Superhero TV shows should not be increasing the episode orders of their seasons. Whether it’s a Marvel series on Netflix or a DC superhero show on the CW, there’s a lag in the back half of a superhero season, and this could be avoided by cutting the number of chapters and tightening the story. Legion started off with a modest eight-episode order for its first season, and while there was still some bloat toward the end, it moved at a brisk pace that kept the viewers on their toes. Season two received a ten-episode season order, and at the start of this month, FX announced an extra 11th episode, which doesn’t bode well when it comes to swiftness of storytelling and trimming away plot points that drag down the series.
Last week’s episode was far more abstract than “Chapter 17,” but its ambition, confidence, and focused vision made it essential to this season’s overall narrative. David’s multiversal odyssey didn’t progress the Shadow King plot, and while some may use that as a reason to write it off as inconsequential, that episode illuminated David’s character in new ways that deepen the entire series. “Chapter 17” does progress the conflict between David and his arch-nemesis, but it feels cheap and empty in comparison, tumbling backward into convention after the show revealed how great it can be when it ventures outside of the box. I’ve grown very tired of watching David and Farouk stare each other down in the astral plane, and changing the surroundings doesn’t make these interactions any fresher.
Writers Noah Hawley and Nathaniel Halpern want to say something meaningful about delusions and paranoia and how we live in a society that feeds them both, but tacking this discourse onto the episodes with the Jon Hamm–narrated segments isn’t the most graceful way to address the subject matter. “Chapter 17” begins with an exploration of moral panic, and how public anxiety in response to a perceived threat creates concern that morphs into irrational fear. The threat is a delusion, but the response is very real and often excessive, exemplified by the hanging of perceived witches in Puritan communities. This segment also folds comic books into that public anxiety, alluding to the congressional hearings of 1954 that sought to determine a link between this popular entertainment and juvenile delinquency. There’s a connection in that the delusion psychic parasite will play a major part in this episode, but the thematic ties are strenuous, failing to add a substantial subtext to this chapter’s plot of the bad guy taking over the heroes’ minds.
Ptonomy, under the influence of the delusion, places eggs by the sleeping bodies of Syd, Kerry, and Clark, who all become infected by the parasite. They are used as pawns that attack Division 3 from within, and Kerry and Ptonomy face off against a gang of Vermillions in a slow-motion fight sequence that has Kerry taking an ax to the androids while Ptonomy mows them down with his Tommy gun. Syd and Clark go after Admiral Fukiyama, and we finally see the true face of the Division 3 leader, who isn’t anyone we’ve seen before. For the delusional heroes, that face belongs to the tar-covered chicken-spider-lizard monster, and they’re about to wipe it out before David materializes out of thin air and pulls the delusion from their brains. I’m assuming we’ll learn more about the admiral now that we know what is under his basket, but I could also see the show refusing to answer the mysteries surrounding him, Vermillion, and Division 3 and leaving it up to the viewers’ interpretation.
The delusion has been growing inside Ptonomy for longer than the others, and a massive version of the creature breaks through Ptonomy’s flesh, killing his physical body. It’s a gruesome sequence, and it signals a change for the episode as it becomes a superhero versus monster tale, with David tracking the delusion and talking it down until it shrinks down into a manageable size. This sequence is very CGI-heavy, and a lot of the episode’s budget went into animating the delusion, which might be why some of the other scenes don’t look as sharp as usual. This isn’t the end for Ptonomy, either, and even though his body is dead, his mind lives on thanks to the Vermillions hooking him up to the Division 3 mainframe, which keeps his consciousness in a tree-computer.
The writers’ attempts at greater political commentary in this episode fall flat, and while talking to Future Syd, Farouk once again brings up his resentment toward the blue-eyed white men that invaded his homeland and came to kill him. David Haller, with his piercing blue eyes, has become the representative of that group, and when Farouk learns that David will be responsible for the forthcoming apocalypse, he sees it as a big cosmic joke in which the hero has become the villain and vice versa. We’ve heard this speech before, and it’s hard to get behind Farouk’s victimization of himself when we see over and over again the horrors he commits with his immense power.
I’m beginning to think it’s a mistake having Future Syd as a recurring presence throughout the season, and this episode shows the danger of relying on this character to create drama. Farouk sends his consciousness through time to talk to her, and the already-tangled web of allegiances becomes even more complicated when Farouk and Future Syd decide to work together to save the world from David. That’s not as bad as the love triangle that develops between David and the present and future versions of his girlfriend, and the young Syd worries that David has some sort of romantic attachment to her older self because he’s being so distant.
The guy just found out that his sister was murdered and her body is being used as the host for god only knows what, and I figured Syd would be more sensitive to his trauma instead of taking the jealous route. The earlier scenes between David and Future Syd don’t have any sort of sexual undertones, and this plot development happens so that there’s some tension when Future Syd, now working with Farouk, seduces David as part of a new plan to stop him. Her behavior has changed a lot since the last time David talked to her; would he really not notice this shift?
And how is Farouk able to communicate with the future? Sure, we don’t have a full explanation for why Cary’s chamber allows David to travel through time, but at least there’s some sort of fake science rationale involving the amplification of David’s abilities through Cary’s technology. Farouk has a car in the astral plane with bright-pink goo in its engine, and without any sort of clarification, this becomes a random plot device that conveniently allows the writers to complicate the character dynamics.
What’s frustrating about this episode is that if the writers need to fill up space, there are plenty of options for them to explore this show’s supporting cast rather than retreading the same territory. We could learn more about Ptonomy’s character and his relationship with the others, because the audience should care about him if he’s going to die gruesomely. The Loudermilks have this whole subplot involving Kerry learning how to live in the outside world; is that going to get any attention soon? I heard Jean Smart is on this show, maybe she could get something to do at some point this season. This series has set up a rich world that is being ignored in favor of repetitive David versus Farouk action, and rather than seizing the creative opportunities of this season’s expanded episode order, the writers are falling into the usual superhero slump.