Legion Recap: Nightmare on Memory Lane

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Dan Stevens as David. Photo: Michelle Faye/FX
Legion

Legion

Chapter Three Season 1 Episode 3
Editor's Rating 3 stars

As much as Legion wants to abandon the traditional superhero origin story with an unconventional narrative structure and visual sensibility, this show cannot escape the shadow of the X that materializes in its title. Governing concepts of the X-Men franchise are apparent in the first two episodes — a group dedicated to the well being of mutants, a shadowy organization that wants to hunt mutants down for experimentation — and “Chapter Three” turns heavily to superhero conventions, delivering a simplified version of the show’s challenging premise.

The script from Peter Calloway (Under The Dome, Brothers and Sisters) moves onto a less bumpy track as Melanie, Ptonomy, and Syd accelerate David’s therapy in the wake of his sister’s abduction. There are big chunks of exposition explaining the history of Summerland, Syd’s upbringing, and why Melanie is so fixated on helping David control his power. It’s nice to get concrete answers about various plot questions, but the outpouring of information could be executed with more grace. Calloway is doing the hand-holding that Noah Hawley avoided in those alienating first chapters, and it diminishes the show’s mystique as a result. I really enjoyed this series not having a strictly defined time period, for instance, but Melanie places it firmly in the ’70s after revealing that her husband, Oliver, inherited Summerland three decades earlier in the ’40s.

It’s possible that the more accessible storytelling is a reflection of David getting comfortable at Summerland, and it makes me wonder if “Chapter Three” is intentionally basic to set a point of contrast for strangeness to come. Characters keep writing off David’s mental illness by claiming it’s simply a mental barrier to controlling his superpowers, and that he can destroy it with enough willpower. Melanie and Division 3 both think David can be cured — and that when he is, he’ll be extraordinarily powerful.

Melanie welcomes that power and wants to harness it for the good of mutants, but Division 3 is suspicious of that power and the damage it might do if left unchecked. Explaining away David’s mental illness as a curable side effect of his mutation is an oversimplification of an issue that deserves more nuance in pop-culture depictions, and there are moments in “Chapter Three” that suggest Legion’s writers don’t share the same view as Melanie and Division 3.

There are ways to tie David’s superpowers to mental illness without erasing the ongoing challenges of living with mental illness. David’s solo comic, X-Men: Legacy, is a prime example of a superhero story that addresses this topic with emotional complexity, wit, and plenty of superhero spectacle. Writer Si Spurrier and artist Tan Eng Huat’s series follows David as he tries to walk down a heroic path while managing the large population of personalities that exist in his head, each with its own superpower, and he finds love, friendship, and a sense of purpose over the course of the book’s 24 issues. (You can read more about X-Men: Legacy’s approach to mental illness in this Comics Alliance piece by Jordan White.)

Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz are credited for Legion’s comic-book source material, but I’m hoping the writers have read X-Men: Legacy and will pull inspiration from it as well. David overcoming his mental illness and becoming a mutant messiah fits very neatly into superhero tradition, and the weirdness of the first two episodes has me optimistic that the conventions applied in “Chapter Three” are intended to misdirect the viewer by evoking more familiar superhero concepts.

The trips into David’s memories aren’t as puzzling this time, providing a clearer picture of the events that led to his time in Clockworks. There are still some holes, but this episode reveals how David’s junkie lifestyle impacted his relationship with his girlfriend, Philly, and compelled him to rob his therapist. Also, note how David reacts when Melanie and Ptonomy uncover the memory of his telekinetic outburst in the kitchen; of all the emotions he could feel in that moment — wonder, terror, curiosity — shame is the one that takes over.

Shame is also a major reason why David doesn’t want Syd coming into his memories with Valerie and Ptonomy. He doesn’t want her seeing who he used to be, but she’s quick to dismiss his reservations because of the spiritual connection they share. Earlier in the episode, Syd explains that her mutant ability reaffirmed her belief in the soul because she maintains her sense of self when she travels into another person’s body, and the combination of her body swapping with David’s psychic ability has bound the characters on a more metaphysical level.

(Side note: I recommend you read Lux Alptraum’s piece about Syd, which has some very valid criticisms of her character and how it relates to the trope of the untouchable girl and its limited view of female sexuality, but I also like the idea of these two characters being in a romance that isn’t physical. They want to discover deeper truths about each other, although the show is far more interested in exploring David’s deeper truth than Syd’s at this point. Let’s hope that changes soon.)

Melanie Bird’s introduction to Summerland emphasized warmth and compassion, but “Chapter Three” teases a dark side for David’s new mentor. A hallucination of Lenny tells David that Melanie’s secrets have secrets, and her fixation on the coming war makes her character especially aggressive and militaristic. There are two moments in this episode that have me reconsidering Melanie’s intentions: The first comes after David teleports the physical bodies of himself, Ptonomy, and Melanie to get them out of his head, and they end up in a room where a giant painted circle radiates around David’s head while Melanie sits in front of a large X. The circle around David’s head can be viewed as a visual representation of his psychic power while the X ties Melanie to the franchise that spawned this series, but X also represents an unknown variable. Melanie has her own personal baggage, as shown in her conversation with the coffee maker that uses her late husband’s voice. We shouldn’t assume that she’s as altruistic and selfless as she appears.

The second shifty Melanie moment is during the trip into David’s mind with Syd. This sequence shifts genre gears from superhero to horror as David’s sedation weakens the defenses holding back the forces in his mind, like the Devil With the Yellow Eyes and the Frank-esque manifestation of the World’s Angriest Boy. In the middle of this scene, Melanie walks past a room with David’s parents, and it’s the first time the viewer is given a clear view of their faces. Melanie’s presence frightens the Hallers and she is shaken after seeing them, lending further credence to my theory that she knows significantly more about David’s parents than he does.

Legion has a lot of visual tricks up its sleeve, and aspect ratios are used as a tool to reinforce specific ideas and emotions. In the first episode, flashes of David’s childhood were presented with a Polaroid square ratio that heightened the idealized nostalgia of those memories. Any scenes showing Division 3 hunting down mutants are presented in a letter-boxed widescreen, increasing the scope of the action by evoking Legion’s big-screen X-cousins. For “Chapter Three,” director Michael Uppendahl presents most of the scenes of Amy in Division 3 custody with the aspect ratio of a small security camera monitor, and there’s slight static on the image that contributes to the surveillance concept.

This idea is two-fold: there’s the surveillance being done by Division 3 as Amy is interrogated for information about David, but then there’s also David projecting his consciousness from afar and getting glimpses of his sister’s torment. The tighter aspect ratio heightens Amy’s sense of confinement while also indicating that David doesn’t get a full picture of what’s happening as he psychically spies like this. When David and Syd’s astral projections end up inside Amy’s cell, the aspect ratio expands from the monitor to full screen, indicating that they have a full awareness of their environment even though they are incorporeal and unable to speak.

In the final visual of this episode, the edges of the frame get tighter and tighter as David is assaulted by the figures in his mind, overwhelming him until the shot is eventually consumed by darkness. Legion is venturing deeper into the recesses of David’s mind, and ideally this journey into the unknown will feature a return to the experimental storytelling that made the opening chapters so refreshing.

Legion Recap: Nightmare on Memory Lane