'Legion' Season 2: TV Review

Take the trip.
4/3/2018

Still as trippy as ever, FX's 'Legion' heads into season two with a firm grip on the story while finding its fun in a visual riot.

A huge part of the appeal of FX's Legion for me was knowing that the impressively curated channel didn't really have a thing for Marvel and that Noah Hawley, who has churned out three delightfully creative seasons of Fargo while also writing novels, was not really a superhero guy. Rather, he was somehow pulled toward the material because he was intrigued about expanding the thread of mental illness and madness that runs through the origin story.

In short, neither creator nor platform really saw this as a typical superhero story — the character, David Haller, is "a man who believed himself to be schizophrenic only to discover that he may actually be the most powerful mutant the world has ever seen."

The results were exceptionally entertaining. Season one (a mere eight episodes) proved to be a visual tour-de-force of stunning imagery and freak-tastic ideas. Hawley opted for the kaleidoscopic notion of approaching "mental illness" from the perspective of what it looks like inside the patient's own mind, not so much how the patient looks and acts from the perspective of myriad characters interacting with him. This inside-out approach essentially freed up Hawley to let his own imagination come untethered, immediately making Legion one of the weirder and more challenging (but enjoyable) shows on television. Impressive and ambitious, the freshman season was the not-a-superhero superhero series.

Complicating Legion's place in the TV landscape, however, was the much higher-profile 18-hour Twin Peaks on Showtime. As loath as I am to compare the two or even have to acknowledge David Lynch's particularly twisted interior fantasyland, there's really no getting around it. That's because while the two shows were very clearly the most visually challenging TV fare of 2017, with each series' success hinging on how willing its audience would be to just go with it, trusting the whims of the creators in the process, they both ended in very different places as far as story competency goes — not that it much matters to Twin Peaks fans.

Despite its exhilarating oddness, Legion at least had a story that connected semi-coherently to a forward-moving arc, while the ultimate goal of Twin Peaks seemed to be confounding in its opaque exploration of "so what does it all mean?" If pointlessness as the point was your thing, Twin Peaks was all yours. It's futile to argue with either fans or critics who were too in awe of Lynch to call bullshit on the egregious issues at hand. But it's at least minorly important as season two of Legion begins to argue in favor of audacious visual storytelling at least having a dramatic point and forward momentum, even if it's hard to decipher for long stretches.

There's no point in debating which series is better because your opinion will likely vary as widely as your tolerance for interpreting what amounts to visual masturbation in the service of a story. But I find that enjoying (and yes, putting up with) a creator's visual exploration of form is ultimately only satisfying if the experience has purpose in explaining the overarching story, as a written work that dramatically moves forward. If you want to trip me out pointlessly with visuals, no matter how brilliant you are, it's just showing off — essentially extrapolating a gigantic bong and fireworks.

The second season of Legion, it should be noted, kicks off significantly weirder than the first — so much so that it's amusing to imagine how FX execs might have been wondering what kind of contortions would be necessary to allow new viewers to jump on board. Critics don't often get to see the elaborate "previously on" segments that channels concoct, but I can only imagine how FX will handle it. That said, as mentioned above in defending Legion vs. Twin Peaks, the only point was to say there was a point to the former. And even after several episodes of trip-tastically moving through the corkscrew ride of Hawley's brain in Legion, I'm relieved to say there's still a tenuous connection to a sense-making plot (but only realistically if you watched season one).

In the first season, Haller (Dan Stevens) slowly learned, along with the audience, that going in and out of mental institutions in service of his schizophrenia, exacerbated by his drug use, was mostly futile. It wasn't that his mind was unbalanced but that he was host to a parasite known as the "Shadow King" that took different forms (including his junkie pal Lenny, played wonderfully by Aubrey Plaza). David wasn't insane so much as gifted, and also being used as a batter to keep alive a parasite.

David was connected by his girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller) to a therapist, Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), and her group of "mutants" — Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder), who were trying to keep David out of the hands of Clark (Hamish Linklater) and his government-funded Division III, which wanted to corral David's power.

Despite Legion's broad visual strokes, that narrative was clear. In season two, Hawley does a slight time jump and aligns Melanie's team with former nemesis Clark and Division III because there's a bigger threat out there: The Shadow King, currently using the body of Melanie's husband, Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement), to get around, is actually heading toward his real body, with a real name, Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban). Like any superhero distress story, if mutant entity and body unite, there's going to be trouble.

I'm assuming that connecting the two and what befalls the world when that happens is the overarching theme of season two of Legion. And yes, that gives me comfort only in the sense that what viewers will see in the opening episodes is such a perversely wonderful hallucinogenic experience — dance numbers, shape-shifting, the creepy sound of frozen people and their chattering teeth, explorations of color, astral plane hijinks and multiple WTF moments — that there's comfort in knowing it's not all just cinematic showboating, a Pollock/Rothko virtual reality with no meaning.

Cast: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, Jean Smart, Navid Negahban, Jemaine Clement, Amber Midthunder, Jeremie Harris, Hamish Linklater
Created and written by: Noah Hawley
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)

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