David Haller has only been back for a few days, but that’s all it takes to plunge Division 3 into crisis mode. After Lenny and Oliver’s invasion last week, the agency falls victim to an even bigger threat: That mysterious monk is the one who’s spreading the psychic virus, and he brings Division 3 to its knees once he breaks out of the quarantine chamber. David is both the monk’s target and the cure for his victims, and so he must travel into the minds of his colleagues to pull them from the mental mazes that leave their bodies totally incapacitated.
It sounds exciting, but “Chapter 11” winds up being surprisingly dull. Legion hasn’t been able to build a new mystery to replace the intrigue of David’s mental state in the first season, and it’s settling into a conventional superhero story that only feels different because it’s attached to such a weird stylistic sensibility. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when you consider just how uniform so much superhero media can be, but this show has set a high bar for itself. There’s so much rich material to explore here, especially in regards to how people emotionally process trauma, but that’s all getting lost in the larger Shadow King narrative.
The Jon Hamm–narrated interludes allow for some cool visuals, but as the season continues, these come across as a flimsy way to tackle the subject of mental illness outside of the main story line. This episode starts with Hamm breaking down the “nocebo effect,” which is when a person has a negative physical reaction to a suggested harm. A man is told repeatedly that the liquid he is given will make him vomit, so when he drinks a glass of sugar water, he vomits. This idea is used to bolster the recurring theme that the mind has the power to create its own physical reality, which is further explored through conversion disorder, where mental stress is converted to physical symptoms that are potentially contagious.
This is seemingly tied to the psychic virus that overtakes Division 3, but its a tenuous connection when the virus comes from a superpowered source. The case of the cheerleaders who acquire the same physical tic isn’t the same situation as a monk willfully infecting a group of people, and it ties into a larger issue: Superpowers can function as compelling metaphors for mental health issues, but the stakes feel diminished when mental illness is a product of those superpowers. While I’m still not completely convinced that David’s illness was cured by expelling the Shadow King from his consciousness, the season has been making that argument thus far, and it’s made David a shallower character.
This episode reveals what happened after Amahl Farouk was defeated by David’s father in psychic combat, and while his mind latched on to baby David, his body was put in a white, egg-shaped coffin and hidden underneath the monastery of the Mi-Go order. David eventually learns more about the monks when he psychically explores the monastery, but it’s a languorous scene that diminishes the momentum of the story and fails to provide information that makes this group more interesting. David is a weapon that the monks want to use to defeat Farouk, but it’s been pretty clear from the start that he would be the person to take on this responsibility.
Legion has always blurred the lines between hero and villain thanks to David’s potential for both good and evil, and that continues when he and Farouk have their second big conversation in the astral plane. This scene reiterates a lot of the talking points from their last chat, while folding in some political commentary as Farouk takes issue with being called a villain, pointing out that the word comes from the French villein, meaning peasant. But Farouk wasn’t a peasant, he was a king. The king of kings, and he was dethroned by a white man who came into his land, not speaking the language or knowing the customs. This white man decided that Farouk’s people deserved better, but who was he to make such choices?
In a sense, Farouk considers himself a refugee driven from his body. When he had to choose between life and death, he chose life and possessed the mind of his attacker’s son, feeding on the limitless power of the child’s mutant mind. This political argument is certainly provocative, but half-baked. The show has more work to do before Farouk can be presented as a morally ambiguous character, especially when so much of the first season was defined by the horrors he unleashed on David and those around him. As David himself puts it, “You fed off me when I was a baby! And I’m supposed to feel, what, sorry for you?”
After his encounter with Farouk, David awakens to total disaster in Division 3, and Cary is his only ally who hasn’t been struck by the virus. They jump into Ptonomy’s mind first, and they find him in an elaborate garden labyrinth where he’s caught in a loop of mindlessly cutting flowers. The virus locks people in their heads by satisfying their core desires, and for Ptonomy, whose mutant ability forces him to remember everything about his life, that means giving him the opportunity to forget. He doesn’t remember David when he introduces himself over and over again, and he engages in repetitive action because that’s what is right in front of him and he forgets that he’s already cut the flowers. David is able to free him with his light-up E.T. finger, and it’s a very simple solution that doesn’t take advantage of the emotional obstacle introduced by the maze.
I complained about the sidelining of Jean Smart in last week’s recap, and it only gets worse in “Chapter 11,” which has Melanie Byrd becoming a non-presence in her own mind. Her core desire is to control an uncontrollable world from a distance, and her maze is presented as a text-based computer game that David, Cary, and Ptonomy have to navigate with a keyboard. Smart is barely onscreen for this scene, and David is only able to reach Melanie by reminding her of her personal story. This problem-solving is more satisfying than what goes down in Ptonomy’s mind, and ideally it’ll be the wakeup call that Melanie needs to become more active presence for the rest of the season.
All of the show’s main female characters have diminished roles in this episode. Lenny is reduced to a psychic entity desperate to escape Farouk’s mental prison by any means necessary, and she’s losing the power and menace that made her so compelling last season. It feels like the writers don’t know what to do with Lenny, which is a shame because they have an exceptional performer in Aubrey Plaza. The Kerry story line is my favorite part of this episode — as she and Cary learn to live separately from one another — but we don’t get very much of her learning how to do normal human things like eating and using the bathroom before the virus hits. Those few moments are still a lot of fun, and the comedic chemistry between Amber Midthunder and Bill Irwin is refreshing in an otherwise dire episode.
Meanwhile, Syd spends the beginning of this episode in a cat’s body — which literally dehumanizes her — and she’s become a damsel in distress thanks to her future self, who somehow manages to contact David with a message to hurry up and save her. The episode ends with David making his way into Syd’s mind, now infected with the virus, and it cuts off abruptly as he treks through a blizzard toward an igloo in the distance. This show has done good work with frozen environments in the past, so maybe a gust of cold air is what Legion needs to get back on track.