It is hard, as a woman, to be wholly knowable. We are bodies of locked doors, of spiraling caves, of dead ends. Not by accident, but by practice. And sometimes, for the more burdened of us, getting inside means playing a game. If you can’t crack the code, entry is barred. You can enjoy our scraps, but the feast is canceled.
There is the question, when it comes to media, if women characters operate under these conditions are merely flimsy cardboard renditions of the female experience. Male creators project, and have thusly created an entire trope of misbegotten, alien paper dolls: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. These fictional women are spontaneous, sexually available, mystically enlightened. They aren’t real, but occupy some sanctimonious space of the male imagination. Nevertheless, they persist.
For a while, it looked like Legion‘s Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) might be one of these fairy tale girls. She is beautiful, distant, quirky, shelled. She loves our troubled protagonist (soon-to-be antagonist?) David Haller (Dan Stevens) for almost no reason at all and with no substantial build up. “He’s my guy,” she says every time someone questions her devotion. The only emotional link between the two is a shared history of mutant trauma: he is a schizophrenic psychic with wild, uncontrollable power, and she can’t touch people without switching bodies with them. It’s a classic couple conundrum in the vein of Pushing Daisies, a story of lovers who can’t share physical contact without enormous personal cost. But the construct hasn’t served Syd well. She comes off passive and detached, and her love feels shallow. In season one, she functioned as a prize for David, some pretty thing he got back after traipsing through the dark tunnels of his psyche.
But there’s always been something fascinating about Syd, a buried story begging to come out. And finally, with the beautifully repetitive and incisive “Chapter 12,” we got a deeper peek at her traumatic and lonely life before David, starting with her literal birth.
This sort of over-the-top visual scheme might nag in other programs, but there is something touching and intimate about how it connects Syd both with David, the audience, and her single mother (Lily Rabe). Syd emerges from some other realm where she lives in iglooed confinement, symbolic of the cold and distant life she is about to endure. There is no laborious explanation for why she was born mutant, or when she first found out; no cloying dialogues between mother and daughter, no insights from anyone around her. Instead, we see her loneliness in a Bon Iver-scored opening montage: a little girl peering at her goldfish through a glass bowl, and then, a bit older, reading Rick Moody’s The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven–a novella about the aching detachment of adolescence–with gloved fingers, admiring her mother across the room.
David is observing her this way, the history of her life, from a young child to the woman he’s come to love. They discuss the nature of these mental loops in a special museum room, where an exhibit of Egon Schiele paintings serve as tantalizing clues into Syd’s interiority. Together they look at Schiele’s Self-Portrait.
David: “You like this painting?”
Syd: “You don’t?”
David: “Well, it’s –”
Syd: “It’s what?”
David: “Well, it’s trapped in that negative space. No feet, no hands. Mouth covered. No way to communicate or connect. It’s –”
We don’t know exactly why we’re here or what we’re looking at, but that doesn’t matter. For the first time arguably ever, Legion has made impressive use of its chaotic visual storytelling. Here, it functions not as obfuscation, but as a window into Syd’s internal anxieties. It is the opposite of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl story. Here, a woman is offering her darkest secrets, her deepest fears, in the hope that the man she wants to love– that says she loves, without real conviction but because she hopes it could be real–might puzzle her out, and might love her both despite of and because of the dark corners of her soul.
Narratively and visually, the episode is reminiscent of Michel Gondry‘s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And that’s not coincidental: Ellen Kuras, the cinematographer on that 2004 film, directed “Chapter 12.” She infuses it with the same sort of intimate purpose. Just like Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet explored each other’s cavernous pasts and all of the ugly things they hid during their relationship, “Chapter 12” is about exposure by way of characterization. Syd shows David the early traumas of her unwanted powers: the schoolyard bullying, the lonely and distressing way she lost her virginity, her hospitalization for anti-social personality disorder, and how she self-harmed with scissors.
By episode’s end, David and Syd finally crack the code together. They understand what they mean to each other. This is no longer the hollow love story we’ve been forced to endure. It’s two characters who are finally fully exposed, who have challenged the nature of their pairing and are ready to move forward together. As Syd explains, “Love isn’t going to save us. It’s what we have to save.”