“There is a maze in the desert, carved from sand and rock,” a narrator tells us early in the season two premiere of FX’s Legion, “full of twists and dead ends. Picture it. A puzzle you walk. And at the end of this maze is a prize just waiting to be discovered. All you have to do is find your way through.”
A moment later, though, the narrator suggests that the maze, and the desert, exist only in your mind, and that nothing of value can be gained from exploring it — only madness.
In its first season, the psychedelic superhero drama — Fargo‘s Noah Hawley (very) loosely adapting the story of minor X-Men character David Haller (Dan Stevens), a mentally ill man who’s also perhaps the world’s most powerful mutant — was a visual and sonic marvel, constructing sequence after sequence that looked, sounded, and felt, like nothing else on television. One character lived inside a giant ice cube on the astral plane, where he wore leisure suits and recited beat poetry. A powerful telepath appeared to dance through the mind and memories of a victim to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” her movements transformed into a blur of trippy colors and wipes. And the season’s creative peak — among the best, and strangest (even counting Twin Peaks: The Return), four-odd minutes on television last year — saw our heroes’ final combat with the monstrous Shadow King transformed into a silent ’20s horror movie scored to “Bolero”:
It was every bit the addictive puzzle promised by the narrator in the season two premiere, which airs Tuesday. But making it to the end of the season one maze delivered not a prize, but a realization that all the flashy presentation and excellent performances had obscured the fact, that David, his body-swapping girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller), and the rest of the group were fairly thin characters who didn’t hold up well to close examination. When things were weird, it was easy to ignore, but the relatively straightforward season one finale laid bare how much that first year had been a triumph of style over substance.
Of course, Hawley only had eight hours to play with then, where the new season has 10 (of which I’ve seen the first four), and a lot of world-building to do in his very obscure corner of the Marvel TV universe. The better parts of Fargo deftly blend Hawley’s flair for telling stories in unusual ways with a knack for generating memorable and complicated characters, and I came into the new batch wondering if perhaps the new level of the maze would take us deeper into what makes David, Syd, mismatched twins Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder), imperious Melanie (Jean Smart), and “memory artist” Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) tick. And there is a bit more of an effort at that, but for the most part, the series seems to run on the same operating principle as before: if you’re wondering about the hidden meaning of a particular choice, tell yourself, “I don’t know. Somebody just thought this would look cool.”
Again and again, I’ve had to repeat that mantra while watching a new season that’s weirder and more vivid than before. Why do our heroes now report to a mysterious and mute general who wears a wicker basket on his head? Why does the general in turn communicate through a group of robots who look like catsuited women sporting Dorothy Hamill’s hair and Doug Henning’s mustache?
I don’t know. Somebody thought just it would look cool.
And they were right.
My prejudices with TV drama tend toward characterization first and foremost, and then plot, technical execution, and mood jockeying for second place depending on how well they’re done. But my investment almost always begins and ends with the characters: if I don’t care about, or even understand, the people on the show, everything else is usually just noise.
With Legion, though, it’s such beautiful noise. Every image, every sound effect, every song choice, is so unusual, so striking, and crafted with such obvious attention to detail that it effectively shoves every concern out of my head until all that’s left is a mooney thump of, “Purdy!” When I take notes on shows I’m reviewing, I switch to all-caps for anything particularly notable; my Legion notes are nearly two-thirds capitalized, to the point where they occasionally read like the scribblings of a serial killer. (“IS THIS THE LOLLIPOP GUILD?”) Even something as simple as the design of the hallways in the group’s new headquarters provides for infinite variations, so the same corridor can seem as long or as short, as innocuous or as creepy, as any scene requires.
The new season is at once more opaque and more direct than the first one. The premiere is so full of digressions that the plot eventually begins to feel like the real digression, yet by the end of it there’s a clear structure in place for how David will be dealing with the Shadow King (played at different times — even within the same scene — by Aubrey Plaza, Jemaine Clement, and Navid Negahban). And then right when the story seems to be moving forward, two episodes take place almost entirely inside the heads of different regulars.
Those two episodes feel like a corrective to the hollowness of the supporting characters, but the results are mixed and often reductive: telling us, for instance, that Ptonomy, who remembers every single moment of his life as part of his powers, sometimes wishes he could forget it all. But the fourth episode, almost entirely about Syd, effectively beefs up our understanding of the love of David’s life, who until now had been defined more by Rachel Keller’s bright and physically savvy performance(*) than what was on the page for her.
(*) Hawley and his directors take great advantage of their actors’ gift of movement to get across feelings they’re not allowed to express verbally, on a show that favors imagery over dialogue. Bill Irwin’s a trained clown who has plenty of experience working without words (he’s Mr. Noodle!), but the physicality of others like Aubrey Plaza has been a revelation.
David Haller himself remains frustratingly out of reach, despite the innate geniality of Stevens’ performance — or perhaps because of it. (The guy he’s playing most of the time seems out of sync with the thieving junkie he was before the series began.) And if Legion is meant to be a maze that leads you to the secret of exactly who and what David is, it seems bound to disappoint.
(Even the show will occasionally cop to the emptiness of some of its ideas. In the premiere, Melanie declares that the two saddest words in the English language are “vacant lot,” then admits that she doesn’t know why.)
If, on the other hand, David’s fuzzily-defined personality and powers are simply meant to be a delivery system for whatever stunning imagery or creepy soundscape Hawley and friends have dreamed up — good luck getting the sound of chattering teeth out of your heads within an episode or two — then Legion not only remains a wild success, but is frequently more fun and inventive than it was last season. If anything, the question of what drives and defines this guy could get in the way of some of the series’ crazier flourishes, where his very blankness allows Hawley and friends to paint whatever picture they desire on top of him.
Everyone’s bar between what’s considered audacious and what’s mere self-indulgence will be in a different place, and the show I find myself describing in this review seems like one I should rapidly lose patience for. Yet as I was watching, whatever qualms I had about whether the story was leading anywhere, whether I had any investment in who these people are and what they want, were quickly brushed by the joy I felt at seeing and hearing how each scene was put together.
All sizzle, no steak is usually not a recipe I enjoy for very long. But holy cow, does Legion season two sizzle.