This week’s episode of FX’s offbeat new X-Men series puts David through some very intensive therapy.
Legion is clearly going to be an off-kilter show—so it’s fitting that it kicked off with such an off-kilter episode. It wasn’t until the closing minutes of last week’s extra-long series premiere that Legion introduced the first thing that probably popped into your head when you heard FX was making an X-Men series: a ragtag squad of mutants with awe-inspiring superpowers.
This week’s Legion doubles down by introducing us to what seems to be the show’s primary setting: Summerland, a woodsy retreat led by Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) with the help of a super-powered partner named Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris). It’s like Professor X opened a satellite wing of his School for Gifted Youngsters, designed to cater to a different class of mutants who might otherwise have slipped through the cracks: older, more power, and more troubled.
As the episode begins, Dr. Bird tells David that his “mental illness”—the voices, the hallucinations—are just the manifestations of his superpowers, and that they’ve pulled him out of years of intensive-but-ineffective in-patient psychiatric care to help him “rewrite the story” of his life. As she explains the therapeutic process—in which present-day David literally walks through perfect recreations of his past memories, then discusses the experience in extensive talk therapy sessions—Dr. Bird promises David that the ultimate goal is to make him “whole.” Minutes later, she repeats the promise: “Let me make you whole again.”
Who, in David’s shoes, could turn that offer down? In some ways, the fantasy Legion is selling isn’t all that different than Harry Potter, in which a child is suddenly whisked away from his miserable life and taken to a magic castle so he can become a wizard. In Legion, the “miserable life” is paranoid schizophrenia; the “magic castle” is the promise that there’s nothing wrong with him after all. “You know how you’ve spent your whole life struggling with problems no one else needs to face?” the show implicitly asks. “The real problem is that you’ve been treating them like problems. There’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, there’s more right with you than anyone else on the planet.”
But “crazy superpowers” doesn’t preclude “mental illness,” does it? Is there any reason those things can’t go hand-in-hand? Legion is pitched squarely at adults, which means we also get plenty of flashbacks to the grimmer moments in David’s pre-Summerland life: Getting dumped by his girlfriend after that notorious episode in the kitchen, hustling for drugs with Lenny, and—most disturbingly—lying in bed as a kid while his dad read him a creepy, Babadook-esque storybook called The World’s Angriest Boy, in which the young protagonist chops his own mother’s head off. (We don’t see his dad’s face, but we have reason to doubt the truth of what we’re seeing; those who know the identity of David’s father in the comics will have a hard time squaring this malevolent bedtime figure with his previous big-screen incarnations, if that’s the narrative track Legion intends to follow.)
This all happens so quickly that it can be easy to overlook how creepy and invasive this “therapy” could turn out to be. David is essentially allowing a couple of strangers to wander around in his brain, picking apart his most private, intimate memories. Even the most intensive conventional talk therapy is ultimately self-selective; the therapist asks you a question, and your brain finds the words to answer in a way that feels true to you. But this process cuts out the middleman gives Dr. Bird and Ptonomy access to the raw, unfiltered and largely traumatic material from David’s life. Would you let someone do that to you?
And the relative safety of Summerland hasn’t done anything to quell David’s most consistent and nightmarish vision: Sudden appearances by the grotesque, smirking figure he calls the Devil With the Yellow Eyes. If we take Dr. Bird at her word, there’s nothing wrong with David—which means his real problem is that the malevolent creature who stalks him, which he’s always written off as a hallucination, is totally real.
But can we take Dr. Bird at her word? In its subjective point of view and frequent, surreal time jumps, Legion has already taught us not to trust what we see. To my mind, the show becomes much more interesting if we also decide not to trust everything we hear. Dr. Bird certainly seems benevolent, but that’s only in contrast to the sinister government interrogators who spent most of last week’s episode poking and prodding at David. The two sides are at opposition, but there’s no reason that one side being bad means the other side is good. And given how powerful David could clearly become, can he really trust anyone’s motives? Maybe his sister Amy, who knew and loved him before any of his powers developed. And maybe Lenny—but only because she’s dead.
And that brings us to David’s girlfriend Syd, who remains Legion’s most intriguing character, and biggest question mark. There’s a part of me that continues to doubt Syd’s sincerity. Did she “rescue” David by guiding him to Summerland, or merely play a key role in a different kind of incarceration under the watchful eye of Dr. Bird? Does she really love David, or does she know that saying she loves him is the easiest way to control him? Near the end of the episode, Syd deftly convinces David not to rush off to rescue his sister Amy—who is now held captive by David’s former government interrogators—until his training at Summerland is complete. Is this good advice from a concerned girlfriend, or a bit of manipulation so skillful that she talked David into walking right back into a cage that he doesn’t even realize is a cage?
There’s no reason that one side being bad means the other side is good. And given how powerful David could become, can he trust anyone’s motives?
We don’t know enough about Syd outside of David’s rose-colored perspective to guess at the true, objective answer to that question (though David’s ability to read her mind does, at least, indicate that she intends to protect him). But Legion also gives us a point in Syd’s favor: The climactic moment in last week’s episode, when David and Syd had their single moment of physical contact and briefly traded bodies.
Let’s put aside the superheroic implications about what Syd’s powers can do, and what that might mean for her future. Instead, take a moment to imagine that intimacy of that kind of person-to-person transference. To understand your partner more completely than anyone else ever could, because you literally became your partner: seeing the world through her eyes, or feeling the way his body moved, or feeling his synapses firing. What could be more intimate than that?
Of course, David and Syd’s transference also gives us our sole, objective piece of insight about what it’s like to be inside David’s skin. David has his problems, but he’s clearly more capable of controlling himself than he gets credit for—because when Syd occupied his body, she was a helpless passenger at the mercy of his overwhelming power. The ensuing minutes, which Syd remembers only in brief flashes, were a cavalcade of horrors that culminated in at least one grisly death. (“Don’t give a newbie a bazooka and act surprised when she blows shit up,” says Lenny, generously absolving Syd from her responsibility in Lenny’s own death.) And if that’s what happens when David isn’t in control of his powers—well, what’s going to happen when something really sets him off?
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