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Too ‘Legion,’ Too Late?

With one episode to go this season, the FX series is finally making sense

(FX)
(FX)

Delayed gratification can be a blessing and curse. The potential payoff of giving an audience what it wants — after hours of actively and knowingly (and frustratingly) resisting — can be massive, but the expectations for that release also increase with time. The longer you withhold, the higher you set the bar, and the easier it is to disappoint. (I’m pretty sure this is why Jay Electronica will never release an album.)

For the first six episodes of Legion, its premise was its greatest pain point. Creator Noah Hawley’s mission of presenting the world through the eyes of main character David Haller — who maybe has schizophrenia or maybe is just confused — has had side effects. Since David didn’t know what was going on or what was real, neither did the audience. Keeping viewers in the dark for that long — more than three-quarters of the first season — Legion was asking a lot from its base, most of all to remain patient. On Wednesday night’s episode, though, Hawley and Co. proved they have an understanding of this conundrum, delivering two scenes loaded with exposition and payoff that were also some of the most fun moments of this first season. (Ringer podcast host Andy Greenwald is a coproducer on the show.)

First, we met up with Cary (Bill Irwin) where the sixth episode left him: following Oliver (Jemaine Clement) and his Jules Verne suit to the ice cube in the astral plane. There, the true identity of the parasite living in David’s mind was confirmed. As internet sleuthers suspected, the monster is Amahl Farouk, a.k.a. the Shadow King, a longtime villain from the X-Men comic series. But it’s not even what was confirmed, or how the information hints at who David’s biological father is, that was most interesting. To members of the audience not versed in the history of the X-Men, the words “Farouk” and “Shadow King” still don’t mean much. Rather, it’s how Legion arrives at this revelation that makes it such a stellar moment. Over martinis (with a little too much vermouth), Cary and Oliver bat a conversation back and forth. Oliver lays out exactly what’s going on — how the mental institution of Episode 6 was a projection of the Shadow King’s making, how time in the real world is at a standstill — while Cary finishes his sentences. Here, Cary’s functioning as a stand-in for the audience. We’re finishing Oliver’s sentences, too, because we’ve spent weeks waiting for the characters to catch on to what we suspected. Seeing Oliver and Cary connect the dots might be the first joyful moment in Legion’s run. It’s at least a gigantic relief.

The camera then cuts back to Oliver, who nearly looks directly into the lens — basically making eye contact with the audience — and says, “The monster — you know what it is.” It’s a clever acknowledgment of the modern viewer’s ability to finish the puzzle before a television show is ready to affix the pieces. That moment of recognition on Legion’s part doesn’t wash away six episodes’ worth of irritation, but it does make them easier to swallow. Hawley is aware of the hole his audience is in, which reassures us that he also has an extraction plan.

Which brings us to the second scene. Here, David meets his rational mind — an actual, physical manifestation played by Dan Stevens and his natural British accent — and finally figures out the FACTS of his situation. Not only does David talk out the expository details of everything going on in Legion, but he literally draws them on chalkboards in an imagined classroom while his rationality guides him (and us) from checkpoint to checkpoint. It’s the only time in seven episodes that the show has spelled out what’s happening, a massive information dump that lesser shows might drown in. But because Legion has so firmly linked the audience’s level of awareness to David’s (and because the show is so absurdly adept visually), the classroom scene feels revelatory and triumphant. Finding clarity is an active achievement, as meaningful to us as it is to David. This was David after class, but it was also me on my couch:

(FX)
(FX)

“My goal is to present reality as [David] sees it,” Hawley told The Hollywood Reporter back in February, “and then try to decode it as he’s decoding it, so that by the end of chapter one, the first season, you’re going to have a much clearer sense of what’s real than you had in the beginning, because he does too.” The strategy of spending an entire first season setting up the second feels a bit excessive (you can read how we feel about that here and here). But it’s worth noting — and celebrating — that we’ve officially arrived at the point when the origin story ends and action begins. David has gained control of his power; a very burned Hamish Linklater has returned with backup. We’re roaring into next week’s season finale clear-eyes-and-full-hearts with two massive battles — one with Division 3 and a final showdown with the Shadow King — on the horizon. The wait was long and difficult, but this seventh episode finally gave the audience what it wanted with two expertly crafted scenes, and now the path forward is clear.

Legion just got fun.