FX’s psychedelic science-fiction thriller Legion is the most brazenly inventive series on TV — so determined to surprise, confound, and dazzle at every moment that you tend to lose track of what, exactly, is happening, what it means, and how much progress, if any, the plot has made since the last cool trick they pulled. Adapted by Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, and derived from Chris Claremont and Bill Sinkiewicz’s 1980s take on X-Men spinoff The New Mutants, the show became one of my favorite new dramas when its eight-episode first season debuted last January, thanks in large part to its wicked sense of humor and its continual sense of play.
The first season followed David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), a superpowerful mutant who spent most of his life thinking he was schizophrenic, as he went through treatment at a secret facility called Summerland, and ultimately realized that he was infected by a parasitic bad guy named Amahl Farouk, a.k.a. the Shadow King, a.k.a. the Man with the Yellow Eyes. Legion is an ensemble show with a deep bench of character actors, including Rachel Keller and Aubrey Plaza as two of David’s fellow inmates, Sidney “Syd” Barret and Lenny Busker, respectively. Other standouts include Jean Smart as psychiatric therapist Melanie Bird; Jeremie Harris as former child-prodigy Ptonomy Wallace; and Bill Irwin as scientist Cary Loudermilk, who has a preternaturally skilled fighter named Kerry (Amber Midthunder) living inside of his body. (Kerry only ages when she jumps outside of Cary’s body, which accounts for the seemingly 30-year difference in their appearances.)
But the guiding principle here is that you shouldn’t immediately trust what you see. A big percentage of Legion is told through the perceptions of its characters (David especially), and while everything that happens has some kind of emotional or narrative weight, it’s safe to assume that none of it should be taken too literally. Sometimes you’re looking at things that verifiably happened, more or less, as presented to the viewer. Other times you’re seeing somebody’s subjective, coded, or distorted perception of an event in the past (or future) — or an encounter that’s playing out in a metaphysical dimension known as the Astral Plane. Sometimes it takes a bit of analysis and unpacking for characters to figure out what they are seeing. There are scenes where characters tour David’s memories as if they were sets in a stage production, uncovering details that were elided or obscured (i.e. repressed) in the first telling. Sometimes a door will appear where there wasn’t one, or a character that you thought you knew turns out to be someone or something else. Important information is conveyed via immensely complex action sequences, musical numbers, and self-contained music videos. The single most spectacular set-piece in season one took the form of a silent film with tinted images on title cards, scored to a terrifying electronic cover of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero.
Hawley reportedly signed on to the production on the condition that he could construct a fiction that seemed unreliably narrated, in the manner of a novel where you either know going in that you can’t trust what you see, or figure it out in due course. The series doesn’t stick to that mandate consistently — there are times when there’s plot that needs clarifying, and sometimes the best way to do that is to stick a couple of characters at a table in a cafeteria and have them talk to each other — but for the most part, it seems dedicated to the idea that if you’re going to tell a story or examine an idea, you might as well do it in the most flamboyantly exciting manner possible. Sometimes this approach yields less-than-laudable results. There are times when the show pulls the equivalent of cutting a hole through the side of a vault that was unlocked the whole time. But that comes with the territory.
Hawley, cinematographers Dana Gonzales and Craig Wrobleski, production designer Michael Wylie, and costume designer Carol Case treat the project as a freewheeling zone of experimentation. Time periods and architectural styles collide and fuse. The show seems to be taking place in the 1940s, the mid-1960s, the 1980s, and the present, all at once. The genre mash-ups that result are often as weird as they are striking, and they delight as art objects even when they do little to advance the story. (I consider it a compliment to the show to say that it doesn’t care all that much about plot; others will not agree.) The pilot kicked off with a mostly dialogue-free music montage, set to the Who’s “Happy Jack,” that compressed David’s childhood and adolescence into a two-and-a-half-minute music video, climaxing with the character unsuccessfully trying to hang himself. It was funny in a way that made you wonder if it was all right to laugh. The audacity of this opening assured us that Legion was not interested in playing by rules established in other Marvel-derived series and films. It was as if the keys to the X-Men franchise had momentarily been handed to Wes Anderson.
From the looks of the first four episodes of season two, which chases the escaped and still-menacing Farouk through time and space, the makers of Legion have doubled down on style. The first episode begins with a scene of a couple of characters floating on a raft on the surface of a swimming pool — an image framed, lit, and colored so that it evokes David Hockney’s painting “A Bigger Splash.” But the camera is turned on its side in a lot of the shots, so you’re watching the characters talk while twisted at a 90-degree angle and jammed into one side of the frame. This scene pretty much sums up the operating aesthetic philosophy of Legion: All the usual techniques get flipped, inverted, turned upside down, ripped to pieces, and turned into a collage. By the end of it, you’re in doubt as to whether you’re really seeing two characters floating on the surface of a swimming pool, or if it’s something else entirely. There are more musical numbers this time (one includes a glimpse of Irwin cutting loose), a scene of two characters invading an underground complex to the tune of “Swingin’ on a Star” (a Hudson Hawk joke, of all things), and sequences set in a surreal wheat field with a gothic mansion that evokes the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and the films of Terrence Malick. Strictly speaking, none of this is necessary, and there are moments when Hawley’s storytelling is so stubbornly anti-plot that you can imagine David Lynch asking him to pick up the pace. But the frustrations and indulgences are all of a piece. This is someone else’s dream. You get to watch it, question it, and sometimes dance to it.