The rap battle between Oliver and Jerome is maybe the single silliest thing Legion has ever done. Sillier than a lip-synching mouse, sillier than any droll witticism or stomping on a previously enormous delusion creature or any of it. On an episode already experimenting with a far lighter and more playful tone than just about every episode that’s preceded it, it pushed the series into a downright goofy realm. But circumstances aside, if you can’t enjoy a ridiculous rap battle between Jemaine Clement and Jason Mantzoukas, I’m not sure I want to know you.
Every season of the show has featured an episode that revolves around Sydney. Season one had “Chapter 4,” essentially told from Syd’s point of view, and the second season had “Chapter 12,” which functioned basically as a mental boot camp constructed by the touch-averse mutant. But whereas those installments used Sydney as a vehicle to talk about David, this allowed Clement and Jean Smart to return as Oliver and Melanie Bird, in order to take center stage in a tale (and it was a “tale,” in the classically fantastical sense of the word) that was all about Syd. More specifically, about how to raise someone to be a good person in a world that has more than its fair share of evil, danger, and corruption lurking around every corner. And like all good fables, it’s deceptively simple: A basic lesson about morality and growing up hides a teeming morass of questions and complications regarding the values we try to instill in one another, and what the circumstances of our lives ultimately do to our innermost selves.
Most importantly, it’s about failure. Having been essentially psychically consumed by David, Syd’s consciousness travels to the astral plane, the place where lost dreams and minds wind up, often being scavenged by the enterprising Oliver. After an entire childhood and adolescence growing up under the loving and watchful eye of her astral-plane parents, Teenage Syd decides the right thing to do is rescue her adopted sister Cynthia from the Wolf, a.k.a. Jerome (Mantzoukas, bringing his signature heightened intensity to the role—he’s a perfect fit for a fairy tale villain, someone alert Disney). And after they knock out her malevolent kids, kidnap her back to their loving arms, and Olvier is about to deliver the knockout blow against Jerome in the aforementioned rap battle, Cynthia steps in...and chooses the wrong side. She doesn’t want to be saved. She’s decided on her place in the world, and no matter how convinced everyone else may be that she’s making the self-destructive choice, it’s hers to make. You can’t rescue someone who doesn’t think they need rescuing. Sometimes, the good guys lose.
But the difference between outcome and action, between reality and desire, has always been central to Legion’s warped narrative. Since the beginning we’ve been questioning what’s real, relying instead on the people trapped inside these varying planes of existence to stabilize our perspective and ground the story. But with David’s pivot into villainy comes an unmooring of the reliance on identity—now, it’s almost the reverse: We look to the individual and idiosyncratic situations to help determine what to make of the people trapped inside them. Last week, I mentioned that David had forgotten a core tenet of being a hero, that the removal of any higher purpose or structure to the universe means the only guiding light we have to become our better selves is our actions, no matter how seemingly meaningless. And this is the ultimate lesson Melanie and Oliver impart to Sydney: You don’t do something because it will succeed or fail, you do it because it’s the right thing to do.
It’s a lesson that Syd’s own family was never able to deliver. In fact, it’s a whole childhood that she receives from the former proprietors of Summerland, almost from birth. Legion is coming down hard here in the nurture-over-nature camp, arguing that people need the right childhood to shape them into the right kind of people. “It’s about the order of things,” Oliver explains to teenage Syd, 16 and eager to cast off the shackles of protection her parents have maintained. The idea of feeling safe is central to his worldview, and by extension the show’s; stability and security from the cold wider world is imperative to not making decision based in fear. You have to learn love before you learn hate, he says, “Otherwise everything goes to hell.” Cynthia is presented as evidence for the latter outcome, someone who should know better but is scared to make the decision, because she learned hate before love—she doesn’t think she deserves love as a result.
On the surface, this could come across as facile, and to a degree it does. But it’s an intentional simplicity, a reductiveness required to highlight just how messy all the complicating factors of life have made Sydney’s inner world, and how hard it is to find your way back to the fundamental intentionality that should drive us. Just as fairy tales lend their basic morals to kids as a key to crack open the thorny matters of everyday behavior, so too does the tale of The Astral Plane And The Wolf illuminate the difficulty in pushing yourself to action when inaction is so much easier. And crucially, the key element in Syd’s development is empathy. It’s the point of the bedtime story Melanie tells her as a girl, that only when you can feel so strongly the pain or sadness another is experiencing—when you have empathy—that you can understand the importance of trying to do good and help others, irrespective of outcome, and especially irrespective of whether it makes you personally feel better. “Remember, it’s not us or them, Melanie tells the reawakened Sydney for her final lesson, before the gifted woman transfers herself back to the real world. “It’s us and them.”
So Sydney returns, and gathers Cary and Kerry in her attempt to enter the time stream and stop David, with the Time Eaters hot on their heels. Which leads us to maybe the most moving moment of the entire episode, so powerful precisely because it shows instead of telling, discarding the entire fairy-tale apparatus that preceded it and just demonstrating everything Oliver and Melanie were talking about. Cary takes on Kerry’s pain, knowing full well it might cripple him, because it’s the right thing to do. He takes on another’s pain, because love drives him to do so. It’s great that Syd had the help of an entire other lifetime to give her the emotional resources necessary to press on. But she had a perfect example of empathy right there on the ship, all along.
- Cary: “Stop fighting.” Kerry: “That’s like me saying, ‘Stop worrying.’”
- Tonally, it was jarring at first to adjust to the rhythms of this episode. But I think it soon found itself, right around the time they pull Cynthia into the straw house to save her from the Wolf.
- Congratulations, Flight Of The Conchords fans, your patience with watching this series for Clement must’ve really paid off tonight.
- It was interesting to see how the show portrayed Oliver and Melanie as avoiding the real world, only for their “true” selves to reappear at the celebration, much to Melanie’s happiness. We’ve already seen the time-jump from last season with them living in the ice cube, but time is obviously a little flexible when it comes to the Birds.
- “Don’t forget chlamydia!”