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‘Legion’ Can’t Get Out of David’s Head

The question is no longer “What’s real?” It’s “What’s next?”

(FX/Ringer illustration)
(FX/Ringer illustration)

Midway through Episode 3 of Legion, protagonist David Haller makes a statement that seems to set up the second half of the episode, and maybe even the rest of the series. He and his girlfriend, Sydney, have just returned to the mutant safe space Summerland after teleporting to where Division 3, a shady government agency out to catch and quell David, is questioning and torturing his sister. He has only one thing on his usually busy mind. “They have my sister, and we need to get her back,” he says. After an episode and a half in which Legion plummeted its audience into the depths of David’s mind, never overtly differentiating between matter and memory, this declaration feels like the show snapping its fingers and saying, “Alright, let’s go accomplish something.” All signs point to a rescue mission. It’s exactly what Legion needs: an attainable goal to move toward and also an excuse for its characters to step out into the world.

But a few minutes later, we’re back in David’s mind, chasing a child version of the character through different memories as horns blare, lights flash, and an evil figure stalks close behind. We stay there until the episode ends.

Legion’s first two episodes sought to diagram its protagonist’s psyche, an exercise that sacrificed narrative clarity for overall feeling, mostly to great effect. The sense of disorientation conjured by creator Noah Hawley and his Legion team enabled the viewer to see and feel what David does. (Ringer podcast host Andy Greenwald is a coproducer on the show.) Episode 3 is more traditionally structured — it still jumps around from the present to the past, but it’s the first episode to generally move from Point A to Point B. However, the smoothing out of Legion’s form doesn’t exactly translate to forward momentum. The show is still diving into David’s brain in a quest to suss out how it works, who it controls, and who controls it. And while that allows Legion to expand its limits visually and devise yet more ways to make the Devil With the Yellow Eyes seem horrifying, it doesn’t quite make for a fulfilling viewing experience.

Legion is headed toward two things: a confrontation with Division 3 and a full-scale realization of who David is and what he is capable of. The problem is, three episodes into an eight-episode season, we haven’t made much progress on either. The accelerated memory work that closes out Episode 3 adds layers of complexity — at one point, Ptonomy goes full Inception and actually says, “Interesting, memories within memories” — and confirms the existence of independent, antagonistic forces within David’s mind, but doesn’t solve any problems. And since, according to Melanie Bird, a battle against Division 3 can’t happen until David is “fixed,” that plotline remains on hold as well.

The result is another episode that is enthralling in the moment but dissatisfying in hindsight. David’s mind is an intense, interesting place to be, but repetition can render anything banal. And even as Legion dials back on its initial purpose of confounding viewers into empathy, it won’t leave the spot where all of that took place: David’s headspace.

The episode’s closing scene — of David trapped and surrounded by hundreds of people yelling at him — suggests we are nearing the confirmation of his true identity as Legion, an all-powerful mutant with the ability to subsume other people’s psyches into his own. And now that Melanie has had her hand mangled by David’s memory of a children’s book, perhaps something can be done to address the evil impinging on his brain. As for Division 3, the Summerland group may not have the power to decide when a confrontation takes place for much longer. David and Sydney’s visit behind enemy lines was a surprising feat, but it also brought Division 3 that much closer to them. These are all promising developments — or at least, inklings of development — because if Legion continues to do the same thing over and over, the show will have many good parts, but no sum.