We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world. We give order to the chaos, coherence to the randomness, and linearity to the time-hopping jumble of our memories. But what do we sacrifice for this self-imposed clarity? What stories do we choose to forget, experiences do we shunt aside, to make space for our preferred understanding of the universe?
What does David Haller truly know? Everyone suspects he’s lying about having no memory of what’s transpired during the past year, when his fellow mutants at Summerland joined Division 3 in the wake of his disappearance. Sure, he acknowledges the occasional flash of remembrance—being surrounded by trees on top of a tall building, dancing in a club—but to him, it’s supposedly only been a day. Ptonomy saw memories, Clark suspects they’re in there, and even Syd believes he’s keeping secrets, despite his protestations to the contrary. And we know what happened in that floating sphere that spirited him away at the end of last season: He saw Syd in the future, asking him to help the Shadow King find his body, the very thing Division 3 is working to ensure never happens. So the question becomes: Has David figured out a way to lie to himself, or to others?
David certainly seems like himself throughout most of “Chapter 9,” the alluringly mysterious premiere of season two. And that’s part of what makes the uncertainty of his motives so compelling: It doesn’t necessarily change who he is, regardless of his deceptions. If he’s lying to himself—or perhaps has figured out some kind of mental block to prevent himself from fully knowing his memories or future-Syd’s request—then he really is just David, happy to be back with everyone and trying to adjust to his strange new environs and a time jump that everyone but him has gone through at a normal pace. And if he’s just become a very good liar, assuring everyone that he’s being honest while secretly keeping from them a whole swath of experiences that include potential collaboration with their sworn enemy Amahl Farouk, well, it may not alter the fact that he’s just really happy to be back with his girlfriend and their associates. He may well be trying to do right by them; the best of intentions can lead to the worst of results.
Because the truth is, we don’t yet know what David is capable of after his yearlong absence. This episode is structured with several clear breaks, in which Jon Hamm’s narrator recounts first a large metaphor for the experience of madness (a giant maze in your head, that will slowly come to dominate your every thought), then a description of how delusions begin and take hold (birthed as though from eggs, and the cute yellow chicks that represent normal ideas are killed and devoured by the black-goo-dripping delusion creature). We also hear the classic philosophical anecdote of Zhuangzi dreaming of being a butterfly, then awaking and wondering if he was actually a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangzi. It’s an apt story in this case, because not only do we not know if we’re watching David being his true self with his friends, we don’t even know if we’re watching a delusion take hold in David. It’s possible that future-Syd is a trick, a way to convince David to work for the Shadow King under the mistaken belief it’s for his love. But maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at it: We don’t even know who that delusion creature, crawling under the bed of Syd and David in the White Room on the astral plane, is targeting.
But these are unanswerable questions for the time being. What we do know is that Legion’s weird and wondrous universe is just as visually dazzling and elliptically enigmatic as ever. Division 3 is an even stranger place than Summerland. We don’t need to know why the dining room has boats floating down a watery path delivering meals, or what the initial reason was for installing some brutal device into the head of Division 3 leader Admiral Fukuyama as a boy, creating the basket-headed being who speaks through four slender mustachioed women in a vocoder-esque singsong right out of the robot nemesis from Portal 2. (“Now we are this—the machine that bleeds.”) Like David, we just take in our unusual surroundings with bemusement and acceptance. This is how things are now.
And everyone else seems to have settled into their new lives with a sense of acceptance, if not enthusiasm. As Ptonomy, who has settled into his role in Division 3 as part of the “Investigations” team (along with Clark, a.k.a. the burn-scarred Interrogator), explains, the jobs the mutants have assumed here fit into their skill set. There’s Cary Loudermilk doing his part in Research; his body-sharing soulmate, Kerry, helping out Tactical; and Syd and Melanie Bird working with Strategy. We only really see Cary at work, both in examining David when he first appears and helping him use the Amplification Chamber to try and get a bead on the Shadow King’s location (leading to another of Legion’s superlative dance numbers, this one derived from a battle-crew style). All of them are working to find Farouk, still in the body of Oliver Bird and spreading the psychological virus known as the Catalyst, one of the more unsettling conditions depicted on narrative television in recent memory.
Or rather, almost all of them. Melanie has become unmoored, Oliver’s miraculous return from the astral plane ruined via his possession by the Shadow King. She’s taken to using vapor, the hallucinogenic drug David and Lenny (sorry, Benny) were addicted to back in the day, and it’s left her a fragile mess, lounging on the floor of her room and ruminating on the pain of being a woman in love. “It’s never their fault—our men,” she tells Syd, her teapot slowly boiling in an uncomfortable callback to the ritual of holding her breath that David’s girlfriend employed for months, in an effort to continue believing he was still alive. Absence, for Melanie, is a form of control, a way for their men to control their lives from afar, to force them into a holding pattern they wouldn’t dare to resent, given the noble missions their respective significant others have embraced. “What kind of bitches would we be to stand in their way?” she ponders, letting the unspoken responses hang in the air. Here’s hoping that creepy pig-mask-wearing guy crawling across her floor really was just a hallucination.
“Our understanding of the world is unavoidably shaped by our limited perspective.” That was the opening sentence of my review of the very first episode of Legion, one that has turned out to be arguably the central recurring theme of the series in both the diegetic narrative and meta aspects of the show. The characters are all trying to make sense of their situations given incomplete frames of reference and potentially misleading stories about their world. It resonates because it’s just a larger-than-life, super-powered version of what we’re all trying to do in our own lives. We’re always trying to get to the real story, to figure out what’s true, and what matters to us—and sometimes make the difficult and uncomfortable choice to value the latter over the former when they conflict. Syd matters to David: You don’t give someone a human-compass equivalent of the “Find Friends” app if you don’t mean it. “We get lost together,” he tells her. “No secrets.” The only problem are those pesky delusions; what if David’s already lost?
- Welcome back, everyone, to another season of Legion! I’m very much looking forward to going down the rabbit hole with all of you as we explore all the psychic nooks and mutant crannies of this densely packed show.
- Speaking of rabbit holes, excellent use of a slowed-down, electronic version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” during the final minutes, as a pajama-clad David enters the astral plane (in the present, I’m guessing) and greets Oliver and Lenny in the club. They may be on the nose, thematically, but this show’s music cues are always great.
- The other two big ones: “We Love You” by the Rolling Stones during David and Syd’s passionate White Room reunion; Jane Addiction’s “I Would For You” during Melanie’s vapor-centric drug trip.
- “Do you have any waffles?”
- Syd has expanded her abilities to be able to temporarily swap minds with a cat. I hope she washes her hands beforehand; that’s a lot of hand licking the cat does in her body.
- The Amplification Chamber may have strawberry extract for flavor, but please don’t swallow any of it.
- The constant exhortations to be alert for your mind going wrong, broadcast through the Division 3 loudspeakers, are a little off-putting at best.
- So it’s a race to find the body of the Shadow King before Farouk does. It can’t be long before David is forced to choose a side.