Spoilers for Legion’s season-two finale below.
Legion is not a show that seems particularly concerned with whether or not you understand it. The Noah Hawley-helmed series — very loosely adapted from ideas and characters first seen in the pages of Marvel’s X-Men comics — is resolutely dedicated to subjectivity. It plumbs the minds of individual characters and larger social groups and depicts their delusions, which leads to a reality that is constantly in question and a heap of broken images that the viewer tries to assemble into a coherent plot.
Nevertheless, Hawley firmly believes you can pick up on the themes that the show lays out in its Kubrick- and Dalí-infused visuals to better understand its meditations on mental illness and isolation. Ahead of Tuesday’s season finale, we caught up with Hawley to talk about the horrifying crime that David (Dan Stevens) commits against his former girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller), criticism about the show’s treatment of its female characters, and the identity of Legion’s true protagonist.
First off, congratulations on the season-three renewal.
Thank you. I hope everyone’s excited. It’s fun for me to be given permission to continue to play around in this genre and this medium. And you’ve seen, if you watched the end of the season, that there’s also some serious business afoot and a real character journey that people are taking. So it’s nice to be able to continue that.
The finale is pretty brutal.
I think people are going to have a strong reaction to the scene where David rapes Syd after altering her memory. How concerned were you about making your protagonist do something like that, and what were your concerns about doing that to a female character?
I mean, for me, the whole show started with this idea, even before I had assigned a character to it. It was just: What can I do in this genre? I felt like, for the genre to be great, it would have to be a great show regardless of the genre. I thought, Well, it would be interesting if it was a supervillain story on some level. To say, How do you take a character from a sympathetic place to an unsympathetic place?
That doesn’t mean that David is going to stay there, because obviously, in the X-Men universe, characters cross back and forth. You have Magneto, who, sometimes he’s on the right side, and sometimes he’s on the wrong side. With David, there was always this underlying question of, “Is he mentally ill or does he have these powers? Or both? Does he have these powers but he’s also mentally ill because just of the experience of living with these powers for 30-plus years?” If you’re in a psychiatric hospital and you’re hearing voices and you’re seeing things, even if those are your powers, at a certain point, your personality develops around them. He has this vulnerability, personality-wise and psychically. I liken it to Fargo on some level. In Fargo, at some point, there’s always a moment where the worst person in the show says, “I’m the victim here.”
From David’s point of view, he had this really traumatic event in his childhood that he’s never recovered from. There’s part of him that, in a very understandable way, is still a small child going, “I’m a good person and I deserve love.” You can rationalize a lot of things based on feeling like you’re the victim and you deserve something. In his mind, it’s okay to make Syd forget how she feels about him and then rob her of all consent because they’re in love. In his mind, it’s a love story and it’s going to end as a love story. Of course, watching it, it’s a little creepy for us because we realize, “Hold on, this genre’s not supposed to do that. We’re not supposed to have our protagonist who, as she says, ‘You drugged me and had sex with me.’”
I mean, look, it’s controversial. I don’t know what the conversation will be, but I think it’s worth having the conversation about consent and about the fact that there is no justification for acting without another person’s consent. And, as she said, “I’m the hero and you’re just another villain.” On some level, that’s the story of the show. The question is, is there any redemption for him coming out of that? And where do we go next?
For me, the highlight of the season was “Chapter 14,” the stand-alone episode with all the ways David’s life could have played out. I won’t lie, I cried while watching it. I’m curious, what were the origins of that episode? Whose idea was it? How did that come together?
We wrote our [season-two] first script and, on some level, it just felt like math to me. It moved the mechanics along, but I wasn’t necessarily inspired. And so, I just sat down and wrote [“Chapter 14”], this alternate-reality hour, and said, I don’t necessarily need to move the story forward. I just need to take this concept of all the alternate realities in which David did not go to Clockworks, and see all the roads that he could have taken.
The key was where to place it in the season. My first instinct was to do it first, which made the network nervous. Rightly so, because it’s already a hard show to understand and if you’re starting that way, it’s not going to pull people in, necessarily. The place where it made the most sense was after Amy’s … let’s call it death. Where we see David collapse on the floor, and the next thing he’d think would be, I just want to be in any other reality but the one in which this just happened. The key in the execution was to create this melancholy thing and then to have him end up at Clockworks, and for that to be uplifting. Now he’s going into the reality that we know and we’re excited because it’s the reality in which he can make the most change, you know? I’m really proud of that hour.
You mentioned Amy’s “death.” That gets at a question that I have about gender dynamics on Legion. There’s criticism — I don’t know if you’ve read any of it — that the show sometimes mistreats its female characters. Yet this season, it’s clear you wanted to say something about the relations between men and women. What did you want to say?
Well, it’s a big question. I’m not sure that, in the course of this season, I thought about it along those specific lines, as a story used to explore gender relations. What’s interesting to me about this show is that there are no easy answers. No one has really had an easy time of it in their youth, which is a big factor in the X-Men stories, right? Being a mutant is a metaphor for being an outsider, and the reality of life as an outsider is that people don’t accept you. The idea of having these powers is a romantic idea — what other people call your weakness is really your strength.
This is why David has the history that he has, Syd has the history that she has, and we’re able to see that history in the fourth hour. Not all of her choices were great. As not all of his choices have been great. And Lenny certainly has her history of drugs and borderline personality or whatever you want to say about her. But in both genders, there’s a struggle going on for people who have been mistreated for much of their lives to try to be their best selves. The point of the story is to push the audience and to make you think about where you stand on these questions. To push people to consider these things, you have to create these moral quandaries for the audience as well as the characters. There’s a difference between having a hateful character and making a hateful show, if you know what I’m saying.
Sure, but I’m still curious about all the monologues from Melanie about “our men” and how they let women down. You were clearly trying to convey something with that, since the idea appears multiple times.
I think there is — in this genre, especially — this cult of the Men of Destiny, right? Which reflects a larger great-man-versus-good-man dynamic, right? If you’re a great person who is making the world a better place, do you also have to be a good person? You see a lot of stories about people who did great things in the world, but who were shit husbands and bad dads and we go, Oh okay, I guess, but, y’know, world peace, scientific advancement, et cetera. Melanie is someone who bought into this idea that her husband was a Man of Destiny. She stood by him, and then he disappeared and she waited for him. When he came back, she felt rewarded, and then he left again and she just reached a point where she’s like, What am I doing, as a woman standing by my man when my man’s not standing by me?
Obviously, that point of view then becomes weaponized by Farouk. In that tenth hour, Farouk is speaking through Melanie to Syd to say, “This is the man that you’re in love with, and he’s not what you think he is.” Which is using words that Melanie spoke, but corrupting her intent. But I do think that, if you’re watching a show in which David is the hero, then it’s a very different show than if you’re watching and Syd is the hero. Right?
My hope is that, by the end of the second season, you’re beginning to realize that David may not be the protagonist of the show. That Syd may be the actual protagonist of the show. Maybe that’s not great for everybody. Maybe all people wanted was a love story in which love conquered all. There’s no saying what will happen in the end, but certainly, at this moment, David’s sins were sins against this relationship – of going outside of it, of lying, of not showing up, of believing that he has this destiny that allows him to act in a way that Syd doesn’t take for granted that she could act that way. So yeah, gender of it is a big part of it. We’re looking at it in a complex and adult way, which means that it’s going to be hard for some people. It’s going to bring up a lot of things that feel more personal, maybe. They may feel that the show is taking a stance, when really, all the show is trying to do is ask questions.
Finally, how did you go about procuring the giant tuning fork and the giant pink bathtub plug?
Well, the actual plug is white and I asked them, with visual effects, to make it pink, because it seemed more meaningful. There was a runner through the season, starting with the giant floating hands, of trying these fantastical elements. The artist Claes Oldenburg, in the ’60s, made a big splash simply by taking everyday objects and making them huge, which makes you rethink your everyday objects. I think the goal was to have some whimsy and the understanding that it’s not complicated ideas that have the most impact. It’s the simplest ideas. The idea of a tuning fork … when you ring a tuning fork, it sends out sound waves, which is both visual and also a great audio for your story. It’s also a very simple device. You could come up with some machine that does the same thing, but there’s an elegance to these simpler objects.
Did you build them, or were they built for some other purpose?
They were built, yeah. The tuning fork was a real object and very heavy, I believe. And we definitely built the giant bathtub plug. It’s out there, somewhere. It’s on some backlot somewhere. I should have taken it home.
I can’t wait to see whatever TV show or movie decides to use the plug. It’s just sitting there begging to be used.
First, you gotta build a bathtub.
This interview has been edited and condensed.