The Secret Origin of Legends of Tomorrow’s Wild TV Homage Episode
Marc Guggenheim opens up about his directorial debut on the latest episode of Legends of Tomorrow.
This article contains Legends of Tomorrow spoilers. Don’t read if you haven’t seen “The One Where We’re Trapped on TV.”
Legends of Tomorrow has always stood out as one of the most ambitious series in the Arrowverse, but this week the show takes that to the extreme. “The One Where We’re Trapped on TV” takes the Waverider crew and throws them into a dystopian future known as Loom World where the Sisters of Fate rule all and for some reason our heroes are all stars of their own takes on TV shows like Friends, Star Trek, Downton Abbey, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Written by Grainne Godfree and James Eagan, “The One Where We’re Trapped on TV” is definitely a season highlight with a bunch of stunning reveals and big character moments. Plus, the set up is a ridiculously funny way of pushing through to the emotional core of this season: Charlie’s choice between the Legends and her sisters. For Marc Guggenheim, taking on such a complex episode for his directorial debut was never part of the plan but just a simple logistical choice.
“When I first thought I wanted to direct and I asked Phil Klemmer to give me the penultimate episode of the season, it wasn’t driven by anything creative,” Guggenheim says. “I just picked it because I knew I’d be doing Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I wanted to get as far away from that as possible because the last thing I wanted to do was be directing for the first time and still doing post production on Crisis. It was purely driven by logistics.”
So how did he feel when he realized that he would be taking on an episode that features four fictional TV shows, multiple versions of each character, and the return of two fan faves?
“I was terrified. I kept swinging by the writers room to see what they were cooking up and they were almost gleeful with sort of, ‘Be careful what you wish for!’ It was very hard,” he says. “All joking aside, it’s very hard to complain when you get a script that was as good as this. I wouldn’t say that it was idiot proof, but it was the type of script that if I was showrunning and the script came in, I would be like, ‘Oh, I really hope whoever’s directing it doesn’t screw it up.’ Because there’s nothing worse than that feeling as a showrunner. There’s nothing worse than getting what you know is a great script and then getting a director who just didn’t put it on the screen. I was very determined not to be that person.”
With the Sisters of Fate controlling the population via their 1984-inspired Loom World, the Legends have been placed inside fictional TV shows that Charlie created to give them their “dream lives.” It’s an unprecedented challenge for the heroes, and working within the five different spaces set up by the script was a pretty big one for Guggenheim too.
“It was an interesting sort of challenge,” he says. “The way I approached it was if I looked at the whole episode all at once, I would just panic. So I just tried to take it one moment, one show at a time, and instead of trying to solve the entire episode all at once, solve distinct specific problems and face distinct specific challenges. I will say what made it feasible was that the crew gave me their A game. The art department alone had to design five different worlds, Loom World plus the four shows. Any one of those would have been enough for an episode; it would have been plenty for any art department to tackle. The fact that they could do all five and do them all at such a high level just really blew me away.”
That wasn’t the only hurdle that the creator had to face, though, as the show also presents multiple iterations of characters like Zahri, Behrad, Ava, Sara, John, and Aster.
“What I found to be the most challenging aspect of the episode was making sure that all the emotions were tracking,” he says. “The way we did that was at the beginning of every scene before running the lines, I would just do a little reset for myself and for the cast in terms of, ‘Okay, you’re coming from this scene and you’re going into that scene and your character remembers this and your character is thinking that.’ Just by doing that little reset and that little check in, I think it helped orient all of us in terms of what needed to be played in the specific moment. As a result, we didn’t have the moments that I was dreading. I wanted it to feel like one cohesive episode.”
This season has really shone a light on the brilliance of Matt Ryan’s John Constantine, giving an emotional depth and heft to the character that we’d rarely seen outside of the pages of the comics. “The One Where We’re Trapped on TV” offers John and Astra (Olivia Swann) a huge character moment which Guggenheim feels is one of the strongest moments of the episode.
“There’s moments that I feel really land,” he says. “When John and Astra are making the decision to leave High Castle Abbey, that’s just a beautiful piece of acting for both of them. That’s a high point. Standing up and addressing the camera at the end of the Ultimate Buds sequence is another one. And there’s these tiny little moments, like when we transition from Star Trek out to Clotho Productions. We did this transition that I had planned, but then there were elements of it that I hadn’t planned that made it work even a million times better. So it was those little surprises. I love the lucky moments.”
There is, of course, another character at the heart of this season’s arc and that’s Charlie. While it seemed like the goddess had made her choices and pledged her allegiance to the Legends, this episode changes all of that, showcasing a woman in the midst of a personality crisis. It’s a great setup for the upcoming finale which Guggenheim teases here.
“The vast majority of the season, we’ve watched Charlie kind of going back and forth a little bit between her sisters and her team,” he says. “And what this episode does is set up the finale which forces her to make the final choice. Because I think certainly in Episode 13 to 14, you sort of see that she’s been trying to have her cake and eat it too. And now that’s over, that’s not happening anymore. So, as we get into Episode 15, it’s the finale and now there’s no more loopholes to exploit. I’m a big fan any time any show sort of uses its season finale to pay off something that had been building for the entire season or the majority of the season. And I think Charlie and where her allegiances truly lie is a great example of that.”
Legends of Tomorrow‘s greatest power lies in the talent of its ensemble cast and the writers who provide their material. For Guggenheim, this episode just highlighted how wonderful that cast is and how unusual their brilliant collaboration really is.
“Speaking as a director, it was such a privilege to give the most subtle notes and in the very next take, you see it executed perfectly,” he says. “In many ways it doesn’t even feel like directing, it feels like operating a car. I have been working in television for 20 years and I know from experience that is not typical, that is not common, and especially not across an entire large ensemble. Especially for every single actor, some of whom have just come on to the show this year, others have been in the Arrowverse, for almost a decade now. It blows me away.”
And if there was one of the four shows that Guggenheim would want to continue as a full series? The answer comes easy to the director. “I think it has to be Star Trek because I’m a diehard Trekkie. And apart from, you know, apart from one comic book, I’ve never had the opportunity to work in Star Trek. So that remains an unscratched itch for me.”
Keep up with all our Legends of Tomorrow season 5 news and reviews here.