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Dangerous minds: ‘Legion’ is the story of how crappy you can get when

As David Haller (Dan Stevens) takes his “memory work” at the Summerland Spa for Gifted Youngsters to a deeper level in “Chapter 3” (Feb. 22), a few things are made perfectly clear:

Nobody, not even Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), has even the slightest inkling of just how powerful David’s mutant capabilities might be: In a stress reaction, he manages to teleport three people through two solid walls, and we see in a memory flashback that his teleportation is nothing new. While it’s mightily impressive, and less destructive than a lot of his other abilities, this underlines the fact that he’s not doing any of these things intentionally — and that’s a big problem.

RELATED: Jean Smart’s Melanie Bird slows ‘Legion’s’ roll & starts making sense

No one can figure out how to control these powers, because the methods are only evolving as quickly as they can: Bird and presumably others like her (her dead — or is he? — husband, for one) are creating a discipline from scratch, with only themselves to understand and iterate upon, and that means an outlier like David isn’t just a threat to the black-ops Division: He’s a problem for everyone, most of all himself.

The other thing that becomes starkly clear — after a particular terrifying trip through David’s memories — is the devastating realization that Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) and Bird may not be able to help David at all: It might already be too late.

dan stevens legion fx gif Dangerous minds: Legion is the story of how crappy you can get when therapys actually working

When The Eye (Mackenzie Gray) describes him as a “god” to his hostage, David’s sister Amy (Katie Asleton), he’s… Not exaggerating. That may be foreign to non-comics folks, or those who don’t expect such flights of fancy from the FX prestige dramas, but he’s talking about almost a general checklist of abilities — definitions of power, of control over the universe — that separate us from higher beings. It’s annoying that every “Superman” story is also a messiah story, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one.

Not that this is a messiah story, by any measure. Amy’s being forced to recognize that her brother has been special for a long time, and that over the years, his powers have only gotten stronger. The meds he was taking at Clockworks helped numb and weaken his powers — giving them, and the darkness inside him, a dark little place to grow — but if left untreated, there’s no telling what he could possibly do, or destroy.

It’s scary enough to imagine a god being used as a weapon — which Bird finally admitted is part of her plan, this week, which was comforting — but a mad god? One with a darkness inside him so specific and evil and overwhelming that it may just be running the whole game? It’s worth remembering of course, that this whole journey started when David and Syd (Rachel Keller) touched: The day Division 3 and Summerland both showed up to take David home, and David’s power massacred an entire medical facility.

Syd is the key that unlocks David, but it’s also crucial, also precious, that she exists separate from him: Not a Manic Pixie or any other kind of Dream Girl, but literally untouchable — beyond his ability to absorb her into his addict’s gravity. As she describes her specific gift, switching bodies with a touch has given her a profound and unshakeable sense of self, identity transcending her mortal human body. It’s something David needs to hear, because mutant or schizophrenic, god or junkie, it’s exactly his body that’s doing him in.

Recognizing our emotions and psychological undertow as aspects of the self separate from what is eternal is the key to any therapeutic process: We are not our emotions any more than David is his reality-bending powers, or any more than the person we are before lunch is the person we are once we’ve eaten. But just like every saint goes crazier and darker the closer they get to transcendence, that therapeutic process of uncovering and analyzing and digesting the darker parts of ourselves creates an equal and opposite pushback, as the equilibrium of the mind tries in panic to reassert and recover itself.

RELATED: ‘Sweet/Vicious’ flashback episode is as beautiful as it is harrowing

That’s why they say every problem began as a solution — and why we fight hardest for the things that hurt us the most, when it comes to this kind of work. If we were conscious of it, we could talk it out and defuse it and eventually harness its power for ourselves — which is why it does its best to stay hidden, so it can continue doing its job of keeping us safe — even long after it’s only hurting us. In Jungian depth psychology, the “unconscious” and “conscious” are just two parts of a whole, and the only difference is very clear:

The unconscious — which is analogous (but not perfectly) to the Freudian “subconscious” — is defined, explicitly, as the things we are not conscious of. It really is that simple. Some things come up from there, and we consciously repress them; other things are so big or hard that we never let them out at all, suppressing them; and the goal of all therapy is to go digging in that unconscious matter for gold, that we can bring into the light. But as David is demonstrating for us, terrifyingly enough: The more valuable the gold, the more brutally it’s defended.

Take that information back over the line, to the genre-comic book nature of the show, and see what it looks like in translation: In order to make pact and peace with his power, in order to assume control over this unasked-for godhood, David will need to go into the dark and find it. And if the most valuable gold is defended by the scariest stuff… What size of dragon, would you say, might a god-amount of gold require?

The frustrating part is, of course, that if someone had nurtured David from the moment he started showing signs of mental illness — or if he was in a world or time where being a mutant was understood or even celebrated — he wouldn’t have pushed anything down so far. There is shame written in every memory he explores with the Summerland faculty, and this is part of it, but we’re still not entirely sure why or where it comes from.

Shame’s a tricky thing, because going after it means it doubles down: Shame is a feeling that says “don’t look at me!” — which is tough to get around, when looking at the thing is the only way to heal it.

Imagine, though, a happy and content omega-level mutant, aware of his abilities and learned in how to use them. In some ways, still a pretty scary thought — godlike power to rearrange the universe requires a godlike intellect free of blemish or bias, which is not something that a person can do and stay human — but not in a uniformly bad way. A god as cute as Dan Stevens, and sweet as David on a good day, doesn’t sound too terrible.

RELATED: Far from ‘Downton’: An unrecognizable Dan Stevens leads ‘Legion’ into elevated territory

But anyway, that’s not what happened: David is bathed and baptized in shame, for a host of reasons we already know and a hell of a lot more he still won’t allow us to see. It’s unclear whether Bird and Ptonomy can ever reverse the damage, considering that David tends to express it outwardly, in real-world damage — if he needs to be broken down and built up (or ripped open stem-to-stern, Eustace Clarence Scrubb-style) there aren’t a lot of options for them to do that.

In the real world, you’re asking for at least another small-scale apocalypse, and doing the work internally, without David’s whole self giving permission — it’s increasingly clear that David can shift and change what memories they see, depending on what could even just be whim — is impossible, because there aren’t any stronger telepaths around that could enforce the boundaries needed for this work: It’s like trying to find a babysitter for that “Twilight Zone” kid that sends you to the cornfield when he’s pissed.

twilight zone its a good life gif Dangerous minds: Legion is the story of how crappy you can get when therapys actually working

And now, too, we’re worried about Syd. While traveling through David’s memories, she discovers that she can touch people without her powers taking over. She is able to give David a hug, hold hands, and not switch brains. The look of pure satisfaction on Syd’s face, the relief to finally enjoy physical contact with someone — well, it’s heartbreaking to watch. None of this is actually real: As Melanie explains, everything she sees and touches is a mock-up.

It is good to embrace the easy parts of the people we love — the soft child, the sweet and quiet. But if Syd’s power is similarly related to or symbolic of her own childhood and history — and her anecdote this week, about her inappropriate relationship with her mother, would suggest that it may be — then it’s also a coping mechanism. What happens when the thing we’re embracing in our lover turns out to be not-so-sweet? Do we hold on through the night while it burns and bites at us — like the shepherd boy-god Aristaeus with shapeshifter Proteus, for one highly appropriate example — or do we… Give in, and let ourselves be eaten? Or do we cut and run?

While on one level it makes sense — an oogy kind of sense, of course; David’s child-self and adult-self both seem to respond to Syd the same way, which is a recipe for dating disaster — we wonder how much agency Syd has, as a character, beyond her meaning to the protagonist. Sometimes you’re Ramona Flowers, other times you’re a Zooey Deschanel character, and it really just depends on who’s writing the story.

But if Syd is deep enough on the page — not just in Keller’s fantastic performance — to start showing her own darkness, this is definitely a place for that darkness to come out: Touch is a positive thing, there is no real downside to spending more and more time in his head, and even the best intentions can’t stop a codependent freight train once it’s left the station. As the second person David’s ever connected with as an adult, besides his drug buddy Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), there’s also a certain duckling-imprinting vibe that will wreck their chances of helping each other to grow and challenge themselves in a healthy relationship.

And of course, if Syd ever hurts his feelings, or breaks up with him, that could get… Bad. Worst case scenario, it’s not even “(500) Days of Summer” we’re dealing with, but a “Ruby Sparks.” Not a manchild trying to get better, like David thinks he is, but a Norman Bates, living on shadows and echoes and dreams — the real woman long, long gone.

dan stevens rachel keller david haller syd barrett legion Dangerous minds: Legion is the story of how crappy you can get when therapys actually working

We’re skeptical whether things will ever work out for David. The moment he has hope for a normal life, it’s quickly stripped away — the deck is stacked, pretty impressively, for both the world to hurt him and for himself to stay weak and afraid. And as of right now, there’s not even a guess at a resolution in sight. After all, the show is about the glimmering back-and-forth of light and dark, heroism and villainy, sweetness and rage. When David is healthy, the show ends, because we don’t want stories about perfection — we want stories about change, we want the journey, we want to go from A to B.

But the reason for that is that stasis isn’t a human quality. Not one person has ever existed, in the whole human or mutant race, that was meant to stay one thing forever — to never change or grow or feel pain or adapt to that pain and get to the next pain as quickly as possible. That’s why this system, of the conscious and the unconscious and their constant battle, picking at each other like siblings on a car ride, evolved: To keep us growing, changing, hurting, healing.

Going down into the dark, and coming up with gold.

“Legion” airs on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.

Category: TelevisionTV Shows: LegionCelebrities: Dan StevensTV Network: FX

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