DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – Season 5 Episode 14
“The One Where We’re Trapped on TV”
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow lampoons various popular TV shows when Charlie puts the team into them in order to protect them from her sisters.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve said this or how many more times I’ll say this but there are things this show gets away with that almost no other show would. Supernatural is another example of a show that has demonstrated an ability to do basically anything and have it work and it just so happens that there was a similar episode of that show though the execution and overriding message is very different. This show and Supernatural consistently get away with these insane detours because the purpose is to develop the characters in meaningful ways by finding different ways to express what the show is trying to say about them as well as their core relationships.
The different TV shows are extensions of what the Legends desired for themselves in the previous episode. Zari gets to be safe and happy with her brother with Nate thrown into the mix because he wanted to end every day sitting around with his friends on a Friends inspired show called Ultimate Buds, John gets his wish of keeping an eye on Astra as she grows up happy with her mother on a Downton Abbey clone named Highcastle Abbey and Sara gets to continue flying through time -sort of- with Ava on a Star Trek send-up called Star Trip where Mick later appears getting his wish to go back to being a criminal. On the outside of that Mona works for the Fates rewriting history to be far less conflict heavy and therefore less interesting in a 1984 style dystopia created by Charlie’s sisters while Gary takes on the role of a crazy person screaming about how wrong the world is while nobody listens to him.
On the surface the setup in terms of the TV shows is very surface level which is a very deliberate choice. Each of them are crafted to be instantly recognisable to anyone who has a vague cultural knowledge of each of them. Friends is so ingrained in pop culture that the tropes being deployed are instantly recognisable, Downton Abbey -the show I haven’t seen of the featured three- has a reputation for being exactly what is featured here with ornate period costumes along with things like talk of marriage as a contract that gains a family more influence and Star Trek is known as a low budget 60s sci-fi show with an endearingly schlocky style all of its own. These send-ups work on their own because the referencing is a sincere tribute to those shows rather than mocking them. They’re treated with reverence, made relevant to the story as well as the characters that inhabit them and add to an endlessly infectious sense of fun that carries the episode.
There is a fourth TV show that acts as the final hurdle between reality and fantasy. Mr. Parker’s Cul de Sac returns and is used in a far more sinister way than it was before. Instead of being about openness and self actualisation it’s about conformity and repression. The cheery song encouraging obedience and ignoring any unhappy feelings is impressively sinister while being a great excuse to showcase the vocal talents of Tala Ashe, Shayan Sobhian and Olivia Swann. There’s also a surprising verse from none other than Matt Ryan. The song is used brilliantly to summarise what the episode is getting at and the emotional struggles the characters are dealing with.
Using the three -sort of four- TV shows would be enough for one episode but Legends always has to take things a step further and use them as a springboard to connect with the characters on a profoundly emotional level. Zari 1.0 reappears from inside the Air Totem and possesses Zari 2.0 to act as the character that knows something is wrong and can take steps to reunite the team in the hopes of returning to the real world. Once again we see how good Tala Ashe is when she seamlessly moves between brainwashed sitcom Zari, Zari 1.0 and Zari 2.0 all in the same episode. She never misses a beat and creates three distinct characters. Tala Ashe has been a revelation this season because of how completely she inhabits Zari 2.0 and this episode could be the best showcase for her immense acting talent we’ve seen to date. The two Zaris are separated by entirely different emotional focuses as well. Zari 1.0 is glad to see Behrad again but her most prominent reunion is with Nate after them being separated for so long. I didn’t entirely buy into this relationship before because of how sporadic the development was but it works really well here with both actors selling their collective happiness at being reunited. Zari 2.0’s reunion with Behrad once both regain awareness of their true self is powerful and heartwarming. It’s a satisfying resolution to the clear grief Zari 2.0 has been dealing with.
The episode cleverly splits the two Zaris apart so that these reunions can both happen which offers catharsis for the both the loss of Behrad and the loss of Zari 1.0 while also highlighting just how different the two versions of this character are. Instead of being a slightly altered but recognisable version of the same character, Zari 2.0 is a completely different person with some similarities that she has picked up since joining the Legends. It’s a really interesting dynamic and presents a problem around what to do with this wonderful pair of characters that now exist. Losing Zari 1.0 is a disadvantage because she is such a great character but Zari 2.0 is excellent and fully realised in her own right so how does the show resolve this? For now they both exist so it’s possible that they could both remain on the team and Tala Ashe has to pull double duty from now on. I wouldn’t have a problem with this personally though it might create a filming headache having to constantly plan for that. It may be worth it to have two different versions of Zari on the team and possibly creating something of a sisterly dynamic between them while keeping Behrad around as he has been an excellent addition to the show.
Sara and Ava’s Star Trek inspired reality ties into their shared desire to basically continue living as they were before the Zombie Apocalypse got in the way. The main possible advantage to this altered reality is that they have a crew that can’t die and they will never lose under any circumstances. It seems pretty perfect but Sara’s point is that life is defined by both good and bad experiences so to remove the bad experiences means that they aren’t really living. This comes from a place of earned understanding on Sara’s part as she is in a position to understand loss and sacrifice better than most with everything she has experienced in her life. Ava already knows this but is reeling from the memory of seeing Sara brutally killed by Zombies and wants to indulge in a fantasy where they are completely safe. Their shared rejection of the Star Trek inspired reality taking the form of accepting and embracing a loss with a passionate kiss was a perfectly poetic summation of life being defined by both the good and the bad. Both were contained in a single image and the two of them emerge from the false reality united in a common purpose. This was excellently done.
The team all have to accept the fact that life does suck sometimes and get there in their own ways. Despite wanting to fix reality earlier in the episode Zari 1.0 does become briefly resigned to the fact that she might have to live the rest of her life in a sitcom environment. There is some solace to be gained from Behrad being alive in that environment so giving up does become tempting for a time. It doesn’t take long for her to snap out of this mindset and make a strong declarative statement about rejecting the control being forced on them along with the entire world by the Fates.
John and Astra’s rejection of the fantasy is the most moving. Instead of being the cheerleader for free will, John sees Astra’s need to spend time with her mother and tells her that they can stay in the Highcastle Abbey fantasy as long as it’s what she wants and it will make her happy. He puts all his cards on the table with her and admits to his inability to save her, his arrogance, the mistakes he made and the fact that everything he has done since then has been in service of making amends for that one decision. He gets his wish of Astra being happy with her mother with him looking out for her so ultimately if she wants Highcastle Abbey to be her life then that’s something he can live with. It’s easy to see why Astra would be sucked in by this idyllic life as it’s completely free of hardship and responsibility so she can simply spend that time with her mother whether she happens to be real or a generated fantasy to fit into this constructed reality. She does decide to leave it behind when her mother gives her a ticket to London because the character in the show desired her own adventures. It’s a symbolic gesture on the part of her mother who is making peace with the fact that her daughter has to follow her own path in life and she has to let her go. This lets Astra see that eventually she has to let go of her mother and follow her own path which combines with a realisation that none of this is real and reality is worth fighting for even if it’s less than ideal. Seeing John so raw and vulnerable as he sincerely surrenders to Astra’s wishes is something new and Matt Ryan plays it wonderfully. The connection between John and Astra is used to great effect here and their individual arcs are incredibly moving.
Praise is definitely deserved for the entire cast having to modify their performances to suit the false realities that they find themselves in. Nick Zano channels his inner Matt LeBlanc to blend into the sitcom world perfectly and Shayan Sobhian displays perfect sitcom comic timing even leaving gaps for a laugh track Behrad can’t actually hear to kick in which becomes extra amusing when he’s in the Highcastle Abbey reality where no such thing exists. Olivia Swann successfully plays a rebellious aristocrat and Matt Ryan’s stuffier performance as a Butler with a shameful secret is very impressive. Perhaps the strongest over the top performance comes from Caity Lotz who channels her inner William Shatner in a way that feels like a sincere imitation and adds to an impressively formed swashbuckling bloodthirsty Co-Captain character; Jes Macallan’s emotionless logical performance is good too but doesn’t stand out quite as prominently by comparison. Making a huge impression in a very short time is Dominic Purcell who parodies Ricardo Montalban’s Khan brilliantly. Everything from the wig to the voice to the inflections is just perfect. He isn’t on screen for long but is there exactly as long as he needs to be.
The real world is represented through Mona and Gary who are in the midst of the dystopia completely unaware that there was ever anything better. Entertainment on TV supplied by the Legends is mandatory viewing and the antics on screen allow Mona to start to see that her reality is wrong. She is inspired by what she sees to investigate further which initially means looping in Gary to sense check her thinking before going right to the “studio” making these TV shows to see what’s really going on. This aspect of the episode isn’t as strong as the rest of if and is arguably less necessary since the Legends do a good job of figuring out the difference between real and fake on their own but it does add to the visual variety on display. Ultimate Buds is lit and shot like a sitcom, Highcastle Abbey is shot like Downton Abbey and Star Trip captures some of the charming visual style of the original Star Trek series. By contrast the real world is bleak, grey and unpleasant.
Attention to detail is a big part of why this episode works so well and it’s good to see how hopeless a world without free will can be. Mona and Gary aren’t as active within the plot as they could be and Charlie’s late appearance feels more plot driven than character driven. She turns up to explain her motivations, act frustrated and then all but disappear again. Her perspective was needed to an extent but it doesn’t blend seamlessly with the rest of the episode. Perhaps if there had been a subplot involving Charlie interacting with her sisters it would have helped or if there was more for Gary and Mona to do. The contrast between the various realities on display was very nicely done but the real world stood out as being less developed than the fake ones which didn’t detract heavily from the episode but was noticeable.
An excellent episode that pays appropriate reverence to the referenced TV shows and uses them for great characterisation. The three TV shows work brilliantly on both a technical and character level. From a technical standpoint they are shot and lit very like the shows being lampooned which gives the whole episode a distinct visual quality. The contrast between the fake realities and the altered real world is strong and the different TV shows are hugely entertaining. Tala Ashe once again shows her acting prowess by playing three distinct characters in the space of an episode. Zari 1.0’s reunion with Nate and Zari 2.0’s reunion with Behrad are both excellent moments that resonate powerfully while creating an interesting situation where both versions of Zari exist at the same time. It makes sense to treat them differently as this season has established them as two different people which raises questions around what will happen at the end of the season. Each of the realities are interpretations of what the characters wished for in the previous episode which makes their arc around abandoning the fantasy in favour of reality. Sara makes the point to Ava that life is as much about the bad as it is the good and to ignore one is to not truly be living. This is something Ava already knows but needs to be reminded because she is still reeling after witnessing Sara’s death. Ultimately they decide to return to reality in a moment that is as powerful as it is poetic. Each of the characters are led to reject the false reality in their own way with the most powerful being John and Astra’s realisation. John offers to stay with her in the Downton Abbey inspired life because she can be happy, live a life with her mother and he gets to watch out for her. He takes responsibility for his mistakes and arrogance that led her down the path she went on and resolves to make up for it by continuing to look out for her. Ultimately she decides to go back to reality when her mother symbolically lets her go helping her realise that she needs to do the same. It’s brilliantly done and very moving.
The fourth TV show, Mr Parker’s Cul de Sac is used very differently than its last appearance. This time it’s a symbol of conformity and repression as illustrated by a cheery sounding song preaching obedience. It’s appropriately sinister while also being catchy and hilarious. It’s also a great use to showcase the considerable vocal talents available within this talented cast. This was a great episode for the cast who take to their alternate roles wonderfully; Caity Lotz does a great Shatner, Nick Zano does an excellent Matt LeBlanc and Dominic Purcell’s contribution is brief but nothing short of incredible. The only slight downside is the real world is less developed in contrast to the TV show realities. This has a lot to do with Mona and Gary having far less meaningful things to do than the other characters with Charlie’s eventual contribution being little more than a statement of her motivations and an explanation of why things have been set up the way that they are. The visual contrast works brilliantly but the actual content could have been more meaningful to make everything add up to a cohesive whole.
- the excellent attention to detail in each of the worlds
- being reverent to the TV shows being lampooned rather than mocking them
- every member of the cast doing an excellent job in their altered roles
- Tala Ashe continuing to impress with her considerable range
- Caity Lotz channelling her inner Shatner
- Dominic Purcell being a delight as always
- Sara’s commentary on how she sees life and how that informs the decision she and Ava make to reject the false reality
- John’s acceptance of his mistakes and decision to go with whatever Astra wants to do
- the real world not being as strong when compared to the fantasy realities
- Charlie, Mona and Gary’s contribution being largely passive
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