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The ‘Legion’ Finale Was a Perfect Superhero Movie

FX’s X-Men-adjacent series spent seven weeks convincing us it was cooler and weirder than traditional comic book fare. But the first season’s final episode delighted by embracing those genre conventions.

(FX)
(FX)

The best examples of contemporary genre television are those that tweak their chosen formula out of an obvious affection for it. Jane the Virgin is a telenovela that’s delighted by its own twists and turns; One Day at a Time is a multicam sitcom that changed its subjects but keeps the template intact. At the outset of its first season, Legion garnered praise from critics — myself included — for how it distinguished itself from the rest of the superhero conglomerate’s manifold subdivisions. As it went on, Legion’s exceptionalism seemed to work against it, with the series walking the line between the exciting kind of strangeness and the confounding one. In the final batch of episodes, though, Noah Hawley’s X-Men offshoot coalesced into something much more familiar: the propulsive, payoff-delivering story of a motley crew of outcasts on a mission. After so many thoroughly disorienting flights of fancy, Legion became what Hawley kept insisting it wasn’t: a fun show about superheroes. (Ringer podcast host Andy Greenwald is a coproducer on the show.) Ultimately, the comic book origins that made Legion familiar, even conventional, were just as exciting as what made it so distinct.

Legion’s freshman year read like an eight-episode answer to a self-imposed writing prompt: How do you make compelling television out of action that’s almost entirely contained within a single character’s head? It helped that the show had roots in a visual medium via Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s original character, introduced in New Mutants in 1985. But Legion told a different story than its source material, which Hawley initially appeared to discard almost entirely: Every major character except Dan Stevens’s David Haller is original to the show. In the comics, David had multiple personalities that could talk to each other while still remaining inside his labyrinthine mind. On the screen, David was almost entirely on his own — one man against a shape-shifting foe that had no name until the season had nearly reached its end.

Hawley’s solution to that problem was to plunge ever deeper into David’s hermetically sealed reality. The hourlong pilot introduced us to David’s unmoored grasp on the world, communicating his confusion (and inducing our own) through fractious editing, an overwhelming soundscape, and a deliberately ambiguous situation in time and place. There were stirrings of other points of view midway through the season — of David’s body-swapping girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), or of long-suffering den mother Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) — but the sixth episode cut them mercilessly short, the mutant parasite in David’s mind trapping the entire cast in a simulation of the mental hospital where the action began. Even before that chapter put Legion’s story on literal pause, the show’s narrative was marked by stasis. In six hours of TV, David had been rescued from the hospital, told he was a mutant, learned that he was possessed by a mind parasite, and gone to rescue his sister from a nefarious government agency. The rest was visual flourish.

That nonstop barrage of psychedelia was a thrilling corrective to the monotone noir or candy-bright saturation of other superhero shows, but over time it pummeled our senses into submission. Until, that is, the season’s final two episodes. There, Hawley finally struck the delicate balance the first six were striving for, spinning the fight for David’s mind into a series of concrete showdowns. Instead of the shadowy government bad guys Division 3, Legion’s Big Bad turns out to be the Devil with the Yellow Eyes that’s been haunting David’s memories (revealed to be the Shadow King, a malicious, disembodied consciousness living in David’s brain since infancy, sometimes played by Aubrey Plaza). Once audience and characters alike were appraised of this, thanks to a cheekily direct exposition dump in which David’s “rational mind” spells the whole thing out on a chalkboard, the penultimate episode turned into a heist thriller. Three separate subplots converged to bust David out from the Devil’s stranglehold. The whole thing played out like a fantasy crossover franchise called Ocean’s Mutants.

The finale, meanwhile, brought us out of David’s mind altogether. First, Division 3 swooped in, giving the ragtag gang a more corporeal adversary. Then Syd successfully drew that specter out of David’s body and into hers, whereupon it proceeded to play Possession Telephone before settling on Melanie’s long-lost husband Oliver (Jemaine Clement), just as he’d returned from 20 years stranded in psychic limbo. (Girl just can’t catch a break.) The sequence itself was a joy, exactly the sort of climactic confrontation we hadn’t dared expect from a telepath-on-telepath tug-of-war. The outcome was even better: The ambiguous villainous presence at Legion’s margins is now a tangible object at its center, a goal for its gradually assembled superteam — not just David — to track down and tackle as a group in the show’s recently announced second season.

Though prolonged by flashbacks and set pieces, the show’s trajectory is actually short and simple: A hero comes to terms with his abilities and true identity. (It’s heavily implied that Legion’s David is the son of Charles “Professor X” Xavier, as he is in the comics.) He makes some friends in the process. The friends help him in his time of need. Having vanquished a monster together, they emerge a tighter unit. It’s a tale as old as time, the kind of blueprint codified by Joseph Campbell and put to frequent use in superhero stories.

There isn’t much of the moral ambiguity we’ve come to expect from prestige fare. The Devil is bad — it’s literally the Devil! — and David is good. Also notably absent are the narrative backflips we now brace ourselves for when a show bills itself as “mind bending.” Legion has earned comparisons to so-called “puzzle box” shows like Mr. Robot and Westworld, but it’s largely refrained from the overhyped, oh-snap reveals that can sink those series. The closest this show came to a rug-pull was its Beautiful Mind–esque disclosure that David’s best friend was actually a Devil-induced hallucination, and even that came just halfway through and with minimal fanfare. Legion’s headaches come from strobe lighting, not plot twists.

By reverting to superpowered type, Legion also reaped its genre’s rewards. There’s an uncomplicated catharsis to watching our heroes emerge (largely) victorious: our central couple together, our leading man out of danger (at least until that post-credits sequence), our chief antagonist sidelined. By restricting its innovation to how it told its story rather than which story it told, Legion got the best of both worlds.