In the arena of corporate superhero pop defined by The CW’s Arrowverse of fantastical melodramas and Netflix’s vigilante noir Marvel shows, FX’s Legion was heady art rock, prog and glam, and a challenge to the field to reach for something all-new, all-different. The wild side project of Fargo’s Noah Hawley, a sparking dynamo of ingenuity, was an electrifying cover of deep cut X-Men, producing a season that played like a 21st century concept album about an angry alienated mod, yearning for connection in a maddening post-modern world. It had sensational style to spare. But was there enough substance?
Legion’s premises trolled its genre and toyed with conventions. The chosen one, David Haller (Dan Stevens), a mutant with multiple world-breaking abilities, was also a schizophrenic — a mental illness that tends to precipitate “chosen one” delusions. His big bad was also his personal demon, which possessed him like an actual demon: It/he/she was a disembodied consciousness of another mutant, Amahl Farouk, that had lodged in his brain at birth like a parasite, feeding, biding time, nurturing conditions for an eventual takeover. David’s quest took him out of his ordinary world – a mental institution, Clockworks, a Kubrickian cuckoo’s nest – but mostly ventured inward: One of Hawley’s gutsiest gambits was to reinvent and earn the “it’s all taking place inside someone’s head” cliché, and for the most part, he succeeded. The supporting players weren’t figments of his imagination or fragments of his shattered personality, thank god. They were real people, drawn into a dangerous mind David could barely control, and his solipsism frequently threatened their very identity.
The theme of psychic terrorism – teased by the show’s Biblically-appropriated title (see: Mark 5:9) — was the license for Legion’s gonzo surrealism and flights of fancy. A shape-shifting shade straight outta Jung that dubbed itself The Shadow King, Farouk presented to David as a predatory monster — a smirking corpulent cone-head of personified jaundice, and a few other things, too, including a black-and-white children’s books character called “The World’s Angriest Boy in the World” (and an unseen parent reading said book to David’s inner child), and a barking dog. (Legion – one more show that owes a debt to the soon-to-return Twin Peaks – had a lot of David Lynch encoded in its DNA, including his old comic strip, “The Angriest Dog In The World.”) Like all devils, Farouk worked to make David crude, cynical, incapable of love. He kept him ignorant in a labyrinth of confabulated memories, numbed him with a haze of addictions, seduced or bullied or spooked him into an unexamined life. Farouk’s most sinister face — played by Aubrey Plaza in a blazingly dynamic performance — presented as his BFF. Manic and vulgar, cunning and clever, Lenny Busker was a poisonous black kiss, enabler to his most self-destructive desires. Over time, she came to represent Farouk in total. Makeup made her look like the bride of Beetlejuice, but it was Plaza’s weaponized charisma that made her magical and scary. She was Legion’s MVP.
In my review of Legion’s first three episodes, I saw David’s blurry-faced, blurry-eyed malady as an allegory for gas-lighting and “fake news” distortions. It expands a growing category of shows (Mr. Robot, Westworld) that captures the uncanny qualities of being hyper-mediated people juggling multiple identities while traversing multiple social mediums, virtual and otherwise, not to mention the epistemological crisis of the Trump era. One of the season’s key symbols: spectacles that allowed wearers to see through Lenny’s bulls–t. Someone needs to mass market those things, ASAP.
But Lenny stands for any bad idea that gets into your head and grows wrongheadedness. I saw her as a symbol of pop junkie excess and media-nourished narcissism. She started the season as David’s Beats-wearing sidekick, blocking out the world with her tunes. When she hijacked his mind, she turned his internal world into a cinematic joke, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in which she kept David and his friends comfortably numb and while keeping in line with a Nurse Ratched and some zombie orderlies. Like the rest of us, or maybe just me, she was the star of her own private musical, dancing through the private corners of David’s mind to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” stalking the corridors as a monster from a silent horror movie set to “Bolero.” The sicko was bad for mental health, but made for great television.
For most of the season, David’s cryptic living nightmare was a mystery for him to recognize and decode and for the audience to theorize and solve, making Legion another trendy bit of puzzle box TV. Some generic paramilitary mutant hunters fronted by a spooky man with a cloudy eye provided traditional antagonism, but the stakes were intimate, not global. The story was part rehab mission, about a guy trying to get a monkey off his back, part bizarre love triangle, with Lenny’s relationship with David threatened by good girl Syd (Rachel Keller), another mutant whose powers have been misdiagnosed as mental illness: With a touch or a swap of spit, she could trade consciousness with anyone. It made making out a somewhat fraught experience, but David engineered some lovely workarounds, holding hands via a link of sash, smooching via window reflections, having sex via telepathic rapport in a fantasy suite on the astral plane.
David and Syd found community and increasing degrees of enlightenment in the company of Legion’s surrogate X-Men, a mutant liberation group run by psychic therapist Melanie Bird (Jean Smart). Her idyllic headquarters, Summerland, was a school for gifted youngsters re-imagined as a counter-culture commune-cum-Scientology retreat center. Here, David tuned into his true self and tried to tune out The Shadow King, and in the end, he got clear, but at some cost. In the finale, Lenny dumped David for Melanie’s strange, estranged husband, Oliver, played by Jermaine Clement in a wry spoof of a swinging sixties playboy libertine — Hugh Hefner with a splash of Austin Powers. He was also a cautionary tale about the cost of staying divorced from reality. His psychic self had spent the better part of three decades chilling in a giant ice cube in the negative zone of the collective unconscious, growing zany and losing memory, while his body remained frozen inside an old diving suit dubbed “Jules Verne.” Legion was not a show hurting for ideas.
Legion’s Summerland set warmed up what could have been a too-chilly show with heart and humor. They represented a symposium that interrogated notions about love, specifically the notion of a better half, and that it takes two to make a person whole and right. The most high-concept couple made this literal: Cary (Bill Irwin), Summerland’s nerdy chief technology officer, hosted a fully realized Other named Kerry (Amber Midthunder) – younger, female, and kick-ass in personality – with whom he had a symbiotic relationship. The sweetest moments came when Cary would ask Kerry for re-connection by pressing his fingertips together, like a needy child signing for more. Melanie was driven by a desire to re-animate and reunite with her flighty husband; He couldn’t even remember her when his mind reconciled with his body, and when he finally did, he fell prey to Lenny. The David-Syd romance reached a dead-end, for now, when David realized that getting free of Lenny left him with an identity crisis. Who is he without his phantom? Is he still mentally ill? How can he know for sure? Can he possibly give and receive love in such flux?
Legion was consistently vibrant in the first half of its season but hit-and-miss in the second. The show wrote itself into a corner with its own WTH? boldness. The widely praised episode 7 was a very necessary Mr. Explainer outing that spelled out everything with lots of exposition, but Hawley and company made every line a gem and every scene massively entertaining. David was educated about his origins by his rational self, played by Dan Stevens speaking with his native English accent, wink-wink, and chalkboard animation schooled us in the show’s mythology. (David, it turns out, is the son the X-Men founder Charles Xavier. Farouk became a disembodied consciousness after losing a psychic battle with Professor X.) Awesome? Yes. But where was Rationale David earlier in the season?
Still, Legion didn’t known how to bring its hot mess of elements to a proper, climactic boil. Episode 7 primed us for peak audacity in the finale, a sensational psychic battle between David and Lenny for control of David’s mind and body. But the capper disappointed by being surprisingly conventional in plot and form, give or take a few subversions. For the first and only time in the season, Legion felt like a generic sci-fi superhero show. Exorcising Lenny should have been a true character struggle and another brilliant set-piece. Instead, David’s salvation hinged on magic MRI machines and brainwave-sucking EM vortexes. He and Lenny exchanged some defiant words and engaged briefly in some sweaty, red-faced neck-wringing, but that was it. Everyone stood around either watching or worrying about whether David would survive the physical trauma of Cary’s gizmos. We deserved a more imaginative depiction of the threat David’s persona and his relationship with Syd. Her choice to sacrifice her own identity to take Lenny into her? Powerful. But predictable. And it didn’t last long or matter much. Lenny exited her quickly, hopped into someone else, then ultimately found a getaway vehicle in the form of Oliver. (Which felt correct. Oliver’s mind was vulnerable, his character weak. He’s totally the kind of guy who’d run off with a young hussy in a midlife crisis roadster.)
The (understandable) emphasis on David meant that the Summerland crew got short-changed (Jeremie Harris’ Ptonomy kinda disappeared in the last two eps); Hawley needs to invest more time in them in general next season. I’m not sure Legion reached any powerful conclusions about love or relationships or community, other than to affirm that those things are important. Duly noted. Interesting ideas were set up, then abandoned, subverted or tabled. A character not seen since the premiere – The Interrogator (Hamish Linklater), an agent of Division Three, who was scorched badly during Team Bird’s violent extraction of David — returned in the finale to provide a (brief) force of antagonism. With his Two-Face visage, he was a clever mockery of the dark knight archetype, burned by life and now fueled by vengeance. I like The Interrogator a lot. In a fantastic prologue, the disfigured dude was quickly humanized and fleshed out – he was married to a man and fellow colleague; he adopted a black son. But it was also an elaborate set-up for a joke designed to take a pin to huffy, puffy model of dark knight heroism. With a flick, David effortlessly neutralized his army, rendering him powerless. “S–t,” he deadpanned. His decision to join forces with Bird was explained almost in passing, as everything started going to hell. We were asked to believe that he cared about David more than he feared and hated him, because… he could identify with him as a feared and hated other? Whatever moved him, it wasn’t earned.
David – perhaps due to Lenny’s dwindling influence — suddenly embraced a philosophy of must-we-fight? peaceful coexistence. This certainly honors the original sixties-era civil rights allegory of the X-Men, but the turn felt forced. (That said, I’d like to see where this goes. Can a superhero fantasy –especially one that promotes give-peace-a-chance/can’t-we-all-just-get-along? messages — be something else than spectacular fights and never-ending conflicts? Legion actually spent a lot of season testing that question; may it continue in season 2.) The most important development wasn’t technically part of the finale: In a post-credit sequence, we saw a drone descend on Summerland, beam David aboard, and whisk him away to parts unknown. Okay. Honestly, my favorite part of the finale was the song that played over the credits, T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.” Great song, and so on-point with the X-Men, but it deserved an episode with more renegade creativity, like the ones before it.
The grace I’ll give the finale is that it really wasn’t a finale — it was a pilot for season 2. (There’s part of me that wishes Legion was a one-and-done limited series. The season would have been a stronger, more striking piece of work, like The Singing Detective of superhero shows. Please, investigate The Singing Detective if the reference throws you.) We can imagine the shape of things to come. Lenny-possessed Oliver will be hunting Xavier; Team Bird will be tracking down David, who will be trying to survive or escape whoever has him. X-Men fans will have theories (Shi’ar? Arcade? Mastermind of the Hellfire Club?), but Xavier is the most elegant solution, because that would mean all stories would converge on him and continue to excavate David. There’s more of his origin to tell, more enlightenment for him to find in his allegorical climb out of the cave. The finale question that captured my imagination the most might have also been the show fretting the challenge it now faces. What does David lose by being rid of Lenny? Can David continue to be a compelling character – and can Legion continue to be riotous fun — without Lenny inside him driving him nuts? I’m happy our hero flushed his demon. Hopefully Legion didn’t lobotomize itself in the process.