Legion is so far up my alley that it’s at the locking dock moving furniture. Just about every single piece of it is entirely My Jam. To wit, the second season opened up with an inexplicable four-minute dance battle set to soft, thumping electro-classical beats in a dimly lit mind arena and I wish it could have gone one forever.
And there’s plenty to say about that side of Legion, FX’s adaptation of the Marvel character of the same name (and set in the same universe as the X-Men films (but not really)), where its tremendous dedication to its highly particular aesthetic is half the joy of watching. The dining hall alone in Division 3 should get a photo spread in an interior design magazine. And let’s be honest: 70s fashion reinterpreted through a modern lens is the best kind of fashion.
Then there’s the trippy visuals, which is easily the most prominent feature of the show. David Haller (Dan Stevens) is one of the most powerful mutants to ever exist, but because his powers are channeled through a severe dissociative identity disorder, much of the story takes places within a psychedelic proscenium. We fall through floors and walls and break into new time periods and generally have as loose of a grasp on reality as possible while still maintaining the thread.
That is the true genius of the show. Not that it gets to play with pretty cinematography and deluded asides (though those are fantastic on a base level, too), but that through this immediate and unrelenting reminder that nothing is entirely true, we are given a reprieve from the worst, most nagging question of pop audiences: how. As in how did this happen or how did that person get there or how are we to believe that this could happen.
We are freed from the burden of tracking the logic of how the show moves from scene to scene or from story to story. And we are given every reason to ask the far more vital question of why. Motivations, responses, resolutions. These are the foundation of storytelling, and when we don’t have to bother with keep tabs on who is doing what when, we can steep in these base elements.
In the second season, for example, one whole episode takes places within Syd’s (Rachel Keller) mind. David had been rooting around the other crew’s brains, using his powers to free them from a mental trap, but once the cause is eliminated and everyone is freed, David is still in Syd’s mind trying to help her get out. How come she wasn’t loosed from her brain? Well, does it matter?
The episode is an exploration of Syd’s past, from her birth, the manifestation of her powers, and all the way through to the present. And at the end of it, in a museum where a couple is smooching and art is hanging, David tries to figure out what it is that makes this journey meaningful to Syd. For a mutant that can’t touch someone without swapping bodies, it’s obvious: she wants to be somewhere she can observe without being a part of it.
Wrong. And then back to the beginning. Birth, life, museum. And each time, David gets a glimpse of more of her upbringing. She’s bullied at school. She is restrained in a hospital. She cuts herself. And each time, David guesses again, and he’s wrong. Again.
At no point throughout this Groundhog Day loop do we wonder how is this happening. This is not the disease, this is not her power, and this is not David’s. Objectively, it does not make sense, and yet we are in lockstep with David, only set upon the task of figuring out why this is happening. Why is David wrong? Why are these events important? Why.
And at every turn, even in moments where, as far as the show is concerned, is truth, we are meant to feel…chaotic—unstable. There are triplet sisters with obvious prosthetics and mustaches while wearing form-fitting bodysuits and talking like GLaDOS. What is clearly modern art is strewn about the set and called scientific equipment for Cary/Kerry’s (Bill Irwin/Amber Midthunder) use. Nothing is meant to make a terrible amount of sense so that we never lose that vital, singular truth that none of it matters.
Consider that for the first half of the second season, each episode opens with a non-diegetic vignette that operates as a sort of thesis statement for the following 40-something minutes. One asks that, through describing the nocebo effect, if your mind can create your reality, what even is real. Another ruminates on the lifecycle of delusion, and another asks if fear or the frightened is more terrifying.
Structurally, these are absolutely fascinating and truly ambitious, but their true shape takes hold around episode six. The narrator that we’ve been hearing for the past five chapters and that we’ve somewhat latched onto as our guide into the proceedings as he opens with a brief recap instead starts with the following: “apparently, on Legion.”
This, while funny, is also sickening in a way as a viewer. Like, shit, you were supposed to know what was happening. You were the one offering up the threads that tied all the stories together. The show had been operating on a layer you weren’t even aware of this whole time, only to shake you like a damn Etch A Sketch and remind you that you’ve been paying attention to all the wrong things. You asked how and not why.
And that is the truly mad genius of Legion.