Aubrey Plaza Has Been So Good On ‘Legion,’ Right?

Okay, facts first: Legion is a good show. We start there, because it’s simple, and we should take the simple parts of Legion wherever we can get them, because Legion is not a simple show. It’s kind of nuts, if we’re being honest. It’s based — loosely, so far — on a deep-cut Marvel property with ties to the X-Men, and it’s from Fargo creator Noah Hawley, and it’s a visually stunning work of art, and… it’s a good show. And the best part of this good show — again, so far — has been Aubrey Plaza and the manic evil funhouse performance she’s delivered the last few weeks. We’ll circle back to this part in a bit, but yes, these are the facts.

Now the background on the show, to the best of my understanding, spoilers included: Legion is a show about a guy named David (Dan Stevens). At the beginning of the series, David is in a mental hospital, because David has a bunch of stuff going on in his head, not all of it great. But, surprise, David is actually a powerful mutant with the ability to manipulate both physical objects and perceived reality, and then that’s a whole thing, and there’s a weird theoretical ice crystal that holds a groovy Jemaine Clement, and all hell breaks loose everywhere, in the real world and the astral plane. There are SCUBA suits and monsters and dancing. A really surprising amount of dancing, to be honest. So that’s Legion. I feel like I really nailed this part.

This brings us back to Plaza. At the beginning of the series, her character was introduced as “Lenny,” David’s drug buddy and confidant, and basically what you’d expect from an Aubrey Plaza character: detached, dry, all side-eyes and sarcasm. But around the midpoint of the first season, right at the end of the fourth episode, the show started the process of revealing her true identity. Lenny wasn’t just a stoner fellow patient. Lenny was a parasitic demon mutant called The Shadow King who latched onto David’s powerful mind when he was young, and has been piggybacking his powers his whole life to make her stronger. This is when things started getting really fun.

Let’s pause here for a brief musical interlude.

To be very clear, this is a clip of Aubrey Plaza dancing menacingly through David’s memories. It is also the moment that the viewing audience finally started to understand the scope of her control over him. She is literally dancing inside his brain, strutting around and rearranging things and having a blast with it all. Seriously, look at how much fun Aubrey Plaza appears to be having here. Part of that is, like, how could you not have fun playing a character who gets a full-on bass-thumping Nina Simone remix kaleidoscope of a scene to reveal your true evil intentions? But the bigger part of it is that, from the start of the reveal until where we stand now, Aubrey Plaza has been so, so good on Legion. Like, surprisingly good. Shockingly good. Right?

That probably came out wrong, and maybe a little insulting. I promise that’s not my intention here. It’s just… I did not know Aubrey Plaza could do what she’s doing in this show. Did you? I don’t know, maybe you did. Maybe you saw something in her past work that tipped you off. Maybe you’re Noah Hawley, the person responsible for casting her in the role. (Hi Noah!) But if you, like me, know her mostly from her work Parks and Recreation, on which she played the aforementioned dry/side-eyes/sarcastic April Ludgate, this whole thing might be a revelation to you.

And the thing is, it’s not just that’s she been this good. It’s how important it was for her to be this good. From the moment we found out that Lenny wasn’t who we thought she was, the main thrust of the show has been her relationship with David, alternating from calm manipulator to evil tormentor to what I can best describe as a frizzy-haired villain from a Tim Burton silent movie nightmare. If she doesn’t pull all of that off, and pull it off well, the show loses something important. Legion has been scary and strange and fascinating, but it’s also been really, really fun. Jemaine Clement gets some credit for that, too (as does Hawley, who has a bit of experience with this fun vs. menacing balance from his two seasons running Fargo), because every moment he’s been on screen has been a tiny jazz-infused delight. But he’s not doing any real heavy lifting, plot-wise. Plaza has this thing strapped to her back sometimes, carrying both the deeper aspects of the story and the show’s light-ish tone in the same huge knapsack as we climb toward the finish. It’s kind of a big deal. She’s basically a Sherpa.

I don’t know if this is the type of thing that will register come awards season. Comics-based shows often get backburnered at trophy time, and even the heft of FX and Noah Hawley might not be enough to crack this into the conversation. I also don’t know where any of it goes from here, because the season finale is this week and, even though the series has been renewed for a second season, there’s a logical way this plays out that puts an end to her character’s arc sooner rather than later. (Although, like, ahahaha at the concept of Legion doing the logical thing, ever.) I just think all of this — her performance in general, that dancing scene in particular — needed to be highlighted a bit because, again, it’s been so great and such a pleasant surprise.

I mean, as pleasant as anything involving a murderous parasitic demon mutant can be. Legion is a weird show, man.