Legion has often seemed like it doesn’t understand or really care about Sydney Barrett. Maybe the problem has been that David Haller doesn’t understand the woman he claims to love. That changes as “Chapter 12” steps away from the season’s overarching story about the Shadow King to peer closely at Syd and her history – and at David’s understanding of her.
The episode is the highlight of Season 2 to date, one of the best episodes of the show so far, and the best reward for all the work Rachel Keller has done throughout the show in a central but not quite celebrated role. “Chapter 12” is both the show’s version of a bottle episode and as close to a conceptual payoff as Legion has achieved; applying the show’s consistent disregard for structural boundaries to a focused character study creates exactly the sort of moments the show’s design promises but can’t always fulfill.
It’s rare to see Legion take a deep character dive. Most of the people around David Haller are known by powers and a handful of experiences; we’re seeing the show’s string of events through David’s experience and his filters. We’re alienated from who these people really are and what a lot of interactions might really mean.
Flash back to last week, when we saw David & Co. jump into the minds of Division III compatriots afflicted by the monk’s chattering plague. Each person was in a madness maze of their own design, defined in large part by their greatest desire. Ptonomy, who remembers everything, wants to forget it all. Melanie Bird wants to write her own story.
David’s incursions into those psyches were clever but ultimately unfulfilling character snapshots, good ideas that came off as glib reductions of each character, telling us some grand concept about each person without really saying much at all.
“Chapter 12” devotes an entire episode to Syd, whose own maze puts her in an igloo, warming her hands over a faux fire, and also into a gallery of Egon Schiele paintings, among other locations. Schiele’s art, with its reaching but distant figures, seems like a cornerstone influence on the show, not least because it was an inspiration for artist Bill Sienkiewicz in his early conceptions of the Legion character. (Sienkiewicz has created more recent Schiele-like art for the show, too.)
Some of these images are as obscure as many others in the show – I’m not ready to say I know what the faux fire is about, though it feels right – but the tight focus in this episode, and the repetition of some images, combined with Keller’s performance, makes it all stick. We see images of Syd’s youth, particularly as she struggles with self-image amid torment from classmates and an early sexual encounter that goes wrong in a particularly Legion manner.
David’s attempts to parse Syd’s issues are pathetic, even laughable, in part because he applies exactly that superficial reading of her character that we’ve seen in prior episodes. He thinks she’s sad because she can’t touch anyone, or because her powers blocked basic parental intimacy. Syd’s reaction to David’s shallow attempts to “read” her should be familiar to at least half the show’s audience; she’s frustrated but patient, waiting for him to catch up. Sure, she knows the answers because she lived them, but for a guy who is powerful as hell David can be pretty slow to catch a clue. This is like Melanie’s “our men” monologue from the season opener in a different, more effective context.
As David looks deeper, prompted by Syd, we see far more of her history, and realize some of this story is familiar. We’ve actually heard Syd talk about part of this episode’s core story before, when she described an early sexual encounter with her mother’s boyfriend that involved her body-swapping power. David should know that might be at the center of her own maze, but he’s got to be led to it.
Ellen Kuras, best known as the cinematographer on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and more recent efforts like Errol Morris’s Wormwood, directs this episode with particular attention to Syd’s memories, David’s slow crawl through them, and the dawning realization that comes as he realizes what really defines her. She nails it, especially in scenes with teen Syd, played by Pearl Amanda Dickson, who plays the most painful moments. And when David does finally understand what’s up, after being guided to it, his visible and ridiculous pride in his “achievement” is just perfect.
The episode’s centerpiece, where that sort-of seduction of Syd’s mother’s boyfriend reaches a terrible conclusion, is among the most powerful sequences the series has offered. Paired with an extended scene in which Syd explains her vision of love – as a thing that must be saved, rather than that which saves us – this is the character defining episode I’ve wanted to see for the character.
Will there be more like this in the balance of the season? Maybe. With David and Syd finally synced up – unified in a sense, to fit into the season’s larger concepts – we return to Division III to find the chaos left at the end of last week’s episode. The monk is dead, his infected victims are awake, and somehow Lenny has escaped back into the real world. That’s an exciting development, and something of a mystery given how trapped and impotent Lenny seemed when we last saw her. If we see an awakening for Lenny to match this vision of Syd, it might be an evolutionary installment for Legion.