'Legion' Season 3: TV Review

Thankfully not a typical Marvel series, so yes.
6/24/2019

Enjoy the hallucinatory brilliance of a story weirdly told and wonderfully acted, just don't get hung up on the plot.

What if the story of FX's Legion, created and scripted by TV writer (Fargo) and novelist (Before the Fall) Noah Hawley, is less about the story arc of the series itself and more the story about how and why it got made in the first place? Hawley improbably turned the brilliant Coen Brothers movie Fargo into the acclaimed, separately realized vision of a TV series. So what if Legion was a lark from a prestige cable channel rewarding a very smart writer, and the extended generosity ends up being that Hawley, no fan of superheroes, wants to make a Marvel superhero story about mental illness rather than superpowers? And he also wants to mess with the notion that the hero in question has to be heroic at all.

I mean, if you're FX, with a long history of taking chances on exceptional talents, you probably say, "OK, sure, let's see what you come up with." Which is exactly the answer you want if you love television as a creative exploration rather than predictable, formulaic movement from episode to episode, season to season.

It would certainly explain the triptastic, visually stunning first season of Legion, which was basically a more coherent exploration of weirdness than Twin Peaks. And then the perception-changing second season (Jon Hamm as a narrator that didn't exist before!), which seemed intent on taking a Marvel vehicle (that is unlikely to be tampered with again) and giving it a kind of Breaking Bad halo, disconcertingly telling its audience that the person at the center of the story, the hero they were rooting for, was in fact pretty awful. 

How else to explain the fact that, by the end of that second season, anyone tuning in for a typical Marvel series was probably tuning out. Legion was seemingly moving from oddball project for Hawley into an experiment that wouldn't likely hold, given how busy he was and the inherent limitations of Marvel-centric superhero stories inside the mind of someone not particularly interested in those limitations or the expectations for that genre.

Translation: You probably wouldn't be too far off assuming, at the end of Legion season two, that Hawley's mindset was: "OK, that was a cool experiment but I'm over it." Of course, that assumption could be way off, and the third and final season of Legion was planned as the end all along (that's certainly the narrative), and all that's left is a pro forma wrap-up where the main character, David (Dan Stevens), course-corrects his Walter White excursion and the series closes with everybody doing the moral and ethical thing and putting the world right.

Sure, maybe, I don't know. I'd probably watch that.

But instead, what looks to be happening after last season's experimentation is that Hawley is once again having a blast reimagining a Marvel superhero show. He is tripling down on the visual gymnastics and mind-altering aspects, but with the kind of narrative focus that will culminate in a three-years-is-ideal big picture analysis, lovingly concluding that he got it all right, or at least right enough to be riveting.

I hope that's true, but without the full season to examine at length (out of eight total episodes, I've seen four), who knows what will happen. But I'm loving the direction the third and final season of Legion is going in because the journey has been less about Marvel and more about Hawley and, given the television track record of each, I'll take the latter every time.

There's an unmistakable creative energy about each episode of the third season, as if Hawley, his writing staff and collection of directors all gathered around and said, "Let's go out on fire." I'd argue that the second season, which simultaneously seemed to annoy fans of the comic and fall short of satisfying some critics, did its job of upending the narrative built in season one. But it also perhaps had to come to terms with the fact that its weirdness was vast, like its stable of excellent actors, and if the third season was really going to be the end, some snipping would have to be done. It wasn't perfect but it was unfailingly creative, funny and risky, which is often more than enough to overcome quibbles.

Look, Legion was doing most things remarkably well — notably giving people like Aubrey Plaza, Navid Negahban, Bill Irwin and Jemaine Clement, to name a handful of random examples, room to explore and crush the acute weirdness of their characters in a way that few series ever do. (There are 10-minute scenes in every episode of Legion where I'd take just that and only that over a full episode of something else.) And while the work of Stevens' David and Rachel Keller's Syd is the no-doors, no-safety-belt roller coaster car that fuels the Legion story, at least half the fun of the show is watching other actors run around the theme park with their hair on fire.

Which is to say, sure, if you really want to focus on the plotting, that can be your hill to die on. But all this other vigorous exploration of the mind's infinite possibilities (especially for a mutant) is pretty damned intriguing on its own.

I'm assuming, but neither hoping nor demanding, that Legion will end with a plot arc that feels satisfying. Season three could end with former hero David dying as the villain at the hands of new hero Syd, who saves the world. It could be David coming back from the depth of madness and harnessing his powers (whatever those really are) and there being some kind of interior peace for him. It could (and likely will) end... differently. 

Viewers often come to the realization, after several seasons of a drama, that it's not the thing they'd hoped it would be. This is especially true for genre series like fantasy and sci-fi and superheroes. It seems as if more people should know when they sign up that their results may vary (spoiler: most don't know and thus are disappointed). But with Hawley's Legion, if you were expecting something predictable or literal, well, you weren't paying attention from the very first frame

The journey is the joy here, and if you want yet another confirmation of that, watch the first episode of season three and look what director Andrew Stanton (all things Pixar) does with the material that Hawley and co-writer Nathaniel Halpern give him.

Season three adds David's real father, Charles Xavier (aka Professor X, leader of the X-Men), in the form of Harry Lloyd (Counterpart, Game of Thrones), and his mother, Gabrielle, in the form of Stephanie Corneliussen (Mr. Robot), who sheds some light on "The World's Angriest Boy In the World," plus an essential new character, Switch (Lauren Tsai), who is a time-traveler.

If the Professor X revelation pulls back in fans of the comic book or X-Men, it probably won't end well for them. Hawley doesn't seem to have particular interest in the franchise or superheroes in general, and was at least partially attracted to the idea so that he could portray mental illness in a different way — while also having a hell of a time with mind-bending visuals, tricky editing and now, in the final season, hallucinatory drugs adding to the fugue state effect.

Maybe, as someone not particularly interested (fine, not at all interested) in X-Men stuff, I fall into that weird subset where Legion is the perfect series. I just go with what's on the screen, revel in the conceptual ideas and applaud the acting turns, willingly negligent about Marvel-universe connections and never expecting — as others seem to be demanding — that this show, of all shows, be more concise, more linear, more understandable. 

Cast: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Jean Smart, Jeremie Harris, Bill Irwin, Amber Midthunder, Jemaine Clement, Hamish Linklater, Navid Negahban, Lauren Tsai, Harry Lloyd, Stephanie Corneliussen 
Created and written by: Noah Hawley
First episode directed by: Andrew Stanton
Premieres June 24, 10 p.m. FX