In between directing his feature film debut Lucy in the Sky and ramping up the fourth season of Fargo with Chris Rock along for the ride, Noah Hawley somehow found time for yet another journey: one last trip through the mind of David Haller, the overpowered telepath at the heart of FX’s Legion, based on Marvel’s relatively obscure X-Men comic book of the same name.
“I’m not really sure how we managed it,” Hawley tells The Hollywood Reporter about wrapping Legion, which launched its final season premiere June 24. “I was editing the movie while I was creating this. I do feel like it ends for me the way it was meant to end. It feels like a really strong proof of concept, taking something that can be whimsical, dramatic, slightly horrifying character-driven genre piece and using it as a meditation on mental illness and the abuse of power, and all of the other things it’s probably about.”
Other things aside, here’s who Legion is about: David, played by Dan Stevens, also set to star in Hawley’s Lucy in the Sky. After a lifetime weaving in and out of treatment for mental illness, David becomes empowered on learning about his super-powerful roots as the son of Charles Xavier, played alternately by Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy in the X-Men films. In the third and final season of Legion, Professor X finally arrives, portrayed by Game of Thrones and Counterpart veteran Harry Lloyd; his debut, alongside other components, helps drive the central theme of Legion home, according to Hawley.
“The show becomes about parenting,” he says, “and the idea that we have to raise our kids the right way. We have to give them a moral center and we have to teach them about restraint, responsibility and the way they interact with other people.”
It’s a lesson David will learn the hard way, if he ever learns it at all. The happy ending is very much in doubt after the season three premiere, “Chapter 20,” in which David seeks out a time-traveling mutant named Switch (Lauren Tsai) in order to help him go back into the past and make some critical adjustments. His hope: to undo his bad deeds. The likely nightmare scenario: the end of the world, which is said to occur all thanks to David. It’s a big swing with big stakes, and Hawley hopes the audience feels uneasy about David’s chances of pulling it off, and even worse about David trying to put the plan into action at all.
“There’s always a moment in Fargo where the worst person on the show says, ‘I’m the victim here,'” he says. “With David, there’s a similar mentality: a narcissism and a sense of entitlement. He has this mantra now: ‘I’m a good person and I deserve love.’ He uses it to justify a lot of behavior that’s just not good behavior. He sees himself on some level as above morality, because of what he’s suffered. He believes he is by definition a moral person, so everything he does is therefore moral. I think it’s worth an exploration. Historically, much of the audience of this material is young men and boys — adolescents and older — and it’s important to have conversations about the power men have and the responsible use of it, and the things they feel entitled to and they take for granted. You have to have those conversations out loud.”
The series’ second season ended with David altering the memories of his girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller), who had fallen out of love with him; the two had sex following David’s decision to literally change her mind. Even though David’s season three journey sees him trying to walk it all back, the series itself is doubling down on exploring the consequences of his choice.
“If we’re rooting for the love story with David and Syd,” says Hawley, “but that love story starts to come apart in season two and there’s a moment where he erases her memories to buy himself time so he can be with her, but in doing so he removes her consent, and then he goes to her in the night… there’s a part of the audience who wants this love story to work so maybe they’re okay with it, all the way to the point where she basically says, ‘You drugged me and had sex with me.’ Then the audience goes, ‘Oh, shit. Right. That was not good. That’s immoral behavior.’ You’re presenting your audience with these challenges about rooting for this character, and also seeing the behavior clearly.”
“If I have done my subjective job right, you’ve been in David’s mind for this whole time, and now, at the end of the second season, you’ve realized he’s an unreliable narrator,” Hawley continues, which leads to his explanation for the introduction of Switch: “The reason why the third season starts with an entirely new character for the first 20 minutes is we’re now creating an objective way into the story. The first time you see David now in season three is through someone else’s eyes. It’s not subjective anymore. This guy has proven to be an unreliable narrator. We’re looking at him from the outside now, rather than from the inside. It’s not to say that we won’t go back into his point of view, but I felt it was important to switch the point of view for the audience.”
Through Switch, Legion gets to explore the grand genre conceit of time travel — a notion that’s embraced here with the standard Legion sheen of whimsy and dread, the full details of which are best left unsaid until their midseason reveals.
“Like any other storytelling device, the question is, how can we use it to solve these characters and explore these characters,” Hawley says about bringing time travel into the story. “If you could go back in time, what would you do? Is this a way to reveal who David really is to us? I think when we see him in the first hour, he’s gone off to start a new life in this commune where everyone loves him unconditionally, most likely because he’s planted that in their minds to love him unconditionally. He’s not trying to hurt anyone. Then Division 3 comes calling, because as far as they know, he’s going to destroy the world someday. He realizes they are never going to leave him alone, so he has this idea that he needs to go back in time to change something important. The question becomes, how do we play with time? Everything has consequences, so time travel has consequences, and our consequences are a little more literal; there are things in the time stream you do not want to wake up. The fun of that is how it plays with the structure of the show, and how it reflects how we play with time itself, both from the characters’ and the audience’s point of view.”
It’s also reflected in another character’s point of view: Syd, as important as ever as Legion enters the endgame, and as she reconciles the reality of her former relationship with David. According to Hawley: “When you’re in a relationship with a narcissistic person, everything has to become about them. Even on a day-to-day level, the moment your attention shifts away, that person does something dramatic to get your attention back: girlfriend, parent, President, whoever it is. The same is true here, except the consequence is this guy could destroy the world. What’s critical with Syd is that we have to take her story out of his story. She has to be the hero of her own story. The best thing she can do is stop participating in his drama. That became what’s critical. How do we turn this corner, keeping her involved in the endgame of this story, but not making it about him?”
The answer to that question, and the answers to the other questions posed as Legion closes out, may prove surprising, considering where and how the series began. But according to Hawley, the final season will end exactly as he envisioned all along, even if it yields unexpected and uncomfortable results.
“For me, I don’t know how to tell a story that I don’t know how it ends,” he says. “The end really dictates what the story means. For me, it’s critical that the meaning is imbued into the show from the very beginning. I always had the sense that this journey for David had three acts to it. I wasn’t necessarily sure if it was literally three seasons, or if it was three acts spread out over five seasons. But what I learned very early in making this show is that this show does not want to be long, unlike Fargo, which might sometimes have a 60-minute episode. You’re asking the audience to absorb so much, conceptually and visually. There would be moments with some episodes where I’m watching a cut and I’m thinking, ‘This episode wants to be over. Even I’m overloaded by what I’ve put in front of the audience.’ It’s why last year, we ended up with 11 episodes. We had 10, and then episodes seven, eight and nine were too big. We needed to break that out so the audience could consume it in a way that wasn’t overwhelming.”
“I feel that way about the show overall. For all of its experimentation, it’s a concrete story with a beginning, middle and end. I don’t want to be indulgent, even though we have these whimsical asides — like [the episode in season two] with all these alternate realities where David doesn’t go to the hospital, and there’s definitely one this season that I don’t want to spoil — I think all of that stuff becomes a meditation on storytelling. I did sit down with [Marvel Studios’ president] Kevin Feige recently and I said that I look at myself as sort of the Marvel R&D department. I know the genre can do all of these amazing things that [the Marvel Cinematic Universe] is doing, but my feeling is, what else can we do with it? Can we make it surreal? Can we make it musical? Not as a gimmick, but all of these techniques are about putting you into the subjective experience of these characters.”
Who knows what lies ahead in the final season of Legion, but Hawley casually referencing a recent meeting with Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige should make at least one thing clear: even as he’s putting this particular story to rest, and even as he’s in varying stages of development on Lucy in the Sky and Fargo season four, Hawley is still thinking about projects set in the superhero space. In 2017 at Comic-Con, Hawley announced he was writing a Doctor Doom movie for Fox; those hopes remain alive, according to Hawley, even after Disney’s recent acquisition of Fox and its many Marvel properties, Doom included.
“What was interesting to me originally about the X-Men universe is these are movies that started in a concentration camp,” says Hawley, explaining his interest in the superhero genre. “They are clearly concerned with the true nature of human evil. It’s not just some cosmic force bringing about the end of the world. That’s what was always interesting to me here. Let’s explore through this genre the everyday evils we do to each other, the ways we hurt each other and take each other for granted. There are different stories and characters who will bring about other themes. I wrote a script about Doctor Doom, an antihero story I really like, and we’re still talking about making it. I’m trying to get out from under this movie I made and this last season of Legion, and Fargo is coming back up… but for better or worse, these are the stories we want to hear right now. I think you can bury your head in the sand and say, ‘That’s unfortunate for our culture because they’re simplistic.’ Some people say that. I don’t look at it that way. I think they are morality tales on a larger scale, and it’s better to be part of the conversation than pretend the conversation isn’t happening.”