Legion Recap: Bow to the King

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Bill Irwin as Cary Loudermilk. Photo: Michelle Faye/FX
Legion

Legion

Chapter 7 Season 1 Episode 7
Editor's Rating 3 stars

Legion wants to convince viewers that it’s not a traditional superhero story by making bold stylistic choices and experimenting with narrative structure, but in the first season’s penultimate episode, showrunner Noah Hawley reveals just how heavily he’s sticking to an established superhero formula. There’s a malevolent outside force threatening to take over the world, and David and his band of mutant allies need to stop it. “Chapter Seven” finally reveals the true identity of the series’ villain, and as it dives deeper into X-Men comic-book mythology, it shifts into a storytelling mode that is more familiar to fans of that franchise.

This episode is very heavy on exposition, answering big questions about the identities of David’s parasite and the father that gave him up for adoption. Oliver Bird is the first person to drop Amahl Farouk’s name during his conversation with Cary, and they’ve clearly had past encounters with the psychic mutant that calls himself the Shadow King. They’re too fixated on saving everyone from Farouk’s psychic imprisonment to give the viewers more background information about the parasite, but that knowledge eventually arrives courtesy of David and his British-inflected rational mind. They travel to a lecture hall where David sorts through what he knows about his past and present situations, and episode writer Jennifer Yale uses this scenario to break down David’s history and how Farouk plays into it.

Having David’s rational mind manifest as a British version of himself allows Dan Stevens the opportunity to use his natural accent, but more crucially to the future of Legion, it also connects David to his (likely) father, Charles Xavier. While that name isn’t said out loud in this episode, there are certain indicators that strongly suggest Xavier’s identity: the flash of Xavier’s X-rimmed wheelchair when Amy recalls the night David was brought to her parents, and the drawing of David’s father during the animated chalkboard sequence, which shows a bald man in a suit (Xavier’s usual look). That animated sequence is a prime example of how Legion embraces stylistic shifts to invigorate conventional storytelling, but it’s still a straightforward info dump.

Farouk was an enemy of David’s father, and they had a psychic battle on the astral plane that ended with the villain being defeated, but not destroyed. Farouk was lying low waiting to make his next move, and when David was born, he burrowed into David’s mind, feeding on his power to reach a godlike state. Meeting Syd woke David up, and Farouk couldn’t hide anymore so he became more aggressive in taking full control. The animated delivery of this information makes it more engaging than it would be as a basic monologue, and I also like how the paneled chalkboard evokes the look of a comic-book page, which feels very appropriate considering this sequence incorporates ideas from the X-Men comics.

At the end of this scene, David comes to the conclusion that he’s not sick anymore and is going to get his body back, and it marks a major change for the character that presents him in a superheroic light. The fragility that has defined much of Dan Stevens’s performance is gone, and David becomes a stronger, more self-assured person who is ready to kick some ass. It’s a moment of triumph for the character, but not for the show. Legion gives in to the pressure to stick to the traditional superhero character arc that has the protagonist discovering their true power and rushing out to save the day, and much of the narrative tension dissipates once David lands on this path. The compelling thing about David was his vulnerability in relation to his immense psychic power, and that dynamic has gradually faded over the course of the season.

At the same time, this is still a superhero TV series, so it makes sense for the lead character to eventually step into a superhero role, complete with the confidence and self-realization that entails. But the first episodes of Legion were so dedicated to moving away from that role that it feels like a compromise to put David there rather than putting him in a more complicated position. There’s still time for David’s situation to get messy in the finale, especially given the final shot of Farouk bursting out of his psychic containment just as Division 3 shows up to Summerland to arrest David and kill his friends, but I have doubts that the writers are going to pull the rug out from under us in the last hour. (It would be a pleasant surprise if that does happen, though.)

I mentioned writer Si Spurrier’s run on X-Men: Legacy in a previous recap, and my mind keeps going back to that series and how well it uses a superhero framework to provide a moving, complex depiction of how to cope with mental illness in order to have a happy, satisfying life. There’s still the possibility that Legion won’t completely erase David’s mental illness as it builds to his final showdown with the Shadow King, but given the significance of the chalkboard scene, that seems to be the direction the show is headed. Granted, there’s also a second season in the works, so the central conceit of Spurrier’s story — David learning to contain the superpowered multiple personalities in his mind — could become the foundation for Legion’s next story arc.

The big set piece of this episode is set to the theme from Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, which gets an electronic remix as the action picks up and the stakes become higher. The sequence splits focus three ways: David tapping into the full force of his power in the Division 3 hallway; Syd and Kerry fleeing The Eye and a Robert Smith–styled Lenny in Clockworks; and Cary, Melanie, and Oliver in David’s childhood bedroom alongside everyone’s physical bodies, trying to move things around so that David and Syd won’t be shot. The music choice guarantees a certain level of intensity, and the decision to switch into a silent movie presentation keeps the music at the forefront. Director Dennie Gordon creates some very striking images in this sequence, particularly around Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny (who has become my favorite part of this series), but I don’t really understand the point of the silent movie idea beyond it being another way to play with style. It doesn’t add to the storytelling, so it comes across as a shallow move to try something different just for the hell of it, rather than something more substantial.

I have conflicting feelings about Legion because I want those stylistic choices to have a stronger narrative justification, but I also appreciate that the show is willing to embrace more distinct visuals and take chances, even if they’re not necessarily merited by the story. I’m a person who watches a lot of superhero media, and more often than not, these projects have a homogeneity that makes them increasingly boring over time. Risks aren’t especially popular in superhero TV and film, because risks have the potential to alienate viewers. When something takes a risk and succeeds, like Fox’s Deadpool and Logan movies, it shows the value of thinking outside the box with superhero projects, but it’s taken a while for studios to reach the turning point we’re at now. Legion is having fun with the genre in a way no other superhero TV show is right now, and while I appreciate that willingness to experiment with style elements, I wish the show was as committed to upending expectations of what a superhero story can be.

The first half of this season suggested the show would be more of a superpowered exploration of mental illness than the standard good-vs.-evil narrative, and while the show is trying to juggle both of those story aspects, it’s better equipped to handle the latter. Legion is a very cool interpretation of Marvel’s mutant concept, but the character moments aren’t as effective as they could be. This show has a phenomenal cast of actors and they’re all doing good work with the material given to them, but at times it feels like the scripts aren’t going deeper because the actors can be trusted to find that extra emotional substance themselves. This is especially apparent in Melanie’s relationship with Oliver: Jean Smart fully captures the tangled web of emotions Melanie feels as she finally reunites with her husband, first on the astral plane, and then in reality when the whole group (including Oliver) is freed from its psychic prison. Jemaine Clements’s aloofness as Oliver is a stark contrast to Smart’s approach, and while I feel the characters’ connection in the performances, I can’t help but wonder how much richer the relationships would be if the script went even further in exploring the nuances of these personal dynamics.

Legion Recap: Bow to the King