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We’re only two episodes in, but right now ‘Legion’ is surely the best superhero show on TV.
Warning: This recap includes spoilers for Legion episode 2.
Legion‘s second episode is as discombobulating as the first, doubling down on David Haller’s role as an unreliable narrator. On top of David’s usual mix of hallucinations and uncontrollable psychic visions, chapter 2 adds a new element to the mix: telepathic memory regression, delivered by superpowered “memory artist” Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris).
After being rescued from shady government kidnappers by a team of (we assume) mutant rebels, David is now in the hands of the stern and terrifyingly chic Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), an enigmatic leader who wants him to gain control of his powers. Housed in a luxurious compound in the middle of a forest, Bird and Ptonomy take David on a journey through his own memories, hoping to unlock the secrets of his past. It’s similar to Professor Xavier’s mutant school, reimagined from a more disturbing angle as a form of cult deprogramming.
While Legion thankfully avoids familiar superhero cliches, it’s easy to figure out where Bird stands in the central conflict of the X-Men universe. The quasi-governmental agents of Division 3 are clearly the bad guys, after kidnapping and interrogating David last week. But the enemy of your enemy isn’t always your friend, and despite rescuing David from Division 3, Melanie Bird doesn’t necessarily have his best interests in mind. As Ptonomy ominously points out, David’s psychic abilities could be “the key to winning the war.” The show hasn’t elaborated on which war he’s talking about, but we can be sure of one thing: David Haller didn’t volunteer to fight in it.
Steering clear of overt historical markers, Legion’s production design suggests a 1960s setting without actually confirming when the story takes place. This was an intriguing detail in Chapter 1, but Chapter 2 is where the 1960s aesthetic really begins to make sense. Why? Because David Haller totally just joined a cult.
The ’60s and ’70s were the heyday for cults in the U.S., and right now, David’s trajectory is ticking all the boxes. He’s a vulnerable eccentric with no close ties aside from his well-meaning but clueless sister Katie, and Melanie Bird wants to indoctrinate him into taking sides in some unknown war, beginning with a process that will “make him whole.”
Step one is convincing David that he isn’t schizophrenic, and his hallucinations are actually symptoms of his psychic powers. (Which shouldn’t be an either/or decision, because he could be both telepathic and mentally ill.) Step two is “memory work,” using Ptonomy’s powers to visit David’s memories in a similar vein to the dreamscapes of Inception. Much of the episode focuses on flashbacks to David’s childhood and pre-hospital therapy appointments, and you get the impression that Bird is looking for something specific. Her goals are not entirely therapeutic, and we already know that memories can be altered—a useful skill if you want your patient to reevaluate their past through a different lens. David is being deprogrammed.
David, a rather passive individual, is an easy mark for manipulation. All he really wants to do is hang out with his girlfriend Sydney, which makes her an ideal tool to keep him under observation inside Bird’s secluded compound. Seduction is a classic cult indoctrination technique, and while Sydney and David’s romance appears to be sweet and genuine, we learned this week that Sydney recently went through Ptonomy’s “memory work” as well. This leaves us with two options: either Sydney was planted in the mental hospital to recruit David from day 1, or she’s telling the truth and was recruited after Bird’s team mistakenly rescued her last week. If it’s the latter, then it only took a few days for Sydney to buy into Bird’s philosophy and become part of the paramilitary squad that rescued David from Division 3.
Legion‘s mid-20th century cult inspiration is increasingly obvious, along with hints of the CIA’s mind control experimentation program MKUltra, and the U.S. Army’s Stargate Project, which attempted to investigate the use of psychic powers. It’s an interesting angle to take on the political and sci-fi background of the X-Men universe, closer to Stranger Things than the watered-down psychedelia of Doctor Strange. And in terms of sheer originality and weirdness—which is what you want from any X-Men adaptation, really—it gives us high hopes for future episodes.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor