The “Legion” premiere rattled viewers with its uniquely different kind of storytelling, and director Noah Hawley’s extreme departure from not only the rules of television, but from the established concepts and formats of the Marvel Comics-based series and films to come before it.
For those who loved the mind-bending first episode, Wednesday’s (Feb. 15) “Chapter 2” does not disappoint. And for viewers utterly confused by the series premiere, the second episode drastically slows its roll, taking time to get to know the characters and universe in a way every bit as inventive and passionate as what came before.
David Haller (Dan Stevens) is now safely living at Summerland, a school for gifted people in which he’s surrounded by people just like him — and run by psychic Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), a therapeutic specialist whose presence is like a warm mug of hot chocolate on a snowy day. For now, we trust she has David’s best interest at heart — even if she does look at her charges from time to time a bit more militantly than you’d expect from her supportive demeanor.
Summerland is a far cry from the Clockworks mental facility — the central setting of episode one — and not just in its energy: Dispensing with the tired “am I mentally ill or magically powered” trope by moving past it, rather than ignoring it, finds David deep in a kind of treatment that is less about control and numbing, and more about actual self-knowledge and improvement. As “Clockworks” was so on the nose as to seem proof that this is all a delusion, so too does “Summerland” give us exactly what it says on the tin.
Bird and Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) encourage David to dive into his memories, to figure out when he first started realizing his telekinesis — known, of course, as the incredible power to move objects with his mind — and then follow up each session with “talk therapy” with Bird: Their goal, along with the help of Cary (Bill Irwin), is to help David control the voices.
“To make you feel whole again,” as Bird whispers, isn’t just a twist on David’s presumed Dissociative Identity Disorder and/or schizophrenia, nor is it merely a shorthand for his restorative quest to heal past the trauma of his powers and their dangerous development — it is all of those things, and more: A mission statement for the show, and a relatable goal for any viewer. Wholeness and its achievement are the truth behind any story ever told, from fairytales to grim superhero remakes. He may not be an everyman (although hell, he may be literally “every man” by the end of this) but his need to connect with others, and put himself back together, are universal drives.
The quick time- and reality-jumps are continuous, still, but less manic now — presumably, as with much else in the show, this is a sign of David’s own stability returning. The show makes no bones about being, at its heart, one big pathetic fallacy — as David goes, so goes the show, whether that’s ghosts appearing (Aubrey Plaza remains just as delightfully scummy as ever) or sudden shifts in color, soundscape or tone. While there is a sci-fi knack to this, in part — we literally experience David’s memories along with him and his therapists — it’s really true about everything else: The show is a hall of mirrors, reflecting back at us a shattered psyche, through every aspect of itself.
In this case, our introduction to the emotions and rules of Summerland are mirrored in the approach to David’s therapy, and in the way it is delivered: With a more purposeful and directed stride, that could seem “clockwork” if it weren’t applied with such care and well-being and gentle firmness by the Summerland faculty.
One of those, Bill Irwin’s Cary Loudermilk, has an engagingly weird, almost Jeunet/steampunk quality. He operates the MRI at Summerland, among other things, and has some stuff going on that isn’t entirely clear: From snatches of self-talk and seeming delusion, we can assume that on some level he shares an existence with another self, named “Kerry” (Amber Midthunder) — but what form that takes can wait. What we get from Cary this week is confirmation that David, over the course of a few days with Bird, can focus his ambient telepathy to the point of reading minds far from the facility — and so when he sees his sister Amy (Katie Asleton) has been taken hostage to draw him out, David’s gut reaction is to go save her.
Syd (Rachel Keller) steps in, pointing out the obvious trap here — the whole first episode, after all, was spent in the company of black-ops Hamish Linklater’s Interrogator, whose web of misdirections was quickly unraveled. As Ptonomy says, “We’re losing” the battle between those covert agencies and the relative safety — and presumably pro-mutant agenda — of Summerland: It’s also key to the secondary conflict, the fact that both “sides” consider David a sort of unbeatable hand… Or weapon.
Whoever has David has the nukes — and while that makes him inexpendable, it also means we’re not exactly as safe as we feel. Bird and her people have made some high-stakes choices and will continue to do so — and if ever that leads to David Haller feeling betrayed, it’s quite easy to see the apocalypse following pretty much immediately after.
The best thing about “Chapter 2” is how easily David becomes someone audiences can root for — not just because he is charming and wounded and all the things Dan Stevens brings to the role, but because this newfound agency gives him a purpose and focus that redirects the character. The best anyone can hope for, whether the treatment is medicinal or clinical, is enough space to do the work. Bird has given David that space, after who knows how long without it — and the identity he is finding with that leeway is, for now at least, clever and heroic.
Without hesitation, David is willing leave this newfound paradise to save his sister, which is a hero move fore sure — but we also get the chance to breathe, and to wonder about him as a man. How the heck as David survived this long with all those conflicting voices in his head? It’s nothing short of amazing — and seeing moments from his childhood offers such new understanding of how David became who he is that we can’t help but join him in his struggle. Clockwork David was a curiosity, but Summerland David feels like a friend. Broken, but with enough room to start healing.
When did David begin transforming into a mutant? And was his father really reading him that horrific bedtime story (“The Angriest Boy in the World”) when he was just 8 years old? What happened to his mom? In the original Marvel comics, David is the son of the famous Charles Xavier — but without going too deep into what happens in that first Chris Claremont/Bill Sienkiewicz “New Mutants” arc, it’s already apparent “Legion” will be going a different route.
At the end of the episode, it becomes clear to everyone at Summerland that David’s telekinesis and powers are much more powerful than previously thought. His mind defies logic, as does the concept of superhero powers of course, so it’s extremely telling — and nerve-wracking — how powerful the moment hits when Bird takes in the damage David accidentally creates on campus. Her face utterly changes, shifting through several responses in a row, settling on steely resolve: He doesn’t know how he did it, but if her team can’t figure out how to help David control these monstrous powers, she’s capable of seeing him as just as much a threat as anyone coming in from outside.
As any viewer of Hawley’s “Fargo” knows, turning it off as quickly as she turns it on — like a lightswitch, going from warmth to utter darkness — is something at which Jean Smart is exceptionally good (and often chilling!). The show has every reason to lean on it — in fact, the character could have been created around this deranging shift. She’s just soft enough, her voice just velvet enough, that she reads as “mommy” — right up until she goes sexy, or murderously cold, or anything else that breaks the moment. Great stuff, and we’re thrilled to think about the fact that we’re only at the beginning of our journey with Bird.
Melanie Bird is the first person to give David hope — and proof — that he isn’t a freak, and the only one to offer help that seems to actually work. While the relationship with Syd Barrett continues to carry weight and beauty, we can’t help thinking it might be less heartbreaking to lose her than if and when Bird must give up on David. It’s an emotional suspense and fear that strikes at the heart. And if we look at it through the “Fargo” lens, in which emotional danger is nearly always echoed in plot, how much more drastic would the fallout be — for a show in which the “outside world,” and the lead’s internal realm, might as well be the same thing?
“Legion” airs on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.