Was the First Season of Legion Worth Watching?

A few episodes ago, a critic I follow on Twitter (can’t recall whom) mentioned that all the fervent, adoring chatter about Legion reminded them of the same ultimately misguided passion for the first season of True Detective, and I’m inclined to agree. Sure, the first season of True Detective was visually impressive, powerfully acted, and beautifully shot and directed. However, there were a lot of cracks in the foundation of the story True Detective told, cracks that became sinkholes by the second. Similarly, Legion is absolutely striking to behold, but the plot is peppered with too many ideas that go nowhere, takes too long to get going, and too often relies on infodumping crucial background details because it’s frittered its running time away on looking cool. Creator and showrunner Noah Hawley managed to keep Fargo running on all cylinders from the first to second season, so maybe Legion will be just as lucky and not hit the dreaded True Detective season two crash and burn. Given the finale, the second season could go either way.

But so what, right? The real question isn’t whether or not the first season of Legion was perfect but whether or not it is worth watching. And to answer that, let’s take a look at the last few episodes. Spoilers ahead

The fifth episode shifts the plot’s momentum into high gear. David, inspired by his time spent with Oliver and emboldened by embracing the depth and breadth of his powers, creates a psychic romantic getaway for him and Syd. There she’s attacked by the devil with the yellow eyes. We see the true horror of David’s abilities when he, controlled by the parasite, launches an attack on Division 3 to rescue his sister. His mutant compatriots watch in horror as he dances and plays as he burns, fuses, and vaporizes his enemies. David brings Amy to their childhood home where she reveals he was adopted. Syd, Dr. Bird, Ptonomy, Cary/Kerry, and the Eye and his goons converge on the house and just as the bullets begin to fly the crew find themselves back at Clockworks but with Lenny in charge.

Most of episode six is spent in Clockworks. Almost everyone buys into their new faux reality, but Syd sees the seams in Lenny’s stitched together fantasy. The world is built to satisfy David, with the others slotted in as pacifiers for him and playthings for Lenny. The Eye doesn’t seem to care either way about the reality of his existence. He is who he is regardless of his circumstances, and who he is is a man with sadistic tendencies and a singular focus that is at the moment zoomed in on Kerry. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode is largely wheelspinning to fill time before the ramp up to the final confrontation. If you’ve seen one “the cast wake up in a mental hospital and are told their real lives are fake!” episode, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Episode seven reveals the parasite as the Shadow King, aka Amahl Farouk, an ancient mutant that body surfs from host to host. He latched onto David’s subconscious as a baby and has appeared throughout his life as his dog King, his druggy friend Benny, and now Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny, not to mention the big-headed murder boy and the devil with the yellow eyes. The Shadow King banishes David to the sunken place while he searches for something lost and harasses Amy for information. A British version of David guides David through the explanation with a clever (albeit repetitive) use of chalk animation. Cary abandons Kerry when Oliver arrives to help, leaving her vulnerable to attack by the Eye. The gang escapes Farouk’s mental prison, but in the end their freedom is only fleeting. Division 3, led by a burned Interrogator, returns.

The finale puts the Division 3 plot on a low simmer while all the heat goes toward the Summerland crew yanking the Shadow King out of David’s rapidly deteriorating mind. Lenny threatens to kill David on the way out so Syd interrupts the intricate process set up by Oliver and Cary. Lenny jumps from Syd to Kerry to Oliver, in whom she makes her escape. The Shadow King and Oliver drive away to search for whatever it was looking for in David’s memories. We’re also shown what’s happened to the Interrogator in the time between David’s escape from Division 3 and now, and it’s clear that the Interrogator’s main drive right now is revenge. He has a camera in his melted eye so the head honchos (and his doting hubby) can plan for contingencies – presumably, one of those contingencies is the floating metal ball that hoovers up David in the tag.

As romantic as David’s love palace seems on the surface – all flowing white and silky fabrics – it’s hollow, fake, and insincere. It’s a pretend world built on a fantasy. Syd’s love is genuine but it’s for a man mimicking romance; David believes his love is true, but his emotions are so entwined with the parasite that we can’t trust his feelings as real. How much of the man Syd loves is David and how much is the Shadow King? It’s possible, likely even, that their sexier, spicier, rougher moments were acted out by the parasite and the quieter moments David. Which means the “David” Syd falls in love with is little more than a construct of disassociated pieces and lies we tell to make ourselves feel better. The closest thing to the “real” David is that clingy, willfully ignorant (and not all that bright) young man in the faux Clockworks, a man who tests Syd’s patience at every turn. That doesn’t bode well for their epic romance. If their romance survives at all. By the finale, the psychic getaway has been infected by the Shadow King, his wickedness staining and rotting the bedroom from the inside out. Syd’s love might be the only thing that can save David, but it’s also a weak point Lenny is all too eager to exploit.

Speaking of Lenny/Shadow King, the more we see of the devil with the yellow eyes, the less effective he becomes. Other than clomp around ominously and smile creepily at people, he hasn’t actually done anything. Lenny is more threatening by virtue of her ability to trap people in David’s psyche (and fold them into broken, bloody shapes), but her gray-skinned manifestation gets sillier the longer he’s on screen. Aubrey Plaza, on the other hand, is fan-frakking-tastic. She outpaces everyone else on this show. Take her out of Legion and the show wouldn’t be half as interesting. She’s just so good at being sooooo bad.

In the end, all of the intriguing plots are trampled by its twists and turns. Whatever Important Things Legion wants to say about reality and truth are shunted aside in favor of untangling the grand mystery of it all. Putting together the David Haller puzzle is more exciting than philosophical debates about human nature so it’s easier to focus on why a character says or does something rather than the subtext of it. Frankly, I’m not sure what Legion has to say is all that interesting to begin with. To be clear, I’m not talking about the superhero stuff. Legion actually does a bang up job with that aspect. I’m all about retelling comic book tales from different perspectives. Genre mixing, when done well, can upend the boring status quo (think Luke Cage, Agent Carter, Preacher). When done poorly it’s little more than shuffling the same old pieces around the same old board (later seasons of The Flash and Arrow). Legion is definitely the former category with reinventing the comic book story.

No, where it stumbles is the non-superhero thematic elements. The packaging is unique, but what’s inside has been done a million times before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind. Some of my favorite stories are ones that take old tropes and dress them up in new clothes. The problem comes when you find the plot rote and the decorative fringe uninteresting. Well, “uninteresting” is probably too strong a word. The show looks fucking incredible, no debate. While it’s on, Legion is one helluva drug trip, but the comedown is fast and with few lingering aftereffects.

It boils down to how much that window dressing matters to the viewer. Do long silent sequences, dance numbers, and walks down tangent lane with infrequently seen side characters fill you with thrills and chills? Does the thought of wandering through whole episodes without any clue as to what they’re leading up to or what’s happening make you quiver with glee? If so, Legion is probably your new favorite show. If not, well…

This isn’t a moral judgement. There’s no shame in loving Legion. More like we live in a world glutted by prestige TV and we all have to draw the line between must see and binge later. For me, Legion falls squarely in the latter. That doesn’t make it any less good than other shows, it’s just a personal choice. I certainly don’t regret the eight hours I spent watching it, but I’m also not chomping at the bit for season two. Fireworks and skilled craftsmanship aren’t enough for me. I need an engaging plot or the whole thing becomes a house of cards.

Final Thoughts

  • “I met your husband. He’s… a beat poet?”
  • “My memory’s a bit… what’s the word… dishes.”
  • “Isn’t that the language of the world? People of different lands, different nations, learning to live together?”
  • The Shadow King has a long history in the Marvel multiverse.
  • David sketches his father as bald, plus we also see a flash of the trademark X-Man “X” in a wheel logo in his childhood home. It also makes an appearance in the finale behind David during the hallway fight with Kerry. All the more enticing since Hawley recently teased the possibility of Professor X turning up in the second season
  • So, just three PoC in the whole damn show? And one (white) gay couple as the only queer representation? *sigh*
  • I loved Syd’s “I’ve been paying attention” quip at Cary as he starts to explain everything in the astral plane. A clever way to prove how brilliant and aware Syd is that she figured everything out all on her own. Out of all the characters, I like her and Kerry the most.
  • Kerry’s divorce from Cary pained me more than I expected. From her terrifying experience being chased by the Eye to her understandable feelings of abandonment by her literal other half, she had me on the edge of my seat.
  • Keeping Legion to a tight eight episodes was one of Hawley’s smartest decisions. Any longer and it would’ve crumpled under its own weight. Really, it could probably get cinched down to seven and be even better.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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