The first episode of Legion, which premiered on Wednesday, makes its purpose immediately clear. In telling the story of an unprecedentedly powerful mutant in a constant state of mental disorientation, creator Noah Hawley and Co. seek to make the audience feel that sense of unease. As protagonist David Haller (Dan Stevens) pleadingly asks, “Is this real?” the show’s narrative devices raise the same question. But beyond Legion’s jagged chronology, ever-changing camera framing, and refusal to timestamp itself, the most effective tool of confoundment in the pilot is Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny — both her character, and what happens to her.
Lenny is, well, weird, which should be more or less expected from a character living in Wes Anderson’s idea of a mental institution. But she’s not “hides in a wall of ivy” weird, like another guy in the hospital — she, like Legion itself, is anachronistic and inscrutable. She uses the word “moxie” with a pair of ’70s-era headphones around her neck; she speaks frenetically, as if continuing a conversation aloud that began in her head. Even her gender is undefined. “What’d it feel like? Having titties?” Lenny asks David after he body swaps with his girlfriend, Sydney. “If that were me …” she continues, as if she doesn’t have breasts. There is a practical reason for this: Lenny was originally written as a 60-year-old man before Hawley met Plaza and gave her the role. Plaza, for her part, convinced Hawley not to change the script. And in making that demand, Plaza also allowed the show to slyly harken back to its source material. Legion, the X-Men character that David is based on, has the power to incorporate other people’s psyches into his own. In a way, so too does Lenny.
You’d think that Plaza’s past as Parks and Recreation’s resident smartass, April Ludgate, would elicit some sort of comforting familiarity. Plaza may be the most recognizable member of Legion’s cast — Dan Stevens is most famous for Downton Abbey, while Rachel Keller, who plays Sydney, had a small role in Season 2 of Fargo. (Ringer podcast host Andy Greenwald is a coproducer on the show.) But Plaza’s familiar face is an anchor in the sea of sensory overload for only a few brief moments. Because then she dies, lodged into a concrete wall, her hand reaching out like Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
Except she’s not gone. After the wall incident, Lenny reappears, presumably as yet another character in David’s mind. She’s cleaned up — the red from her eyes is gone, her hair is slick, and she’s dressed like Chance the Rapper. But her and David’s relationship is unchanged, and he barely reacts to her reappearance — he apologizes for her death, rather than being like, HOLY SHIT HOW ARE YOU TALKING TO ME RIGHT NOW. (If other characters in Legion didn’t openly refer to Lenny’s death, I’d guess that she was always a figment of David’s imagination.) In this new form, she’s like the show’s chorus, filling in details and setting the scene for what’s to come. “They’re coming for you, babe,” she tells David, which in some way he must already know for himself.
Which brings us to the question: Where does Lenny go from here? This isn’t the last we’ve seen of her, if IMDb is to be believed. In all honesty, Lenny — and Plaza’s portrayal of her — probably works better as a character who exists only in David’s mind. That way, she’s even less bound by the strictures of real life, free to push the limits of what we view as possible or appropriate and to readjust our expectations of her on a second-by-second basis. Lenny should only get stranger, and David’s imagination is the perfect place for that evolution. As Plaza put it in an interview with Vanity Fair, “Anything goes, so let’s just make some crazy shit.”
From a narrative standpoint, Lenny’s reintroduction could be the manifestation of David’s abilities. He is Legion, after all, so is Lenny an example of how he subsumes others’ psyches? It’s a question that should be answered as the show delves further into the extent of David’s powers. The hope too, though, is that Lenny will continue to function as a guide for the audience, as she did in the first scene after her death. She can be a fly on the wall who pops up from time to time to comment on what’s happening, and to hold the audience’s hand as we navigate the schizophrenic trellises of David’s psyche. We’ll need that. Because even though Legion’s greatest strength is its power to bewilder, as we get deeper into the maze, the audience will need someone around who can answer the question: “Is this real?”