(Some light spoilers ahead for the Feb. 22 episode of the FX original series “Legion.”)
“Legion” opens with something of a strange moment in its third episode. It finds Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) talking to her robotic coffeemaker. While she’s waiting for the machine to finish her brew, it offers to tell her “the story of the poor woodcutter and his wife.”
Dr. Bird listens to the tale more than once. The moment is important for a couple of reasons. First, it gives viewers some insight into Dr. Bird as she pours out her coffee so she has an excuse to listen to the story again. Second, the tale seems like it might be a meaningful thematic addition to “Legion” that viewers will want to keep in mind for later.
First, some background: the story the coffeemaker tells is “Tsuru no Ongaeshi,” or “The Grateful Crane.” It’s a Japanese folktale that has multiple versions, but they’re all pretty close to the story the coffeemaker recites to Dr. Bird. In the folktale, a poor woodcutter or farmer lives with his wife. They’re not well off, but they’re happy. One day, the woodcutter and his wife discover a crane in a trap. He takes pity on the bird and releases it, and it flies away.
A few days later on a snowy night, a girl appears at the home of the woodcutter and his wife. She asks if she can stay. The couple agrees, and one night turns into days, until eventually the girl asks to stay with the couple. They agree, having come to love the girl as a daughter. In return, she offers to make them clothes they can sell. She weaves them incredible cloth that fetches a high price. But, the girl says, the couple can never watch her work.
The couple becomes rich selling the girl’s clothes. One day, they steal a peek through the door at the girl working. They discover the girl was the crane the woodcutter freed all those years ago. But the moment her secret is discovered, the crane — and the couple’s daughter — flies away forever.
It’s a tragic story, with a number of variations. Often the crane is making the clothes from her own feathers, and sometimes doing so is making her sick. In other versions, the crane becomes the man’s wife. But the ending, one of not knowing what you have until you’ve lost it, is the same.
The addition of the folk tale adds some character to Dr. Bird, who viewers so far haven’t learned much about. We find out in Episode 3 that she’s lost her husband (Jemaine Clement), and that, in fact, the recorded voice used throughout the Summerland facility is his. When Dr. Bird stand in front of the coffeemaker listening to the story of the poor woodcutter and his wife over and over, she’s listening to her departed husband’s voice. It’s not unlike the tragic story of the crane, in fact.
It seems certain the story of the crane is more relevant to “Legion” than is immediately clear. It informs the character of Dr. Bird, but it’s also a fable about the importance of keeping promises and being thankful for what you have. Though Episode 3 doesn’t necessarily conjure up a clear meaning for the story of the crane as it relates to David (Dan Stevens), it’s very likely the tale will come up again in the future.