’s what Sara Lance tells Ava at one point in “The One Where We’re Trapped on TV,” DC’s Legends of Tomorrow’s latest episode. Taken out of context, it’s the kind of cheesy, state-the-thesis line that shows love to throw around and that can’t be as poignant as it sounds. And yet here, it is indeed as poignant as the writers hope it will be because Legends spends the entire episode putting in the work so that it earns this line. Yes, “The One Where We’re Trapped on TV” is delightfully meta and oh so much freaking fun, but it’s also sad, moving, and embraces all of the darkness in the team's life, because the writers know it’s not possible to have one without the other.
We begin in the grey dystopian world that the Fates, Charlie included, used the Loom of Fate to create. Mona works in a department whose job it is to scrub any mention of rebellion for history to keep humanity docile and in line; Gary is a raving lunatic on the street who knows that the world is wrong. In this world, the Legends are actually characters scattered across several TV shows who are blissfully unaware of their real lives. When Mona returns home from work and turns on the TV, which is one of the ways the Fates keep people in check, she starts watching the Friends-like sitcom Ultimate Buds, which stars Nate as an aspiring actor, Zari 2.0, and Behrad. Marc Guggenheim, who makes his directorial debut on this episode, shoots this entire sequence like an actual multi-cam, which elevates the parody, and the cast clearly has a great time hamming it up with cheesy sitcom punchlines (the Arrow dig! Nate exclaiming “Could I be more of a kiss misser?!”).
Of course, Grainne Godfree and James Eagan's excellent script immediately injects some sadness into this wacky scenario: Zari 1.0 emerges from the Air Totem and possesses 2.0's body, which leads to a touching reunion with her brother. Because Zari was protected by the totem, she still has her memories and quickly figures out they're all stuck on a TV show. Thus, she receives her mission for the episode: Finding the rest of the Legends, helping them regain their memories, and escaping from this TV prison. Centering this crazy adventure through multiple TV genres on Zari is an incredibly smart decision given everything she went through in "Here I Go Again." If there's anyone who values their relationship to this team, it's Zari.
From there, Zari takes Nate and Behrad on a journey through multiple TV genres. First, they hop over to the Downton Abbey parody, Highcastle Abbey. There, “nasty piece of work” John Constantine is a butler who looks after Astra and her mother. Then, they jump over to Star Trip, a Star Trek rip-off starring Sara and Ava as co-captains of the Faterider, with Caity Lotz and Jes Macallan giving us their best impressions of Kirk and Spock, respectively. With each new setting, Guggenheim modifies his shooting style for the given genre he’s dealing with, and the script makes sure that each TV show is rooted in character. Yes, it’s hilarious to see Constantine as a butler, or for Behrad share Beyoncé's diva wisdom with Astra, but there’s a deeper sadness in each one of these scenarios. Astra longs for a life beyond Highcastle Abbey’s grounds, but that would mean leaving her mother; Highcastle-Constantine represses his magical abilities because he’s scared of them, which speaks to the real Constantine's guilt; Sara and Ava never lose on Star Trip, but they’re also alone and surrounded by androids. Ignoring life’s problems doesn’t make life qualitatively better for any of them.
Eventually, the entire gang winds up on Mister Parker’s Cul-De-Sac (“Public access TV is a career killer!” exclaims Nate). At the same time in the real world, Mona and Gary break into Clotho Productions and discover the script-writing machine that’s keeping the Legends trapped on TV. So, Mona terminates the algorithm and simply types out that the Legends remember everything.
Back on Mister Parker’s Cul-De-Sac, the Legends’ memories come flooding back (This scene reminded me of when something similar happened in the flash-sideways universe in Lost's series finale). It’s a happy moment for Zari because she has her family back and shares a passionate and well-earned kiss with Nate, but it’s also heartbreaking because everyone also remembers all of the pain they’ve gone through: Ava seeing Sara die, Constantine’s many sins, Behrad realizing he’s supposed to be dead in every timeline. (Oh, it’s also confusing, too, because now Behrad has to think about the fact that his best friend is in love with a version of his sister who went through the same experiences as him. Gotta love time travel!)
Charlie discovers what Mona and Gary are up to and tries to keep the Legends contained because she put them there to save them from her sisters. So, Charlie takes control of the machine and makes Mr. Parker sing the Legends an insane song about repressing all of their sad feelings because that’s the key to happiness. In Charlie’s mind, she gave the Legends a gift by placing them on these TV shows where they’re freed from pain. Thus, “The One Where We’re Trapped on TV” suddenly transforms into a take on the iconic Superman story “For the Man Who Has Everything.” Like Superman, the team now has a choice: They can stay here in paradise, or return to the painful real world.
It's easy to understand why any of the Legends would consider staying. They've been through so much. Just look at how many Sara has died, or how many people Nate has lost, or the Terazi family's wild journey. This beat isn't just connected to this season's arc, but to the show's entire run, which is what makes this episode work so well. Thankfully, though, the Legends do the heroic thing and decide to leave because, as Sara oh so wisely says, “Life is beautiful and terrible all at the same time. If we’re only living part of it, then we’re not living at all.” That one line speaks to Legends as a whole because it often shows both parts of life: a fun summer camp romp returns to Ava's traumatic backstory, or a wild escapable through TV also involves revisiting some painful memories.
You remember how the episode opened with Mona scrubbing any mention of rebellion from the history? Well, that seed brilliantly pays off here because the only way for the Legends to break free is to rebel against the given tropes of the various TV shows they’re trapped in. Astra, at her mom's urging, decides to leave Highcastle with Constantine; Behrad, and Sara and Ava willingly lose a space battle; and Zari antagonizes the studio audience and urges at home viewers to take control of their lives. In others, the Legends dare to defy. This leads to all three shows getting canceled, and the Legends being reunited on a dimly lit soundstage (that might as well be a Los Angeles church) in the real world. Charlie begs them to stand down and splits Zari's life thread in half so that Zari 1.0 and 2.0 both exist now. But, the Legends politely decline and strut out of there to save the world in a shot that poignantly mirrors the final shot of season 4.
Wall of Weird:
- Marc Guggenheim did a fantastic job directing this episode. I loved that the Star Trip sequences used miniatures instead of CGI.
- The Ultimate Buds versions of Nate and Behrad are very puckish and have a "but why not?" approach to life, which hilariously leads to them accidentally blowing up the Faterider, getting captured by Mister Parker.
- "It's grand to see lady adventurers in pantaloons," Astra exclaims when she meets the Star Trip versions of Sara and Ava.
- "What kind of Gromulans are you?" "Ultimate buds."
- "We're just a bunch of misfits who are trying to make a difference. That's what we need right now," Zari says to the Legends right before their memories return.
- An understated yet poignant moment: Mick saying he wants to leave the TV show to find his daughter Lita.
- I'm obsessed with Mister Parker's "Repress" song.
Led by White Canary, a band of superhero misfits defend the time stream with an assortment of wacky threats in the fourth Arrowverse series.