A review of tonight’s Legion coming up just as soon as I’ve been a Chinese man, a 300-pound woman, and a five-year-old girl…
“Everybody in here keeps saying that I’m sane. What if they’re wrong?” -David
“Chapter 3” opens in the compellingly odd fashion we’ve now come to expect from Legion, as glimpses of David’s childhood, and of Amy being kidnapped and tortured by the Eye, are accompanied by a talking espresso machine (played by Jemaine Clement, no less) telling Melanie a parable about a woman who turned out to be a crane in disguise. The voice of the machine will turn out to be that of Melanie’s husband Oliver, who built the complex on an old ranch 30 years ago, and his story (which Melanie listens to on repeat) will have resonance throughout an episode where many of the characters are revealed to be something other than what they appear to be.
We learn, for instance, that Cary and Kerry Loudermilk have more than just soundalike names in common: they somehow share the same body, but exist separately at least part of the time. And in the episode’s most charming (and, despite its subject matter, most straightforward) scene, David and Syd discuss her body-swapping power, and what it’s like for her to be another age, race, and/or gender, yet still be her inside.
The most important case of this, though, is David, who is turning out not to be what anyone on either side of the mentally ill/powerful mutant debate expects.
Amy is pretty much the last notable character standing who believes her brother is schizophrenic, and is startled when her captors suggest otherwise. But for all the work that Melanie, Ptonomy, Cary, and others are doing to map out David’s many impressive abilities, it’s becoming clearer by the minute — to us, and finally to the other characters — that those mental health professionsals weren’t entirely wrong in their belief that David Haller required their services. If it’s not clear at the moment where the line is between what David experiences because of his telepathy and what he experiences because his psyche has fractured into many different personalities, it’s clear that both things are true on some level, and that makes him even more dangerous than either the government or Melanie once assumed.
“Chapter 3” was a successful blend of the more dazzling visual style of the premiere with the more conventional narrative of the second episode. Things are still relatively straightforward, plot-wise — Melanie is trying to figure out how David’s powers work, and David in turn is in a rush to go rescue Amy from the Eye — but Michael Uppendahl (working with a script by Peter Calloway) had much more room to let his directorial freak flag fly with this one, as the memory work becomes dangerous once the Summerlands crew starts realizing who and what David really is. “Chapter 3” offers one disturbing, knockout image after another, from the Angriest Boy in the World coming to life with a giant papier-mâché head to David and Syd hovering in a pool of celestial light when he overloads Cary’s equipment again. The group members becoming trapped inside David’s memory while The Devil With The Yellow Eyes stalks them is a familiar horror/sci-fi trope, but executed so well that I was hiding behind my couch by the end of it.
What keeps all this grounded, and more than an abstract exercise in style, is the relationship between David and Syd. Because the show has to devote so much time to capturing the feeling of David’s powers and fragile mental state, we don’t know a whole lot about him as a person, and nearly all of that comes in his interactions with Syd. That puts the show in the strange position of having the main character’s personality be defined primarily through how his love interest feels about him, but fortunately, Rachel Keller is up to the challenge of carrying both halves of the couple for the moment. There’s just a fundamental sweetness and innocence to the way Syd and David interact — even when she’s miming what it would be like to masturbate while in his body — and despite relatively limited screen time so far, Syd comes across so vividly that I like and feel protective for David simply because she does the same. That her powers mean they can only touch(*) when they’re interacting in a memory — and when David is a little boy, at that — only adds to the poignant nature of their connection, and their abundant chemistry.
(*) Noah Hawley has acknowledged that Syd owes a debt to other superheroines — Rogue would be the most obvious one, given the X-Men connection — who can’t touch anyone. If not for David’s powers, though, and Syd’s inability at the moment to control them, they could probably work out an arrangement where they’re constantly swapping bodies back and forth as they hold hands, or kiss, or go even further. Instead, lots of gloves and parkas would seem to be in their future.
For that matter, David and Syd’s relationship leads to one more revelation about someone being other than what they appear, as he’s afraid to let her into his memories if that means she’ll see what he was like as a junkie. Syd had some sense of this already, but hearing about it and experiencing it live via Ptonomy’s powers are two very different things, yet she’s not afraid to go into his past, nor really thrown once she gets there, especially when it turns into a chance to protect David’s younger self. That’s another powerful way to anchor the show’s more baroque flights of fancy to something real. Yes, David Haller could destroy the world if he and the people around him aren’t really careful, but he’s also a man in love, trying to put his life back together after many years of hardship and mistakes.
When I watched “Chapter 2,” it felt like such a comedown from the premiere that I worried Legion simply couldn’t sustain itself. But this episode was such an effective blend of what made the premiere magical with the more sustainable parts of the second episode, that I’m all in for whatever comes next.
Some other thoughts:
* Cary and Kerry’s shared body power is the kind you would ordinarily see given to twins, but given the wide gap in age between Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder, that doesn’t seem likely. Then again, we see Cary a lot more often than we see Kerry, so it’s entirely possible that she comes out infrequently enough that it’s somehow slowed down her aging process.
* At this early stage, we have no idea how much this show is connected, if at all, to the larger X-Universe from the films, but it’s hard not to notice how many of the windows at Summerlands feature a large X as part of their design.
* We have enough evidence of Lenny having been a real person — Syd apologizing to David for killing her, to name one — that it’s hard to argue that she was always just one of David’s alters. (At a certain point, we have to accept that some of this is real, or there’s no point to watching any of it.) But now that she is one of the many voices inside his head, it provides the show with another way to keep Aubrey Plaza around beyond flashbacks and memory work trips with Ptonomy.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org