Exposition. It’s a dirty word these days, and not without reason. When your episode’s story revolves around characters clarifying plot points, it rarely creates dramatic tension. You know the old adage: “Show, don’t tell.”
But Legion is almost all show. Excessive amounts of show, even. Not really any tell. Seriously, take a second to think about it. I’m sure you’ll have a huge list of questions.
Here are a few of mine: Was Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) ever a real person? What happened to Benny (Kirby Marrow)? Where exactly does Kerry (Amber Midthunder) go when she’s “inside” Cary (Bill Irwin)? How exactly did Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement) get lost in the astral plane? Does Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) have a mutation? What is it? Does Division 3 work for the Untied States government or are they more a shadowy, privately funded mutant-hunting outfit? Do people in this universe know about the X-Men? Avengers? Inhumans? Heck, what year is it?
We can certainly speculate, but with no exposition to give us definite answers, it’s pretty hard to feel like we have a lot of solid facts about the world David (Dan Stevens) and company live in. Well, have no fear, because tonight’s episode takes a definitive step away from the “show” in order to hit the “tell” hard. Like, really hard. Like, with a baseball bat.
Snark aside, it’s not that we couldn’t use a bit of a pause. Legion’s plot can be confusing at the best of times, so slowing down for a moment isn’t the worst idea. Unfortunately, as in “Chapter 6,” the series struggles when the narrative separates itself from David.
The first three acts of “Chapter 7” focus almost exclusively on exposition. A scene between Oliver and Cary sums up what’s been happening to our heroes for the previous two episodes. It’s not particularly smooth as far as plot rehashes go. There are a few interesting character moments—Oliver’s confusion as to Melanie’s identity and insistence that he and David are starting a barbershop quartet are particularly charming—but overall, the scene feels like a network note: “Hey the plot’s getting a bit confusing. Can we have a scene where Oliver brings Cary to the astral plane to go over everything that’s happened so far? We’re not saying you need to add a “previously on” montage, but as close to that as you can get would be great.”
Even this is still forgivable. It’s an unfortunate necessity when big ensembles split off into separate story lines—sometimes you’ll need to show us how everyone learns about important plot details—and the conversation does do a good job of clarifying some plot points that may have been difficult to follow. There’s even a pretty big reveal, though it’s mentioned so casually as to feel completely unimportant. Honestly, if anything in this conversation actually needs more explanation, it’s that moment. (You won’t get it, by the way.)
Where this begins to feel completely unnecessary is, rather pathetically, in the very next scene. There’s a certain cleverness in the game they play here. Cary awakes Syd (Rachel Keller) from the evil cricket headphones and leads her to a soundproof tube—in the astral plane, of course—so they can discuss what’s been happening. It’s a nice nod to Syd’s intelligence that even as Cary tries to rehash the earlier exposition, Syd keeps interrupting him to announce that she has already figured this out.
Clever, but unnecessary: If Syd already knows what’s going on, let’s just skip it, huh? It was pretty clear she had already figured all this out last week. The scene is so repetitive that there’s even a mention of the previous scene’s big reveal. And, as if the writer’s are just begging me to throw something at the TV, Syd’s desire for more information about this is waved away with an “Eh, it’s not that important.”
This brings us to the third act, which is kind of a shame. From here on out, Legion gets so much right it’s truly impressive—even, believe it or not, the exposition.
Yes, it may be a dirty word. It may be the black hole of plot development, but that doesn’t mean exposition isn’t necessary. Or that it can’t be done well. To wit, David is trapped in a coffin. Well, not really a coffin, as his rational mind—which has a British accent—will remind him. Beyond the awesomeness that is Dan Stevens working in his own accent, a scene in which this David speaks to a more rational David serves as a great visual as he puzzles out the events of the series so far. Yes, the script then proceeds to recapitulate the information we learned earlier in the episode for the third time. But now there’s an emotional impact. This information means more to David than to the other characters.
It’s particularly impactful to watch him relive his own mythology as he and Rational David go over his past, looking for a way to escape. There is also a really cool stylistic use of animation as each clue acts itself out against a classroom chalkboard—kind of a perfect metaphor for learning and (self-) discovery.
From here, “Chapter 7” really starts to move. Loose ends are tied up, new conflicts arise organically, and a few more spoiler-worthy plot points are revealed. There’s also a whole new set of style elements introduced, to interesting (if not outright awesome) effect. It’s a great turnaround from last week’s flat, disconnected feel: A fun and enlightening romp through David’s physical and metaphysical life.
But therein lies the key. This episode works best, exposition included, when focusing on David. Whenever it gets too far away from our hero, the cohesion starts to fall apart. The emotional impact of what we are watching, the empathy we feel for the other characters, seems to pale in comparison to the story we have with David at the center. With so much of the series working to create sympathy and connection with David, I’m left with one more question: What are we meant to feel when David’s not around? Because, right now, Legion’s answer seems to be “nothing.”
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.