(Note: This post contains spoilers for FX’s “Legion” Season 1, including the season finale.)
For its entire first season, FX’s Marvel Comics adaptation “Legion” has been asking a question of everyone, from its protagonist to its audience: “What is real?” With the conclusion of season 1 in the eighth episode of “Legion,” we believe the answer is, “Apparently, everything.”
And that’s a pretty big letdown — if that actually ends up being the case.
“Legion” went to great pains to spin a mystery surrounding the perceptions of its protagonist, David Haller (Dan Stevens). David is an institutionalized man who believes he’s mentally ill. One day, he finds himself saved by a group of super-powered “mutants,” humans with altered genes that give them special powers in the vein of the “X-Men” comics from which “Legion” is a spin-off.
Suddenly, David’s life is totally flipped — he’s not schizophrenic, he’s actually a ridiculously powerful psychic. He’s the most powerful mutant any of the other mutants have ever met. His untapped potential is key to winning a clandestine war between the mutants and the government that, apparently, wants to imprison them. And he falls in love with one of the mutants, Syd (Rachel Keller), and she loves him.
It all almost sounds too good to be true. David even says as much in the finale, reiterating that he can’t really trust what he sees. Throughout the show, “Legion” has encouraged viewers to question David’s perception and what they’re shown, seeding the show with the idea that what’s happening could, in whole or in part, actually be taking place in David’s mind.
And there’s plenty of reason to question the reality of what’s happening to David. The show breaks into seemingly random musical numbers. Sometimes characters narrate or introduces an episode, breaking the fourth wall, talking straight to the audience. A big chunk of Episode 7 plays in the style of a silent black-and-white film.
The biggest question marks are raised in the fourth episode of the series. That’s when mutants Syd, Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) go out into the world to investigate elements of David’s memory, discovering that much of what they’ve learned from him or seen in his memories is actually false. Throughout the episode, Syd wonders if the world they’re inhabiting is the real one, or a psychic projection of David’s mind and his colossal, reality bending power.
“Legion” has left us asking, “Why?” What do all these suspect moments mean for David and the other people in his life? Is any of this real, or just the feverish imaginings of a man struggling with his personal demons? What if these people and things are, in fact, imaginary?
By the season 1 finale, though, it becomes clear that those answers are never coming. The suggestion, then, is that everything was real. The show played it straight. David might have been confused, but everything we saw was 100-percent accurate. Those musical asides and style shifts were just that, accomplishing small goals but not really driving any greater meaning playing out over the course of the story.
And that feels like a big missed opportunity, and a disappointment. “Legion” is gorgeous in its visuals, deft in its construction of moments, and brave in its uses of style shifts and music. But ultimately what’s happening on the screen comes in second to the atmosphere it projects. Maybe we’ve all been playing too close attention to the show when it’s meant to be absorbed, rather than observed.
There’s plenty of “Legion” that’s alarmingly good. Aubrey Plaza in particular turns in a frightening performance as the show’s villain Lenny, and Stevens’ portrayal of the amiable but besieged David is a great foil for her. Those stylistic touches, from musicals to cinematography, make the show fascinating to watch throughout.
But a lot of “Legion” feels underutilized and underdeveloped, from the skeptical Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) and true believer Melanie (Jean Smart) to the body-sharing Kerry (Amber Midthunder) and Cary (Bill Irwin) to the powerful but amnesiac Oliver (Jemaine Clement). Even the government agency and its shapeshifting agent menacing everyone throughout the show feel half-drawn and unclear.
There are a lot of threads left dangling, like who David’s parents are, what Division 3’s deal is, and what Lenny, AKA the Shadow King, is ultimately after. Time spent on things like the lengthy explanation of David’s relationship to the Shadow King in Episode 7 — information viewers had already picked up across the length of the first season, and which did little to illuminate David or Lenny — would have been better used on those threads or fleshing out the show’s secondary characters.
For eight episodes, “Legion” played at being more complex than it turned out to be. Beautiful though it often is, it comes back feeling somewhat half-formed. Perhaps Season 2 will delve deeper into how David’s perceptions might actually affect his place in the world. But for now, Season 1 claims David is an unreliable narrator, suggesting deeper implications because of it — only to finish off by saying, “actually, he was telling the truth the whole time.”