For many shows, from thrillers to dramas, mystery is just one force keeping the audience interested. In Noah Hawley’s Legion, however, uncertainty is the foundation on which the rest of the story’s world is created. Its narrative is as unreliable as the broken mind of its protagonist, David Haller, played by Dan Stevens. Legion’s wildly inventive first season followed David, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, as he battled for control of his mind and explored his unknown, seemingly unlimited power.
Technically, Legion is a superhero show. I say “technically” because Hawley took great strides to keep it, at least artistically, as far as possible from the superhero genre and from the cultural behemoth that is Marvel. Not once in watching the first season did I consider its protagonists “heroes.” Instead, Hawley presents what would these people would actually be like if they had these powers. To the show’s credit, none of the characters’ powers feel tacked on; their abilities have a clear impact on their psychology. Syd, played by Rachel Keller, trades bodies whenever she touches someone, and this is echoed in her withdrawn and standoffish personality she is when first introduced.
One of Legion’s main themes is mental health — unsurprising, considering that the ability to alter reality is theoretically indistinguishable from a psychotic break. To complement this theme, Hawley employs time-bending, unstable storytelling, a set design that evades dating and a score reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (David’s love interest is even named Syd Barrett). The audience is left uncertain of when or where the action is happening, and we are often just as in the dark as David. In fact, I found the most cathartic scene of the first season to be at the end of the pilot episode when David, having finally escaped the forces that want to institutionalize him, asks “is this real?”
The entire cast is remarkably talented, but the standouts are Stevens as David and Aubrey Plaza as Lenny Busker. Stevens somehow conveys David’s damaged psychology with incredible detail; even the smallest erratic movements are done convincingly and without calling attention to themselves. Plaza’s Lenny, on the other hand, exudes innuendo and malice, stealing nearly every scene she is in. Legion’s first season deserved to be nominated for Emmys across the board, but no snub was greater than Plaza for Supporting Actress.
My biggest question going into season two was how Hawley and his crew would keep Legion’s atmosphere of uncertainty after the removal of David’s largest psychological foe. The first method is pragmatic and somewhat cliché: he is suffering from amnesia. Almost a year has passed, the world has changed drastically and we and David have to catch up quickly. Old enemies are now allies, roles have changed and once again the fate of the world is at stake.
A second and more profound change is Hawley’s wilder, weirder presentation. Emboldened by last season’s success, Legion‘s second season takes even more risks. While it is able to recreate the amazement and disorientation that made the first season so watchable, it flirts with being too hard to follow. It dances around the plot instead of following it and sometimes seems more focused on breaking the genre than contributing to it. For instance, within the premiere alone, there is a philosophical exposition on the nature of delusion, an animated version of Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream and an enormously intricate dance-off, all with narrative importance yet to be revealed. Not to mention the introduction of Admiral Fukuyama, a character with a basket-covered head that speaks through three androgynous androids.
This is a point onto which many of the show’s critics latch; what some consider a novel emphasis of experience over comprehension, others criticize as simply being weird for the sake of being weird. For others still, the show’s spectacle is just a way to hide an unoriginal premise, that of an outsider learning to control his power and fight for good. It is true that just because something is difficult to understand does not mean it is worth understanding, but Legion‘s presentation is inseparable from its subject matter, and its exploration of the intersection between the superhero genre and mental illness is certainly a trip worth taking.
Noah Harrelson is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.