There’s an arms race happening in Legion, and it has to do with the question of David Haller and his unconventional mind (and maybe even his abnormally large amygdala). More to the point, it has to do with who is in control of David and what they intend to do with him. Legion has aired two episodes so far – a stunning, oversized premiere episode directed with great flair by series creator Noah Hawley, and a far more conventional second outing helmed by frequent TV director Michael Uppendahl (Mad Men, Fargo) – but the question of what the series is actually about remains difficult to grasp.
There were inklings of a more concrete story during ‘Chapter 2’, but as the series is told very much from the extreme perspective of its hero, alternating between various timelines and wandering in and out of David’s head – sometimes literally – the move to build a concrete narrative around David’s potentially imagined flight from a shadowy agency with a possible anti-mutant agenda has been slow. But just as it seemingly humored Hawley’s every creative whim during the premiere, Legion finds a way to make the ambiguities of its plot feel compelling, even as they threaten to become tedious and overly indulgent with every fleeting glimpse of the Devil with the Yellow Eyes or prolonged trip into its hero’s fractured psyche that seems only to offer up more questions than answers.
Still, Legion isn’t solely devoted to playing the puzzle box game yet. The show has offered some answers to the mystery of who David is and how his mind works, and with the latest episode, ‘Chapter 3’, the edges of a more specific plot have begun to be unearthed as well. Much of that plot has to do with the competing interests of Jean Smart’s Melanie Bird and David Selby’s Brubaker, as they pertain to David and his extraordinary gifts. But as much as Melanie and Brubaker appear to be on either side of a protracted conflict, they both see David in a similar light: as a tool far too powerful to remain in the hands of the opposition. David is the mutant equivalent to an atomic bomb; whoever harnesses his power first will tip the scales in their favor. But what that conflict is, exactly, remains elusive.
Because Melanie is on hand to guide David and the others through the early portion of the series, the viewer is more inclined to think of her as one of the heroes – or at least someone who has the hero’s (i.e., David’s) best interests at heart. Legion goes to familiar lengths in order to convince those watching that this is the case. Melanie has a superhero HQ-like retreat with Summerlands – complete with co-ed showers, bunk beds, and circular windows with a telltale “X” in the middle. Like so much of the series, Summerlands plays heavily on the idea of memory while also subverting it in ways that help make the sterling nostalgia of something like a summer camp feel somehow tarnished. Even if you never attended camp during summer break, there are enough pop culture touchstones available – from Wet Hot American Summer to Meatballs to Indian Summer and more – that the notion of an idyllic, verdant lakeside retreat will be familiar enough that when Legion merges its notion of camp with more militaristic undertones and none-too-subtle inferences to the Scientology practice of auditing, the result is as unnerving as when The Angriest Boy in the World is made manifest.
Despite all that is and is not going on at Summerlands, Melanie’s saving grace may be her inclination toward blunt honesty. Her unconventional therapeutic method aside, Melanie makes it clear she intends to help David figure out who he is and what he’s capable of. But her intentions aren’t entirely altruistic: for all that is unknown about David’s condition and his mutant-ness, Melanie, like Brubaker and Division 3, is convinced he represents a colossal shift in the power dynamic between humans and mutants. The Legion poster’s depiction of a psychic explosion erupting from David’s head isn’t just stylistically relevant; it’s also a cue that David should come with a warning that reads: Contents Under Extreme Pressure. And while Melanie wants first to teach David how to control his vast abilities – which now include astral projection, teleportation, telepathy, and telekinesis – she also makes his importance to a larger, still slightly ambiguous objective, clear. David is a weapon and Melanie intends to use him as such.
The idea that a portion of Legion‘s larger story may boil down to the oft-explored anti-mutant agenda, seen time and again in the pages of Marvel‘s X-Men comic books and the features films from 20th Century Fox, is fitting for a television show produced “in association with Marvel Television,” regardless of how many Bollywood-style dance numbers find their way into the premiere. But the show has so far played into its key player’s unreliability as a narrator so much that viewers will have to wait until several more layers are peeled back before they (and by extension, David) will know who they can trust and who they should be skeptical of.
Right now, Legion is angling toward exposing layers of distrust, as Melanie’s methods, primarily using Ptonomy to experience her subject’s fractured, sometimes inaccessible memories firsthand, means she’s willing to let David’s sister Amy enjoy the company of Brubaker and the Eye while she figures out a way to make this new mutant better suit her agenda. Furthermore, she has yet to exhibit mutant abilities of her own – unless you count wistfully listening to the voice of her husband regaling her with a fable while preparing a cappuccino a mutant ability – making her intentions in building an army of mutants for an as-yet-unseen larger conflict worthy of some skepticism.
On the flipside, though he exhibits all the telltale attributes of a typical high-level government enforcer, Brubaker hasn’t explicitly established an anti-mutant agenda. The Eye appears to have abilities that go beyond creepily whittling wooden figurines during interrogation sessions, making the exact details of Division 3’s plan as uncertain as Melanie’s. Surrounded by stormtroopers and seemingly answering to no one, Brubaker’s techniques, and his treatment of Amy paint him as the ultimate bad guy, even though he says he only wants to turn David’s abilities off.
Taken at face value, the conflict brewing between Melanie’s group and Division 3 is standard X-Men Homo sapiens vs. Homo superior stuff. But if Legion has taught the audience anything in its first three episodes, it is that there’s nothing standard about the series – at least from an aesthetic point of view. The question now is whether or not the atypical nature of Legion‘s visuals and storytelling structure extend to the true nature of plot as well, meaning perhaps Division 3, Brubaker, and Melanie are all part of David’s splintered psyche, vying for control of his mind and, in essence, his autonomy. That would explain both Melanie’s efforts to look inside the walled-off sections of David’s mind, as well as Brubaker’s intent to put a portion of his brain in the off position.
These alternatives change the scope of the series and its apparent mutant arms race in dramatic ways. Either the world of mutants and its continued existence is at stake, or the mind of a single man is so shattered it has created a vast world full of colorful characters and dark conspiracies to make sense of all that is nonsensical. The closing shot of ‘Chapter 3’ suggests the world of Legion exists somewhere in the middle, that David’s abilities remove him from ever being truly autonomous, but it also suggests that the line between what’s real and what isn’t may not be as thin as previously thought.
If that’s the case, then the world Noah Hawley has created may hinge less on the question of what’s real and what isn’t and more on the increasingly concrete elements hinted at in the second and third episodes. That will go a long way in keeping Legion grounded while giving it plenty of room for stylistic flights of fancy, and giving the audience an increasingly weighty story to come back for in the weeks ahead.
Legion continues next Wednesday with ‘Chapter: 4’ @9pm on FX.