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‘Legion’ Is Learning a Basic Superhero Lesson

Every hero — and every TV show — needs a sidekick

(FX/Ringer illustration)
(FX/Ringer illustration)

TV is plagued by backhanded compliments. Even in 2017, often the highest praise a new series can receive is that it doesn’t seem to belong on television at all — it’s too visually ambitious, or has too much star power, or breaks too many conventions. Sometimes saying a show doesn’t look or act like TV is simply accurate: See Netflix inventing the 13-hour episode or HBO turning Reese Witherspoon into a series regular. Sometimes it’s a warning sign that a show’s departure from or unfamiliarity with convention hampers it; tropes become tropes for a reason. Over its first few episodes, FX’s Legion demonstrated both the benefits and drawbacks of “It’s not like TV.” In its last couple of episodes, that’s changed. It turns out that a touch of convention was exactly what this unconventional show needed.

In its Kubrick- and Malick-inspired psychedelia, Noah Hawley’s take on the X-Men universe was novel from the start. (Ringer podcast host Andy Greenwald is a coproducer on the show.) But the initial trio of episodes supplied to critics left some open questions. The story of diagnosed schizophrenia patient and actual mutant-telepath David Haller (Dan Stevens) began inside David’s head, immersing us in the world as he experiences it and in all of its chaos. But then it largely stayed there, locking us into increasingly confusing narrative stasis for three consecutive installments. Almost the entire first half of Legion’s eight-episode first season could be summarized in a single sentence: David is rescued from a mental hospital and taken to a mutant refuge called Summerland and pursued by a nefarious government agency called Division 3. In fact, that description could apply to just the pilot, with subsequent chapters shading Legion’s world in rather than moving it forward. Hallucinatory benders from David’s time as a junkie, half-forgotten therapy sessions, and that trailer-bait slo-mo kitchen explosion all provided a sense of activity, if not momentum, that bought Legion both time and goodwill to come into its own, courtesy of the fever dream that is David’s life.

But even the messiest, most labyrinthine mind can’t sustain an entire television show, and audiences weren’t going to wait forever for Legion to kick into gear, no matter how much deep-cut classic rock Hawley cleverly worked into its soundtrack.

This is where TV orthodoxy comes in. All shows have protagonists, but television is built on the back of ensembles. Shows are massive machines that need the fuel quantity provides. The more fully developed characters a series has, the healthier it is, and the less it’s forced to rely on a single figure who would otherwise quickly exhaust their potential. And it’s precisely these characters — people in their own right, not bit players in David’s journey (or brain) — that Legion was conspicuously missing.

Legion’s fourth and fifth installments have seen a sudden uptick in present-timeline action: an ambush, a rescue operation, some non-flashback exposition, and a dance sequence to match the pilot’s Serge Gainsbourg–meets–Bollywood number. This shift is a direct consequence of Legion finally investing in David’s compatriots, a promising twist that significantly boosts the show’s chances at long-term sustainability.

“Chapter 4” jump-started that process with something of a cheat code: It put David in a coma, neatly marooning him on his own psychic island while forcing Legion to inhabit someone else’s point of view. While David’s hanging out with Jemaine Clement inside of a giant ice cube, his girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller) finally verbalizes what we’ve been asking since the premiere: What parts of David’s backstory are real, and what parts had David — or more accurately, David’s subconscious — made up? She and a makeshift guerrilla squad went on a fact-finding mission to find out.

Instantly, David’s reduced prominence allowed Legion to make major strides. Much of “Chapter 4” is dedicated to explaining the curious relationship between Cary and Kerry Loudermilk (Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder), a socially awkward scientist and the ferocious woman who literally lives inside him, emerging when it’s time for action. Cary and Kerry’s bond is odd, touching, and — as an outlet for Irwin’s physical comedy chops — often hilarious. It’s hard to imagine Legion having room for their story without temporarily sidelining David’s first.

Just as significantly, “Chapter 4” gave Legion a sorely needed opportunity to define its visual language without using David as a filter. Legion’s aesthetic is unmistakably derived from its (anti)hero, but to become more than the sum of its parts, it has to exist at least somewhat independently from him. Director Larysa Kondracki proved that it can, showing us a world more grounded than David’s four-dimensional funhouse mirror. The symmetrical framing and uncanny timelessness remain, just without the spasmodic glitchiness that David’s fractured psyche adds.

“Chapter 5” continues the trend even as it ups the difficulty level by reintroducing David — unbeknownst to those around him, now possessed by the Devil With Yellow Eyes who’s been haunting his visions — to the mix. In the episode’s climax, the other characters’ perspectives fuse with David’s (as Dr. Melanie Bird puts it, “David’s world”) — a last-ditch attempt to rescue him from the Devil With Yellow Eyes. We’re experiencing David’s reality as it feels to someone else. The result is genuinely disturbing, a mini-silent horror movie that reads like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Hush” crossed with Don’t Breathe.

Stepping away from David and toward the rest of the cast brings Legion closer to a traditional television series, one that follows a collective rather than an individual. It also makes Legion stronger, adding context to David’s twisted mind and giving the audience concrete objects to latch onto rather than an ever-shifting unreality. Legion remains unlike anything else in the superhero genre, or on television. In this case, building in some structure hasn’t been a compromise. Instead, it’s an improvement.