'Legion' Chapter 12: David Mansplains Syd to Syd
Legion as a show is a love-it-or-hate-it affair, it seems. But even when judged against itself, last night’s episode was also divisive. “Chapter 12” managed to be even more of a filler episode than last week’s installment, offering practically no plot progression at all. There is no mention of the Shadow King, and almost the entire running time takes place inside of Syd’s mind.
And yet, for those of us with endless reserves of patience for Legion and all its quirks, “Chapter 12” was a stunning hour of television. This was a character study writ large — one that reminds us why we should care about Syd Barrett, and reinforces the romance between her and David.
I’ll be honest — lingering in the back of my mind this season has been a vague dissatisfaction with the show’s treatment of Syd. To be fair, Legion has its hands full being a show about David Haller, and it’s no surprise when the other characters, no matter how interesting they are, remain just outside show’s spotlight. It’s been especially apparent this season, as David has seemingly gained the control and confidence he lacked when we met him in season one. Whereas Syd used to be the strong, mysterious, capable one in their relationship, she has sort of fallen into the wide-eyed, trusting girlfriend mold recently. They love each other. Fine. But the urgency, and the agency, has worn off of their emotions. Hell, I thought this season was going to set up new romance between David and Future Syd, one that would have him abandon his girlfriend and choose her older self instead.
Instead, Legion cleverly proved this week that it’s aware of the imbalance that has taken place between the characters, and devoted an entire hour to not only exploring what motivates Syd, but acknowledging that David himself doesn’t truly understand her (and neither do we). The episode begins where the last left off, with David entering Syd’s mind. She, like so many other people at Division 3, had been stricken by the psychic plague spread by the monk. So David assumes that in order to wake her, he needs to navigate her internal maze and discover what her “core desire” is, the same way he did with Ptonomy and Melanie. But that proves to be no simple task, because (as we learn in the brief interlude that takes place outside of her mind) the plague is over. It ended when the monk jumped off the roof of the building in the last episode. That act freed everyone stricken with the chattering teeth syndrome and woke them up… except for Syd, and now David.
It’s not clear what the difference is, but I’m guessing that Syd realized she had David as a captive audience in her mind and decided to take advantage of that fact to make him see her clearly. What he encounters isn’t a maze he needs to free Syd from, but a journey through Syd’s childhood — one that she is dictating to him, forcing him to experience it over and over and over again until he finally learns the lesson properly. He sees her birth. He witnesses her mother (played by American Horror Story’s Lily Rabe) struggling to comfort a child she can’t touch. He watches as Syd faces ridicule and bullying and isolation, cuts herself with a dull blade, and grows detached from the world around her. And the end of each trip, he meets Syd in a museum and tries to tell her what it is that she ultimately wants in life.
Basically, David mansplains Syd to Syd. And let me tell you, the satisfaction of watching her tell him he’s wrong doesn’t lessen with each repetition! Each time he fails to grasp the point of it all, she forces him to start again from the beginning and pay closer attention. And with each return trip through her memories, he notices new details, or new scenes are exposed to him. He sees her brush up against a crowd at a punk club. He sees her voluntarily kiss an insistent young man in order to swap bodies with him, then use his body to beat up the girls who have bullied her — then let him get the blame when their bodies swap back. David also witnesses her first sexual experience, the one she told him about last season — when she swapped bodies with her mother in order to join her mother’s boyfriend in the shower. We see David seeing Syd, truly seeing her, for the first time. Her motivation has nothing to do with the art in the museum, or that couple she watched kiss there. It’s not about her wanting to be close to someone, or to scare David away with her past mistakes. She isn’t motivated by love or loneliness. Syd, simply put, is a survivor. Her story is about damage, and the strength that comes from overcoming it.
But none of this would feel worthwhile if the resolution was simply “David understands Syd, and they’re closer than ever now.” Instead, the show uses this exploration to examine the nature of their romance, and love in general. When David claims that meeting her was like a fairy tale, she rejects the notion. “Do you know what love is?” she asks him. “It’s a hot bath. What happens to things when you leave them in a bath for too long? They get soft.”
David is motivated by love. In fact, falling in love with Syd is what changed his life. But to Syd, love isn’t a savior — it’s the thing that needs to be saved. And to preserve it, people need to be fighters. After all, there’s an apocalypse coming, and who is more likely to survive: a lover or a fight? While the past few episodes have been setting the stage for the chaos to come, this episode takes the time to prepare David emotionally for the battle ahead. But more importantly, it reminds us that at the end of the day, despite all of David’s powers, it’s Syd who is stronger.
Oh, and then they wake up in Division 3 to find a bunch of guards escorting Lenny down the hall. So, uh, turns out she’s not stuck in Oliver’s brain anymore?
DOES THIS MEAN THERE’LL FINALLY BE ANOTHER DANCE SEQUENCE NEXT WEEK?
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