About halfway through the series finale of FX’s Legion, a scene meant to hit like a gut punch instead dissolves into a flutter. David Haller (Dan Stevens) is finally comforted by his father, Charles Xavier (Harry Lloyd), after a lifetime of feeling lost and abandoned. In true Legion fashion, this reunion takes place in the blinding white expanse of the astral plane, where the two men stare intently at one another in a medium shot free of close-ups; at the precise moment when their relationship should be at its most heart-wrenching, the filmmaking distances us from the performances rather than draw us nearer. In many ways, this moment between Charles and David encapsulates the splendor and pitfalls of not only the finale, but Legion itself, which for three seasons danced along the razor’s edge between inventively bold and pretentiously infuriating.
After its muddled second season ended with David raping his supposed love Syd (Rachel Keller), I was unsure if Legion would be able to regain my attention let alone my trust. But its third season has been a rollicking, heartfelt fantasia in which series creator Noah Hawley and his collaborators nudge at intriguing dynamics of familial longing, loneliness, power, and the moral bramble that led David to what he’s become in the finale: a once-hero, perennially troubled and undone by the vengeance he seeks. There are too many lingering threads in the finale and some of the emotional grace notes feel rushed, yet even then, it has a gorgeous, somber tone that I found beguiling. Whenever it began to lose me, a sonic flourish, trippy consideration, or beautiful melancholy would shift into view, pulling me in once more. Its consideration of death and rebirth pulled at a certain longing within me, while its performances and visual ingenuity dazzled me enough to forgive where the writing fell short.
Going into the finale, I wasn’t sure how Hawley and his collaborators would wrap up this strange journey, considering the sheer number of loose threads left in the story. Would time-traveler Switch (Lauren Tsai) survive despite her harrowing physical state after jumping so far in the past with David? Would David and Charles be able to rewrite the past? Would they be able to save David’s own past and thus the world? What sort of dizzying final battle would Farouk and David find themselves in? The answer to that last question, naturally, is more than a bit complicated: David ends up fighting with Farouk’s past self after he’s goaded into battle, using a mace he created by pulling a glowing orb out of his ear to send Farouk into the astral plane. Farouk then transforms into a straitjacket, enveloping himself around David as images of various other Davids rage behind him and his mother sings with him to the tune of Pink Floyd’s “Mother.” (The musical number doesn’t quite hit the right note, but if nothing else, nobody can accuse Legion of playing it safe.)
Meanwhile, a fight between Charles and Farouk’s present self in the astral plane — complete with red fabric signaling blood — turns into something far more intriguing: The rivals ultimately reach a compromise. When David flings off the straitjacket, then chooses a brutally intimate end for Past Farouk by strangling him, Charles stops him before he can finish. This leads to one of the more hilarious moments in the finale, in which David throws a tantrum on the floor. “I almost had him!” David exclaims. “Yes, I saw the blood,” Charles drolly replies. “What did you think? I was going to kill him with words?!” Dan Stevens’s delivery and childlike irreverence is pitch-perfect, simultaneously comedic and touching, revealing the awkward familial dynamics that he and Charles find themselves in as neither is fully prepared for the other’s presence in his life.
As for the other lingering threads, like those pesky Time Eaters? Switch is revealed — to both herself and the audience — to be a fourth-dimensional being. (“I am Time,” she says to Syd later.) She learns that the Time Eaters are well-trained creatures guarding the tributaries of time from would-be invaders. With her father’s guidance and a trusted whistle, she’s able to send them skittering away from Syd, who had been holding them back with a shotgun. In many ways, this twist shouldn’t work. It feels cheap, an easy deus ex machina to unbind the various knots the show has written itself into. Yet, there is a strange melancholy to this revelation full of bruising images: Switch spitting out her remaining teeth into a bloody, clattering heap; her father’s hand gently nudging her battered face; the tenderness that Switch and Syd share during their final encounter. It’s this meeting between Syd and Switch that marks my favorite scene of the finale, even more than the delirious wonder of seeing glowing weaponry being imagined into existence or Kerry Loudermilk (Amber Midthunder) slice through the Time Eaters.
With the Time Eaters no longer a foe and David having made a compromise with Farouk to respect each other’s right to exist, Syd comes to face what it means to save the world by refashioning the past — and the great price that comes with it. “Sydney Barrett, Gabrielle Xavier, and the infant David, the universe acknowledges you. That you exist and that your existence is important. I can see that you’ve suffered, that people you loved suffered. And you want to know that it meant something,” Switch tells them with measured importance, “It did. It does. Nothing of value is ever lost.”
Isn’t that what we all want to know? That these lives we lead, stumbling in the dark, actually matter? But there is bitterness to this truth Switch reveals. The past has been changed, so that means Syd and the others will change with it. She will essentially die and be reborn. “The life you lived, your memories … everything will be new,” Switch says. “So, I die?” Syd asks. (Notably, Switch doesn’t mention Cary or Kerry in her speech, suggesting they perhaps won’t be reincarnated, for lack of a better term.) Rachel Keller’s performance is tremendous here, her face fluttering through emotions that speak to the audience despite her barely saying a word. I found myself struck by this conversation, rewinding it to see the minute shifts in Keller’s face as Syd grapples with the enormity of Switch’s revelation. It reminded me of the ache central to being human: a knowledge of death and the inability to change the fact that we all will die, something that has haunted me in the wake of the sudden and unexpected passing of my cousin.
As always, Legion is dazzling on a visual level. It plays with frame ratio, color, mood, tone, and sound with wild abandon. This season gave us entrancing sequences: Jason Mantzoukas as the Big Bad Wolf in a rap battle against Jemaine Clement; a candy-colored wonderland ruled over by Aubrey Plaza’s quicksilver and vicious Lenny; one of the most serenely beautiful visions of time travel I’ve seen in a long time; and a feast of fight sequences that play with reality and the frame ratio in ways that filled me with awe. But I keep coming back to the performances. Particularly the slippery, malevolently charismatic Navid Negahban as Amahl Farouk, the citrus-bright presence of Lauren Tsai as Switch, and, of course, Dan Stevens’s kaleidoscopic central performance. Yet even Stevens’s elastic face and body, mournful eyes, and manic energy can’t distract from what the finale doesn’t properly contend with: David’s mental illness.
In the first season, David’s mental illness was passed off as a by-product of Farouk’s parasitic presence in his mind. Season two posited that he did, in fact, have mental-health issues and needed treatment. In season three, the notion of David having multiple personalities is brought to the fore, clumsily aligning Legion with the X-Men canon that the show never took too seriously in crafting its world. But for a series so invested in the inner workings of who David is, how he became this way, and whether he can change, it never properly explored this dimension of his life. (Furthermore, it indulged an old misogynistic chestnut by establishing David’s mother, Gabrielle, as a woman nearly incapable of functioning with her mental illness, blathering on about “the sickness” that inflicts the women — and only the women — in her family.)
Still, even though David wrestles with mental illness that feels cloudy in description and specificity, there are moments when Legion touched a nerve of emotional truth with his experience — such as whenever David struggled with the idea of whether he is worthy of love and can change as a person despite his troubled nature. The series finale ends on an image of baby David cooing in his crib against yellow satin, his whole life laid out before him. We don’t get any answers to what that future will look like. Will the love of a solid family make him into a better man? When the time comes, will he accept help for his mental-health struggles? Will he use his power to aid instead of harm?
The image of young David in his crib is not what will stay with me from this final season. Legion’s most beguiling visuals are elsewhere in the psychedelic enchantment of David’s cult, the jittering visage of the Time Eaters, the ecstatic villainy of Lenny as she crawled on top of a table in a forest that hearkens to Alice in Wonderland. But the message Legion lands on in its closing moments — a hopeful one that suggests that we can remake ourselves and even the world into something better — is perhaps its boldest gambit. Ultimately, Legion is a series of bristling enchantment and wonder, even when it failed to live up to the fascinating threads of family and mental illness that it wove into its story of superhero power.