Sometimes it’s hard to shake old habits. For much of the first three episodes of Legion, my mind worked overtime to convince me that the scary man with the yellow eyes was an allusion to the X-Men villain Mojo, the powerful “Spineless One” who runs a planet-wide television network that’s fueled by slavery and habitual viewership. And though the idea of Haller waking up to find himself in the Mojoverse, that’s clearly not the case and I’m certain of that because this show doesn’t have a noticeable need to reference the dense mythology from which it was born.
The only major nod that could be gleaned – at least from a casual but loyal fan’s point of view – from Legion to X-Men is the window framed with a wooden X over the glass in the room where, in “Chapter 3,” David is told that he may be the most powerful mutant in the world. Beyond that, Legion seems to remain entirely self-contained within the Marvel Universe, a fact that speaks directly to what creator Noah Hawley seems to be reflecting in his dense, fractious visual storytelling and decisive, unpredictable cuts and transitions. Where so many series grasp frantically at narrative clarity, a constant sense of knowing what’s going on in the moment, Legion seeks to convey how hard that can really be, especially when you are gifted (read: cursed) with extravagant and extraordinary cerebral abilities. It’s timeliness in the American media landscape can not be overstated.
The density of perspectives that Hawley conveys throughout the series increased amidst the plot turns of “Chapter 3,” all the way up to the quasi-cliffhanger ending. As the episode began, we were continuing to dance around what exactly happened around the time David played confetti with all the objects in the kitchen he shared with his ex-girlfriend, Philly. The repetition of The Eye saying “Shall we begin?” felt like a sly joke, a knowing grin in reaction to the fact that we always seem to be starting and then returning to memories and moments like the exploding kitchen in Legion. And the series has admittedly lost some of the propulsive story elements of the pilot in the two episodes that have followed, especially in chronicling where The Eye and his division are and what they are doing.
As we found out, The Eye has been torturing David’s sister, Amy (Katie Aselton), with what looks like leeches and some pretty gnarly mental powers, and David, now able to see these actions, is interested in very little beside saving her. Even as he is unable to control his own eruptive, incessant powers, he intends to use them against The Eye, and much of the episode was a tug of war between his impulsiveness and the all-important patience and strategy represented by Jean Smart‘s Dr. Bird. That would seem to be the premiere struggle of mutantkind on the whole, being able to use one’s supernatural abilities for good without allowing that power to come to the fore in anger, frustration, confusion, or greed. And where so many superhero movies echo Spider-Man’s sentiments – “With great power comes great responsibility,” – without really ruminating on it’s value, Legion has been going to lengths to consider that, almost to a fault.
This is where Hawley’s sharpened, mercurial sense of humor and humanity comes into play, another element that has been absent from many Marvel properties and, well, all recent DC properties. Early into the episode, Dr. Bird listens to one of Summerland’s coffee machines tell her a variation on the story of “The Crane Wife,” a classic Japanese folktale. It’s such a bewitching sequence on first sight with Smart elegantly conveying a variety of emotions but showing a clear tenderness and sadness at hearing the voice. It’s not until later that we find out that it’s the voice of her late husband. There’s also David and Syd’s exchange on the dock where they talk about what they did when they switched bodies, which is at once juvenile, erotic, and oddly adorable. In scenes like this, Hawley and his creative team bring out an essential sense of how the mind can trick it’s host and how crucial that is, occasionally, to realizing or even sharing strong emotions.
All of this leads us to the climactic sequence, which itself opens with a gorgeous, vulnerable moment between David and Syd, with the child version of David instinctively hugging her while both of their defenses are down. The trip through memories lined with psychological mines that ensues is about as cerebrally dexterous as modern television is allowed to get, switching between perspectives with breathless assuredness amidst a turbulent series of memories that seem to be going on the offense against those trying to figure David out. The scary man with the yellow eyes, naturally, makes a crucial appearance to terrorize those attempting to dig through the folds and chasms of David’s mind. As such, Hawley & co. turn David into a modern-day crane wife, capable of creating wondrous events in sublime defiance of nature’s rules but quick to evaporate when asked where he, and his powers, came from.
In a way, Hawley seems to be dramatizing the difficulty in making a heady work of art out of a comic book. Much of the series thus far has been about diving into the psychological, societal, and historical events that shaped David’s abilities rather than simply staring awe-struck at those abilities. Can one do that without ruining the essential, immediate delights of fantasies? In other words, will the constant searching and tests meant to find David’s origins cause him to do damage to himself and, more importantly, others? Can a balance finally be struck?