LEGION Review 1.02 “Chapter 2”

A decent follow-up to a great introduction.

Read last week’s review here.

Legion doesn’t require traditional franchise grounding. In fact, it seldom needs grounding of any sort, with design aesthetics untethered to specific time period and formal decisions disconnecting it from time itself, but it does walk a fine line between style as substance and the former acting as substitute. “Chapter 1” tilted toward the right side of that tightrope, manipulating perspective to draw us inside the head of David Haller. “Chapter 2” follows suit by exploring the mess that is David’s mind, but it’s far less of a triumph than its predecessor.

Dan Stevens’ David, lanky and perpetually bed-headed like his comicbook counterpart, finds himself in the safety of Summerland. Mutant psychotherapist Melanie Bird helps him parse the many voices that plague him, and with the assistance of “memory artist” Ptonomy (whose psychic projections we caught a glimpse of last week), the trio traverse David’s very consciousness, unlocking his experiences one at a time in order to get to the root of his trauma. It’s a process that parallels Scientology’s auditing, only instead of questions it’s a trip down memory lane. Literally.

The re-living of these formative moments allows the series to show off its strengths, playing with Kaufman-esque surrealism to answer questions with more questions, but it also exposes the weaknesses hidden by the first chapter’s propulsion. When the focus is memory or supernatural power, Legion may very well be the stylistic apex of the superhero genre. It helps that material lends itself to visuals that stand out (X-Men: Legacy isn’t just one of the best Marvel comics in recent years years, it’s also the most visually potent), but it sure as hell knows how to use them to its advantage. Where it seems to be struggling, however, is what exactly to do when it’s visually restrained.

When David gets some downtime from his memory exercises, he sits quietly with his somewhat-girlfriend Syd as they recount their body swapping experience – through words. In fact, the top of the episode features an in-built recap of last week’s final minutes, with David extemporizing additional details of the SWAT teams on his heels, as we see those same details exactly as described. It doesn’t happen often because of how much the show focuses on the surreal and cerebral, but the remainder falls on the mundane side of literal.

It also doesn’t help that outside of the mental institution where they met, there isn’t much to David and Syd beyond not being able to touch each other. It feels almost like a step backward after the Noah Hawley-directed intro, where every little detail and quirk had some sort of visual expression. Those same eye-grabbing externalizations are most certainly present in this chapter, but only when the episode ramps up and returns David to his heightened moments. Simple sit-downs with David’s former shrink become opportunities to scrutinize his fears, and the body language between him and Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny is enough to carry their nonsensical stove-hustling flashbacks. Alas, most other dynamics feel inert unless they’re centered around delving into David’s psyche.

The narrative is as non-traditional as they come, peeling back the layers of David’s abilities almost via accidental discovery. On one hand, he’s plagued by visions of a grotesque blob that appears to be show’s version of The Shadow King. On the other, his mysterious astronomer father appears to have read him a whole bunch of murder stories as kid. How exactly these play in to the manifestation of his powers isn’t entirely clear yet, and that’s because those manifestations are only now coming to light. Not only does David transport an MRI machine outside the clinic walls while he’s still being subjected to it (the machine appears to reveal an external consciousness), he also inadvertently projects himself in front of his sister, the most important person to him. There is much we don’t know about David, and much the Summerland folks are keen to unlock before his powers become a danger.

“Chapter 2” is confusing in exactly the right way. Scenes from various points in time are scattered haphazardly as they’re probed from David’s memory, demanding a narrative reconstruction on behalf of the viewer in order to map his emotional trajectory. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the show significantly less interesting when it isn’t confusing. I don’t know if that’s sustainable, or if it’s an issue that’ll self-repair as the characters develop (giving the filmmakers more to draw on than disorientation!), but for the time being it mostly works.

We’re only a quarter of the way through the first season after all, and despite a significant step down from last week’s episode, Legion is still better than every X-Men movie. Besides, now that David’s sister is being used as bait, the narrative is heading a concrete direction. We know what mess resides within David’s consciousness, and it’s time to see if it can be channeled.