Oh, “Legion,” you fantastically smart and beautifully inspiring show. If there was a way to tightly wrap you in our arms and thank you for delivering the best episode of TV we’ve seen this year, we would.
Mimicking the epiphanies it produces and describes, “Chapter 7” (March 22) clears the seeming cobwebs from all the mystifying storylines creator Noah Hawley has intricately and purposefully spun this season– and since this show works the way it does (and therapy works the way it does), the metaphor can be strikingly concrete: Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement) gives the Summerlands team — Syd (Rachel Keller), Cary and Kerry (Bill Irwin & Amber Midthunder) and Melanie (Jean Smart) — big goofy glasses to help them easily distinguish between what’s real in David’s mind, and the terrifying fake reality imposed by Lenny (Aubrey Plaza)… And so, as a seemingly endless series of resolutions, clarifications, reversals and explicit explanations declare themselves, can we.
In the midst of this horrifying turmoil, David (Dan Stevens) “himself” remains trapped in a tiny steel coffin, where Lenny’s stashed him while she fortifies her position on the inside, taking her time eradicating his friends like a cat playing cruelly with its prey. But of course, as David realizes — and we all eventually must — if this claustrophobic prison is just an illness imposing itself on his perceptions, with luck and faith he can probably use that same brain to break out.
There are those of us who can remember that realization, how it saved us; there are those of us working on it now, and we don’t envy them. But like all life-changing realizations, it can become cliche or more the second you look at it too long — so all the credit to writer Jennifer Yale and director Dennie Gordon, who managed to settle this all-important self-knowledge into a story so well that it never feels like a fortune cookie.
Even more impressive, when you consider that in this show, there aren’t any metaphors: The illness is Lenny is King the Dog is the World’s Angriest Boy in the World, as we keep being reminded. A therapeutic truth, on a therapeutic show, about the therapeutic experience of therapy should feel… About as wise and fresh and awe-inspiring as an Alanis Morrisette cover band. And yet somehow, the ground shakes when David tells himself, in no uncertain terms, that the only person that can save, much less cure David is: David. A thing we all know, and continually all forget.
Tackling such a labyrinthine and layered subject — literally explaining rudimentary psychology for an hour — should be boring. Even if being a human being with a brain is pretty much the definition of truly living, it is hard to sit through the explanations. Which is where the sheer visual inventiveness of a Noah Hawley off the chain (and of course, Dan Stevens’ winsome versatility) really come into play:
When David is surprised in his coffin by “Rational David,” the British-inflected double David’s created out of thin air — in response to trauma, which is of course the classic narrative of the disputed but sensational Dissociative Identity Disorder that defines Legion in the comics, Norman in “Bates Motel,” Shyamalan’s recent “Split,” etc. — there’s no aspect that prepares you for what will happens next.
Which is that David’s “rational mind” does exactly what anybody else’s does: Break everything down — even David himself — to a clean slate, look at the facts on the ground, construct them together into a working hypothesis, project that theory through time as a story, and bring us to wholeness. Only Rational David can imagine a world where everything is not screaming, where we are not locked in the coffin, where Lenny isn’t constantly seeping from mirrors and up our pants legs and out of the walls and so on. He can draw us a map of the “what if” of no illness, no brokenness, the “what if” of wholeness: The blank slate, the clean slate. The country we are all trying to get back to, which we sometimes just call home.
The Irish have a colloquial way of describing emotion — “I have a sadness on me” — that points up the schism here, between our rational selves and the formless, constantly changing, fluctuating thing we think of as ourselves: We are not our madness, we have a madness upon us. We are not broken, we are healing. And the natural drive of anyone, even the most broken or hateful or terrified, is toward wholeness: What David and his friend David tell us — perhaps what the show was created to show us — is how what it takes is a strong will, more than a little faith… And like one freakin’ still second, to take a deep breath and imagine even the possibility of a new perspective.
Isaac Newton gave us a famous way of describing motion: An object in motion remains in motion with the same speed and the same direction, unless acted upon by an unknown force. Rational David steps in, born of nothing but desperation and grace, at the critical time, when we get the distinct feeling that Lenny was well on her way to taking over forever. And while the task of blocking out one’s fears and emotions to figure out the brass tactics of reality is easier said than done… David’s ability to do so, while Lenny comes so close to completely destroying his mind, makes it all the more impressive.
Like a professor, Rational David instructs David to map out on the chalkboard all he knows about Lenny/Benny/The Devil with Yellow Eyes/The World’s Angriest Boy in the World/King the Dog, to figure out what this show is about.
Question One, Why is this parasite haunting him, is pretty simple. Revenge on David’s biological father, whom we’re guessing would look a lot like James McAvoy if we ever met him, for defeating it the last time… And also because he is delicious, and ridiculously powerful, with the potential possibly one day of creating and shattering entire universes.
Question Two, How long has this been going on, is a little blurrier, but basically comes down the fact that while his father hid him with the Hallers, he did not do it well enough, and at some point it found him, and became the adorable King the Dog.
Now, it is true that your mind is incredibly powerful, and that everything that rises must converge, and that your natural path is toward wellness and maturity and joy, and that nobody ever cures us, just helps us to cure ourselves: These are things everybody knows, or has at least forgotten: We also know it’s important to eat vegetables, but that doesn’t mean we want to hear about vegetables. Way better to posit as a factual, if fantastical, proposition that we also know to be true, but doesn’t feel like nagging: It’s an actual matter of fact that the thoughts that flow through our brain create our reality. And while it may sometimes feel impossible, we do have the power to change how we see things, and how past experiences can effect us. Looking at things from a new perspective takes less strength than you think, and exactly as much strength as you have.
Peppered with the right amount self-awareness and humor, this sequence between David and David delivers the most riveting scene of the series — and there have been many. And now that David’s finally in control of his thoughts, or at least as much as he probably ever will be, we’re wondering if now is the time we’ll see this newly reborn mutant explore himself and powers in a whole new way… If Lenny will be a timebomb in that little coffin, waiting to go off when he loses focus…
Or whether, thanks to Division 3’s very unfortunate timing — showing up just as they’ve beaten the Shadow King and are headed home to Summerland — we’re going to see him taking then down with his own, newly empowered confidence… Or if the show will somehow conspire toward some new detente between David and the beast. Any of them are good, steps on the journey:
We must overcome our darker impulses, that’s true, and that is a good story to tell. But, we must also make agreements with our darkness, so it doesn’t creep up, while we’re pretending it doesn’t exist, and ruin everything. And that is a great story to tell.
This finale is going to be beautiful, one way or the other. We just couldn’t have expected to end up here, that all three possibilities — the happy ending, the sad one, the absolutely terrifying one — could fill us with such equal amounts of joy and anticipation.
“Legion” airs on Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FX. A second season has been ordered. (!)