Legion finale: Showrunner Noah Hawley on the show's surprise new villain
A certain Dark Knight once said, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” For David Haller on Legion, it seems to be the latter case.
The season 2 finale of the X-Men-based drama series delivered a plot twist that’s been in the works since the beginning: Dan Stevens‘ telekinetic, telepathic, all-powerful mutant is really the villain. He’s the threat future Syd (Rachel Keller) was trying to stop by saving the Shadow King, and as we’ve seen in the episodes leading up to Tuesday night’s big showdown, he’s been mentally manipulating those around him.
As the characters decide to confront their old friend, David decides to go full-blown bad guy and absconds with Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). So now an omega-level mutant being torn apart by multiple personalities vying for attention is on the loose.
For Legion creator and showrunner Noah Hawley, the realization that “maybe David’s not the hero of your show, but maybe Syd is the hero of your show” fundamentally changes Legion.
EW spoke with Hawley ahead of the finale to discuss how this character shift came together and what it could mean for the newly greenlighted season 3.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on the season 3 renewal. That’s big news.
NOAH HAWLEY: Yes. My little reward is that I get to work harder, but it’s very exciting to see this story through because I think it’s really starting to get grounded and pick up speed.
How long had you been sitting on that news?
I’ve known for a little bit. Part of it is just that my life has gotten so complicated that things need to be scheduled. So I have this movie I’m doing [Pale Blue Dot], and we want to make more Fargo, and where does Legion fit into all that? I’ve known for about a week or so [since the interview June 5]. It’s good, though. I’m excited.
I know a lot of fans and journalists are still trying to predict what’s going down with this whole Disney-buying-Fox deal. On the TV side of this, do you see things as business as usual, or was there a concern that season 3 might not go forward?
I don’t think that was a concern. I think there’s always a question as to if the merger goes through and Marvel has direct control over the X-Men, as to what’s gonna happen both on the film and TV sides, it’s sort of a big unknown. But, obviously, the Disney merger isn’t a done deal. I think it’s us operating as business as usual. We’re just going to make the things we want to make until somebody tells us to stop.
When FX announced that season 2 was getting that additional episode, did that mean that you had to go back with the cast to shoot that episode, or had you already filmed it as part of your early production schedule?
It was stuff that we already filmed, basically, and a couple of extra pieces that we picked up to connect some things. The thing that I learned with Legion is, because it’s a surreal show, it’s not necessarily information-based a lot of the time. But the experience of watching it doesn’t want to be a long experience. You don’t want to watch a 60-minute episode of Legion, I think it’s just too much. To a certain point, your attention is just going to wander naturally — even mine when I watch episodes for too long.
There had been some material around Jean Smart and Jemaine [Clement] that had consistently found its way onto the cutting room floor, and obviously you have this twist where we see [Melanie] go over and join [Oliver] and Farouk. By the time we got to the scene, it really wasn’t earned, and so I realized I could take all that material around Jean and create its own episode, and then take the material that had Aubrey in it with the tweaked apartment and how she gets to the desert, and then we got the Kerry-Cary material, which shows how they got to the desert. And then we could cut it between the episode where [David] and [Syd] are wandering in the desert in the episode where the action really begins, which created somewhat of a cliffhanger [with] not seeing David and her for an hour and wondering how they were doing, and also really give our supporting cast their due.
Compared to season 1, season 2 gave a lot of time to all the other characters surrounding David. Was that a choice to help make season 2 more distinct, or did you feel compelled to explore these characters more?
I’m always attracted to the ensemble, and I think the story is only as strong as its weakest character on some level. And I think if you have Jean Smart or Bill Irwin or Aubrey, I think we should be writing for them because they’re just so great.
The season finale ends with David emerging as this villain. Has that always been the plan with this character?
Yeah. For me, I always had this question in my mind, what would happen if Walter White was a supervillain? That Breaking Bad superhero show. This idea, especially in the X-Men universe, that the moral line between good and evil is often fudge-able. Magneto, who sometimes is their villain and sometimes is on their side, and the idea of what the right thing to do is can shift depending on the circumstances. So I wanted to evolve the show so that you realize over time that maybe David’s not the hero of your show, but maybe Syd is the hero of your show.
Once you see that, it becomes a different show on some level. You’ll watch it with different eyes at that point — which doesn’t mean that David can’t come back or that in the end he doesn’t find his way back. But on some level, the whole show is a mental-illness parable, the idea that [David] tried to kill himself and he went into the hospital, and they straightened him out and they gave him his meds, and they let him out and he took his meds for a while, and then he decided he didn’t need them and then he went off them, and now he’s in this psychotic break, except he replaced the word “meds” with the word “love.” He realized he had this love story and the love was making him a better person — a saner, more stable person — and then he started lying to the woman that he loved and not being consistent. When he turned his back on the love story, everything started to fall apart for him.
You mentioned that maybe Syd is the real hero of Legion. Do you see this next phase of the story focusing more on Syd?
Yeah. On the level that it’s their story, I think she should always be front and center, and I think we went a long way this year towards expanding your understanding of her. We had that fourth hour where we saw her childhood from many different angles, and how she became the person that she is and the fact that she’s not a pushover by any means, and she’s someone who’s learned to embrace the ugliest parts of herself as her strength and not her weakness. To the degree that all of the X-Men franchise is a metaphor about being an outsider, you’re a mutant, but we’ve seen it as a metaphor for many different kinds of exclusion. A lot of the time with those characters, the powers that they have are directly connected to the way they don’t fit into society and it’s a way to redefine their weakness as their strength, and I think that’s what makes it exciting and relatable to the audience.
Jemaine Clement started out as a voice role in the first season and then appeared as a physical character. I know you previously mentioned you had asked Jon Hamm if he’d be willing to narrate episodes, but were there ever discussions about making him an actual character as well?
Jon? No. I liked the idea that, at least for this season, the show had a narrator to it, the way that The Royal Tenenbaums had a narrator to it. And you needed that Alec Baldwin voice, you needed that voice that really had a lot of personality to it. I was experimenting with these, what I call educational segments, about trying to define certain ideas in mental illness. I considered having one of the characters narrate it, but it seemed like it existed outside of the story. So to have someone from inside the story narrate didn’t seem right to me. I had met Jon, I had been talking to him about doing this film this summer [Pale Blue Dot], so I just asked him to narrate it and he said “sure thing,” and so we did it.
The David we see at the very end is much closer to the Legion we know in the comics with all the split personalities. Since you’re now two full seasons into this story, has your relationship to the comic books changed at all, in terms of what you do and do not include from the page?
Yeah. The character in the comics, there was a complexity to his origin story and the powers and the way that they work that seemed a hard ask of the audience to say, well, you have these multiple personalities and each one has its own powers. We’re seeing the birth of this character that we may know from the comics, and so the idea that organically we got to a place [where] we had a moment last year where a rational British version of David popped out to help him out in a scenario, and this year we end up with three Davids all arguing different points of view. That may increase in season 3, and of course, if so, creating different versions with different voices. So I want to see if I can put him through phases, I suppose.
After hunting Shadow King all season long, he pops in at David’s trial nonchalantly and nobody seems to be freaked out by him anymore. Do you see him as being an ally now in the sense that Division 3, even though they were enemies, now are sort of allies?
I think it’s really interesting what I’m attempting here, which is this idea that a lot of the time in these comic book stories, you have a takeaway where you feel like might makes right and the only solution to a problem is war. And I think what I’m playing around with is the idea that there’s really no such thing, that in real life you can fight your enemies but ultimately you have to make peace with them. And it may be an uneasy peace, and it may not be a lasting peace. At a certain moment, if you’re Division 3 and you’re realizing your biggest problem is David, then you do need Farouk as a weapon in that battle so you have to make peace with him. Now, that may play exactly into Farouk’s hands, but it was an element that seemed like it would generate more of an interesting story line than just a fight sequence leading to a larger fight sequence leading to a larger ultimate fight sequence.