What kind of show does Legion want to be? In its first season, it was a psychological horror thriller, a twisted love story, and a superhero story built on X-Men mythology — a mash-up of wildly different genres. While it doesn’t need to settle on one predominant storytelling mode this time around, the challenge is clear: How do you bring such disparate elements together to create a more cohesive vision?
But cohesion will have to wait. Legion’s season-two premiere, “Chapter Nine,” bombards us with new information, strange visuals, and spectacular set pieces, with confusion serving as the goal for writers Noah Hawley and Nathaniel Halpern. They want us to feel disoriented, putting us in the shoes of David Haller (Dan Stevens), who is found at the start of the episode nearly one year after his disappearance at the end of last season.
It’s been 362 days since David was sucked into a mysterious orb, and his friends have gone through some major changes. The Summerland crew is now working with Division 3 to track down Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement), who has been possessed by Amahl Farouk, a.k.a. the Shadow King (Navid Negahban), and is spreading a mental virus that leaves bystanders catatonic and creepily chattering their teeth. Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) works with the investigative branch of Division 3, Cary (Bill Irwin) is in research, and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) is in tactical. Meanwhile, Syd (Rachel Keller) and Melanie (Jean Smart) are part of the strategic board and have convinced the organization that mutants aren’t a threat. The year has been especially unkind to Melanie, who has gone off the deep end and is wallowing in sorrow exacerbated by her use of vapor, David’s past drug of choice.
Division 3 headquarters gives the Legion design team a new location to fill with striking imagery, and much of the thrill of “Chapter Nine” is in seeing how the series continues to push the stylistic limits of the superhero genre. I’m fixated on the waterway that flows through the Division 3 cafeteria, where tiny boats carry dishes of food to diners. It’s a fun visual, but it’s also representative of one of the series’ major issues: style sans function. This stream brings David the waffles he craves when he finally wakes up, but the logistics make little sense. Who actually ordered these dishes? Is it a random assortment of food that cycles around the room over and over again? How does each meal stay fresh? We see very few people in the cafeteria, so why are so many dishes rolling down the river? None of these questions matter to the overall narrative, but whenever I see the stream, I wonder what’s the point of having it there.
Imagination without intent makes things feel random, and many of the design choices for Division 3 are confusing. Why does Admiral Fukuyama wear a large basket over his head? Why do his attendants have feminine bodies, mustaches, Prince Valiant haircuts, and computerized sing-song voices? There’s no denying that these design elements make Legion stand out — especially as a superhero show — but they can also pull us out of the story if they don’t serve a purpose. The first season had plenty of weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and I’d like to see more specificity about why such weird details permeate the series.
Jon Hamm joins the cast this season as a narrator who addresses the audience during chapter breaks, beginning with a speech asking the viewer to visualize a mental maze representing madness. These sequences engage most directly with mental illness, exploring the nature of delusions with the ancient Chinese story of Zhuang Zhou’s butterfly dream, a contemporary tale of a man who saws off his leg, and a creepy visualization using two chicks — one healthy and fluffy, the other deformed, skeletal, and covered in an inky black substance. That inky chick comes back into play later in the episode, crawling up to the bed where David and Syd are spooning in the astral plane. These two lovers have a steamy psychic reunion set to the Rolling Stones’ “We Love You,” but David is keeping secrets that threaten to pull them apart. The chick symbolizes all the darkness that David is trying to supress in order to reconnect with his partner, but as we learn more about David’s past year, it becomes clear that he’ll need to open up if he’s going to maintain their relationship.
The script openly addresses the cliché of it all when Clark (Hamish Linklater) tells David about how he would watch soap operas as a child with his mother and eat ice cream whenever characters had an evil twin or amnesia. David is currently dealing with both of those: He doesn’t recall much of what happened in the past 362 days, and while he may not have a physical twin, there’s a malevolent psychic entity that potentially still has a grip on his mind. Pointing out clichés doesn’t excuse them, and this conversation draws attention to the fact that, despite its unconventional style, Legion is still rooted in traditional plot points. At the end of the episode, a common superhero trope gets folded in as we learn that the orb was actually sent by a one-armed future version of Syd, who communicates via white light drawings. She tells David that he needs to help Farouk find his body — even though that’s exactly what Division 3 is trying to stop — and this message from the future considerably changes the direction of the season.
Dan Stevens continues to be a captivating lead, and there’s a fundamental shiftiness to his performance that reflects the mix of discomfort, confusion, and anxiety at the root of David Haller. After the events of last season, David seems to be free from Farouk’s influence, but that doesn’t mean he’s in a healthy mental state. Given that time hasn’t passed for David the way it has for the others, the trauma of his possession is still very raw, and some of the most powerful moments are when Stevens shows David’s fear of falling victim to his nemesis once again. (On a lighter note, the show is also taking more advantage of Stevens’s sex appeal, and this episode finds quite a few excuses for David to take his clothes off.)
Rachel Keller brings depth to Syd, as she’s had to become a pillar of strength for this group despite the profound pain of losing David. With Melanie incapacitated, Syd stepped into a leadership role, and she’s even learning how to control her powers by swapping bodies with her cat. Keller’s strongest scenes in this episode have no dialogue, like the sequence of her holding her breath and waiting for a tea kettle to hiss, a game that gave her hope that David was still alive. She’s doing some silent-movie-level emoting in this scene, and that sense of loss is amplified when she shows up as Syd’s future self, projecting intense pity and sadness on her slightly aged face.
I predict the pairing of Oliver and Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) is going to be a highlight of this season, and “Chapter Nine” opens with their characters relaxing in a pool, baking in the sun. This is a prison of Farouk’s making, and even though they’re both trapped, at least they’ve been put in an idyllic setting where they can just lounge around and sip on drinks. With the exception of one early shot of Farouk in Paris, the Shadow King manifests as Oliver and Lenny through most of this episode, and one of David’s few memories of the last few months involves a showdown with the two of them in a nightclub.
This isn’t a traditional superhero fight, but a dance battle set to electronic music and filmed by director Tim Mielants like a Robyn music-video. I love that dance has been a part of this show’s formula since the Bollywood routine in the very first episode, and this fight between David, Oliver, and Lenny is one of the instances where the show’s eccentricity really works. The action fits the setting, it brings out new elements of the actors’ performances, and the abstract nature of dance makes the entire sequence more figurative. Ptonomy confirmed earlier in the episode that David was actually seen dancing in the club, but the structured choreography suggests an added psychic element to the movement. The stylistic flourishes give these character interactions deeper substance, and ideally Legion will maintain this dynamic as it moves forward.