A review of tonight’s Legion coming up just as soon as I have a team and a headquarters…
“I know what I am.” –David
Through the first half of this first season, Legion has kept asking exactly who and what David Haller is. Doctors think he’s mentally ill. Melanie and the guys from D3 think he’s an incredibly powerful mutant whose abilities create the appearance of mental illness. Until now, we’ve been given hints that it’s both at once: that it’s hard to draw the line where David’s powers begin and schizophrenia or Disassociative Identity Disorder might end. David hears voices because he’s a potent telepath, but The Devil With The Yellow Eyes is there inside him, too.
Near the end of “Chapter 5,” though, Cary offers a third possibility: The Devil is neither a psychological symptom nor a side effect of David’s powers, but a parasite that’s been feeding off his very special brain for decades, and encouraging his worst impulses. By then, even Melanie knows things aren’t what she’s believed, since some of the surveillance footage at D3 headquarters shows not David killing many D3 soldiers, but (when viewed through a special infrared-type filter) The Devil. Moments later — in one of the show’s most visually striking moments yet (courtesy of director Tim Mielants), in which it becomes hard to tell when we’re seeing the room David and Amy are in, and when we’re seeing their reflections, until Lenny herself emerges from the mirror, wearing a man’s three-piece suit with a licorice bowtie — Lenny suggests that she is not only David himself, but the many figures around him: Benny, Lenny, The Devil, even King, the dog that Amy insists they never had. And by the end of the episode, whatever we thought we might know has been turned upside down for the 57th time as almost everyone — David, the Summerland gang, even the Eye — find themselves as patients back at Clockworks, in a group therapy session being conducted by…
(*) The early episodes mainly employed Aubrey Plaza as an amused, self-aware commenter on David’s drama. Here, she gets to run a wide gamut of emotions and acting styles, and is fantastic: scary, disgusting, then dryly funny in that closing mind-warp moment.
What is this? Are we headed down the road of suggesting this entire adventure has taken place inside David’s head? Or (given that it’s her POV in the final scene) possibly Syd’s? Is this Lenny (still wearing the distinct black and lavender dress socks she had on back at David and Amy’s childhood home, but now sporting brainy glasses) taking control of David’s powers to mess with everyone some more? David — who, in the seconds before the abrupt shift to Clockworks, seems to be trying very hard to break free of The Devil’s controls and rescue Syd — setting up a astral plane version of Clockworks as a defense mechanism? Or something else weird I haven’t even thought of yet?
In a way, Legion is a puzzle show that defies the kind of sleuthing and theorizing we usually apply to series like it. David’s abilities seem so vast, and the line between mutant and madness so blurry, that anything and everything can be true in a given moment, and then change utterly in the next. We could try to figure out whether there was ever a real version of Lenny at all, but that seems likely to lead in circles: Even if Syd knew Lenny at Clockworks, and killed her with David’s powers, who’s to say that whole stretch of the show wasn’t also occurring inside David’s mind? Better to just go along for the ride — especially when the ride is presented with the kind of control over the show’s own powers that David sorely lacks with his.
We saw this last week with “Chapter 4,” which was both a generationally weird episode of television, and one that ultimately made a ton of sense by the end. And we see it throughout “Chapter 5.” Up until that ending, it’s a much more straightforward piece of storytelling than its predecessor, but it uses the series’ impressive and varied bag of stylistic tricks to an unexpected and chilling new end. Most weeks, Legion is a head trip; tonight, it was a horror movie.
It doesn’t start out that way. The crew returns to Summerland from the fight in the woods, Kerry’s life hanging in the balance after being shot by the Eye, and while Cary goes to work on his psychic sister, David proves what a fast learner he’s been about all things astral plane, and takes Syd to a hotel room he’s constructed there for some good old-fashioned psychic nookie. Even there, though, amidst their gorgeously-lit sexual bliss, something isn’t quite right: When we cut to the bowl of sensual strawberries David has prepared, for instance, we see that it’s infested with bugs, and the image then dissolves into the blood-soaked bandage on Kerry’s chest that very much resembles the color and texture of a strawberry.
Once back in the physical world, David is smug to the point of insufferability — though what we learn by episode’s end is that we’re probably not watching David Haller at all in these scenes, but The Devil, or Lenny, or whatever we want to call it, with both hands on the wheel of this particular vessel. It seems in hindsight to be The Devil who seduces Syd, The Devil who takes such pleasure (even doing a flamenco dance at one point!) while casually killing so many soldiers in the process of rescuing Amy, and The Devil who brings her back to their childhood home. Heck, it’s probably The Devil sitting there in the psychic hotel room in a white nehru suit playing “Rainbow Connection” on the banjo — though maybe that’s really him trying to lean on a childhood memory while The Devil is hanging out in the bathroom wearing The World’s Angriest Boy In The World head.
It’s in that dawning realization by Amy and by Syd — who had what she thought was sex with what she thought was David — in the episode’s final third that “Chapter 5” becomes truly chilling, especially as their discoveries are accompanied by The Devil making Melanie’s crew into his playthings. She warns the group “There’s a chance we’ve left the real world and are in David’s now,” but there’s also a chance that The Devil is so powerful, it can reshape the real world the way it does the astral plane, so that suddenly all are muted and confused, and when The Devil becomes Lenny, its kissing noises sound like an animal devouring prey, and when Rudy (or is it the Eye posing as Rudy?) bursts in with a Tommy gun and opens fire, David, Syd, and The Devil all wind up back on the astral plane, with our alleged hero paralyzed in fear as his monstrous, yellow dark passenger — more visible, and more horrifying, than ever before under the room’s bright lights — casually advances on her. Not to keep making Twin Peaks comparisons (because stylistically and tonally, they have virtually nothing in common), that climactic hotel scene may be the scariest thing I’ve seen on TV since this:
This was, like last week, Legion using every tool it had in service of a particular tone and narrative goal. Last time, it was a kind of baffling whimsy that ultimately gave us a much better handle on what David and the other characters can do, and what Melanie’s goal in all of this is. Here, it was an increasingly dark and disturbing revelation of what David is really capable of, and what he and/or Lenny appear to truly be.
Great. Terrifying. More, please.
Some other thoughts:
* Amy tells David that he was adopted, which puts back in play the possibility that his family history will resemble that from the comics.
* David’s “Rainbow Connection” is likely the musical moment people will remember from this one, but the episode also makes good use of “The Daily Mail” by Radiohead as Melanie and the others head over to D3 headquarters to see what David has done.
* Our own Mike Ryan spoke with Dan Stevens earlier this week about Beauty and the Beast, but they found a few minutes to switch topics and discuss how he had to learn to play the banjo for that scene.
* More bonuses of Kerry and Cary’s arrangement: not only is she aware of what’s happening when she’s inside him (while he appears to be having one-sided conversations with no one), but she can heal rapidly during those dormant periods, where his face is still badly bruised when she finally emerges to go confront The Devil.
* Rudy, the telekinetic member of Melanie’s team who helped rescue David at the end of “Chapter 1,” returns for the D3 mission. It took me this long to realize that he’s played by Brad Mann, who (along with his twin brother Todd) played one of the Kitchen brothers in Fargo season 2. Didn’t recognize him without the beard and the leather coat.
* More evidence of the attention to detail this show puts into everything: the holographic communicator Cary uses to speak to Melanie while she’s at D3. 99 times out of 100, a show would just do a fast and cheap knock-off of R2-D2 projecting Princess Leia, but Legion reimagines it as a giant head in the air, which looks especially freaky when we view the whole thing from above, with Melanie and the others blurring into the ghostly image of Cary.
* Syd’s story of how she managed to have sex the first time despite her powers — by swapping bodies with her unconscious mother and sleeping with her boyfriend — is the sort of thing that, on its own, would more than explain why she would need some time at Clockworks, even if she understood that her powers were real the whole time. Her conversation on the dock with David in “Chapter 3” suggested she hasn’t often taken advantage of the bodies she occupies, but that first time sounds like a real doozy.
* The show hasn’t made a ton of use of Katie Aselton so far, but man was she good in portraying Amy’s utter terror at being confronted by this omnipotent, homicidal… thing wearing her brother’s face, not to mention his shape-changing, gender-bending sidekick. For that matter, the hotel room scene in the climax works as much because of how terrified Rachel Keller seems as for the lighting, direction, and design work on The Devil.
* More great use of Bill Irwin’s mime training: When Cary falls prey to the muting spell that’s hit the rest of the group, Irwin’s face is so incredibly expressive that it doesn’t matter that no sound is escaping his mouth.
* There is one other figure in the group therapy circle at the end, an elderly Asian-American man seated in between David and Melanie. I’m told this character is named “The Man Who Wears All His Clothes” (because Legion), is played by Eugene Wong, and also appeared in “Chapter 1.”
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org