There’s something odd and vaguely melancholy about watching a story play out when you already know how it’s going to end. This is doubly true for sad stories, where the entire progress of the narrative is tending toward a loss, but it’s strangely true for happy conclusions as well; the advance knowledge that it will all play out just as it did the first time makes for almost an elegy of the events, a conclusion determined in advance that can only testify to its own inevitability. Here it goes, the narrative almost seems to announce as it goes along, for it can do no other. Every story we’ve already heard, then, is a kind of tragedy. Marx understood this—it’s why his dictum explains that history first repeats itself as tragedy, then as farce. Unfortunately, he neglects to mention that they aren’t mutually exclusive: A farce doesn’t necessarily stop being tragic.
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In part, the story of “Chapter 22" feels like old news to us, and with good reason: We already know this tale, in its broadest strokes. We’ve seen David as a baby, all the way back in season one’s earliest episodes. We’ve known what happened with his father and the Shadow King, and how that battle pushed Amahl Farouk to hitch a ride inside David’s mind. We know David will end up being given away by his birth parents. There’s no surprises there. But the question of who those people were—of what his parents were like, and why it all happened the way it did—these are the messy knots of character, identity, and perception that this episode of Legion wants to tug at, to let the frayed ends unravel and expose the tangled web of emotional conflict that set his life on the trajectory that led him to the present. And what it suggests is a David who participated in his own creation.
It’s a constant source of existential worry and wonder for parents: To what degree will my actions shape my child’s identity? How much of “me” is bound up in “them”? Are our personalities largely determined by the chance fate of heredity and genes? Nature or nurture? This episode shows adults of all stripes doing their best to imprint the best of themselves upon David as a baby. Charles Xavier—the man who would become Professor X—frets that David might be like him; Gabrielle is all-too-convinced he’ll be like her, emotionally traumatized by life itself in ways that she’s helpless to prevent; adult David wants to reassure his infant self that he’ll have a protector in his future self, something to anchor him against the coming darkness; even Amahl Farouk treasures his relationship with this child, albeit for his own reasons. “My beautiful boy,” he coos, a mirror image of Gabrielle’s opening words to her son. The morality behind the words may be moving or malevolent, but either way, it’s a prayer for the baby to adopt the path desired by the grown-up in the room, even if they’re only there psychically.
All of which is to say that “Chapter 22" occasionally achieves a kind of tone-poem beauty, a finely textured character study of the sort that made for the high points of seasons one and two. It doesn’t work as well as those previous instances, largely because we don’t know these people at all, so the episode has to build a character study of them at the same time as it breaks them down—particularly Gabrielle—but it nonetheless manages to find moments of grace amid the cacophony. And it’s a cacophony of David’s own making, to a degree; his presence is what helps drive Gabrielle out of the stability and peace she found in her dream home with Charles. Like the title character of Harold & The Purple Crayon (the story she reads David at night), her son is bound to create his own world, through the very means by which he had hoped to change his fate. It turns out, going back through time that far was unstable, and he may have unwittingly brought about the very version of himself he was hoping to erase.
While there are concrete facts we learn about David’s parents and infancy, the moods and emotional fluctuations displayed are the important stuff. Charles and Gabrielle met in a psychiatric facility (or “mental institution,” in David’s parlance—it “runs in the family,” as he puts it upon realizing he actually carried on a family tradition of sorts). Gabrielle’s sanity begins to slip as Xavier leaves her alone for an extended period of time, jetting off to Morocco to find Amahl Farouk. And her mind senses the presence of Future-David, even as she sadly misses the moment Farouk enters baby David. That scene, in front of the TV, is the kind of everyday parenting error that’s utterly without fault, and yet utterly impossible to forgive yourself for. She doesn’t know that’s what happened, of course, but when the walls go up around her bed, and she turns her crying child over and over, only to see the back of his head with each turn, something in her breaks. She finally sees a strange glimpse Future-David, and all it does is wrench free the lingering remnants of coherence in her mind. She’s back in the fog of herself.
But those narrative beats are less meaningful than the setting and sensibility that surrounds them. The show is meditating on the theme of repetition in story and soul, as David does become like his dad—but also like his mom. He inherits power, but untethered to the well-heeled strength of Charles’ grounded mentality. He inherits tragedy from his mother, a kernel of emptiness that drives his actions in increasingly desperate ways. But this story also repeats as a story, one we’re watching and hearing: The sequence of Charles and Gabrielle freeing themselves from the facility is set to the Rolling Stones’ “She’s A Rainbow,” the same song that soundtracked the blossoming romance between David and Syd all the way back in the pilot episode. The freedom his parents found in having him, David found in Syd. History repeats itself—first as tragedy, then as farce, then as both, over and over, the one slipping ineluctably into the other.
“When will you learn the truth? That this world is an ugly place.” Did the world make Gabrielle like that? She suffered true horrors, and despite not wanting them to be visited upon her child, it felt as though she were already sleepwalking through her life, awaiting the eventual rug pull. Charles’ act of freedom was simultaneously one of bondage; she could never be sure she was actually experiencing this life, or whether it was a mental playground erected by the powerful psychic with whom she shared her life and mind. Her mementos became David’s nightmares: The World’s Angriest Boy was a keepsake, handed down from his mother and into his mind, where the Shadow King could play with it, too. The question of fate or flaw, nature or nurture, continues to turn. And, more seriously: Would those psychic wounds still have developed had the Shadow King not taken hold?
David’s plan failed. Switch managed to take him all the way back, but the journey was too far, the forces of history too rooted, for David to be able to effectively make his presence known. (It’s to his credit that he actually managed to project a sense of comfort at night, when Gabrielle was in bed and her conscious mind was at its most relaxed.) When they return to the time hallway—David pushed violently back by Charles, mistaking him for an enemy—Switch has lost another tooth, and her powers have weakened her to the point of collapse. And David is stuck with his mind, his past, and his actions. Not only that, but he may have been one of the causes of that life all along. It’s a haunting episode, even with its difficulties (I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I watched it, for reasons good and bad), and even at moments when it felt like it strained against its own frame (Charles’ black-and-white “enemy soldier suicide” moment, for one), the story of parents and their children has a force beyond just the Shadow King’s intervention. Gabrielle puts it best, when Charles worries their son will turn out like him: “He’ll be himself.” Adult David knows this all too well.
- There’s something so achingly pitiable about the way Future-David addresses Gabrielle in his efforts to reach her. “Momma?” “Mommy?”
- Legion significant music cues of the week: Along with the aforementioned “She’s A Rainbow” sequel, we get the motif that continually recurs throughout the episode, usually when the future is crashing into the past: Captain Sensible’s “Wot.” There’s also Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You In The End” during Charles and Gabrielle’s falling-in-love montage.
- Those p.o.v. shots from baby David in his crib were incredibly unnerving and effective.
- It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen the Yellow Man iteration of David’s demon, too.
- “Hey you. Lil’ baby me. So small. So happy. Do you feel loved?” Truly, some genuinely gutting moments.
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.