A review of tonight’s Legion coming up just as soon as bras are back…
“What was real? That was the mission.” –Syd
Kids, I’ve seen some weird TV in my day. I watched The Sopranos‘ “The Test Dream,” and reviewed Kevin Finnerty’s adventures in Costa Mesa. I broke down Hannibal episodes featuring kaleidoscopic scissoring and a corpse folded into a heart that then unfolded into a hart. And I’ve seen many hours of shows created by Ryan Murphy.
But tonight’s Legion may be the weirdest, most abstract hour of TV I’ve seen since Twin Peaks ended(*). Even compared to the previous three episodes — even just compared to the bananas debut chapter, as opposed to the slightly more conventional second and third installments — this was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. And I loved every baffling minute of it.
(*) Somewhere, David Lynch is sitting in an editing bay working on the Showtime episodes and saying, “Challenge accepted.”
“Chapter 4” achieves epic weirdness of both style and substance. It finally introduces us to Melanie Bird’s husband Oliver (again, Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) in a more tangible form than as the voice of all the Summerland systems: a leisure suit-clad jazzbo whose mind lives inside a giant ice cube on the astral plane while his body is frozen inside an olde-timey diving suit in the Summerland basement. And even as Oliver is hurling out parables and dancing to Sonny Simmons and generally confusing the comatose David, the parts of the episode set in the physical world have such a dreamlike quality — with images dissolving rapidly from one moment to the next, and past and future existing side-by-side — that it’s easy to begin wondering if this isn’t perhaps also taking place on the astral plane, or inside the powerful and very complicated mind of our hero, who doesn’t even really enter the episode until it’s already half over.
Yet despite all the stylistic shenanigans, “Chapter 4” ultimately proves to be far more than just an exercise in oddness. Like “Chapter 1,” the form and content go hand-in-hand: Everything seems off because everything is off, and elements that seem to make no sense at the beginning largely do by the end.
The Oliver material alone is unsettling, particularly as the episode starts out with him directly addressing the camera as he attempts to make a point about violence, or human nature, or just storytelling, before explaining that there are two fundamental types of stories: those that teach empathy, and those that teach fear. But his monologue effectively hangs over the rest of the episode. As Syd, Ptonomy, and Kerry dig into David’s past, the question quickly becomes whether they should feel for him, or feel terrified of him and all the things he’s capable of doing. We know so little about David because his condition — whether mutant power, mental illness, or both — prevent him from knowing very much about himself, but the more Syd and the others learn about who he was before he went to Clockworks, the worse he appears. But then just when the visit to Dr. Poole’s lighthouse seems to be saying that David is every bit the monster — or every bit susceptible to being controlled by The Devil With The Yellow Eyes — that Philly and others suggest, we find out that this is not Dr. Poole at all, but the Eye in disguise, and this whole mission has led them into an elaborate trap.
Up is down, good is evil, Lenny is actually a large man named Benny(*), the past is the present, and David Haller has the power to do almost anything. Of course a large chunk of this episode has to take place inside a giant floating ice cube that Oliver Bird conjured up as a stylish way to pass the time.
(*) Remember: Lenny was originally written for a man, and Aubrey Plaza insisted to Noah Hawley that he not change a single thing about the character after casting her. There seems to be some real version of Lenny — Syd knew her in Clockworks, and accidentally killed her while in possession of David’s body and powers — but she’s not the same as David’s junkie buddy from the flashbacks. Maybe. Possibly. I’m not sure at this point, really.
The strangeness of it all doesn’t just capture the spirit of what David, Syd, and the others are experiencing as they go on their adventures; it dresses up scenes and subplots that would otherwise be bald exposition. Oliver explaining the astral plane and how David’s mind works would be a clumsy infodump in a regular setting, but inside the ice cube — while The Devil paces directly outside it — it’s lively and interesting. Similarly, Amy and Dr. Kissinger’s conversation about David’s childhood offers relevant and disturbing information — particularly the fact that King the dog never existed — but the fact that their adjoining cells have these bizarre sloped floors literally presents the conversation at an unusual angle.
By episode’s end, much is clear: where Oliver is and why, what Syd and the others are doing and why they are in a van with the Eye (who turns out to really be Syd after a body swap), and even smaller matters like how Cary and Kerry are related. Yet the mystery of Lenny — who claims at various points in her argument with David to be his mean friend “Betsy Tough Love” and also, “I’m you. I’m me. I’m everything you wanna be.” — only deepens and becomes scarier by the closing shot, where a ghostly hand colored much like The Devil With The Yellow Eyes appears on David’s shoulder, and the rest of its body materializes as Lenny herself/himself/itself. Is Lenny just another aspect of The Devil? Is David, for that matter? Even when I think I have a handle on what is going on in this show, I realize I have no idea what’s really going on, and that’s as thrilling as it is disquieting.
There’s a point at which all of this becomes pretentious self-indulgence, and it’s the most subjective of points. Some may have thrown up their hands before the first episode was over. Some may have stuck things out before giving up midway through Oliver’s monologue here, or the jazz dancing, or just after one dissolve too many. With that final Hannibal season, I lost patience with the weirder flourishes well ahead of some other fans and critics. But with this, the technical execution (like the cutting between Kerry and Cary during the climax) is so flawless and beautiful, and the abstractions so clearly tied to the main character’s fragmented state of mind, that all of it leaves me giddy.
But no lie: what on Earth did we just watch?
Some other thoughts:
* Songs this week: “Metamorphosis Alpha” by Sonny Simmons (Oliver introduces David to his record collection) and “Undiscovered First” by Feist (Ptonomy fights the Eye, Kerry fights a bunch of soldiers, and Oliver and Cary dance).
* This episode makes explicit what was very strongly implied last week: Cary and Kerry, who share a last name because they’re siblings, also share the same body most of the time, and Kerry is much younger because she only comes out when there’s fighting or other exciting stuff to be done. She seems okay with the arrangement because, “He makes me laugh and I keep him safe. If that’s weird, I’m okay with it.”
* When I spoke with Noah Hawley back at TCA, he said that when he and Bill Irwin first discussed Cary, Irwin told him, “I see it as having the sort of physical comedy identity and this sort of vaudevillian thing.” Few American actors are more precise or interesting in their movements than Irwin, and while at first it feels like a missed opportunity to have him playing the mental half of a mental/physical duo, we see in the climax that when Kerry’s fighting, Cary gets to moving much like her, which gives Irwin a chance to demonstrate his ample gifts in this area. (Even if I hope we one day get to see him actively fighting bad guys.)
* Keeping David absent/unconscious for the episode allows for clarity on how the powers of several other characters work. Ptonomy, for instance, can do more than just bring people he’s around, or even read the “memories” of objects. As with most of the show, his powers are depicted in a visually inventive way, with Philly’s memories at one point being projected onto Ptonomy’s eyeball.
* Still more power clarity: I was confused in “Chapter 1” when David and Syd swapped back, only David was sitting exactly where Syd had been, but the same thing happens when Syd and the Eye swap back in the climax of this. So for whatever reason, if Syd comes into skin-to-skin contact with someone else, they swap bodies but remain in the same position those bodies were in when they touched, but when the swap comes to an end, they switch physical positions.
* Not clear yet, power-wise: is the Eye a shapeshifter? Was he impersonating Dr. Poole via some kind of illusion-casting device or power? And why was he so unconcerned when bullets started ripping into the lighthouse all around him?
* Another nice visual touch in the Ptonomy/Syd/Philly scene: Philly’s earrings resemble the spiral helix ladder to Oliver’s ice cube.
What did everybody else think? Were you joyfully baffled, or just frustratingly confused?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org