A lot of television is boring, and it sometimes feels like Noah Hawley’s most compelling idea is to make television that is not boring. So he’s peddled arty ice-noir violence on Fargo and color-wheel superpowered violence on Legion. He’s a kitchen-sinker: big casts, big tonal shifts, a running fascination with big showdowns when two killers stare at each other with murder in their eyes.
Until this year, he was a shortformist, crafting 8-10 episode sagas. The anthology structure creates velocity. Rising action slips right into climax. The shock-of-the-new feeling of a premiere is never too far from the gratifying catharsis of even the worst finale. Flaws that would sink longer-running series can fade. It took a few episodes of Fargo‘s third season to realize Ewan McGregor was giving two bad performances, by which point the show was already pivoting into the Great American Mary Elizabeth Winstead Thriller.
So the arrival of Legion‘s second season marked a departure for Hawley. The premiere picked up right where the drama’s first year left off, with David (Dan Stevens) returning from his floating-orb kidnapping — and setting off on a mission to find the body of his one-time tormentor, the Shadow King.
That was, it turns out, the only notable plot point on Legion this eon. In the premiere, everyone announced they were looking for the Shadow King’s body. In episode 10, the Shadow King found his body.
Along the way, the season suddenly expanded from 10 episodes to 11 episodes, making this Hawley’s longest season ever. There were flashbacks and flashforwards, astral trips to interior realities, alternate timelines, a running gag that truly crawled where Jon Hamm narrated fables of delusion. This is the kind of show where one episode will quote The Phantom Tollbooth and Ginsberg. It is the kind of show where a character will visualize a final showdown, and then very gradually assemble all the other characters in place for that final showdown, and then the final showdown will finally happen three episodes later, by which point you may feel you’ve spent a whole lifetime looking at the same repeated shot of Aubrey Plaza staring cheerfully down the scope of a sniper rifle.
The bloat of Legion was stylish and cerebral — but it was, definably, bloat. We were watching a very long checkers match between David and the Shadow King, appearing now in his original incarnation as Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban). They would appear in each other’s minds, make an alliance, break it. The finale fronted the idea that David, nominal protagonist, was actually a world-ending villain. In hindsight, this unfortunately renders the entirety of season 2 as a hyperbolic example of Roger Ebert’s Talking Killer Fallacy: Witness two maniacs who love the sound of their own voice, steadily promising to do horrible things to each other as soon as they get done looking cool.
The tangents are the point of Legion. Some were fun, and some were stupid, and some could be both. Because the show is about characters with mental powers, a whole episode would plumb the depths of a certain person’s psychology. This could produce an entirely pointless whiff of an hour, like when Syd (Rachel Keller) built David a mindmaze out of her past to prove an important point about pain. And then Legion staged the Allegory of the Cave, which transitioned into an argument that our modern mediated life is a simulation encouraging narcissism and sociopathy.
Agreed: Cool thoughts, bro! But these tangents started to feel leaden. Syd’s mind-trip was not, by a long shot, the season’s only maze, and not the only time it seemed desperate to explain everything it was showing you. Legion aims for surreal imagery — but some important aspect of surrealism is its profound inexplicability, the creation of logic beyond simple logic.
Whereas so much of Legion is prosaic, explanatory, literally Don Draper talking about Plato. At one point in the penultimate episode, Melanie (Jean Smart) tried to convince Syd that David was a psychopath. She did that by walking Syd through a room full of screens playing scenes from the FX drama Legion. At one point, they actually watched the montage that played at the very beginning of the pilot back in 2017. The navel-gazing felt real: Legion is certainly very impressed with Legion. (Review continues on page 2.)
The best character on the show, by a hundred miles, is Cary (Bill Irwin), a kindly scientist joined at the existential hip to Kerry (Amber Midthunder), his sibling/soulmate/other self. Those two together conjure up fascinating sparks of humanity and moral mutation.
But they fell into the background, important only to the extent that their story (and everyone else’s) kept overlapping with David’s. Legion badly wants to flip the obvious superhero math, in a way that is itself rather obvious. “The villain is the hero, and the hero is the villain” said Farouk a few weeks ago, a line repeated in the penultimate episode for added effect. Hero Bad? Villain Good??? Such concept!
This long hero’s journey into the night might’ve been more effective if, like, David was a believable character surrounded by intriguing humans with their own lives. But past a certain point, you felt that everyone in Legion was waiting patiently for David to do something, so they could appropriately react.
Narcissistic monomania was, in fairness, the point of the finale. Tuesday’s episode began with David’s fight with Farouk, an apex for Hawley’s climactic-battle fixation: They floated over a desert, they sang, they sky-battled with cartoon avatars.
But this was just a prologue to a profoundly eerie, defining sin. Syd held David at gunpoint, explaining how [deep breath] her future self asked David to help her rescue the Shadow King so that the Shadow King could prevent David from destroying the world, but then her future self also just asked the Shadow King to save himself to prevent David from destroying the world, and also someone decapitated a minotaur.
David’s life was saved by Lenny (Plaza) and her sniper rifle. And then David memory-wiped a very unconscious Syd, reasoning that she was just confused, that she’d “forgotten” how much she loved him. Back at Division 3, all the heroes prepared to put Farouk on trial. David went to Syd’s room, told her how excited he was to run away with her; they had sex. Cary, in his role as “Scientist Guy Who Finds Stuff Out About David,” examined the footage from the David-Farouk duel.
The next day, David arrived in the makeshift courtroom, dressed all in white. A psionic cage of some kind rose around him. He would be the one on trial. He was the true Shadow King. He begged for mercy, swore that he’d done everything for a good cause, pleaded with Syd — after all, didn’t she love him?
“You drugged me,” Syd said. “And had sex with me.”
The grand design of Legion, then, was something much bleaker than superheroic deconstruction. This isn’t the origin story of a villain masquerading as a hero. It was the origin story of a rapist, a rapist who kept insisting he was a nice guy. We’d seen David, flashbacked to his crazy house days, mumbling a melancholy catchphrase: “I’m a good person. I deserve love.” The more we heard it, the less convincing it became, and all the sweetheart-nerd affectations started to sound insidious, demanding.
“I’m a good person.” What horrors does someone allow themselves when they think they’re on the good side? “I DESERVE LOVE.” Sounds like a T-shirt they’d hand out at an Incel conference. (And if you don’t know what an Incel is, save yourself, don’t google it, life’s too short. Instead, continue reading this review on page 3.)
The already-ordered third season promises a big shift, then: David-as-Villain, supporting cast as David-hunters. You feel this was the plan all along, but that makes this whole season feel like a long-delayed action — an extended vacation from Just Getting On With It.
I’m sure there’s a good story reason why there was a whole episode about defeating a mind-controlling roachmonster, but that roachmonster was still lame. Jean Smart spent the year drowsing with her elephant bong, talking about her lost love, and then appeared in one maze just in time to walk Syd through floating pools of recap. Again, the purpose of the show seemed to reduce the show itself: Melanie, introduced as a matriarchal riff on Professor X, now had the big job of explaining why David was a bad guy. The rest of the time she was despondently angry at her husband Oliver (Jemaine Clement) for leaving her alone. Jean Smart, once 24‘s vengeful First Lady retributor, deserves better next year.
Meanwhile, Keller’s deadpan glaze made it feel like Syd was also floating in stasis — until her big turn against David. And that twist was another exposition, with dialogue between lovers that felt oddly vanilla: “You’re not the hero.” “Then who is?” “Me.”
Legion is based on a specific character from the X-Men comics, but the broad strokes of the David-Syd conflict in this finale conjure up the most sainted of mutant story arcs: The Dark Phoenix Saga, where noble dud Cyclops very gradually discovered his perfect Omega-powered girlfriend was a world-chomping demoniac anti-god.
The very stupid X-Men film The Last Stand recreated the rough outlines of this story, with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in the appointed role of Bland Dude Hero. I can’t stress enough how bad the film is — but when Wolverine has his wounded-lover deathduel with Famke Janssen’s revenant Phoenix, it’s a cinematic moment of hot-blooded cheese, a betrayal that’s also a nigh-Shakespearean act of passion. That same instant here, with Syd pointing her gun at David, felt clinical, summarized: You felt a switch had been flipped in Syd’s brain from “Love” to “Kill.” That’s not just a Syd problem, by the way: After a year spent chasing the Shadow King, Division 3 now seems to happily accept him as an ally. (Meanwhile, Lenny decided to help David because a ghost kept asking her if she was a good person.)
It’s telling, I think, that David and Syd’s second showdown was so much more involving. It was rooted in horrific personal trauma—not the hundredth apocalypse subplot in Hollywood entertainment this year. Stevens seemed to relish David’s turn in this final episode, radiating ravenous power gone amok. A very brief sighting of the futuristic David implies that the character will be trending outré, with wild comic book hair and bones-of-my-enemies interior design replacing his trademark Keyboardist From Arcade Fire clothes.
It’s possible that the sheer quantity of stylistic goofery works better on other viewers. Hawley shoots scenes from weird angles, with kinetic camera tricks and loopy editing. The last few episodes were all about characters getting lost in the desert, and actually, that desert became my favorite part of Legion. All the sunblasted location work had a sharpening effect, letting the characters breathe far away from ornate Zissouvian laboratories.
Predictably, everyone who went to the desert wound up getting lost — or, in a sight gag that really emphasized the “gag,” getting pulled around on a rickshaw. And, at one point the finale, after finally shooting her sniper rifle, Lenny smoked a cloud of something smoky out of a golden alligator pipe. Appropriate: This show got very high on its own supply.
Finale Grade: B-
Season Grade: C+