Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived in a castle of breached walls. Sometimes she lived there with her mother, and sometimes she lived there alone. One day she met a boy who had also grown up in an invaded castle, and she fell in love with him. They built new castles together, until the day he destroyed her mind.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who was born into a green world. The man who would become her father found her in a field. He carried her home to the woman who would become her mother, and they raised her with wonder and kindness, until the day she undertook a quest to save the world.
Once upon a time, there was the person Syd was, and once upon another time, there was the person Syd learned to become. This is the story of that other time.
It begins in an idyll, among grassy knolls awash in sunshine. A familiar voice tells us he is always finding things. The astral plane draws the lost and forgotten and mislaid; it’s “a magnet for lost dreams.” Oliver Bird peers into a basket and greets an infant who has not yet learned how to be afraid. For what is the mind but a dream of consciousness? He lays her basket in his Radio Flyer and pulls her home.
There are no castles or princes in this story, but it’s not romance that makes fairy tales; it’s danger. This bucolic world’s menace greets Oliver just outside his cottage. He is wearing an ascot and a top hat and a man’s face, but he is the Big Bad Wolf. Beneath his proper façade seethes a hunger you might recognize from any watering hole on the savannah or in the city, a hunger that glows incandescent when Oliver says he’s found a baby. Unlike her husband, Melanie Bird wastes no time trying to reason with the Big Bad Wolf. He howls unconvincing defiance when she shoos him away.
Later that evening, Melanie ladles out soup and wonders what they should call the child. Oliver says the infant told him her name was Sydney – but being an infant, she was unable to tell him anything else. Melanie turns the name over: Sydney. Syd. The child looks so familiar, but she just can’t place her. Little Sydney.
That night the wolf returns accompanied by a young woman, a brittle porcelain shadow who does not quite meet your eyes. “This is Cynthia,” he says by way of introduction, after he knocks by way of trying to blow the cottage down. “She’s lost all hope. Isn’t that great?” The Wolf incarnates the darkest tendencies of the Real World. Like many real-world predators, he collects the hopeless like trinkets. Melanie banishes him again but invites the pale apparition in for soup. So Cynthia joins their little household, and Melanie and Oliver rear their little bird.
As though aware of the tropes that govern their story, neither Oliver nor Melanie forbid Syd any knowledge. They manage to guard her against the depredations of the real world without denying her knowledge of the truth. When she demands to know why she shouldn’t walk in a particular direction, Oliver shows her the grimy City steaming at their world’s edge. Melanie tells her a bedtime story about the difficulty and necessity of empathy, of being aware of the suffering of others without letting it engulf you. The Birds’ openness inoculates Syd against the Wolf’s early attempts to lure her into disillusionment or worse. But as the days melt into years, they can’t protect Syd from her dreams. When the specter of the real howls over their cottage, the child clutches her doll and whimpers “no, no, no.”
One night, during one of these dreams, Cynthia slips away. The wolf meets her at the gate and entices her away with bad memories, empty promises, warped love, and a small clear bag. He tells Cynthia that the man who beat her loved her. He dredges her memory of the mother who tucked her in, her sickness still caked in her hair. Brutality, negligence, intoxication: What is the real but the familiar? We follow what we know, treading and retreading familiar paths until we learn to walk away or we die.
The Bird family shares a somber breakfast the following morning, their eyes flickering toward the empty seat at the kitchen table. Soon after that, Melanie gives Syd The Talk, explaining chlamydia with admirable equanimity. (Viewers who survived Catholic school may have been shocked to hear an STI explained without apocalyptic rhetoric.) In spite of her parents’ steady affection, Syd can’t bring herself to speak of her nightmares. Nevertheless, Melanie recognizes that Syd is dreaming her memories. She frets that she will return “if she feels unresolved.” Oliver tries to reassure her: There was no world before this one. To what would Syd return?
The wolf blows the roof off. Time to move.
In a voice-over, Oliver describes the trip their flight before knowledge “from the woods to the gutter.” The “gutter” is a dim but neat basement flat in an approximation of Dickensian London. Oliver scavenges and Melanie sweeps, both still trying to stay far enough ahead of the real world for Syd to grow up safely. Oliver tells her that they tried to give her the wildness and safety and love a child needs to grow into the strength to face the future. But he can’t tell her everything until the day she encounters an old friend.
It happens on the street, when a voice warns her not to touch a beating heart abandoned on the sidewalk. When Syd looks up, who should she see but her old friend, looking – and sounding – even more worn than when she first accepted Melanie’s proffered soup. Cynthia’s sentences trail off as though she has forgotten how to form thoughts. She introduces her children, two dissolute creatures who offer Syd choke chains and vodka, before telling Syd she lives just down that slimy alley. With him. Jerome. Horror rises in Syd’s eyes as she realizes that Cynthia left the shelter of their family to run off with the big bad wolf.
The idea that the real world can mean choosing what will unravel you breaks Syd’s heart. Syd can understand how all life must pass into death, but she cannot understand choosing the arrested half-life Cynthia has embraced. The encounter shakes her resolve to go out into the real world. Gently, Melanie breaks the truth to her: “We’re not trying to protect you from the real world. We’re helping you be the person the world needs so you can save it.”
When Syd declares they have to save Cynthia, Melanie and Oliver recognize their work is nearly done. Oliver and Syd capture Cynthia and load her into the Radio Flyer, another piece of lovingly scavenged cargo. When they pull the bag off her head, she snaps and growls like a captured animal. When Syd tries to convince her friend that she deserves to be loved, Cynthia looks almost touched by her earnestness – until a howl cuts through the night. The wolf has their scent. It doesn’t matter now. He’s coming.
Oliver intercepts Jerome before he reaches their flat and challenges him to… a rap battle. At least 50% of Chapter 25’s viewers will disagree, but what follows is the weakest part of the episode. On re-watch, it felt slightly less cheesy but still too ambitious for the era of Epic Rap Battles of History. That it comes close at all is due entirely to Jerome’s relish as the he hurls unsavory metaphors against Oliver’s uncharismatic confidence.
I’m no student of rap battles, but Oliver doesn’t win by wordplay. His killing blow is a truth. The wolf is running from himself, and he quails when Oliver holds up a lyrical mirror: Outed as an unloved and unlovable monster who preys on the vulnerable for a semblance of affection, Jerome’s lip trembles. His eyes water. And Cynthia sweeps in to comfort him. She thanks Oliver for the Birds’ care, but she and the wolf belong together. The wolf sneers victoriously as Cynthia pulls him away. His hurt may have been real, but he just used it to get her back. Cynthia recedes into familiar shadows, and Oliver observes her choice with the pained resignation of one who has lost such battles before.
Syd is dismayed when Oliver returns without Cynthia, and Melanie delivers the final lesson of Syd’s second childhood: Not everyone wants to be saved, but you still have to try. Then Melanie recognizes Oliver’s getup, and he snaps her back to the outfit she was wearing during their ice cube interlude in Chapter 19. It’s time for them to go, and time for Syd to go back. Oliver touches her face, and Syd is her adult self. Recognition dawns in her eyes. “It’s not us or them.” Melanie tells her. “It’s us and them. You can do this. Just remember everything we taught you.” The fairy tale ends, and the child re-enters the world with the knowledge she needs to save it.
Syd finds her body slumped where David left her. The Manson girls are still dead. She Violet Baudelaires her hair and searches for survivors. On the bridge, Mainframe!Ptonomy and the Vermilion remain in their bunker, but Syd finds Switch’s last time gate. It grows and spins and shrinks but will not close. Down the hall, she finds Cary and Kerry speaking quietly about losses while the former bandages the latter’s wounds. Cary notices that she’s different, but there’s no time to explain who parented her in the last sixteen years (or twenty minutes). He needs to make them the same wristbands that allowed David to travel with Switch. They need to enter the gate.
Syd asks Cary why the gate won’t close, but he has no good news: It can only mean more Time Eaters. Kerry calls Cary aside. She needs to protect them, and she can’t. Cary hesitates, but they both know she’s right even though her injuries might kill him. Cary pulls up a wheelchair. Now it’s Kerry’s turn to hesitate and Cary’s turn to insist. This is the only way. He opens his arms. “Come home,” he says, and she does. Cary collapses into the wheelchair as Kerry’s injuries blossom out across his body. Blood trickles from one nostril. Cary groans with pain, and Kerry seems reluctant to re-emerge.
There is an inhuman giggle and a telltale tick-tock. A Time Eater is creeping up behind Syd. Another flickers from behind Kerry. If they’re going to get out, they have to go now. Syd launches herself through the gate. Kerry pushes Cary in, kicks the Time Eater at her heels, and runs through the gate herself. The Time Eater does not follow, or the gate closes. She kneels beside her bleeding twin, eyes fixed with determination. Never mind what Cary said earlier about them having lost. They are going to win.
This is the second episode dedicated to Syd’s childhood. In the first, Syd built a labyrinth of her memories. She was the fire that warmed herself before she consented to be born. She rejected her mother’s love (and need) and learned the uses of her power: how to hurt, how to be hurt, how to be normal when you’re one of a kind. She embraced a self-sufficiency verging on isolation, exhorting David to understand that “Love will not save us. Love is what we have to save.”
This time, Syd arrived at her infancy in the astral plane. She didn’t seem to need anyone, and she was found by people who also didn’t need anyone. They took her in because she was vulnerable but they didn’t ask more of her than she was comfortable giving. They taught her about the wholeness of the world, life and death and beauty and hurt. They created a space in which she could grow independent but interconnected. She was not vulnerable to wolves in this childhood, because this time she knew how to feel safe. She learned how to feel for others without becoming them.
In this season of intricate callbacks, Chapter 25 has been one of my favorites. It was refreshing to get away from David’s perspective, for Legion to look forward into stopping David instead of backward into undoing the past. I don’t know what Syd is planning to do, but whether it works or not I think it will have been the world’s last best chance.
- “The astral plane was like a magnet for lost dreams.”
- “If you want a baby, you can scavenge one yourself.”
- “But it’s a hard thing for a little girl to share the feelings of others, and she started to wonder: ‘Where do they end and I begin?’”
- “The secret of life: If you feel safe when you’re young, you’ll feel safe when you’re old.”
- “We have to learn about love before we learn about hate. Otherwise everything goes to hell.”
- “You got this backwards. We’re not trying to protect you from the real world. We’re helping you be the person the world needs so you can save it.”
- “You can’t beat me. I’m a wild animal.”
- “Stop fighting!”
“That’s like me saying ‘stop nerding.’”
ODD & ENDS
- It’s probably just a pun on their name, but Oliver and Melanie call Syd “little bird.”
- Oliver wears unobtrusive earth tones, but Melanie wears maternal green and fairy tale Syd always wears Riding Hood red.
- It’s interesting that although Oliver still wants to chat with the predator of the real world and Melanie wants nothing to do with him, she’s concerned about the likelihood Syd will leave and he denies the world before the fairy tale.
- So… Oliver and Melanie aren’t going to help Syd save the world? Sending your progeny out of the nest is good parenting and all, but shouldn’t near-certain apocalypse be an all-hands-on-deck situation?