Legion: This Is Not Television as Usual

(Episode 1.03)

TV Reviews Legion
Legion: This Is Not Television as Usual

“We’re more than just this.”

The nature of the soul isn’t usual thematic fare for comic book-inspired TV series, but Legion, if you haven’t noticed, isn’t usual in any way. Body swapping, schizophrenia, giant papier-mâché heads and true love don’t come together too often, and joining such desperate elements can be tricky. It’s no wonder, then, that Legion’s voice is becoming a bit inconsistent.

This week, we move even further from the tone set in the series premiere. Gone are the fast pace and quick edits. While bold imagery still features prominently in Legion, the way it’s used and the meaning behind it have evolved. Michael Uppendahl, who directed both tonight’s episode and “Chapter 2,” opts for a smoother, more traditionally cinematic approach. The slow-down is evident and, especially as the series examines more philosophical concepts, necessary. Still, it leaves you with the feeling that Legion can’t quite settle on a style.

That’s not to say that this change is bad. This week’s episode streamlines a lot of last week’s stylistic rough spots, and brings new elements to the table that integrate much more seamlessly with Uppendahl’s measured pace. Where the “Chapter 1” drew attention to David’s (Dan Stevens) mental state with its rapid-fire editing, “Chapter 3” is much more focused on creating a particular mood for the viewer: Its sense of unease seems an extension of the characters’ collective concerns, rather than David’s, specifically.

To achieve this, Legion deploys an abundance of camera movement— you’ll notice that only a handful of shots are stationary, and many favor the pull in, zoom out technique made famous in Jaws in particular. That feeling of disquiet you have watching “Chapter 3” isn’t just in your head. The camera’s constant movement makes it hard for the eye to focus, so even calm scenes carry tension. Take Syd (Rachel Keller) and David’s conversation at the lake: It’s one of the episode’s quieter moments, but the mobile camera suggests that we shouldn’t accept what either character says at face value, that some danger lurks behind Syd’s blasé retelling of her childhood.

“Chapter 3” also uses the composition of its images—not simply what’s in the frame, but also how it’s laid out—to highlight the theme of self-awareness, as the characters speed up their attempts to explore David’s memories and access his powers. When mounting pressure to save Amy (Katie Aselton) means pushing David harder, Syd wants to join in on his memory therapy. David’s attempts to dissuade her ultimately lead to the bathroom scene pictured above. David has only marginally more knowledge of his own psychology than Syd, but even that little bit of insight grants him a seat in the light, whereas Syd sits around the corner, in the dark. Even if you don’t read much meaning into this moment, it still makes for a beautiful shot, though Legion, for better or worse, is not the kind of TV series you can half watch. If you do, you’ll miss most of what’s going on.

At first glance, for instance, the coffee machine’s recitation of the story of the poor woodcutter may seem to be no more than foreshadowing, a hint that the person telling the story is important to Melanie Bird (Jean Smart). But there’s actually a deeper meaning: By juxtaposing the narrative with images of the cast, including a particularly confusing series of shots in which David and Syd are used interchangeably, the episode prepares us for Syd’s later revelations about the nature of the soul: “We’re more than just this.” We are not only our bodies. In fact, we aren’t our bodies at all.

These new stylistic elements take us farther away from David’s mental state, but not too far—the structure of the images supplants their quantity. But why should Legion care that we understand we’re not our bodies?

The answer is tension. Fear. Because if we aren’t our bodies, if we aren’t only the physical, what are we? If all we have is the soul, what makes a soul? There’s real danger lurking in Legion’s plot points, dialogue, and imagery, and it isn’t just yellow-eyed demons or angry boys with papier-mâché heads. Legion asks us to consider existence on a larger scale—where a memory can very much hurt us, or maybe what we think is a memory isn’t. The series has depth and, dare I say it, soul. It’s not television as usual. Not television as usual at all.

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.

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