And how does that make you feel?
Legion shifts gears in a major way this week. Gone are the disjointed quick cuts. Gone are the neon, high-saturation colors. Gone are the borderline sloppy dance sequences.
You may be relieved. Perhaps last week’s episode felt too confusing, too chaotic, for your taste. You might be happy to hear that the series is taking time to breathe tonight. A new pace does, however, mean new rules—which results in a bit of stumbling for a series only two entries in.
Time meanders in “Chapter 2.” If the series’ goal is to keep the audience feeling the same level of emotional turmoil as David (Dan Stevens), then this week’s adventure must be the most relaxed he’s ever been. A sleepy, poetic tone that we never really shake opens the episode. It’s unexpected, especially because the plot picks up almost immediately after last week’s explosive escape. David contrasts these visuals with a voiceover more reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald than Michael Bay. A soft, singsong cover of Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” leaves the feeling that, even as we watch the characters’ troubles play out, those troubles are far behind them now. This creates a kind of separation: Watching what once was chaos in close to slow motion disassociates it from reality, even offers a sense of safety. Time itself seems out of joint.
In fact, Summerland seems to exist out of time altogether. The base of operations for Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) and her new evolution of humanity plays like a mental health retreat—a departure from the monuments to child endangerment that are other mutant facilities. (I’m looking at you, Professor X.)
One can’t help but feel that this is meant to reference something mythic. The Isle of Avalon, if you will. In Arthurian myth, this is where the hero is taken to heal after the most turbulent events of his life. Summerland serves this purpose for David. Because if body-swapping with your girlfriend doesn’t count as a turbulent, I’m not sure what does. It really makes you wonder about the therapy bills post-credits in Freaky Friday.
Speaking of therapy, most of the plot of “Chapter 2” deals with David’s repressed memories. Things he’s forgotten. Things he’s labeled as schizophrenic breaks. In a few ominous cases, things that are just gone. This is where the episode’s slower pace is most effective. A few times we get hints that these memories have been altered. Some vital fact is just beyond David’s reach. Working with a slower pace means that scenes can linger on both David’s confusion and other characters’ discomfort with these gaps. There’s gold buried in his memories. There just might be a few dead bodies, too.
Where the slower pace proves less than awesome is when the show returns to last week’s stylistic elements. The impressive visuals are still there. They’re just fewer and farther between. Without last week’s fast tempo to carry them, they feel more like filler than important plot clues: Style for style’s sake.
Compound this with the hit-or-miss nature of this week’s scene transitions. Jumping between the MRI and David’s memories via the light movement is really effective. The summation of plot developments with a few lines of dialogue in the beginning of the next scene? Not so much. It’s rushed. In an episode that purposefully takes its time, this feels like a mistake. Bad prioritizing.
Pacing isn’t the only change tonight. Throwing away last week’s simplicity, the dialogue tries for a bit more sophistication. More subtext is present. Misdirection returns along with a more natural cadence of delivery. For the most part this works, but Stevens and Rachel Keller, who plays Syd, seem to struggle. Ironically enough, their conversations feel oddly stilted now that they have more words to say. For example, during the (yes, very romantic) swing scene, you’ll notice that the first two-thirds of the conversation, while full of facts, doesn’t actually say anything new. Syd’s recollection of her body swap with David simply serves to tell us what “Chapter 1” has already masterfully shown. And the emotional impact Legion tries to create with Syd’s confession that she thinks she killed Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) is completely undercut by the combination of Keller’s delivery and Stevens’ reaction. The editing itself even supports this frustration, however inadvertently, by giving you just enough time to mutter out a cynical “Well, duh” before the conversation picks up again and finally gets to its point.
In the end, everything is a compromise. The series loses none of its quirky charm this week. But the cracks in the form are quite a bit easier to see: It’s great to settle in with the characters more, yet the slower pace means it’s pretty obvious when Legion is purposefully glossing over a detail. “Chapter 2” explores interesting new structural elements, but more often than not they feel flat and overindulgent—it’s those transitions again. David loves his sister, Amy (Katie Aselton), so why not show us the conversation where he argues with Bird that he must save her? Why skip the conflict itself in favor of cinematic flair? The juxtaposition of images is all well and good, but not when it fails to support the rest of the story.
So what, if anything, can we make of tonight’s changeup pitch? First, while it may or may not be your favorite move, slowing down seems absolutely necessary. The series premiere was overwhelming, and definitely focused more on narrative than on character development. (Fair enough, for a first impression.) “Chapter 2” is an attempt to switch gears—rhythmically and thematically. If “Chapter 1” might have been subtitled “Love and Insanity,” “Chapter 2” suggests “Identity and Healing” with its more pastoral affect. And it’s in these moments that episode excels, the introspective supplanting the interpersonal.
Why is this aspect of the episode successful while its style seems to lose coherence? It might have something to do with the postmodern touches in “Chapter 1,” which made Legion’s debut stand apart from just about anything else on television—reminiscent of Danny Boyle or Quentin Tarantino. But, and it’s a big “but,” that particular aesthetic depends on one speed—Lust for Life fast, Trainspotting fast, Pulp Fiction fast. (The films’ speed isn’t simply a mechanism for telling the story, either; it is the story.) Change the pace, though, and you are—like it or not—no longer adhering to the rules by which “Chapter 1” and its influences operate. You have to accept that you’re starting a whole new game, stylistically speaking—a game for which the Legion team, this week at least, seemed less than entirely prepared.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based writer and director, and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website or follow her on Twitter.