With “Chapter 4,” Legion has reached the halfway point of its first season and delivered its best episode since the pilot. After two episodes of intentional slow burn and uneasy horrors, FX’s offbeat X-Men series has reached full nightmarish boil. Let’s talk about it.
Legion Has Trained Us to Watch It
Every week, Legion has to find new ways to present concepts that are outrageous and unreal. And every week, the series has utilized stylistic touches both extreme and subtle to sell ideas that should be hard to swallow. The exposition-laden second and third episodes of the first season pay off in “Chapter 4,” where the series stops jogging and begins to sprint. By this point, the series trusts, we know how to watch Legion. We know how to read the screen and understand exactly what we’re seeing because the show has given us a crash course in how to watch it.
It helps that Legion grounds its surreal, comic book touches in the very language of cinema. Rules are bent and broken, concepts familiar to anyone who has consumed media in some capacity become stand-ins for stranger ideas. Take the opening scene of “Chapter 4,” where the sort-of-still-alive Summerland founder Oliver Bird introduces the episode from his icy home on the astral plane, setting the stage for the events of the episode by looking straight into the camera, shattering the fourth wall, and informing us of what we’re about the see. It’s something we’ve seen before, a basic Brechtian touch, but in the world of Legion, Oliver’s communication with us is less about acknowledging the facade of storytelling and more about telling us what he can literally do. He’s a passive observer stranded in a non-physical space – all he can do is watch and comment and wait.
Everything we’ve seen in the past three hours comes into play here, but the show no longer needs to pause to explain what we’re watching. Aspect ratios quietly shift to suggest flashbacks or new changes in perspective. Characters manipulate memories as if they were searching through hours of documentary footage to find that one perfect shot. Legion is many things (a wild mystery, an off-kilter superhero show), but it continues to be a truly pleasurable visual experience that hijacks our typical perceptions and steers us down a strange, new path.
Oliver Bird and the Astral Plane
If the recorded voice of Summerland’s absent founder sounded familiar last week, that’s because it was the voice of the great Jemaine Clement. And I was wrong last week. Oliver isn’t dead – he’s simply on a little trip to the astral plane. Well, he’s actually stranded, his physical form trapped in a diving suit back on earth while his spirit form lives in a psychedelic ice cube in the sky. If this was a Marvel comic book, the camera could pan left and we’d see Doctor Strange and no one would bat an eye.
Oliver is a welcome addition to Legion‘s line-up of oddballs and weirdos. In his imaginary kingdom, it’s still the past and his unfortunate design choices reflect as much. And in David Haller (Dan Stevens), who was thrust into the astral plane by last week’s traumatic psychic voyage, he sees someone he can finally share his music with. Someone with whom he can discuss beat poetry. Is free love still a thing back in the real world, man?
It’s not clear what role Oliver will play in the series and like everyone else at Summerland, he doesn’t seem like someone we should immediately trust. The fact that he can look into the camera and talk to us certainly suggests that he’s an individual with a great deal of power – only those with special abilities can manipulate cinematic language on Legion. But even if he was just a detour, a guest star who pops up to explain the existence of a weird space between dream and reality, he’s one one hell of a detour.
A New Figment
How many monsters live inside David’s head? We first met the devil with the yellow eyes, but others arrived quickly. Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) continues to haunt and taunt him. The World’s Angriest Boy in the World continues to appear suddenly and unexpectedly. His mysterious astronomer father introduced him to the stars and the stars talked back and that’s all we know. And then there are the anonymous voices, those that crowd around him and point and jeer. The same voices that, strangely enough, didn’t want him to commit suicide.
And in “Chapter 4,” we may have just met another one. It turns out that the dog, the adorable Beagle, that we’ve been seeing in flashbacks for the past few episodes, never existed. He was a figment of David’s seemingly ill imagination, another way his “schizophrenia” manifested. However, there’s one thing we’ve learned about these “figments” in four episodes of Legion: they’re not not real. Within David’s psychic interior, they have agency and they can do harm and they will fight to protect…whatever it is they’re protecting. Whatever this dog turns out to be, it’s safe to say that it’s not just a made-up memory. There are no imaginary friends for David Haller, just passengers he doesn’t yet understand.