by Josie Kafka
The second episode of Legion doesn’t tell us what’s real. But it tells us what matters—David's character—and that’s enough for now.
Dan Stevens does a remarkable job of communicating the variety of David’s moods, especially the key difference between being calm and holding your shit together. It’s not until Melanie helps David visualize turning down the volume on his telepathy that we start to see calm David. But we’ve also seen medicated David, last week in the institution. There’s full-bore David, yelling at his sister Amy, neither calm nor holding it together. And there’s drugged-out David, who seems more comfortable with himself and less comfortable with the world.
According to what we saw this week, Lenny and David knew each other before the institution. With her, David seems more comfortable being himself—or perhaps I should say more comfortable with the least comfortable parts of himself. He’s barely holding it together in those scenes, but at least with Lenny he doesn’t have to pretend.
But that’s all David under various influences: Melanie’s calming advice, the vapor he smokes with Lenny, the drugs in the institution. His true self—which may be impossible to pin down, given the circumstances—seems innocent and bemused. His speech is hesitant in key moments, as when he recalls his childhood home and the death of his father. Inculcated with the belief in his own madness, practiced in the art of talk therapy, he is nonetheless uncomfortable revealing simple human moments: when Syd asks him what his memory-trips have been like, he just says “kid stuff,” reducing a wide variety of emotions to a two-word emotional blockade.
But that doesn’t mean he is shut off. Rather, he doesn’t seem to know how to connect beyond or through the voices and the visions. In the swing-set scene, Syd explained what it was like being in David’s head: shouting and drums and noise and light. The look on David’s face was piercing. Someone finally knows what his experience is like. It’s a step beyond empathy, moving into the realm of precisely shared experience.
For the first time, David has encountered someone who truly understands what it is like to be him. But David doesn’t communicate the depth of that awareness to Syd. Instead, he quotes Lenny’s line about giving a bazooka to a newbie, but doesn’t explain where it comes from. Out of the habit of emotional disclosure, he doesn’t even realize that he wants to disclose.
It is tempting to reduce David and Syd’s relationship to its clichéd components: she wants emotional intimacy, but he dismisses it. He wants physical intimacy—even a hug—but she refuses him. But their “romance of the mind” has its charms, as they begin to negotiate how to be together on terms that work for each of them. That they do so on a swing set, a childlike setting, makes them seem almost like an Adam and Eve who know the Tree of Knowledge might really do serious damage.
And intimacy is way, way east of Eden for David. When his sister Amy tells him she might be getting engaged, he says “good job.” He sees her relationship as an accomplishment, a deed he can never do because he’s “sick.” Amy’s reaction showed her affection for David and her inability to understand his position: People who know happiness is not for them have accepted it as fact; people who think they can have happiness are horrified by that acceptance.
David’s certainty in that flashback is heartbreaking, and it makes his tentative connections with Syd even more meaningful, because we know how much is on the line. That Syd is well-adjusted, gorgeous, and smart (she realizes Amy is “bait” and manages to talk David down from his intended rescue mission) is only icing on the adorable romantic cake I want to give them both for their 10th wedding anniversary. If Syd turns out to not be real, I am going to be very upset.
But that’s a serious risk with this show, which refuses to ground us in an objective reality while nonetheless not giving us clues as to what is subjective. For instance: Summerland. It’s a term used since the nineteenth century to describe the afterlife and/or a sort of spiritual nirvana—a place you end up after you’ve uncoiled this mortal coil. When Melanie said “David, your whole life people have told you that you’re sick. What if I told you that’s a lie? What if I told you every memory you have of mental illness…” the word “Summerland” appeared on screen right after the word “lie.” Is that meaningful? Coincidence?
Summerland seems too perfect: a “place that shouldn’t exist,” as David describes it, a convenient river-journey away from the high school where he was held hostage last week. That river journey reminded me of Lord of the Rings: pursued into a place of safety evocative of Rivendell, complete with wise guardians who can guide David on his journey as he hides from “The Eye.”
Is it meaningful? Who knows? Some visual clues are not just obvious clues, but addressed diegetically. Ptonomy points out the “time jump” as David recalls the therapist’s office. I noticed it but dismissed it as a quirk of David’s wacky psyche. I was wrong; that narrative gap indicates some vital piece is missing, is being repressed. We shouldn’t dismiss anything in this show.
Like the book David’s father read to him: the improbably-titled The World’s Angriest Boy in the World. Why was it so frightening to young David? What did it mean that young David covered his face in fear, and our David covered his face in fear…just like how we couldn’t see David’s father’s face? David’s memories of his father seemed positive, but undercut with something unknown, and linked to a fear akin to David’s fear of the Devil with the Yellow Eyes.
However nonsensical it is to us, David’s world makes sense to him. He doesn’t question the appearance of the Devil with Yellow Eyes. He fears it but does not doubt that it is, delusion or real, there.
However, he does question some things. In this episode, for instance, he asked Cary whom Cary was speaking to, and was confused by the homophony of the response “Kerry.” That seemed like a picayune question to me. Of all the madness we’ve seen, that’s what David gets stuck on? But there is a logic to David’s experience of the world, a language. We know the vocabulary—the period aesthetics, the emotions—but do not yet know the syntax.
This episode gave us two stand-ins for the confused viewer not sure what to think: Ptonomy and Jean Smart’s Melanie are, like us, narrative tourists, bemused by the alterity of the mind they’re visiting. In that way, they stand for us, the viewer, who cannot quite discern what is real or what it means. When Ptonomy points out the narrative time-jump in the psychiatrist’s office, Noah Hawley is showing us what a good viewer does.
How far down the rabbit hole should we go? Reddit’s answer is always “further, further!” My own is less exuberant: I am comfortable letting this show uncoil on its own, even as I find myself hyper-aware of things that may mean something, but also may not.
Consider the scene transitions. David falling asleep after Melanie calmed him transitioned to his memory work with a wipe. It’s a standard cinematographic technique with retro appeal. But when David and Amy talked about her engagement, David was distracted by a noise, which became a dog barking, which became David in the alley with Lenny trying to trade a stove for drugs. All of those scenes are flashbacks, but they’re not part of the memory-walk that Ptonomy takes David on. Does that make them more or less reliable than what we see in the memory-walks, more or less reliable than Summerland itself?
I suppose we'll find out.
Without the Meds, It’s Really Hard to Keep Things Straight:
• David striding out of his psychiatrist’s office with licorice hanging out of his mouth looked like the Joker’s version of Quadrophrenia.
• Last week, I misidentified David’s sister as Philly. Philly is David’s ex-girlfriend. (I would love to see what she was like.) Amy is David’s sister, and she never left David.
• Do you think the clothes are significant? For instance, why is David wearing a different shirt in his memory-walks than he is wearing at Summerland? Why hasn’t Syd changed her clothes?
• This episode opened with David’s very stylized, literary narration. From what perspective do you think he’s narrating this?
• I’ve written 1400 words so far and still feel like I have much more to say.
Three out of four MRI machines.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)