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‘Legion’ Wasn’t Afraid to Be Itself

The superhero program often tried to be weird and trippy, but now that it’s over, we’ll miss its unconventional sensibilities

Elias Stein/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The driving question within the FX series Legion is about whether or not its embattled protagonist David Haller is actually a good person. For anyone familiar with this rather obscure X-Men character, making any kind of definitive statements here is a tricky proposition. In the show’s first season, as David battled a literal monster living within his mind (a mutant parasite known as the Shadow King), he had a built-in rationalization for some of his most sadistic behavior: The monster made him do it. But once the Shadow King escaped, David no longer had that fallback—so, as his friends slowly realized in the second season, David just might be a bad dude. And that, of course, is particularly troubling when said person has telekinetic powers so strong he could bring forth the end of the world.

Legion’s third and final season began using a characteristically trippy narrative device: The show became a race through time, with David hoping to change the past to save his future. He believes if he were to prevent the Shadow King from burrowing into his subconscious as an infant, he wouldn’t fall down such a violent and destructive path. (This was also dope because David’s canonical X-Men father is none other than Charles Xavier, meaning we’d get to visit a younger version of the character.) David is so convinced his plan will work that he justifies killing tons of lackeys from the mysterious government agency Division 3 because, well, once he fixes the timeline, they technically wouldn’t have died. Such behavior is quintessential comic book villainy: a willingness to overlook legitimate amoral behavior in pursuit of a flawed moral logic.

Heading into Monday night’s series finale, Legion had started a curious late-stage thematic pivot. David successfully traveled back to Charles and the Shadow King’s fateful first meeting, hoping to convince his father to team up and kill their mutual enemy. Instead of continuing to ask whether its main character was a bad person—at this point, it’s quite obvious he is—the series opened the floor to debate whether his badness was caused by nature or nurture. This version of David is unquestionably nefarious, but would a different upbringing with both of his biological parents in the picture (and without any Shadow King to interfere) have shaped him into a better person? Is there a version of David that doesn’t bring forth the apocalypse?

The series ultimately leaves that question open-ended, culminating on a successful resetting of the timeline with an infant David beginning life anew. The fact that Legion’s coda is effectively a mutant version of the Baby Hitler dilemma—the other characters briefly ponder killing infant David during their own jaunt through the space-time continuum—isn’t especially troublesome on its face. (It’s easy to imagine an alternate Legion ending where David goes completely apocalyptic.) However, the message does feel compromised because David is technically absolved of all the horrible things he’s done throughout the series. Per Legion’s own internal logic, the ends justify the means.

But should it? As fun and laudable as Legion’s psychedelic approach to superhero storytelling—and as thoughtful as its depiction of mental illness—has been, hitting the reset button is a basic solution to a complicated moral and philosophical quandary. Like the second season, which endured its fair share of narrative speed-bumps, Legion ends with a deceptively simple idea packaged with so much visual flair you probably won’t care too much to notice. And I guess, on the whole, that’s not the worst thing in the world?

Per its own creative team, Legion is best taken in as an “experience” rather than a TV show. That is (respectfully) a somewhat pretentious way to look at a series that largely embraces comic book tropes with an uncharacteristically vibrant visual palette. But if showrunner Noah Hawley aimed to place more emphasis on style rather than substance, the series certainly achieved its goal. There is a mind-numbing amount of superhero content across television and film, but Legion’s three seasons are among the most distinctive and arresting works in the genre. What other superhero show is willing to end huge conflicts with a dance-off or, like in the sixth episode of this season, a rap battle between Jemaine Clement and Jason Mantzoukas? (It was as glorious as it sounds.)

Then measured against Hawley’s other show (the Fargo anthology series), additional programming from FX, or offerings from networks like AMC or HBO that are broadly defined as “prestige TV,” Legion has often felt a step behind the curve, and as a result, has largely been ignored by the Emmys. But if considered on the merits of its place in the current superhero landscape, Legion was a bright spot—willing to zig where other superhero programming zagged, and willing to get supremely weird at times where a more traditional route could have sufficed. If other superhero shows were standard bedside lights you can purchase at IKEA, Legion was huge-ass lava lamp. For instance, I can’t think of many cases where all-powerful mutants on the series actually threw punches—characters were more likely to break into song. Heck, that was even true of the series finale, when David did a somber cover of Pink Floyd’s “Mother” in the astral plane before escaping the Shadow King’s grip.

Legion’s conclusion feels truncated, but the show’s legacy was never going to stand on the strengths of its narrative. In expanding the way superhero-adjacent storytelling can be approached, Legion will hopefully inspire other superhero material to look and feel a bit more off the beaten path—though, with the impending Disney-fication of the X-Men and Fantastic Four, that’s probably a bit of wishful thinking. Still, the best sign that Legion has made a lasting imprint on the genre wouldn’t be the replication of its vivid aesthetic—it would be a replication of its unwillingness to conform.