‘Legion’ Explores A Body Swapping Nightmare In Season Two’s Best Episode Yet

legion recap

A review of tonight’s Legion coming up just as soon as I guess wrong about what your dream means…

“Love isn’t gonna save us. It’s what we have to save. Pain makes us strong enough to do it. All our scars, our anger, our despair — it’s armor.” –Syd

Characterization is by and large one of Legion‘s bigger weaknesses, with David and friends exiting primarily as hollow vessels for whatever eccentric way Noah Hawley has found to dramatize superpowers and/or mental illness. Last week’s journey inside the minds of Ptonomy and Melanie were cases in point: stunning to look at without offering much insight into either.

To a degree, “Chapter 12” is also rehashing what little we already know about Syd, as its big emotional setpiece is a dramatization of the story she told David last year about the time she swapped bodies with her mother to sleep with her mother’s boyfriend. But the ways in which this episode chooses to dramatize that moment and the rest of Syd’s difficult childhood, and the superb work that Rachel Keller does (along with the actors playing the younger Syds, particularly Pearl Amanda Dickson as the teen version), work wonders in making her feel like a more well-rounded and complicated character, even if only some of the information we learn is new.

Superpowers can be a wonderful thing, if they’re the right powers for the right person. But they ruined Syd Barrett’s life, and in turn led her to ruin the lives of people around her. She can’t touch people without swapping with them, so in her younger years she alternates between shutting herself off from the world, trying to connect with people without touching them (like trying on the guests’ clothes at one of her mom’s dinner parties), and lashing out. Swapping with the lacrosse player who came on too strong and called her frigid, then using his body to beat up the mean girls, may be a cathartic response to a group of popular bullies who get to enjoy so many parts of life that Syd can’t, but it’s also a case of the punishment wildly outstripping the crime. And having sex with her mother’s boyfriend traumatizes everyone, and gets an innocent man locked up as a child molester.

Syd is one of Legion‘s most inherently sympathetic characters because of the warmth of Keller’s performance, because her love for David is true and unflinching, and because it’s clear how much her power has traumatized her. But the Syd that David meets throughout this Möbius trip through her life is a much darker and more complicated figure. She turns inward, then lashes out, and takes pleasure in the havoc she wreaks and the pain she shares with others. (At least she does with the high school kids; she seems just as traumatized as everyone else when she snaps back into her own body in the shower.) David himself doesn’t come with a squeaky-clean past(*), which can also be blamed largely on his powers, but the romance with Syd represented him aspiring to his best and kindest possible self, in large part because he had fallen for someone who seemed so fundamentally good. She’s never been exactly that (in season one’s finale, she risked a lot by prioritizing David over the plan), but here we come to fully appreciate just how far the real Syd is from the idealized vision David has always had of her, and how important it is to Syd not only for David to see that, but to understand her own guarded worldview and how that might help them beat Farouk in the present and the coming threat in the future.

(*) One of the bigger stumbling blocks I sometimes have with the show is reconciling the easy-going nice guy that Dan Stevens is playing with the intensely damaged person David was in the past — and arguably still is now.

The notion of Syd, and then David, being trapped in a loop of all her most painful moments isn’t a new one to TV — in the last few years alone, Preacher and Black Mirror, among others, have done variation on the concept — but it was very effectively presented via Hawley and Nathaniel Halpern’s script, Ellen Kuras’s direction, and the usual oddball production design. Why, for instance, does the journey always begin in an igloo, with Syd dressed in exaggerated cavewoman furs, warming her hands over a “fire” that’s just shiny paper? Is the show suggesting that birth is such a primal thing that Syd’s mind has constructed her own birth as resembling the early days of humanity itself? Is it yet another thing to shrug off, as I often remind myself when discussing Legion, as something the creative team just thought would look cool?

But where I can often just accept Legion‘s stylistic flourishes as something superficially impressive that doesn’t withstand closer scrutiny, “Chapter 12” put in the real work of placing us inside Syd’s head, experiencing her life the way she has, feeling the same hurt and alienation she’s suffered. It’s less action-packed than the series can be, but on the whole this is one of my favorite episodes of either season.

Some other thoughts:

* Without knowing what’s coming next (this was the last screener we saw before the season began), I would assume the episode’s biggest plot development comes in the final seconds, when David and Syd wake up to find that Lenny’s wish has apparently been granted: the Shadow King made her a new body and brought her back to life. I enjoyed watching Aubrey Plaza play the many different astral plane versions of Lenny/Farouk, but there was also the risk of that wearing thin or feeling obligatory because Plaza was so good but no longer had a purpose. Now we in theory get to see her play the character she started the series as, but hasn’t been for a long time.

* Songs this week included “22” by Bon Iver, “Turtleneck” by The National, “It Is Not Meant To Be” by Tame Impala, and Jeff Russo and Noah Hawley’s covers of “White Room” and “Burning Down the House.”

* I’m enough of a sucker for body swap stories, no matter how terrible, that I continue to raise an eyebrow at how Syd’s powers seem to work differently from every other body-swapper I’ve encountered in fiction, particularly in the way that she always returns to her old body in whatever location the new body was in (and the same for the person with whom she swapped). It allows for plot developments like what happens to her mother’s boyfriend, and it does suit the show’s focus on the mental taking precedence over the physical (so of course your body appears wherever your mind was, and not the other way around), but there’s a wholly irrational and stupid part of my brain that can’t stop whining, “It’s not supposed to work like that!” And other instances in the episode, particularly Syd in the mosh pit — with her face and the faces of the other dancers floating around — suggest her powers may sometimes work in other ways entirely. (That, or it’s meant as a different way to visually express how Syd’s powers feel to her.)

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.