[Note: The following review includes mentions of sexual assault.]
Our hero committed sexual assault.
There’s no getting around this fact. It happened. We watched it happen. Sydney explicitly says it in the final minutes of the episode: “You drugged me and had sex with me.” It feels important to say it up front, before anything else. I must have started and re-started this review a half-dozen times, and there’s no other way to address David’s act without seeming to minimize the impact of what took place. There are ways the show can deal with this next season, and there are stories that can be told, but as it turns out, it wasn’t just a comic-book conceit to have the characters imply David might be the villain of this story. David is the villain. And to quote Syd, maybe he always was.
This is upsetting, disturbing stuff, and for the first time since I began watching this weird and often wonderful show, I’m not convinced Legion is capable of telling the story it just waded into. To understand why is to pull at the messy threads of narrative convention. I spoke at length in last week’s review about what has made this such a polarizing season of television. Legion has been shedding viewers, and I think it has a lot to do with the willfully alienating nature of the story. It became positively Brechtian in its refusal to allow the audience a point of identification, or a way to trust the show. Not just in the sense that we couldn’t necessarily trust our own eyes—we’ve known from the start that reality is malleable when it comes to the powers of David Haller and the Shadow King—but in not providing us with protagonists in whom we can believe. We can’t trust David, we can’t really trust anyone, not with delusion creatures roaming free.
Legion stripped away our ability to look to its characters for reassurance, which is a foundational building block of humanism and empathy. One of the reasons the Loudermilks have become so appealing this season is because their guilelessness makes them some of the only people that convey a sense of reliability. I can believe in them—or at least, the show hasn’t given me much reason to actively not believe in them, which is something I can no longer say with much confidence about any other character, really.
A second issue is about the implicit contract between audience and show. When we’re given a protagonist, we plan to follow them on their journey, and we have certain expectations that accompany such a journey, for good or ill. A key expectation is that we will be given entry into a character’s point of view. We need to know who a person is, and if we’re given that, we can follow them anywhere. Good guys like Leslie Knope, antiheroes like Tony Soprano, grouchy bastards like Gregory House, even good-to-bad characters like Walter White—they can lie, cheat, steal, hell, even poison a child in Walter’s case, and as long as we know their motivations, their point of view, and the perspective of those around them, we can go on that journey. We don’t need our characters to be heroes.
But this is Legion, a Marvel superhero show. What has made it consistently fascinating is the way that Noah Hawley and his creative team have repeatedly pushed back against those expectations, not caring that it would alienate people looking for a certain familiar structure in their TV series. Yet when it comes to character, there might be certain rules that work better unbroken. Removing our ability to relate to characters, and stripping away the humanism that undergirds our identification with the people whose lives we’re watching unfold, is a fundamentally avant-garde move, because it severs the basic premise of narrative drama: Namely, that we can understand who this person is and why they do what they do.
If you’re halfway through watching Out Of Africa, you know you’re not going to have a sudden smash cut to a pornographic, throbbing sex scene between Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and another person, because that would violate a basic understanding of the world that’s been established, what a mainstream movie provides, and also how these characters would behave. Similarly, Legion has established that there are many facets to David, but despite the depictions of a malevolent David, or a homeless crazy David, or even the fears of our primary David about the violence he’s capable of inflicting (something that wasn’t even introduced until the last couple of episodes), we had been given a fundamentally good person. Naive, even, in his sincere belief in true love, admirable in his loyalty to his friends, and—above all—steadfast in his refusal to accept evil or unhappiness as the outcome. When Syd brooded over their likely unhappy ending, David was the one to say he believed in a better one. Even when he was torturing Oliver last week, we may not have liked it, but we understood doing something bad to achieve something good. He was trying to save Syd.
Transforming David from a fundamentally decent person with a troubled mind into someone capable of committing sexual assault in the course of a single episode is the needle scratch on the record player. It’s the porn scene in the middle of Out Of Africa. It’s edgy and unpredictable, but that doesn’t make it good. It changes the show on a fundamental level—and more than that, it pulls the rug out from under its viewers, scorning them for thinking they were watching one kind of show when in fact they were watching a very different one. It’s one thing to have a show’s characters lie to us. It’s quite another when a show lies to its audience.
There’s an argument to be made that these kinds of stories should be told. From the perspective of a show looking to tell difficult tales about difficult people, the decision to have David do this to Syd probably felt like an all-too-accurate and believable version of how these events play out in everyday life, albeit aided by psychic powers instead of roofies. But I’m not sure a show where guys with baskets on their heads and kung-fu fight scenes set to Jane’s Addiction has earned that story beat. When someone on a Marvel superhero show—even one as odd as Legion—tells us a character might become a villain, we allow for powers, and betrayal, and even violence. But abruptly pivoting to a painful and common reality feels like a betrayal of the narrative contract the series spent two seasons establishing. Farouk is a rapist—he is the villain and has been clearly established as such, so we accept it. I don’t know if I can accept David’s actions, not when they haven’t been properly set up narratively and justified psychologically, both on our end and his.
David defeats the Shadow King (thanks to Lenny’s bullet and the Choke) and starts pounding him senseless, but before he can land a fatal blow, Syd shows up and tries to shoot him, having been convinced by Farouk-Melanie that her beau was indeed becoming a monster who must be stopped. It’s understandable David would feel betrayed; he had just done a bunch of ugly stuff, all in the name of protecting his love. (“It’s what we have to save,” he again echoed in his words to Oliver.) And he’s not that person—not yet, anyway. It’s actually very easy to feel for David in that moment, as he’s so hurt: “Don’t you trust me?”
So when he wakes up in his own basement, and proceeds to have the three-way argument with himself, you can see why these new versions of David have erupted. He’s wounded, and the one person he truly loved has somehow rejected him in the most clear-cut manner imaginable, so a part of him tries to make sense of it in any way he can. Hence the disagreement—she’s his parasite, her love is the delusion, they all owe David everything and he should just take charge as a superior being. The episode continually returns to the God metaphor, from his quick aside to Lenny (“God has plans for you”) to Clark’s season-ending words: “Now we pray.”
Even Farouk is sounding like the voice of reason in that regard. David’s late night debate with his tormentor hinged on the Shadow King making David see how his actions weren’t all that different from Farouk’s. The moment that Farouk makes David realize how his efforts will backfire—and we learn just what David did to Syd—is a brutal one. The decision to suppress her memories is indeed a form of drugging her—he’s altering her perception to get what he wants, and once Farouk is safely contained, and Syd’s in her room, he projects himself in there, tells her everything’s fine, and proceeds to sleep with her. It’s vile stuff—there’s a reason that when Buffy The Vampire Slayer pulled a lesser but quite similar move, it made sure to have the victim discover she’d been magically drugged before any intimacy happened. Because that’s a line that can’t really be walked back, character-wise.
And part of the problem is that the show itself doesn’t seem to understand the severity of that breach. “The Trial Of The Shadow King,” with its text-based reflections on the nature of truth, muses that perhaps the competing realities of the situation should give us pause. That perhaps everyone has been swayed by the Shadow King’s machinations, which is why poor David has been found crazy and in need of either medicated imprisonment or death. And hey, that would’ve been a great place to end the season—with a knotty ambiguous debate over reality itself. But Syd’s statement of what David has done isn’t something you can muck about with, hemming and hawing over whether reality is being distorted. And it’s a disservice to the intensity of that choice—and the legitimacy of Syd’s assault—to fold it into the show’s usual “who can say what truth is?” philosophizing.
And maybe that’s the big problem with the second-season finale of Legion: Certain acts don’t get to be up for debate, and it’s a cheat on the show’s part to think sexual assault can just be part of the furniture. When nothing can be spared from getting walked back, when we are potentially being lied to about everything, then our sense of investment, our stakes in this world, go out the window. Acts need to have meaning, not be idly ruminated on with quotes from Plato. Does Legion really think there are competing truths about what David did, regardless of whether the Shadow King has everyone in his thrall? If so, then the closing words of the Tori Amos cover that ends the season are apt in more ways than one: “This is not real / This is not really happening, hey.” It’s not until the credits roll that the next line arrives—“You bet your life it is.”
- Legion significant music cues of the week: They all pretty much pale compared to that opening version of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” that David and Farouk are singing, with its spot-on lyrics. (“No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man, to be the sad man...my love is vengeance.”) But the others are the aforementioned show-closing cover of “Cornflake Girl” (if you want a great rock cover of that one, here it is), and when David’s in his own room, about to go back on the plan the other Davids apparently concocted, a similarly dark cover of The Kinks’ “Nothing In This World” is playing.
- “I’m a good person. I deserve love.” This would’ve landed so much harder if David hadn’t just done what he did.
- I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Loudermilks have been our most reliable source of identification and Cary is the one who discovers what David did to Syd.
- When the mouse first showed up in Farouk’s cell, was anyone else thinking it was going to start singing Bryan Ferry?
- Oliver and Melanie’s flash-forward, with them living in the ice cube three years after the events of this episode, was a rare and much-valued moment of levity.
- “You really believe that? God loves sinners best?” Methinks we’re going to find out. Dan Stevens’ performance this year has been stellar.
- Thanks, everyone, for watching and reading. I’ve enjoyed hearing all the theories and discussions of this very unusual season of television. Sorry it had to end on a down note—I can certainly say I’ll be curious to see where Legion tries to go from here.