Grades don’t matter. Really, they don’t. I try not to metagame these recaps too much, but Legends sometimes demands otherwise, and this is one such moment. “Bored On Board Onboard” is an episode begging for the rare undiluted A, a grade that I’ve only given to one Legends episode in the time I’ve been recapping the show*. And since grades don’t matter, I should in theory go ahead and slap that A in the little box below, but I can’t do it. An “A” episode can include a little misstep here or there, but it cannot include a whole scene where John Constantine does a non-musical version of “The Confrontation” from Frank Wildhorn’s abysmal Jekyll & Hyde. It simply cannot**.
I would do anything for Legends, but I won’t do that.
“Bored On Board Onboard” is a top-tier episode of Legends Of Tomorrow. Ably demonstrating nearly all the show’s considerable strengths with its usual combination of cleverness, stupidity (the good kind), and emotional intelligence, it’s a “classic Legends romp” that gets hijacked by one character’s inner demons, literally and metaphorically. That hijacking is a feature, but it’s also a bug. “Bored On Board Onboard” is elevated from “yay Legends” to “inner turmoil about adding a minus sign to the letter A” by virtue of that feature/bug hybrid. No show but this one could pull such a thing off, and it turns out that this one can’t pull it off, either — but it’s a very, very near miss.
“Bored” starts from a brilliant bottle episode conceit: John’s drag-the-Waverider-across-time-and-space maneuver from “The Final Frame” damaged the ship’s jump drive, and since no one on the present roster has stepped up to properly fill the mechanic role once held by Jax and then Flannel!Zari, the Captains are forced to take the long way home, a route that grows longer with every video game and food fabricator deployment. So the team loses all screen time, thus leaving an opening for Gary to slide in with an overachiever’s favorite party suggestion: a board game no one knows how to play.
Honestly, that alone is a perfect Legends set-up. The sight of the team (minus Mick, but can you imagine what he’d do in that situation) all grouped around the table together? Priceless. But the real stroke of genius comes in the way credited writers Keto Shimizu and Leah Poulliot weave in one of the season’s ongoing storylines: Rolling on his weird blood magic death potion, Constantine decides to flex his disturbingly crampy skills by inserting the team into the world of the board game, a world in which the gaps are filled by John’s own imagination.
What a clever choice. That, again, is a perfect set-up for this show, and especially for a bottle episode of this show, and especially especially for a bottle episode in a Covid season of this show. The team is still confined to the ship, but it doesn’t look or feel like it, and because John is calling on his own imagination to pull off the feat, it makes perfect sense that the setting for his in-game adventure would be his home. Director Harry Jierjian makes the most of the opportunity; the visual language of the game-within-a-game*** is alternately moody and playful, goofy and ominous. The menace and panic build swiftly, but the absurdity lingers (in a good way) until John has his epic, ludicrous Jekyll & Hyde moment.
The situation is absurd, but the stakes are anything but. The show’s brilliant choice to lean into Behrad’s mounting concerns about John’s erratic behavior pays off again and again, ensuring that this Legends romp is always at least a little bit off and tense. Sure, he’s the “starving artist,” but that’s not why he’s so serious. As he tells Zari in the film’s (almost) perfect final act, he loves John — but John’s in trouble, and it’s time other people noticed.
The Constantine addiction storyline didn’t work perfectly for me last week, but it (almost) does here. This time, the tonal whiplash is intentional. John hijacks the game, and then John’s dark side hijacks it some John. So even as the team still keeps playing like the team, they’re dragged further and further into the darkness. The jokes stay the same, but the stakes and energy change dramatically. Last week John yoinked the ship across time and space. This time he yoinks the show from fun romp to disturbing addiction storyline, and it happens so quickly that most of the characters don’t even realize it.
I could go at least another 1,000 words on just the concept, and we’ve yet to really address the Constantine/Behrad/Zari stuff, to say nothing of the B story. Suffice it to say that the episode’s considerable success springs from the smart writing and direction, yes, but even more so from the thoughtful, uncomfortable performances of Tala Ashe, Shayan Sobhian, and especially Matt Ryan, who’s so good in the episode that he almost makes the attic confrontation work. No small feat.
We’re looking at the perks of an actor living with the same role for years: he knows Constantine inside and out. I can tell you that this John is disturbingly different from pre-vampire blood magic potion John; the physicality, energy, vocal quality, and the character’s inner tempo are all slightly off, even before Bad!Constantine**** arrives in his plague doctor mask and terrible cloak.
And speaking of badly-timed arrivals, welcome back, Kayla and also (probably) Bishop! It wasn’t hard to predict that Kayla would be back and pissed about being left on that planet, but I, for one, did not see the Bishop twist coming, just like Gary didn’t see the Lefty twist coming. It’s a thrilling end to a thrilling episode, one that I’m sure will only get better with repeat viewings. It’s not perfect, but few things are. Besides, you can always play again. Let’s do it, because I’m gonna win his time.
* My esteemed predecessor, Oliver Sava, also gave out several As, including the one earned by “Here I Go Again,” another top-notch bottle episode.
** Unless, of course, he is actually performing that terrible song.
*** If you, like me, just experienced some RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season 6-related anxiety, I’m sorry and me too.
**** Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing; that, however, is clearly how John sees himself. I’m hoping the show continues to treat it as the complex issue it is, despite the seeming reductive binary established here.
- This is the kind of episode where the comments are going to be filled with people asking why I didn’t mention this scene or that one, so let me just say this before we transition to the B story: Yes, that thing you loved is a thing I also loved. Only so much space in these reviews.
- I was convinced that the killer was Gideon, based partly on the bloodthirsty Gideon stuff we’ve been getting this season and partly on the title. A little bummed they didn’t include Gideon somehow, to be honest.
- Does Nate use his extremely helpful superpower in this episode? Steel is not flexible (and also rarely steel).
- Episode MVP: Good gravy, Matt Ryan, you are not messing around this season.
- Why the fuck not?: It would be Mick’s Hair, but... Lefty.
- Line-reading of the week: “I’m a starving artist. I’m nothing but serious.”
- Flannel!Zari and Fancy!Zari. Wonderful.
- This one’s for Outlander fans: John’s demon-self has big man-in-a-bear-suit energy.
- Gideon, what’s the most meta moment?: Iris and Barry on the D-list. As fellow A.V. Club contributor Kate Kulzick observed to me (via text) after the episode concluded, it’s perfect that Barry and Iris are to Sara and Ava what Oliver and Felicity are to Barry and Iris.
- Episode title ranking: 1. Stressed Western. 2. Bored On Board Onboard. 3. This Is Gus. 4. Meat: The Legends. 5. Ground Control To Sara Lance. 6. Back To The Finale: Pt. ii. 7. Bishop’s Gambit 8. Bay Of Squids. 9. The Satanist’s Apprentice. 10. The Ex-Factor. 11. The Final Frame (a perfectly good title!) 12. Bad Blood.
- This week’s Legends in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song form: This doesn’t so much sum up the episode as it sums up Gary Green’s vibe: