There are a lot of things we might debate when it comes to Legion, but one thing no one can deny is the audacity of its narrative structure.
I was surprised that after the last episode ended with Cary setting to work to do something in order to enhance Switch’s powers, Episode 3 proceeds immediately to after that something has been done, and takes place almost entirely in the past, focusing on the relationship between Charles Xavier (Harry Lloyd) and Gabrielle (Stephanie Corneliussen).
Time is a Jungle
The narrative is jumbled and nonlinear, giving a concrete form to the line we heard Switch listening to in Episode 1: time is not a river, but a jungle filled with monsters. In other words, it doesn’t flow directly from point A to point B so much as it presents a thicket of difficulties.
Not for nothing, Martin Heidegger—whose most famous work is Being and Time—is name dropped by Charles’ therapist in this episode. However, the most important thing to think about here may not be the line about being born as many and dying as one that is referenced, but Heidegger’s phenomenological account of time more broadly.
Phenomenology is about how things appear, or how they are experienced, and in the first instance brackets metaphysical questions about the ultimate nature of reality. In other words, rather than asking, like Aristotle, “what is Being qua Being?” Heidegger asks what it is like to be-there (Dasein) and articulates various aspects of this experience: being-with, being-towards-death, etc.
The relevant point is that time is precisely not experienced as a flowing succession of now-points; it is always structured with an anticipation of the future, and a relation to the past. Legion seems to take this into its narrative form, as we jump between moments in the lives of Charles and Gabriel in a way that has nothing to do with linear succession, but rather with the resonance of events.
This differs from how we saw Switch time travel in Episode 1, where she straightforwardly went back to a previous time point and played events over again. Also worth noting is that there she was not present twice. She didn’t have to try and avoid the previous version of herself or any of those other tropes we have become familiar with in time travel stories. It was more like she hit rewind and lived through things again.
But the further one goes back, the greater the chance of awakening the demon, according to Switch’s tapes. And perhaps the fact that she is here traveling back to a time before she was born is also relevant. David comes along, but doesn’t take the spot of his infant self (which would have been useless, but also maybe funny). Perhaps this is why he struggles to be corporeal—he’s already there.
To get too caught up on trying to figure out the metaphysics of time Legion is presenting, though, would be to risk missing the point. This is emotional, and about the connection between Charles and Gabrielle, that between each/both and David, and ultimately Amahl Farouk.
What Year is This?
Charles and Gabrielle meet in a mental hospital. It seems to be post–World War II, given the mention of Gabrielle coming from “the camps” and the scene wherein Charles makes an enemy soldier kill himself (which I guess is actually something that happened?).
This would fit well with the ’60s/’70s aesthetic we have seen so far in Season 3, as far the timeline goes, but less well with the fact that the internet has been mentioned in previous seasons, for example. My presumption was always that Legion was taking place in a version of our time—not our reality precisely, of course, but it never struck me as being in the past.
Perhaps this is irrelevant, though, as these stylistic choices seem to have more to do with what the show is trying to say than anything else. We could get caught up on what year it is all day long, but the point is that placing Charles and Gabrielle in a context that is ambiguously post-War serves their characters. They are both survivors of trauma, and thus this cultural touchstone serves its purpose.
To what extent have they recovered, or learned to cope, though? When they leave the mental hospital it would seem to be by the power of Charles manipulating the minds of the staff (to the point where I almost thought on my initial viewing that he was projecting the events into Gabrielle’s head, in line with her previously expressed worry that she was still there). Of course old-timey mental institutions are almost a symbol at this point for ineffective treatment, but the question of their mental health remains. Has Charles helped Gabrielle? Has she helped him? To what extent do they remain broken?
Is Charles Xavier a Good Guy?
We see Charles don a version of Cerebro it looks like he made himself and find Farouk. It’s not clear if he has used the device before, but what is clear is that the event shakes him. Also less than clear is whether Farouk sees him back (I vote yes) and whether it is the appearance of the Devil with the Yellow Eyes that leads Charles to embark to Morocco. The latter seemed to be the case to me, but when Charles calls Gabrielle on the phone later in the episode, he seems shaken to have discovered that he was dealing with a devil. Perhaps he was looking for a friend?
This gets to a question which Legion has raised with a level of nuance that one might not have expected: was Charles Xavier justified in what he did to Farouk? We were told in Season 1 that they fought on the astral plane, and during that season the Shadow King was portrayed straightforwardly as a monster. But then Season 2 humanized him (literally), and we got his side of the story, which cast Charles as an interloping colonialist trying to impose Western values on a culture he did not understand.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. From what we have seen of Farouk (particularly in Season 1), the conclusion that he is evil strikes me as undeniable in a way that no amount of cultural relativism can mitigate. And we see that evil again here, as he holds the baby David in a scene that symbolizes the beginning of his possession of him.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right” is a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. What it does mean is that it is shallow and such a worn-out phrase that we hardly hear its meaning any more. Put it in this context: your trauma doesn’t warrant you in harming others. Farouk may have been wronged by Charles. David may have been wronged by Syd (she did try to kill him after all). But whatever terrible thing has happened to you, it may be an explanation for what you’ve done, but it’s not an excuse.
It’s not entirely clear whether David and Switch are seeing everything we are seeing throughout the episode, as we don’t hear them talking until some 15 minutes in, but what seems clearer to me is that they are getting through to Charles and Gabrielle throughout.
All of those intercut shots of David’s commune, with the music, represent to me instances of his psychic influence across time upon them. They might not know what it is—they may well think it is a dream—but it affects them.
The background history of mental illness is important, here. At one point Gabrielle asks Charles if he hears something, and he says no, so she lets it go. But she hears it. She hears the music from the future. And when she writes Charles saying that she thinks the house is haunted, this becomes all the clearer.
To what extent did David’s presence and its effect on his mother contribute to where all of this led? At the end of the episode, Gabrielle appears to have been shocked into a coma by the apparition of David that appeared to her (plus the events that came before).
We don’t know what happened next, really. We’ve been told that David was given away to the Hallers for his protection, but it seems that his possession by Farouk occurred before that. Does Charles know this? Does he know that the apparition he dispelled was David? Does he blame him for what happened to Gabrielle? (And what did happen to her exactly?) Is he aware that there is a kind of temporal loop that David can’t escape, where he tries to change the past and ends up causing it? Has he just decided that he can’t deal with all of that shit?
Of course, David didn’t cause his possession by the Shadow King. The blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of Farouk and Charles. But I am really curious about Charles. We know who he is in The X-Men, but who is he here, in this show? Where will Legion take this?
At the end of the day, David and Switch fail, and the latter loses another tooth (which I guess is an explanation for that previous tooth…sort of?). David wants to go back and try again, of course, but Switch says they can’t before falling asleep.
This is intriguing. Not that she says they can’t go back again—that tracks with all sorts of time travel logic—but the sleeping and its relation to her claim that they tried to go back too far.
There is a lot of sleeping in this episode, and it is regularly when either Charles or Gabrielle is in bed that the intercutting scenes of David’s commune appear.
Put this together with the time logic I was mentioning above—it’s basically dream logic, moving from one event to another not on the basis of something like a causal connection so much as something like free association.
If time is a jungle, maybe reality is a dream. But, then, who is the dreamer?