The mind-bending mutant drama “Legion,” from showrunner Noah Hawley (Fargo), returns for a second season Tuesday on FX. The show’s most difficult task will be matching the first season’s ability to mix dizzying visual and structural elements, considerations of larger issues like eugenics, disability and identity, and the connections of characters as human as they are extraordinary.
Warning: Spoilers follow.
Legion is set in, though generally apart from, the X-Men’s corner of the Marvel universe. In the X-Men movies, we are given glimpses into what it was like for a telepath or telekinetic mutant like Charles Xavier or Jean Grey to suffer from hearing voices in their heads before realizing they had the ability to read others’ minds.
The question “Legion” asks is this: What if a mutant named David Haller (Dan Stevens) hears voices in his head and at least some of them are not the thoughts of humans?
Here’s the Season 2 trailer:
The series opens with a dazzling montage of David’s life from childhood through a descent into what seems to be paranoid schizophrenia. The sequence is set ironically to The Who’s “Happy Jack,” one of a string of inspired musical choices throughout the first season.
David is committed to the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, where he is visited by his sister Amy (Katie Aselton) and spends most of his time with his friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza, who delightfully devours almost all scenery in her path) and his eventual girlfriend, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) (named for Pink Floyd’s original frontman, who went mad and became a recurring subject of the band’s work).
Syd has an aversion to being touched and we learn why when David finally kisses her. It turns out Syd is also a mutant who temporarily switches consciousnesses those whom she touches. After the kiss, Syd is temporarily in David’s body, but without his lifelong experience of controlling his powers. A wildly destructive telekinetic incident ensues, ostensibly killing Lenny (though we continue to see her in David’s mind throughout the season).
As a result of the incident, David is captured and interrogated by the mysterious, presumably governmental Division III. He is sprung from captivity by Syd with the help of a team of mutants led by Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart).
They escape to Summerland, Bird’s hidden therapeutic facility — a psychiatric version of Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Byrd tells David she believes he is not mentally ill and tries to help him understand who and what he is with the help of mutant “memory artist” Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris). Other members of Bird’s team include scientist Cary Loudermilk (Bill Irwin) and a brash fighter named Kerry Loudermilk (Amber Midthunder), who lives within Cary and only ages when she physically manifests outside him.
Their explorations of David’s mind prove difficult not only because David can unleash chaos as a defense mechanism, but also because he can be an unreliable narrator of his own life (like many of us, but moreso). They also encounter a devil with yellow eyes — presumed at first to be one of David’s inner demons, but ultimately revealed to be the Shadow King, an evil mutant who has assumed many forms throughout David’s life.
The mysteries of David’s psychology and history unfold over the course of the season, as does the romance between David and Syd. David’s journey is sprawling and bizarre. For example, at one point, David meets with the consciousness of Bird’s long-comatose husband, Oliver (Jemaine Clement), inside a giant ice cube on the astral plane. Indeed, Dr. Bird hopes that David can help revive her husband as well as prove decisive the war between the mutants and Division III.
David’s other obstacles seem more conventional only by comparison to the astral plane. He becomes impatient after learning that Division III has abducted his sister as bait. (She is rescued, but by David … or the Shadow King?) His romantic struggles with Syd are as human-scale as a show like this can get. And ultimately, David must find a way, with help from his friends, to gain full control over his mind and powers while freeing himself from the mental influence of the Shadow King.
This trippy psychological thriller is told in a manner befitting its strangeness. Viewers cannot always trust that what they are seeing at a given moment is the truth. Visually, the show can change everything from its aspect ratio to its genre without warning. There is a Bollywood-style musical number in the pilot; later episodes feature sequences that resemble everything from a James Bond film’s title sequence to a silent movie (complete with intertitle cards).
Legion’s audacious storytelling demands more attention from the audience than most any television since Twin Peaks went off network TV in the 1990s. To the show’s credit, however, Legion avoids the tendency of may prestige TV series to offer mysteries that go unresolved. The show weaves enough exposition throughout the narrative to leave the audience appropriately disoriented — and thus identifying with David — rather than lost. And the cast’s performances keep the narrative anchored in humanity amid the swirling psychedelia.
Season One solves its puzzles but points the way forward, as the Shadow King escapes in the new host body of Oliver Bird. There is also a cliffhanger in the finale, when David is abducted by a floating mechanical orb.
The trailer for Season Two suggests Ptonomy will be searching to discover what happened to David following his abduction, while preparing for the Shadow King’s next plot. When Ptonomy asks Syd whether she still trusts David, you can hear her conviction when she replies: “He’s my man.” But that’s not a direct answer, either.