What if some dastardly villains with control over reality rewrote it to work in their favor, scattering the Legends of Tomorrow across reality in an attempt to make the world in their image and keep it that way? Only the Legends could rehash a plot from three seasons back and make it feel fresh and exciting. Spoilers follow for DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Season 5, Episode 14, “The One Where We’re Trapped on TV.”
“The One Where We’re Trapped on TV”
One of my favorite parts of Legends of Tomorrow is the show’s willingness to play with its format. With a time machine and the Loom of Fate, the Fates have rewritten reality. We meet up with Mona Wu, who lives in a brutalist dystopian world where only Gary seems to know things are wrong. Instead of the usual season 5 punk-rock opening sequence, we get a Russian authoritarian propaganda-style opening sequence that sets the tone for the world the Legends now live in.
Meanwhile, Behrad, Zari, and Nate are in a show called “Ultimate Buds.” This Friends parody has its own theme song and laugh track. Nate comes home with an audition for some new show called Arrow, while Behrad forgot to buy the mush that everyone eats in this new reality. He takes off his bracelet to wash up when Zari–the original Zari–comes out of the bracelet to possess the new one. She figures out quickly what’s going on and pulls her brother and Nate through a portal of TV static that takes them to…
In this world, John is now the stuffy Mr. Constantine, a butler to Astra and her mother. Behrad is a potential suitor for Astra, accompanied by his sister Zari and their manservant, Nate. This version of John can still do magic, but he’s deeply ashamed of it. Zari manages to convince these characters that something is strange, and John pulls them away with a spell and they seem to beam up with a familiar-looking special effect. They’ll soon appear in…
Sara and Ava are co-captains of a starship that travels the stars to “blow up disobedient civilizations with lasers.” Things sare starting to come into focus here. The show is produced by Clotho Productions–Charlie’s original name. Each show has the characters praising the fates and extolling the virtues of obedience and acceptance, and of consuming the mush. But the captains are interrupted as they face off against a Gromulan Warship… piloted by Nate, Zari, Behrad, John, and Astra. Sara talks to them, with Caity Lotz doing her very best and silliest William Shatner impression.
All of this is very, very silly, but it’s also super smart. Mona and Gary start to figure out something is going on and sneak into Clotho Productions where they find the life threads that power these shows. As (almost all of) the Legends appear in Mr. Parker’s Cul-de-Sac for the second time this year, Mona re-writes the script to let the Legends remember who they are. Charlie comes stomping in, angry that Mona might wreck her plan.
Charlie bargained with the fates to save her friends if they acted as puppets for the propaganda machine. She’s trying to protect her friends and, at the same time, give them what they want. Zari is with her brother and the guy she loves. Astra is with her mother, and John serves them to atone for his mistake. Sara and Ava cruise around space kicking ass and never losing.
In a way, it’s a rehash of what the show did in season 2 when Damien Darhk, Malcolm Merlyn, and Eobard Thawne got the Spear of Destiny and rewrote reality. But where that was a fun what-if sort of scenario, the way this scenario appeals to the characters’ base desires makes it resonate emotionally for me. The collected Legends, minus Mick, face Mr. Parker, who sings them a song about repressing their feelings. Each one, believing it to be the best case for the others, sings along, and they’re taken back to their shows one by one.
Going with the trope of being trapped in a false but pleasant reality, each set of characters resists. Zari, Nate, and Behrad hear the audience boo and aww when they express distaste for the current regime and its mush-based diet, so they start dropping more and more negativity, forcing the show off the air and starting a revolution in the process.
John, meanwhile, wants to give Astra a chance at a happy life with her mother, and says he’d be her butler if that meant she could have that life. But even her fictional mother wants what’s best for her. Astra is the one who has to break out of the fantasy this time.
Sara and Ava have to give up a life of winning battles and intentionally lose, this time losing to Dhan–not Khan–who just happens to be Mick Rory in a gloriously-bad white wig that seems to make fun of the entire Arrowverse’s penchant for bad wigs all at once.
Getting the band back together
Reunited, the Legends go into the finale the way they started the season: saying ‘screw the rules.’ Supergirl ended with Lex celebrating to the song “My Way” but the Legends are the ones that feel like they’re taking their own path, where Lex is just repeating his same mistake over and over.
Legends of Tomorrow does ‘meta’ in a way few other shows do. This is a hard thing to get right. The writers, director, and actors all have to be on the same page. They have to ride the line of playing things with a straight face, making sure the audience gets what’s happening without talking down to us, and then being funny and heartfelt on top of that.
There are so many little funny moments where the show gets the tone just right. A lot of credit for that has to go to Marc Guggenheim, one of the early masterminds of the Arrowverse. This episode marks his directorial debut, and he sure didn’t wade in by his tippy toes. He dove into a story with four distinct visual styles. All three shows feel enough like their source to be convincing, and understand the source material well enough to play with it without losing the essence of Legends itself.
This show is consistently absurd and touching. This might be my favorite episode all season.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow airs on The CW and the CWTV app/website.