Wednesday, April 25, 2018

REVIEW: 'Legion' - Syd Tries to Teach David a Lesson Through a Very Specific Test in 'Chapter 12'

FX's Legion - Episode 2.04 "Chapter 12"

David is tested. And tested. And tested.

Legion does many things well but character development has never really been one of them. It's a show that almost completely values style over substance. Most of the time the style just happens to be so imaginative and unique that the audience can overlook just how thin the central characters actually are. That was certainly a quality on display in last week's episode with David venturing into the minds of Ptonomy and Melanie. He went into their individual mazes to free them from the confinements forced on them by the Monk. It was a simple journey because he just had to figure out why this new reality would be their ideal lives. He can simply state that Ptonomy wishes to just completely forget and live in the moment while Melanie wants to be an aloof and omnipresent ruler of all reality. Those character details were shown in such imaginative and visual ways that it didn't matter that they didn't tell the audience anything new about those specific characters. And now, the show is still playing that same exact game with David venturing into Syd's mind to bring her back to his reality. And yes, some in the audience could easily argue that this episode is mostly filler with Syd trying to teach David a lesson. A lesson that he potentially says he understands and will accept into his life in order to escape from this twisted reality his girlfriend has created for him to live through over and over again. To me though, it's a searing episode that actually delves into the personality of one character and doesn't present a simple or reductive statement about their true essence. Instead, it bathes in the true complexities of Syd and the life she has lived. Everything has been building to this moment in time. Her worldview is informed by everything she is now showing to David. It's a strong example of the show literally implanting the audience into the head of one of its characters and asking us to relate to her story even though we may not agree with the specific point that she draws.

All of this presents the same way that the other mazes have worked for David. He goes into a person's mind and has to solve the puzzle. As soon as he does that, they will be free and return to the lives they are so completely terrified of. Syd's is different because it's actually a story being told out of time. It all starts with an adult Syd in an igloo trying to keep warm with a fire. It then fades into the day of her birth and the relationship she developed over the years with her mother. It's clear even from her first days alive that she doesn't like to be touched. She wanted to be isolated and apart from the rest of the world long before her mutant powers developed. It's a story of yearning. Syd's mother was desperate to feel connected with her daughter. Over time though, the only way she could show that love was by offering nothing more than a glance and a smile. She was able to come alive during her parties where she could speak passionately about her work. With Syd, it was just much easier for her to fade into the background. The love is still present. The need to protect one's child is still strong within her. This is simply how she relates to the world. She has to comfort Syd in her own unique way. But Syd has lived a very atypical life. She has always been distant from the rest of the world while also desperate to experience the same things everyone else does. She is bullied and misunderstood. She hurts herself in order to feel alive. She connects with other people by wearing their clothes. But these are all just surface level observations about the life that she has lived. They aren't truly digging deep into who she actually is as a person and why she has created this maze.

That's the struggle David runs into with this story. He wants there to be a simple solution to cracking Syd's mind just like there was for Ptonomy and Melanie. And yet, this isn't a maze that was created because of the Monk. All of those imprisonments have now been broken because the Monk jumped off the roof of Division 3. Everyone who was chattering their teeth is now free from that torment. That freedom may be fleeting because they were each just living in their own personal paradises. They have no awareness of the physical ailments they were just suffering from. But they do have the freedom to live their lives in this reality once more. David and Syd are the only ones still apparently trapped in this disease. Cary can note that both of them are still awake and experiencing brain activity that is not inherently connected to the disease that affected everyone else. It's something entirely new. It's Syd's mind and she's controlling the narrative that is being fed to David. She is keeping him in this place because she really has a perspective that he needs to hear. He has always romanticized this relationship because she was the woman who first told him he wasn't crazy. He sees her as his savior. He loves her completely. And now, she is tormenting him just to deliver a point. That could be seen as so cruel and potentially destructive. However, David has done many terrible things to her and expected love and trust in return. So, this is just the tables being turned. The two of them have always valued their relationship above all else. At times, they've even jeopardized the missions in order to save one another. The connection is real and special to both of them. And that's why Syd needs to articulate this point to David.

Syd needs to show David all of the brutal difficulties of her life. She needs him to see the girls who bullied her and the exact payback she decided to inflict. She needs him to witness her cutting herself to feel the pain of this life. She needs him to see the disorientating trauma that comes from using her powers just to connect with another human being. And she needs him to see the consequences that came from her teenage rebellion to those who were completely innocent. She swapped places with a sexual harasser in the making to beat up the three girls bullying her. Afterwards, she could serve as the witness to ensure he got into the maximum amount of trouble as well. But even more damaging is the time when she swapped places with her mother just in order to feel the joys and passion of being touched in an intimate way. That was a connection she strived for but could never appreciate. Her only hope in that regard was simply kissing herself in the mirror. That's depressing. But it's so sickening to see her make this transition and walk tentatively to do what she set out to do. There's so much fear in her eyes and actions. And yet, she still ultimately goes through with it. For a moment, it's wonderful and erotic. The next is incredibly traumatic. She returns to her body while in the shower with her mother's boyfriend. As such, he is arrested for sexually assaulting a minor. It's so traumatizing in the moment. It's the classic case of teenage rebellion. But in this case, Syd's actions change people's entire lives because of what she does while embodying other people. Her mother still needs to protect her above all else. But that also means destroying this other relationship. It's so completely toxic while also informing Syd's worldview completely.

Syd is of the mindset that the pain and struggles of life are meant to make one stronger. It's not a question of if a person is good or bad. It's ultimately about their strength. She doesn't aspire to be a better person in the same way that David craves that. She just wants to be a stronger person. She attributes all that she has experienced in life as the exact reason she has become the woman that David loves. She is showing this to him over and over again until he learns the lesson because she believes it's important for the fight ahead. David is willing to compromise everything that Division 3 is working towards right now because Syd from the future told him to work with Farouk. He trusts her completely. He has told present-day Syd about what he is currently doing. And now, she is doing whatever it takes to ensure that he is strong enough for the upcoming fight. She sees it as the battle of their lives. Yes, their love is strong but that has to be completely irrelevant in all of this. They have to fight and be strong enough to win in order to one day enjoy that love. She doesn't abide by the notion that how a person becomes strong will ultimately inform whether or not they are capable or deserving of love. She just believes she needs to survive by being strong enough to overcome whatever life throws at her next. It's such a bleak and depressing view of the world. She sees everything as a potential danger. David gives her hope because their relationship is so passionate. And yet, the show is still just teasing all of the various ways she has changed over the past year with David missing. He is still getting to know her again. He is still completely in love with her. But she is such a hardened personality now. He loves that quality about her. And now, there's the hope that they are strong enough to face whatever comes next. But it's also so difficult to take David at his word about understanding the point in all of this. That's incredibly fascinating too because they have such different takes on this relationship.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter 12" was written by Noah Hawley & Nathaniel Halpern and directed by Ellen Kuras.
  • Lily Rabe and the two young actresses playing the younger versions of Syd do such a phenomenal job in embodying those complicated emotions of this specific upbringing. It makes Syd such a more well-rounded character because the audience knows all of these details and the amount of pain and trauma they have clearly caused for everyone involved.
  • All of this also presents a strong case of it being much better to show an audience a life-changing action instead of simply telling it. Syd told David last season about the time she swapped bodies with her mother in order to have sex with her boyfriend. But now, there's just so much more narrative and emotional weight to because the audience is experiencing it while teen Syd is making that decision.
  • There is so much playfulness on display throughout this episode as well. It could get annoying to see just how often the story repeats the same events. But it never does because the show and the characters are aware that it's seeing things over and over again. As such, it's fun when Syd keeps telling David that he's wrong and has to go back to the start.
  • It's so curious why this adventure through Syd's past and upbringing always begins in the igloo. It could be a metaphor for life starting before birth. There is a whole developing human being in the womb before that moment occurs. Her identity is already being formed then with Syd now positing it's similar to the early versions of man. But it's also a more apparently false reality because the fire keeping Syd warm is just a light with some cutout flames.
  • The episode closes with the hook that should take the audience immediately into the next episode. David and Syd emerge from their journey and are immediately greeted by Lenny in the flesh being a prisoner of Division 3. It seems like she has finally broken free of her confinements from Farouk. And yet, how is that literally possible? It seemed so unlikely that he would create a new body for her. As such, it seems really obvious that he has an ulterior motive to sending her to David and Division 3.