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.)