The Frustrating Almost-Greatness Of 'Legion'
SPOILERS FOR THE SECOND SEASON FINALE BELOW
Legion is one of the most visually stunning pieces of television I have ever seen, and for that fact alone I will probably stick with it to the bitter end. Musical numbers and animation represent superpowers, while anachronisms in the set design and costuming give the entire show a deliberately timeless feel. It helps that I also have a sentimental attachment to the stranger bit players of the X-Men universe, and a grudging respect for the way Noah Hawley & Co. take huge philosophical swings with their storytelling.
The second season finale of Legion pulled the curtain back on the type of story the show is attempting to tell, while revealing the limitations of their technique. The result was a watchable, beautiful, intriguing letdown — a symbolic exercise that lost track of its own meaning at times, settling into a jumble of thematic concepts. What started as a fable about mental illness has expanded to cover toxic masculinity, victimhood, love, the nature of heroism and villainy, and more. Sometimes the show doesn’t get quite the credit it deserves, and other times its hamstrung by its own attempts at cleverness.
The big twist of the finale was the reveal that David is on the path to being the villain, and Syd may actually be the hero. And this isn’t just a reading that I’m passing off as fact — it’s what Hawley himself discussed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:
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.
In David’s case, his villainy has taken the form of toxic masculinity. In the final hour he becomes a character so convinced of his own victimhood and inherent goodness that he can’t take responsibility for his mistakes. And his mistakes are big. Like actual mindfucking rape “big.”
OK, lemme backtrack. David’s final confrontation with the Shadow King is cut short when Syd arrives, pointing a gun at him. See, she’s figured out why future-Syd wanted David to save the Shadow King: because someday David himself will be the world-ending threat, and only someone as strong as the Shadow King himself can hope to oppose him. It’s a powerful stand-off, and Syd does in fact pull the trigger (only for the bullet to be shot in mid-air by sniper-Lenny because it’s just that kind of show). Syd and David are blasted apart, but David comes to first and goes to Syd’s side. And taking advantage of her unconsciousness, he removes her memories so she’ll be in love with him again. And then they have mind-sex a short while later.
One of the philosophical talking points this season has been around the nature of love. To David, his love for Syd is what has saved him, and redeemed him, and healed him. Which is a lot of pressure to put on a relationship! But in that excellent Syd deep-dive episode earlier this season, we heard her views on love: that it’s the thing that needs to be saved, rather than the savior. So in robbing Syd of not only her memories but her agency in their relationship, David has poisoned rather than protected their love. And Syd, when she discovers the nature of the crime committed against her, doesn’t shy away from calling it what it is — while also trying to help him. All of Division 3 essentially stage an intervention for David, trapping him in a bubble and trying to make him face just how far off the path he has strayed while also pointing out that, hey, omega level mutants are dangerous and he can’t be free to go off the deep end with all the powers of a god. The fact is that he IS a victim (of the manipulations of the Shadow King his entire life), and he IS a mutant, and he IS ALSO mentally ill and in need of treatment. He’s all of it. And crucially — being a victim or sick doesn’t absolve him of taking responsibility for his actions. That thing he did out of love was still a kind of rape.
David, in total denial, just starts chanting “I am a good person! I deserve love!” — which, in another theme of the season, is essentially his personal delusion (egg). Then he breaks free, grabs Lenny, and escapes into… well, Season 3 I guess, where he’ll likely be hunted down by Syd.
But is Syd the hero because she tried to shoot her lover? Is David a villain because he can’t own the damage he’s caused? Part of me thinks that ultimately, by playing so much with the dichotomy between these two archetypes, Legion has exhausted their usefulness. I don’t need a version of this show where David is a villain, because the way he became a villain was… well, just so fucking banal. If these TimesUp/MeToo days have taught us anything, it’s that it doesn’t take a villain to feel entitled and abuse their partner. Anyone can do it, because for so long this kind of behavior wasn’t really viewed as wrong at all. So I can appreciate the fact that the show took a sympathetic main character and made him commit a despicable act without justifying it or letting him off the hook, just like I can appreciate the way his victim called it like it was and confronted him. But even here — Syd’s experience of abuse took the backseat to what David experienced as her abuser. We don’t even see her find out the truth of what happened to her. The “twist” is everyone revealing to David that the actions he took are wrong — literally reframing the narrative for him, which he ultimately can’t accept. So while I think there is a really interesting Good Guy vs Toxic Masculinity exploration that’s possible here, it’s clear that the story will be about David’s own place on the hero/villain spectrum rather than anyone else’s. No matter how strong Syd is, she will only matter to the story insofar as she matters to David: as the object of his desire, or the symbol of his failure.
One area this season has gotten a lot of flack for has been its treatment of Jean Smart’s Melanie Bird, the Professor X-ish character who was helping train and shield mutants. After her program folded into Division 3, and her husband Oliver returned from his astral ice cube only to be taken over by the Shadow King and leave again, Melanie spent most of season 2 in a bitter, drug-fueled haze. And I understand the frustration of taking a strong character and then having her waste away in the background, but this is one area where I will give the series a certain amount of credit. Melanie was always chasing Oliver’s dream in his absence — doing his good work as a placeholder until he returned to her side. And after decades, when he did return… he wasn’t who she thought he was. He didn’t really remember her, or care about the work she’d done. And all I could think of is whether her character might ring true for a certain generation of women. Wives that sacrificed careers and goals for their husband’s success, only to wake up one day with their partner retired and realize that maybe that person they were waiting for wasn’t worth it after all. What I saw was a strong woman diminished, sure — but I also saw a woman grappling with the fact that she’d spent the majority of her time living someone else’s life on their behalf. The series didn’t have room to explore her the way they should have this season, and it appears she and Oliver have been written out with their own custom happy ending in that ice cube, but there is a kernel to Melanie’s story that is real and valuable.
And that’s sort of the story of Legion all over: kernels of valuable insight, either underutilized or overblown. And maybe that’s why I find the show so fascinating and frustrating — because it swings big, and misses, and tries so hard, and does it all like nothing else on television. I watch, hoping to see it all gel into a coherent whole, and also hoping it never does.
And also, because it gives us beautiful shit like this to watch:
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