'Legion' Series Finale: Noah Hawley Explains the Time-Bending Ending

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with Hawley about finishing his Marvel drama on an open-ended note: "There's definitely a rabbit hole you can go down."
Suzanne Tenner/FX

[This story contains spoilers for the series finale of FX's Legion.]

Noah Hawley's Legion is officially over, and the FX superhero series (which is based on the Marvel Comics X-Men character of the same name) ended in the most Legion way possible: not with a knock-down drag-out battle, but with music, beers, intellectual and emotional discourse, and more than a few changed hearts and minds — not to mention a changed timeline.

Entering the Legion series finale, the stakes were high: David Haller (Dan Stevens) stood at the precipice of changing the past and therefore preventing his own monstrous future. Of course, his ambitions involved some truly monstrous means, including outright killing the Shadow King Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban), twice over, with an assist from his all-powerful (and world-famous) father Charles Xavier (Harry Lloyd). But instead of slugging it out on the astral plane, Xavier chugs beers with the Farouk who spent decades inhabiting David's body. Given that experience, Farouk is fully aware of the damage done by his time with David, and he genuinely wants to stop it from ever happening.

For his part, David spends most of the finale beating up on the young version of Farouk and subsequently singing Pink Floyd's "Mother" opposite his actual mother Gabrielle (Stephanie Corneliussen). When it comes to actually changing his own future for the better, however, David does very little. Instead, he allows his father to step in and broker a peace deal to change the future with his once sworn enemy. The Shadow King convinces his younger self to avoid battling Xavier, therefore preventing the ensuing decades of pain and suffering for so many people, not the least of whom is David. In the final scene, David and ex-girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) both fade away from existence, as the infant version of David earns a new shot at a better life.

It's a fairly peaceful ending for Legion, which reliably zigs where most series would zag. (See: the final season's sixth episode, which contains a rap battle between two opponents where a fist fight would have normally done the trick.) It's little wonder Hawley's finale didn't break from the series' own past, even as it paved the way for altered futures for surviving cast members such as the Loudermilk siblings Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder). Ahead, The Hollywood Reporter speaks about the Legion series finale with Hawley, who ends his Marvel drama with mere months left before FX's Fargo begins production on a fourth season.

How much does the Legion finale fit your original vision of the series' eventual ending?

On a literal basis, the Switch (Lauren Tsai) character didn't really come into being until we sat down to talk about season three, so, a lot of it [changed]. The emphasis on time, and of course time being what gives stories meaning and what gives people regrets, all of that was discovered along the way. But the idea that the story of David and Syd would reach this point, and that David would be on this precipice of is he going to be good or is he going to be bad, and that would have to resolve itself — I think that that was always there in the makeup of it. And obviously the conversation that started about Charles and Gabrielle, and about his parents, and about childhood and raising kids and all that, I think that was really unraveled as I went through, as I realized while I was writing it what the story was really about.

With the finale now out in the wild, what can you say about what you imagined for the totality of Legion, now that you can speak freely about the ending?

I think the original idea was let's take the genre out of it and think about it as a story. And if it works as a great drama, then when you add the genre back into it, it'll only be more exciting because you'll be able to play with all those tools that you don't have in a traditional dramatic story. And as I explored it in those opening weeks of figuring out what the show wanted to be, I was very adamant that if we were going to tell a mental illness story, we were going to tell it. We weren't going to use it as a launching pad into like, "Oh, he's not crazy. It's a superhero show." But the layers of that are what was really interesting. David says it at the end of the first season. He tells Syd that the most dangerous thing about having a mental illness is that your mental illness convinces you that you don't have it, and that if you relax, and you accept it, and you go, "I have these abilities, and this girl loves me, and everything's great," how do you know that that's not just because you've gone off your meds, and you're feeling great about things? It's the insidious nature of the disease: it convinces you you don't have it.

But again, he did accept that he didn't have it, and then, of course, was confronted with the fact that in the end of season two, he both had these abilities and there was something profoundly disturbed about him, and yet he couldn't really face that head on. And so season three became this narcissistic battle against reality for David saying, "No, no, this is my time. These time eaters who are coming to destroy the universe, they can't come because this is my time." The level of "I'm the most important being in the universe" was ... I mean his mother says "If you can go back in time, then stop the Holocaust." And he was like, "No, I was talking about me." It shows you the kind of self involvement that he was working under. The question [from there] becomes, A, how do you keep the audience from turning on him so much that they now are hate-watching the show, and they don't want any kind of resolution for him that's positive; and, B, how do you get any kind of resolution for him that is positive, but not just for him, for everybody?

Where do you feel we land on David in the end, after he gets the reset and gets to live his life again starting as a baby?

We live in a world where this nature versus nurture question is yet to be resolved. And it's probably both. But my sense of the timeline is that Xavier and Gabrielle are going to remember what happened, and so they'll be able to raise David quite deliberately knowing the path that he ended up on, and wanting to avoid that for him. And that may involve for his mother getting some help for herself in order to be a better role model for him, et cetera. So the great thing about it ending on that kind of loop is that [idea of] "press the button and watch again, maybe something different will happen."

There's a powerful moment when Charles tells David: "I wasn't here for you before, let me be your father now." What does that say about the themes and importance of parenting in this story?

Parenting is such a critical part of who people turn out to be and that so much of the damage of not just David but Syd and some of the other characters can be traced directly back to how they grew up, and the fact that so many of them were ostracized or treated as different. It was really rewarding for me in that sixth hour to be able to explore in a sort of allegorical fairy tale way this idea of a second childhood for Syd, and [explore the idea of] what if you grew up differently? What if you grew up with parents who really taught you the right things at the right time, and they taught you what was healthy and what wasn't healthy, and how to make good choices, and who you could help and who you can't help? And all those things that we all struggle with, then hopefully we would grow up and be people who make better choices. I think to see that allegory in this story allows one to look at the end of the story and go, "Well, maybe next time it'll be more like that."

We know David will get a more attentive second chance, but what about the rest? Syd? The Loudermilks? Are Melanie (Jean Smart) and Oliver (Jemaine Clement) still on the Astral Plane together? How much changes based on David's reset?

There's definitely a rabbit hole you can go down, looking at the timeline and what year this was and how old people were. If Oliver was in the astral plane for 21 years, and David is 32 years old? One could go down that road. I'm not going down that road. (Laughs.) I think a lot changes, and then there are things that probably wouldn't change at all, because people are who they are.

In the finale, Charles prepares to do battle against the "present day" Farouk. But this version of the Shadow King surprises him and us with an alternate offer: a truce, conducted over a couple of beers. It's not the all-out telepathic battle you might expect to find in a superhero series finale.

Well, here's the thing about war, which is what the end of this story was set up to be, the kind of epic final battle that we see in all of these stories: defeat is never change. Only change is change, right? So I suppose there's a scenario in which David and Charles were to defeat Farouk, and change the past. But that Farouk, if he survived, we know that he would just be waiting to get his revenge. And the reality is that the only way to change the future is to change people's minds and their hearts. And that's what was more interesting dramatically, and, for some reason, rarer with that diplomacy ultimately is the only way to solve the problem. Unless I'm going to annihilate you, we're going to wake up tomorrow and have the same problems that we had yesterday.

The finale features another Legion hallmark: a music number, this time featuring Dan Stevens as David singing Pink Floyd's "Mother" with, well, his mother. Why that song, and why place it here in the finale?

What I liked about making it a duet with his mother is that the mother in the song, as performed by Pink Floyd, is a sort of very dark and controlling character, and you never sort of think about [that]. But she's also a human being with a point of view, and the reason that she is the way that she is is because she is who she is. And by making it a duet, I felt like you could see how much love there was behind that. That she wasn't this cold and calculating person. She loved him. She was going to check out all his girlfriends for him and make sure no one dirtied him through. At the same time, it allowed us to really think about the hereditary nature of this mental illness that David has, and to go, "Oh, right. Well, yeah, she is a product of her own mentally ill mother, and grandmother, and her Holocaust experience." And it's going to be hard to raise a child with that.

As you walk away from Legion and move onto Fargo season four and other projects, what do you hope to carry with you from this series?

That it's important to play with this material, and to be open to what the show wants to be. And, obviously, you have to use your skills as a storyteller to make sure you're always telling a dramatic and character-driven story. But I wouldn't have made any other story the way that I made Legion, and yet that was exactly the right way to make Legion, which was whimsically, and playfully, and exploring the subjective nature of storytelling, and being able to play with the genre. And you can solve a character through genre filmmaking in a way that you just can't do in a traditional drama. And so I always want to approach every story like no one has ever told a story like this before, and go, "Well, what's the best way to tell it?" Not just asking, "What is the story," but asking, "What's the way to tell the story?"

Check out THR.com/Legion for full series coverage.