An undeniable standout of Legion’s second season, “Chapter 14” might have once again spent 40 minutes not moving the plot forward, but it did so in peerless surrealist style.
Someone must be listening to me. And, I suppose, someone must be laughing at me, as the moment I publically complain about FX’s Legion never moving its plot forward we get the sixth episode of the second season, “Chapter 14”, which a) eschews the story almost entirely, and b) is so visually and conceptually audacious that I can’t help but admire it. This is a level of awkwardness that I am not prepared to deal with so early in the morning.
Deal with it we must, though, as I wouldn’t be the most sought-after critic in a one-mile radius if I couldn’t admit when I was wrong. Besides, I wasn’t wrong. Legion, after all, didn’t move its plot forwards – again. “Chapter 14” simply convinced everyone, maybe including me, that it doesn’t even need a plot. Like David Haller in this episode, it exists in some weird alternate reality where the usual rules of serial television don’t apply.
Anyway, by shunting the overarching plot to one side, “Chapter 14” frees up space to explore various timelines and existences in which David never got mixed up with Division 3, weaving multiple – often dark and heartbreaking – vignettes into a dense tapestry of abstract examinations and critiques. By its very existence it touches on the idea of traditional storytelling, finding it wanting, but the more explicit subject is that of mental health, for which the show has always been an allegory. Of all the timelines David explores, only one sees him as anything but a victim.
“Chapter 14” sees David drugged-up and suicidal; dulled by medication and zapped by treatments; destitute; a child, a man, a brother, a patient. The brief time he isn’t on the receiving end of life’s heavy haymakers is when he is displayed as a mind-reading billionaire, delivering monologues like any old comic-book supervillain. To be good, the show seems to say, one must suffer. Being unwilling to accept life’s hardships sees them piled on others.
The functional purpose of all this is, in large part, to reinforce the importance of David’s sister, Amy, who was reintroduced last week in dire circumstances that didn’t land with any emotional impact because she hadn’t been seen for so long. She appears in almost all the timelines, always sympathetic and understanding, a constant in David’s various realities who consistently cares about her brother’s wellbeing. Did it work as a retroactive fix for last week’s revelation? No, not really, but I appreciate the effort.
Without a scene-stealing Aubrey Plaza to do the dramatic heavy lifting, the responsibility instead falls to Dan Stevens, who thus far has had little cause to portray David in a mode other than sheer bewilderment. Here he’s asked to run the gamut of emotional expression, from twitchy and drugged-up to haggard and fragile, and he does so admirably, aided as always by the show’s wacky pop needle-drops and surreal imagery. It’s an odd effect, seeing what is essentially a traditional acting demo reel bolstered and periodically contorted by experimental cinematography, set décor and costuming, the show’s production and bizarre aesthetic still it’s one constant even as it upends traditional notions of what a 40-minute episode of television could and should be.
All this, and “Chapter 14” still didn’t go anywhere. Rather than moving forwards it shunted backwards and side-to-side, a trippy Cha-Cha Slide, killing time as usual, but in such a creative and enthusiastic way that by episode’s end the whole thing felt like a magic act, deft sleight of hand, keeping your attention here, here and here, because nothing is happening over there. I appreciated the illusion. Now I’d like to see a trick that somehow draws this season of Legion to a satisfying conclusion. Or, let’s be frank, any kind of conclusion at all.