A review of the Legion finale — and thoughts on season one as a whole — coming up just as soon as I’m thinking of growing half a mustache…
“I was just wondering: what am I without you?” –David
Eight episodes isn’t a long season even by the standards of 2017 prestige TV, and particularly for a show with as many moving parts as Legion. Still, given how much the show has focused on the life of David Haller and the question of whether he’s mentally ill, supremely powerful, or both, it feels more than a little unsatisfying to have David ask the above question of the Shadow King and realize that not only does he not know the answer, but that we don’t even entirely know who he is with his evil parasitic passenger. The season spent so much time on that either-or question, and larger ones about the matter of how much of what we were seeing is real, and on finding funky and memorable ways to illustrate those issues, that even with a strong lead performance by Dan Stevens, and even with the obvious chemistry between Stevens and Rachel Keller in the romantic scenes, David turned out to be more puzzle box than man.
When Legion was operating at peak weirdness — through much of that time-bending first episode, or the dreamy fourth chapter, or the utterly gonzo “Bolero” sequence last week — its form was so dazzling that its function, and the thin man at the center of it, didn’t much matter. When it went slightly more straightforward, like in the mental hospital interlude of “Chapter 6,” or the relatively conventional battle of good vs. evil in this climactic episode, then the hollowness of David, and of much of the story, becomes more of an issue. The season peaked with “Bolero” — the rest of 2017 TV is going to be playing catch-up with that one for a while — and almost anything that followed was going to feel a bit less than. And “Chapter 8” isn’t bad so much as it is… fine. But when your show at its best is so creative and surprising and audacious that it feels like something that was made in, by, and for the astral plane, a perfectly normal, competent ending to the story can’t help being a disappointment.
Part of the issue was the long opening sequence catching us up on all that Clark the interrogator had been up to since he got flash-fried at the end of “Chapter 1.” In isolation, it was a lovely idea (particularly the images of Clark’s husband and son simply lying in bed with him, waiting for him to heal), well executed by Hamish Linklater and everyone else, and fitting into a fine comic book tradition of stepping away from the story for a bit to give depth and humanity to even the most minor villain(*). But devoting close to seven minutes to it at the opening of a finale with a lot on its agenda, plot-wise, left precious little room for the kind of bizarre flourishes that had elevated so much of the journey getting us to this point. Much of what we did get that was stylistically notable were variations on past stunts, like a filth-soaked Lenny stalking Syd through the pristine astral plane hotel room instead of The Devil With The Yellow Eyes doing it (and The Devil popped up in that scene, too), or the images from the series-opening “Happy Jack” montage being purged of all influence by Farouk as Cary’s device went to work. All interesting in different ways, but none jaw-dropping, which is the standard Legion has set for itself, and that it has to find a way to keep achieving, or else deepen the characters and story enough that jaws needn’t continually drop for an episode to thrill.
(*) My favorite example of this is the “Best Man Fall” story from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, where a random henchman who was killed by King Mob within a few panels of his first appearance later got a whole issue devoted to telling his life story up until that moment.
And “Chapter 8” did devote some time to the question of exactly who and what David is — with him being more willing than Syd or Melanie to consider the idea that, even with his powers, and even with Farouk’s lifelong influence, he might still be schizophrenic — and to Syd’s feelings for him and the lengths to which she was willing to go to save him. She prevents Farouk from consuming David’s mind and being, but in the process allows the Shadow King to survive, possess Oliver Bird — mere moments after Oliver’s memory knit itself together well enough for him to realize that Melanie is his wife, and his wife is Melanie — and escape into the countryside. David confronting Syd, and Syd confronting Lenny, were two of the finale’s stronger emotional moments, and even though it was clear something terrible was going to happen to Oliver — you don’t put a character on a ladder in the middle of a superhero battle with the intention of letting him emerge unscathed — Jemaine Clement played the Eureka moment where he said Melanie’s name with a kind of joy and wonder that felt especially painful because of course something would prevent him from acting on this knowledge.
But it also helps that Oliver, even though he appeared infrequently throughout the season and is suffering from major memory loss, is probably the best-defined character on the show. (It’s him or Cary, I think.) I could never predict exactly what he might say or do in any given situation, because his brain works so randomly, but everything he does makes perfect sense for the weird telepathic lounge lizard jazz bro that he is, whereas most of what we know about Melanie — or, for that matter, David and Syd — comes more from what the actors are doing than from the material they’re given. And when you have an actor as good as Jean Smart or Stevens or Keller, you can get away with a lot of that, but it does make the emotional payoffs at the end of a season like this — where Syd’s decision to save the man she loves costs Melanie a shot at being with the man she loves — don’t hit quite as hard as they might.
“Chapter 8” had some exciting action/thriller/horror beats, and some memorably weird images, like the tower of D3 soldiers flailing and groaning after David’s power sculpted them into place like that, but it was a bit more normal than I’d hoped for, and as a result revealed the show to be a bit emptier than it had seemed at its frantic best.
Some other thoughts:
* Though Legion mostly defied comic book movie and TV conventions, it couldn’t resist doing a mid-credits scene in the finale like a more traditional Marvel film, though it wound up being more significant than those usually are. Instead of Nick Fury turning up or David and Syd enjoying some shawarma, the scene instead kicked off the first story of season two, with David being abducted by a tiny floating device that he and Syd mistake for one of Cary’s toys. My Uproxx colleague Dan Seitz will have some theories in the morning about who might have sent this gizmo, but I’m intrigued by one of his guesses from X-Men lore: the Shi’ar.
* Let us once more praise both Aubrey Plaza and the hair, makeup, and costume people who worked with her to keep transforming Lenny into so many guises over the season, depending on whose mind she was occupying and what mood that mind was in. So now that she’s Oliver’s traveling companion, she’s clean and shiny and happy, though I imagine this won’t be the only form she takes when next we see her.
* Despite naming its chief heroine after the original front man for Pink Floyd, Legion very patiently waited to play any actual Floyd music until the finale, when we heard both “Breathe (In the Air)” and the “On the Run” instrumental. We also hear Oliver singing Leslie Bricusse and Cyril Ornadel’s “If I Ruled the World” as he drives away from Summerland, and T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution” over the closing credits.
* The show remained mostly ambiguous about the time period, but Oliver was set up as a man decades out of step with popular culture, so hearing him say, “Boom goes the dynamite” while working switches in the control room felt off, even if it later turns out that this show is set 20 years from now, and thus Oliver was on his computer when one of the earliest viral videos went live.
* After being on the outs since Cary “abandoned” Kerry in the fake Clockworks, the siblings reconnect in the finale when Kerry tends to her injured brother after recovering from her brief possession by Farouk. Looking forward to seeing this relationship explored more next year.
* Is Melanie a mutant, or just the leader of a group of mutants? There haven’t been any real hints of powers, but her line to Clark about how “the age of the dinosaur is over” was delivered with the smugness of a non-dinosaur.
* Because Fargo season three is still in production, Noah Hawley wasn’t available to do a one-on-one interview, but he did a conference call with reporters, so I imagine the interwebs will have plenty of quotes from him tonight if you know how to ask your friend Google. Maybe we’ll talk down the road (even if it’s me hijacking a Fargo interview for a few Legion questions).
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org