LEGION Review: “Chapter 11”

So a minotaur, a monk, and a cow walk into a maze…

One of the biggest differences between Marvel and DC comics was always narrative voice. Where DC books had scene-setting captions, Marvel captions represented someone actively telling readers the story, even breaking in with jokes and asides. The voice in the yellow box knew it was part of a comic book; it understood the form. It was also friendly, conspiratorial. Almost cool. The voice was essentially Stan Lee, or an acolyte, speaking through the pages.

The closest most projects come to that concept is putting Stan Lee in every movie – which is about as close to translating that voice as a llama is to a Volvo. 

Over the last two weeks I’ve wondered about the identity of Jon Hamm’s narrator in Legion; now I think he may be the most direct translation of the classic Marvel narrative voice in live action. Certainly his sequences look more like comics than anything else in the show. They play with form and motion; this week we see camera movement and perspective changes taking place almost invisibly as story “panels” slipstream one into the next.

Hamm’s interludes are slowly adding up to an ironically academic backbone for the overall story. We’ve progressed from the dreams and delusions of the opener to last week’s concepts about humans existing in a reality defined by their minds.

Now we come to the “nocebo” (yep, it’s a real thing), which illustrates that the mind can also create a physical reality – and that via a “contagious conversion disorder,” these invented physical actions can leap from one person to another. This is illustrated by cheerleaders who act as the medium through which an intense physical tic spreads. That’s also a real thing. All this roots David’s powers (mental energy causing a physical effect) and the general concept of the relationship between the mind and the body in some sort of actual reality. I understand the absurdity of a phrase like “actual reality” in the context of Legion.

“Chapter 11” furthers ideas about the relationship between mind and body. Out in the real world, Kerry can’t deal with eating and is mystified by going to the bathroom. She’d much rather let Cary deal with all that while she waits inside for moments of conflict. Syd, further exploring Division III through the vessel of a cat, finds that there are “certain impulses” difficult to resist in that form, like playfully batting a dangling tassel.

Poor Lenny, meanwhile, is stuck in Oliver’s head with the Shadow King for company and no future to look forward to. She tries suicides – hanging, a gunshot – to escape. With mind severed from body, however, she’s ironically trapped in limbo. 

(As an aside, Lenny’s would-be gunshot suicide is the latest way this Marvel adaptation crosses over into DC/Vertigo territory, as it channels the feeling of Neil Gaiman’s Delirium character. Legion can echo books like Sandman and Shade, The Changing Man just as often as it crunches ideas from X-Men and related titles down into geometric cells.)

This is all backdrop for Amahl Farouk’s attempt to find his body, assisted by David. Turns out the body isn’t the monk who was in the chatter-teeth storage room in Division III. The monk was the keeper of the body, after Charles Xavier (ahem, sorry, “David’s father”) defeated Farouk decades ago. The body can’t be drowned or burned or killed; it must be hidden. And so it lies in an egg-like coffin (remember the delusion insect hatching from an egg?) below the Mi-Go monastery. 

Furthermore, it isn’t Farouk who is causing the chatter-teeth stasis in people; it’s the monk. He’s powerful, maybe close to David’s level, and his particular contagious conversion disorder sends people into their own madness maze, where their deepest desires come true.

The monk breaks out of that containment area and sends various Division III employees into their own fugues. Ptonomy, who remembers everything, is in a maze where he instantly forgets everything. It seems like bliss, to him. Others have their own escapes.

This episode is crawling with glistening ideas looking for a place to shelter and grow. Those mental mazes are among them. There’s also the second conversation between Farouk and David, where the Shadow King pitches himself not as a villain – a term, he notes, that originated from a word meaning “peasant,” a thing he is most certainly not – but as the deposed ruler of a proud people, dethroned by a well-meaning white man. (I.e. Xavier, sorry, “David’s father.”)

Farouk suggests that helping Future Syd by finding Farouk’s body will ultimately cause a new future to exist, effectively wiping her out. So that’s a new angle, or maybe a new lie. And he could be victim rather than villain, which is another perspective shift that continues the process of calling the motivations of David and others into question. To drive home the point of shifting perspectives, the camera shifts restlessly side-to-side during this conversation.

Oh, and speaking of the delusion bug, it finds a home in Ptonomy – but that, and all these other elements, hasn't really grown yet. The ugly connotation of this episode’s title, “Chapter 11,” doesn’t quite apply, but the show’s tendency to deny resolution is threatening to calcify this week. Legion is so dense that it already feels like we’re far deeper into the season than three episodes. The sense is setting in that the pace really needs to quicken.

Or, as Future Syd slowly spells out in a mental message to David, “hurry.”

I haven’t talked about Jean Smart and her character Melanie Byrd. While Melanie had the beginning of an interesting monologue, “Our Men,” in the season opener, she has mostly seemed like an afterthought. This week Smart gets the chance to do a great bit of physical performance, when Melanie has fallen prey to the Monk’s chattering malady and is carted around Division III by David, her body stiff and teeth chattering. It looks like more difficult work than it sounds.

Melanie’s own madness maze is really the centerpiece of the episode. The concept is great: her maze is an Infocom-style text adventure game. Old-school stuff that makes a certain audience (OK, me) really perk up. It’s meant to illustrate how she wants control of her own story, but she feels almost totally disconnected from the concept. The effect of the sequence is reflected in Kerry’s reaction to David’s big gambit: basically “hey kid, nice try but now let’s do something that’ll really work.”

Something big hides within Melanie’s maze, however: a minotaur. It’s a weird beast that crawls along slowly using a wheelchair for dogs – and we’ve seen it before. Flashes of this minotaur have appeared in the past two episodes. Which suggests possible layers of reality; has the minotaur previously broken out of Melanie’s maze, or is the reality the characters think they’re inhabiting not actually the top level of consciousness?

Meanwhile, we get a significant new symbol this week: a cow, which appears in a few rooms in Division III. If it matters, and it probably does, the cow looks like a Holstein. More specifically, it looks like the one on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. We also see more of the green hand balloons in the sky, this time pointing primarily to what looks like a communications dish rather than at David. (Or are they really red, following the idea of reverse mental conditioning?) Regardless, their meaning remains unclear. (Those balloons remind me, far more vaguely, of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals, which is almost certainly irrelevant.) 

Turns out David is more powerful than the Monk, as we learn when the Monk, having literally tapped into Fukyama’s head, tells Melanie that he needs “the weapon” to destroy the Shadow King’s body. There’s good reason to think the weapon is David, but he’s also dangerously confused. “I’m having a really hard time finding the landmarks here,” he blurts, “minds separated from bodies, Minotaurs in mazes.”

We can’t find the landmarks either, and that still seems deliberate, but the feeling of being adrift is intensifying. To really let that idea gel, the monk peaces out of life in precisely the way Lenny cannot as he tells David that something bad has already happened. The episode smashes to credits as David finds Syd in a monk-induced fugue, leading the mutant hero/weapon to dive into Syd’s mind, where he’s enveloped in a dark snowstorm. Confused, cold, alone – will David find a landmark that helps him unify some combination of mind, body, and reality?

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