David Haller’s veneer of faux-enlightenment is wearing awfully thin. “Be nice, or I can’t be nice,” he gently threatens Lenny, after she pushes him to get riled up. All his high-minded talk is slowly revealing itself as just that—talk. He can preach love and kindness all he wants, and give his followers all the mental orgasms they can handle, but inside, he’s a seething cauldron of anger, hurt, and self-justifications. He sees reality as something that should be changed to suit his desires, rather than the other way around. He’s embracing the identity by which Clark referred to him way back in season one: God. And after suffering the attack by the Time Eaters and the loss of Switch, God is ready to go to war. That won’t be pleasant.
There’s a lot going on in “Chapter 23,” but first, let’s just take a moment and appreciate the truly unsettling creation of the Time Eaters. These villains, with their too-large smiles, blurred-out bodies, and time-glitching movements, are some of the creepiest innovations the show has ever concocted, and the struggle against their efforts to consume time itself makes this episode the closest the show has ever come to becoming an out-and-out horror story. It hearkens back in some ways to season two’s story of David rescuing people from the Catalyst illness, in that it features a nemesis confronting people with mental prisons of a kind, traps them with burdens of psychic pain, then leaves them there to squirm as the Time Eaters swallow up the distance between these far-flung histories and futures. David is eventually able to drive them back to wherever they came from in the Time Hallway, but not before they’ve exacted a brutal toll, particularly on Lenny and Syd.
The coolest visual trickery the show used here might have been the journey of Farouk, Clark, and Kerry Loudermilk to the time between time. The use of still images, treated to resemble old photography, as they traveled to the Time Eaters’ nest made for a neat tactic, and director Daniel Kwan (Swiss Army Man) put it to terrific effect once the fight began, speeding up and slowing down the clicks between frames to generate tension and momentum. Even in its final season, the sheer inventiveness of this series’ visuals continues to dazzle.
The episode’s a self-contained story, more or less. Sure, there are some developments in the season’s arc, as the time fractures allow Cary to realize what David has done to him, so he breaks free and takes Switch with him back to Division, leaving David without his time traveler, and we get the first hints that Lenny not only isn’t happy with her situation, but she wants to take her pregnant girlfriend and leave David, as well. (Lenny is starting to show signs of becoming a complete person—of wanting her created life to have the fullness and scope of an authentic one. So she turns down David’s offer to take away the pain she experienced when the Time Eaters fast-forwarded her through the entire life of her unborn daughter, a lifetime of pain in mere minutes, instead wanting to feel it all.) But it’s a complete arc, from the opening glitches when Kerry realizes something is wrong to the final moments of the Time Eaters fleeing in the face of David’s power. It’s immensely satisfying, as an individual episode of Legion.
So. Let’s talk about Syd.
In the middle of all the time shenanigans, the show decided to try and seriously hash out the implications of Syd’s power, with a depth and seriousness it hasn’t attempted since season one. And what it came up with is bleak stuff, indeed: Syd’s power is basically a sexual assault, on herself and possibly on others. That’s the language she uses when discussing her abilities with her younger self, when the Time Eaters confront her with teenage Syd. It makes clear why she works overtime to never touch anyone, because it’s an experience that leaves her violated and traumatized—something she’s never really admitted or articulated, even to David. Seriously, listen to the language she applies to the reality of her powers:
“People get too close...they touch you and you disappear...and then they’re inside. In your belly and in your head...and when you get back, there’s a smell...someone else’s smell is inside your nose. And you check out. You tell people it’s fine, that I’m not in my body. You say, ‘My powers are like a vacation’...who cares if every time I come back home I feel dirty.”
That’s the discourse of assault, and it paints a harrowing picture of what life has been like for Syd, far darker than even what we had previously seen of that awful moment in her youth—revisited this episode—when she went into her mom’s body and had sex in the shower, only to jump back into her own adolescent skin right in the middle of it. It suggests a Syd who has been suffering from an ongoing trauma, not just the pain of the past, and one that involuntarily forces others into her body, and she into theirs. No wonder a cat is the only entity with whom she feels comfortable exercising her body-swapping powers; the sense of guileless, non-human innocence must provide some minimal sense of comfort for her as she leaves her flesh to the mercies of another.
However, the scene also points to the fact that Legion still struggles a bit to deal with the weight and nuance of the topic. Because it more or less allows Syd to accept her teenage self’s experience of sex as a sexual assault, and treat it as equivalent to her own abuse. Which are not the same thing, not remotely—what teenage Syd did to her mother (and her mother’s boyfriend) was the assault, not the act that the boyfriend obviously assumed was consensual sex with his very much adult girlfriend. Before, it seemed like Syd had lived with the guilt of her actions, so we understood she accepted responsibility. But here, she gives her young self a pass and allows her to brush it off with a “you were just a kid” excuse, which is disingenuous, both because her younger self presumably is dealing with the exact guilt Syd did, and because she knows all too well what that kind of violation feels like, and should be appropriately serious about it now. The show has done an admirable job of trying to deal with this messy topic it has waded into, however (far more so than I thought it would, given how little it initially earned the narrative wrinkle), so if it seems to flail a bit in the understanding of her actions, well, Syd is flailing a bit, too.
David, on the other hand, is actively trying to delude himself. He’s set up a narrative in which he’s the lifelong victim, so any actions he takes to try and rectify the situation are deserved. And he’s now minimizing others to such a degree that he no longer even accepts his guilt as truth. “Nothing that hurts me is real,” he claims, as he finally breaks free of the Time Eaters’ loop and burns one to a crisp. His ego is expanding, becoming the megalomania of a genuinely malevolent man, and the show is smartly keeping it all under the rubric of David believing himself to be a good person—because a good person can’t do bad things, right? Let this be a lesson to all other narcissists out there: When you start referring to yourself in the third person (“This is my time. This is David’s time”), you might want to reevaluate your morals.
And yet. He’s more than his villainy. Because David does deserve sympathy as well as condemnation, as his own Time Eater trap demonstrates. (It’s still heartbreakingly pitiable when, even in a Nazi cell across from his mother, he plaintively calls her “Mommy.”) The family he never knew has a story as tragic as his own, and he can’t even find a way to communicate with the mother he’s now seen crumble in the face of his own psychic assault by the Shadow King. He’s motivated by a pathos every bit as rich as anyone’s (more so, really), and it illuminates even his most reprehensible actions. Unfortunately, his powers have helped him embrace his own worst instincts—power corrupts, and all that—and he no longer even seems interested in protecting those whom he has infantilized in the name of his “daddy” persona. He’s tried to do this the quiet way, beyond the prying eyes of Division, and it failed. So this time, it’s war.
- Lenny would like to name her kid “Violence Lollipop Busker.” That’s so Lenny.
- Kerry might as well be breaking the fourth wall in her opening conversation with Ptonomy, as it sounds almost as though she’s addressing the wistful reminiscences of the show’s writers about the trippy and narratively open-ended days of previous seasons. “Remember fun? Us having it?”
- But they have fun in other ways: It was clever to have the moment suggesting even FX itself was time-glitching, as the show cut into an old classic scene from The Shield.
- Legion significant music cues of the week: When we cut from Lenny’s scream after her Time Eater experience to Farouk et. al entering the TIme Eaters’ lair, it’s The Beta Band’s “Squares.” And that episode-ending declaration of war is set to a cover of R.E.M.’s “Can’t Get There From Here,” presumably by the show’s own Jeff Russo.
- Cary and Switch: “You’re the time girl?” “Woman.”
- Syd, with the one spot of brightness amid the gloom: “You fall in love. And that’s worth it.”