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It's all about Syd as Legion slows down for a life lesson in hard knocks

Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)
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“Do you know what love is? It’s a hot bath. What happens to things when you leave them in a bath for too long? They get soft, fall apart.”

Does suffering make us stronger? Sydney Barrett certainly thinks so. She’s far from alone; a lot of recent television shows (and television characters) that go deep on drama and philosophy have made the argument that we become who we are through pain, through loss, through tragedy. But let’s back up a minute: What kind of strength are we talking about here? There’s the romantic notion of suffering for your art, a concept I suspect was promoted by someone who never had to suffer much. Suffering isn’t romantic; it’s suffering. And Syd isn’t talking about becoming a better person—she’s talking about becoming a stronger person. Life is war, to her, a battle to try and survive the coming apocalypse. She doesn’t care if they’re better people, or even decent people, necessarily. She wants David tough, so that David will survive. There’s a reason the military wants young minds: It doesn’t want people questioning orders. It wants people pulling the trigger with no thought to the consequences. It makes strong soldiers. It doesn’t make more loving soldiers.


It’s a good thing that Syd’s mind is such a compelling place to linger, because this is the rare of episode of Legion—the first, really—to feel padded out for the viewer’s benefit, not for David’s. “Chapter 12" is an hourlong exercise in Syd going all R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket on David, metaphorically speaking. She wants him to look to his pain, to toughen up and gain strength through his scars, psychological and otherwise. You could call it “tough love” only she’s quite clear that love isn’t part of her equation. If it had been, she wouldn’t have been so strangely callous. What makes it even odder is how little of Syd’s personality seems to fit with her decision to keep David stuck in her mind loop. True, it’s been a full year, and we still don’t really know how she’s changed in the interim. But even the little we’ve gotten doesn’t exactly jibe with the stern teacher persona we get here: Pretending she doesn’t know him, forcing him to relive the same memories over and over until he finally happens on the idea she wants him to adopt, almost by virtue of having exhausted every other possibility? Especially given there’s no reason not to say, “Hey, I think we need to get tougher in preparation for what’s to come, here’s my life, look at it through that lens,” the Groundhog Day shenanigans ultimately come across like a scolding lecture staged for our benefit, not for David’s. He’s just happy it’s over.

Not that there’s no value in reliving key moments through another person’s eyes. Syd’s backstory is a sad one, culminating in that impulsive and tragic decision to take over her mother’s body in order to get in the shower with a grown man and experience the physical sensation of sex. It’s screwed up on a number of levels, but it’s also such an understandable act of juvenile need, of adolescent exploration, someone who can’t go through the normal steps of intimacy and growth instead pulling a desperate move without full thought of the consequences. And that’s being a teenager, in a very fundamental way: Actions without proper consideration of results. Kids are supposed to be able to screw up, again and again, without lasting damage. (If anything, it should be failing with an eye toward positively growing from the experience.) Syd’s powers took that opportunity away from her. It left her feeling like radical decisions were the only ones available. At a certain point, you have to stop kissing the mirror.

Screenshot: FX

The tour through the childhood of Syd Barrett also helps reveal the inner badass, the young woman who refused to accept people treating her like crap, and instead took over the body of a budding young sexual harasser and beat the snot out of her tormentors. You could argue the violence isn’t justified, and you’d be right, but it’s the first time we’ve seen some of the depths of this unusual woman. Her almost preternatural dislike of being touched was present since birth, and as she grows up, donning red gloves or black armbands, her life became a process of pushing through the pain, of embracing it until it no longer had any power over her. And it’s important to remember she’s staging all of this for David’s benefit. This is a one-woman show—The Story Of My Fucked-Up Life, by Sydney Barrett—all of it intended to teach one lesson: Forget love, it’s time to focus on pain. It’s a very Nietzschean attitude (and a very Biblical one, too, ironically) that promotes survival through casting off positive emotions and simply enduring. One thing it doesn’t take into consideration? Whether they can come out the other end of such an approach as people others will still want to love, most importantly each other.

There are a number of nice little flourishes throughout the mental projection of Syd’s childhood, with the best element being Lily Rabe’s near-silent portrayal of her mother. This is the mom Syd remembers, a woman who rarely spoke, but when she did, it was directed toward others, not her daughter. With her child, she adopted a more unspoken but affectionate attitude, doing what she could to reach across the barrier of Syd’s condition and express her love. And the little moments the camera lingers on her face, rare but effective, show a soul in turmoil, and slowly growing to accept the chasm between her daughter and herself, no matter how many small smiles they share.


Syd reads aloud an excerpt from the book her teenage self is engrossed in, the one David references to her at the end of “Chapter 12,” just before the parable of sinners shining the brightest, which still feels undercooked for such a lengthy ordeal. From Rick Moody’s The Ring Of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, Syd quotes: “None of us seemed to know the nature of the coincidences that bound us together, as I know now.” The Summerland exiles, living precariously under the aegis of Division 3, are bound by coincidence, of genetic mutation and right place wrong time and a desire to simply live—to survive. Sydney Barrett has already prepped herself for the coming storm, to live so that she might save love, but neither her nor David have yet wondered if love can be saved when you’ve steeled yourself against it.


Stray observations

  • Welcome back, Lenny. It’s unclear how an identity in thrall to the Shadow King can make a jailbreak, but we’re about to find out.
  • Kerry yanking Cary out of her body was endearing, as was Clark ignoring them en route to dealing with the many victims of the Catalyst who have just woken up in the aftermath of the monk’s death.
  • Legion significant music cues of the week: During the first act travel through Syd’s childhood we get “22 (Over Soon)” by Bon Iver; during her rebellious stint in the mosh pit, “Turtleneck” by The National; a dark electronic cover of Cream’s “White Room” while she’s cutting herself in the leg; During David’s first realization it’s not the maze, when his effort in the art museum consists of reassuring her he’ll still love her, the song is “It’s Not To Be” by Tame Impala; and the closing cover of “Burning Down The House,” though i’m not sure who’s covering it.
  • Incidentally, that superb art was the work of Egon Schiele. His life story is...not uplifting.

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Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.