Legion Recap: Summerland Blues

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Dan Stevens as David Haller, Rachel Keller as Syd Barrett. Photo: Michelle Faye/FX
Legion

Legion

Chapter Two Season 1 Episode 2
Editor's Rating 3 stars

Is David Haller a paranoid schizophrenic, or is there something more mysterious and powerful at the root of his delusions? This is the question at the core of Legion after two episodes, and it’s a tricky one to answer. David certainly shows signs of paranoid schizophrenia, but how does that illness tie into his mutant powers? What does it mean to be paranoid when people out in the world are actually hunting for you?

Like the pilot, “Chapter Two” begins with a strong music choice: a woman singing a stripped-down version of the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.” The original version of that song has a rousing gospel sound at the start, but the interpretation used in Legion is more haunting and melancholy, starting the episode with an ominous tone that heightens tension as the mutants flee to their Summerland base of operations. Once there, David gets the rundown on Melanie Bird’s (Jean Smart) mission and the part he’ll play, but before he can take an active role in the war on the horizon, he needs to learn more about his mutant abilities. He needs to figure out how to control his power.

“Chapter Two” is where Legion starts to reveal more about its approach to exploring and treating mental illness. Melanie Bird believes that David’s paranoid schizophrenia is an incorrect diagnosis given to him by medical professionals who don’t understand his mutant abilities. He’s not ill, he’s just overwhelmed by his extreme superpowers, and she wants to teach him to control his mutation. It’s an intriguing idea, and well in line with one of the overarching tenants of the X-Men concept: The thing that makes you different is what makes you powerful.

In the comics, David Haller’s introduction featured Charles Xavier diving into his mind to discover the split personalities that were responsible for his three different superpowers: telepathy, telekinesis, and pyrokinesis. “Chapter Two” offers a variation on that idea courtesy of Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), a “memory artist” with the ability to take a person or group of people into an individual’s memories to experience past events from a distance. (It also introduces some new powers for David’s character, including the teleportation of matter and astral projection.)

Ptonomy, Melanie, and David venture into David’s psyche to explore key moments of his life, beginning with a peaceful childhood stroll through tall grass with his sister, Amy. Just as Ptonomy and Melanie are easing David into this experience, writer Noah Hawley is easing the viewer into this structural twist with a calm, simple memory before delving into more challenging material. There are a few recurring memories that are clearly significant, but the episode doesn’t reveal why yet. David’s father reading The Angriest Boy in the World to him is a major event, and it looks like the book might offer some important clues about David’s past. This episode also introduces David’s former psychologist, Dr. Poole (Scott Lawrence), and multiple scenes in his office suggest that something big will happen there down the line.

Summerland offers David a superpowered version of therapy, which is a two-step process involving “memory work” with Ptonomy and then “talk work” with Melanie, who isn’t a mutant. The key word here is “work,” and it requires David’s willingness to put in the effort needed to uncover past trauma and confront painful memories. There are skips in memories when David wants to keep information hidden, like when Dr. Poole asks him about his girlfriend, Philly (Ellie Araiza), and if David really doesn’t want confront something in his past, there’s an instinctual psychic backlash that prevents Ptonomy from activating his power.

In other words, there are horrors hiding in David’s memories, and he’s not ready to deal with them yet. David decides to leave Summerland when he finds out that Division III, the shadowy organization that had him in custody in the pilot, has taken his sister, but his impulsive heroism is tied to a reluctance to continue on the treacherous journey into his own mind. Syd sees through this hesitancy, and she convinces David to stay and “do the work,” even though it’s scary and overwhelming.

The depiction of David’s parents in his memories makes me immediately question if these are actually his birth parents. His mother’s face is always obscured or out of frame, and even though the camera puts David’s father in the center of the frame, the man’s face is in complete darkness. Knowing David’s comic-book parentage, I can’t help but see extra meaning in the cut to Melanie’s rattled reaction when David mentions his father for the first time, which makes me wonder if Melanie has some sort of biological connection to David or knows something more about his parents.

“Chapter Two” gives viewers a better idea of Legion’s supporting cast, devoting considerable time to Melanie and Ptonomy while introducing Cary Loudermilk (Bill Irwin), a technician with a mysterious connection to Kerry Loudermilk (Amber Midthunder), a young woman who may be a physical extension of his consciousness. (Kerry seems to appear out of thin air in Cary’s lab.) Jean Smart was phenomenal in Fargo as the tough but compassionate matriarch of a crime family, and she holds on to the compassion but abandons the toughness for her portrayal of Melanie. Her performance is all about warmth, comfort, and understanding, giving Melanie a strong sense of empathy that allows her to form deep connections with confused, frightened mutants like David. Empathy is also the driving force of Jeremie Harris’s Ptonomy, and his experience traveling into the memories of others has made him a very Zen, gentle character.

However, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) and Philly are two major figures from David’s past that Legion should devote more attention to, because right now their relationships with him are very shallow. “Chapter Two” reveals that Lenny was a major enabler of David’s addiction to a drug called Vapor, and while Aubrey Plaza is fun to watch as a sinister, frenzied character, Lenny often verges into caricature territory. Let’s hope future episodes will delve into the origins of David and Lenny’s friendship and give Lenny some new dimensions. Plaza definitely has the range to make her a fuller, more compelling character.

Philly, meanwhile, is more or less a blank slate, and the show provides little context regarding her personality and her romance with David. There are little tidbits about their relationship in David’s interactions with his sister and psychologist, but it’s difficult to emotionally connect when Philly is kept at such a distance. Of course, that could very well be intentional, especially considering the skip in David’s memory when Philly is mentioned. He doesn’t want to engage with the memory of that relationship, which we already know builds to his psychic outburst in the kitchen.

Therein lies a problem with Legion’s storytelling: If David refuses to engage with certain aspects of his past, it alienates the viewer and keeps them from fully engaging with his struggle. Rewatching the first episode after “Chapter Two” makes for a much more captivating experience, and I have the feeling that these earlier episodes will pack a greater emotional punch after the big picture of Legion develops. Right now, the intentional gaps in the narrative keep viewers at a distance, but I trust Hawley and his writers to fill those holes as they build toward a complete portrait of David Haller.

Aside from the writing itself, color has played a huge part in the storytelling so far, and director Michael Uppendahl and cinematographer Dana Gonzales (who both worked on Fargo) are taking advantage of Legion’s comic-book foundation to give the series a vivid, highly evocative color palette. Last week’s pilot was full of avocado-green and tangerine-orange that reinforced a ’70s setting despite a lack of explicit information regarding the time period, and the heightened contrast of neon red and blue intensified the scenes after David and Syd’s body swap in Clockworks. The pilot ended with a rush of natural, healthy greens as David made his escape with the mutants of Summerland, and those remain the dominant shades at the top of “Chapter Two,” signifying David’s path to healing. The moments of David and Syd alone together also have that verdant green palette, which contributes to the general serenity of these scenes. So much of David’s life is currently defined by chaos, which is amplified by the aggressive colors onscreen, but when he’s with Syd he’s able to find brief moments of peace. They may not be able to physically touch, but their “romance of the mind” gives David flashes of the clarity he so desperately needs.

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Legion Recap: Summerland Blues