Critic's Notebook: The Audacity of Weirdness and Joy In 'Legion'

Noah Hawley scores big by going relentlessly bold with the out-there storytelling in this most un-Marvel of dramas.
Michelle Faye/FX
'Legion' wraps an excellent and out-there season on FX

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for the first season and finale of FX's Legion.]

Arguably the least interesting thing about Legion is what it all means. That's a zero-sum game that lots of people will want to play, and then they will wallow disappointedly in the results. Because by the end of season one — Wednesday's finale — it's pretty clear that for all the mind-f---ery that so beautifully permeates this wonderfully imaginative gem, brought to life by creator Noah Hawley, Legion still mostly reverts to the parameters of its comic-book origins (while still being rigorously unexplainable).

Succeeding on both ends of that spectrum is a triumph. After eight episodes of triptastic imagery and super-charged explorations of the malleable complexities of the mind, Legion is still a Marvel property that needs on some level to reiterate that there's a good side, a bad side and a whole lot of weird things in between. But what can't get lost here is that there was always going to be a slight tug on the very long leash afforded Hawley by both FX and Marvel.

Meaning, at some point, there had to be a little bit of sense-making to a series that had steadfastly avoided it for most of the season (particularly the pilot and then episodes four through seven, with an asterisk after six). Viewers who stuck through the whole season had to be rewarded, it seems, with at least a hazy explanation of what happened, which went a tick beyond the good and evil thing.

That meant that in an effort to explain what was vexing the mind of lead character David (Dan Stevens), making him "crazy" and special and a mutant and fatigued over the hassle of his lot in life, there was this: a story that involved the configuration of a Yellow Eyed Devil that was really a parasite inside David's brain and body, but was also The Angriest Boy In the World (who looks like Hitler) and was utterly and spectacularly also the explosive id of Aubrey Plaza, playing a character named Lenny.

Soak that in for a second — because that's some kind of crazy accomplishment.

Legion's central point is easier to follow when you unwrap the astonishingly creative weirdness that it came wrapped in and the aforementioned parasite is now out of David's body and into that of Oliver (Jemaine Clement), a scientist and "dedicated follower of fashion" who has been trapped somewhere between the '60s and '70s in an astral plane and — let's not forget — an ice cube, but is now heading south in a car toward season two.

Again, and hopefully this is self-evident, none of this matters unless you're hell-bent on figuring out what it all means — and what Legion itself means — which of course countless people will be doing, and godspeed to them. That pursuit is a fun if not definitive exercise.

But Legion is best viewed as one of the most ambitiously weird series ever put on television, which is saying something in the Platinum Age of TV. In the process, Hawley has allowed two things to function simultaneously.

The lesser is the aforementioned linear story of our protagonist, David, and his journey through mental illness to the revelation that he might not be sick so much as gifted and what that means. (It means he's valuable, so there's a government team trying to track him down and maybe kill him, and a more altruistic bunch trying to save and nurture him, while the "mutant" aspect of the X-Men franchise from which Legion was born served in the process).

But the vastly more interesting element is that Hawley only took on this task in the first place to revamp or re-stamp the comic-book genre with his special brand of offbeat originality, and the results — so aggressively, visually magnetic — were allowed to blossom in ways we've rarely seen in the medium.

Did that confuse and alienate some viewers? No doubt. Did the largesse of FX mean that the breadth and depth of this experiment had to ultimately tie together in a way that pleased Marvel and at least tried to make sense? Seems like it — the comic book bit, or the Marvelesque moments, if you will, could be seen by the third episode and more definitively in the penultimate and finale when, for example, Hamish Linklater as the burned Interrogator returned.

But in the end there wasn't much trade-off or balance — and that's where the real achievement in Legion lies. It got to blow your mind egregiously and only explain it in a Marvel sense by a fractional percentage. That's an enormous victory for creativity.

Some might call it creativity run amok, but they will now be off to something else anyway, disappointed there wasn't more sense-making involved in Legion. What made season one so special was how it was never constrained, never ruled by caution. Legion took sense and shattered it. Hawley told the story from deep inside the mind of a man suffering from mental illness (and yes, some special gifts), so it went beyond an unreliable narrator to something more profoundly fun. It's like when you're in a museum and you walk from a room of realism into Cubism or abstract expressionism.

And while this incessant need to ask "but what does that mean?" can cause some viewers to come unmoored or wonder why trippy diversions were not only happening with regularity but became the norm in the storytelling, most other people had figured out by the end of the first episode that Legion wasn't going to be easy to understand, which was kind of the point.

To apply a need for understanding to Legion — after the first episode warned you that such clarity was unlikely — but especially after every subsequent episode refused to back off of the strange, well that's a flagrant misunderstanding of intent that's on you, not Hawley and not Legion.

In the end it made enough sense. Hell, you could make the argument that parts it felt a little disappointing (the classroom scene with the two Davids, even though the set decoration was spectacular, and Stevens got to use a British accent with one of the Davids) as they tried to appease those who felt hopelessly lost. Mostly, Legion felt like it broke rules and conventions constantly and then raced back ever so rarely to tap coherence on the head for good measure.

A hearty, sustained applause for that audacity.

And through it all, what will be remembered most about Legion is the show's zealous lust for the surreal. The first and sixth episodes were gloriously mind-bending, most of the minutes in every episode were either an intellectual curiosity about the power of the brain or a geeky riff on distorted storytelling.

When you expected an explanation or a continuation of ideas, you got diversions — songs and dances, outlandish changes in make-up, tonal shifts highlighted by jagged sonic exclamation points, bizarre humor, high-grade graphic-design elements that tied in the opening and closing credits with recurring visual references within scenes (including black and white flashcards from silent movies), brilliant use of color and patterns, with cleverness at every turn.

Watching Legion was a complete sensory rush if you just went with it and didn't obsess about what every frame meant. And honestly, that's a wonderful exercise to undertake now that it's over and can be fanatically deconstructed. Almost every episode provoked the thought that nothing like this was on TV anywhere. In the Peak TV era where you've seen everything, that's a hell of an achievement.

It's enough to make you feel bad for people who can't embrace obscurity for the visual and mental thrill ride that it can be.

As this first season ends, the accomplishments of Legion are many. It should get credit for being unflinching in what it wanted to be — the series very clearly told viewers that weirdness was going to be on parade, and those who couldn't process ambiguity and complexity should look elsewhere. It never flagged in its exploration of bizarre boundaries for those who wanted more of what it was offering. It featured excellent dramatic performances and writing that veered from ultra-challenging to cheeky. Above all else, it was fearless about being doubt-free. Every episode seemed like a challenge to like it or not — and that more was undoubtedly coming.

Lots of people won't like that kind of television. But what's so wonderful about Legion is that it seems to be long past caring. This series is going for it — whatever it may be.