I have to admit that Legion did it to me again. I feel like a fool, because the last episode looked to me like it was setting up for a Farouk vs. David in the battle for the world and that’s really not how it played out at all. I was asking for Legion to attempt something truly unique to avoid another season that ended in a predictable comic book fashion, and they definitely surprised me. I guess the only problem, then, is that I didn’t like where the show decided to go; not one bit. So right up front let me compliment Legion for attempting to do something truly different, for expertly steering away from most of the dominoes it seemed like it was setting up, and for trying to keep a truly complex set of characters and morals afloat across an entire season and even into Season 3. As you read the rest of my thoughts, keep in mind that I’m sincerely applauding the narrative style Legion is attempting, and the daring structure of everything up to and including the cliffhanger that the finale ended on. Much of what comes after is a personal subjective critique of the content of the story, not the form or the technique. It ends with an admission that Legion just might not be for me and that, perhaps to fans of the show’s benefit, I probably won’t be tuning in when the next season hits. With that said, here are “5 Thoughts” on the Legion Season 2 finale from a man who apparently cannot be pleased. As always, there are spoilers afoot.
1. David the Zombie
Legion is attempting something truly unprecedented in television by taking on comic book super powers, mental health, and good vs. evil, putting them all in a blender and yet trying to treat all of them with as much weight as possible. This is difficult stuff that starts to present problems for me the more I think about it. Season 1 played with the idea that David might just be “crazy”, rather than an actual Marvel mutant character. We knew pretty much all along that they’d have to come down on the side of mutant (it’s a Marvel Comics show, after all), but we also know that nothing is ever black and white on a show like this. By the end of Season 1, David forgave himself for his past transgressions because he was the world’s most powerful mental mutant in a battle with an imposing villain who had been manipulating him all along. By the end of Season 2, we all realize that David is both a powerful mutant and deeply unwell. From where I’m sitting, this framing presents a problem no matter how Season 3 shakes out.
The members of Division 3 give David an ultimatum at the end of the episode: seek treatment, take your meds, and accept our help – or we terminate you. If Legion means to treat mental illness seriously, this is a seriously grave set of circumstances to put an unwell character in. I understand that this character happens to be a potentially dangerous mutant, which means there is no one-to-one real life parallel. Still, this is why it’s so difficult for a comic book property to square the circle of treating mental illness and superheroics both pretty seriously. Is it even possible? When David makes his choice to bust out, break bad, and leave Division 3, it’s a reasonable reaction to having been given a forced ultimatum from inside a prison, but it’s also a person who clearly needs help rejecting any sort of therapy at all. David says his “friends” want to turn him back into “David the Zombie”, which is how he was seen when he was regularly taking his medication in the episode about the infinite possible Davids. Legion prides itself on its moral quandaries and difficult presentation, but again this seems like a complicated matter made overly simple to the point where it’s almost treated flagrantly. Legion presents no middle ground. Either David is free or David is a zombie under meds, and it tries to present this as a moral dilemma because a free David is now an evil David, but the alternative is no good either. As someone for which therapy and medication potentially saved their life, this is far too black and white a take for the show to have. I don’t think the people involved think it’s this simple, but this is the way the show presents it. I feel like arguments against Legion’s clumsy handling of this could all boil down to: well, David’s not well/David’s been manipulated/David’s supposed to be bad. Even if any one of these is true, the show seems to just be kicking the can down the road rather than taking any real stance on how we grapple with mental illness. “So-and-so is crazy” can appear to be the answer for any problem the show presents, and none of it is clever if nothing can ever be identified as the truth.Continued below
2. David the Irredeemable
And if the Legion finale handled mental illness with impropriety, its handling of David’s sexual assault of Syd was even more regrettable. “Rape” in storytelling is such a difficult and traditionally poorly handled topic to wrestle with in a way that doesn’t do a disservice to the reality of the act. I hesitate to say that one should never use rape as an element in storytelling, because stories are naturally a window to matters of life and death, but I found this particular turn in the plot to be pretty appalling, actually. For starters, its inclusion in this particular story made it feel like an afterthought, though I don’t think that was the intent. In a season-long battle for the literal end of the world as we know it, it turned out to be this sexual assault that caused everything to come undone. On its face, you could argue that it increases the importance of the assault. Why, it’s literally held up against the apocalypse. But within the context of the season, that made it feel tossed off to me. One of the worst things David has ever done, and probably the worst thing Syd has had done to her, is a footnote that David just barrels through with nothing but indignation, that Farouk treats as an opportunity (this part isn’t that bad, because he’s a villain after all, but it still uses rape as a means-to-an-end for something else in the villain’s plan), and that no one else really regards it with a lot of the necessary gravity. It all happens awfully fast, and perhaps without a full understanding of how the audience is supposed to take it. Again, it’s another difficult moral quandary Legion is attempting to grapple with, but it seems pretty cut and dry to me.
You’d think everybody would see the content of the episode and conclude that “David was wrong”, but I’ll be damned if you can’t find people on social media talking about the show and saying things like “Teenage Syd had sex with a guy and got him thrown in prison” and “Syd tried to kill David first”, which are both true but have nothing to do with what David did. Don’t get me wrong; a work of art shouldn’t avoid a difficult subject just because not everyone can handle it without the logic of an incel, but it seems to me like the injection of this moral problem in a Marvel Comics superhero show is just too heavy a load for it to bear. And even if this turns out to be another case of Farouk manipulating David or Syd is ways we’ll only find out later, well not only is that a hell of a thing to leave dangling for next season, but it also treats a rape like a footnote in a bigger conflict. Beyond that, you could have accomplished a similar emotional manipulation of Syd without the actual rape, but I suppose that wouldn’t have been “dark” enough for the show. The way it plays out also does a disservice to the subject matter, because it turns a mentally ill person into the abuser when those suffering from severe mental illness are statistically more likely to be victims. And then beyond that, even if you read the sexual act as consensual and then the Farouk-mouse whispering in Syd’s ear to make her “re-contextualize” it as rape, then the show is really playing fast and loose with “consent” and the way people think of the act. There are enough misconceptions about sexual assault out there; enough victim blaming and toxic dialogue, that throwing mutant mental manipulations resulting in rape into the end of a season doesn’t help matters. It’s not a good look, and while I understand it’s not supposed to be, there aren’t a lot of good looks left on the show.
3. Forget What You Thought You Knew
I started my column with two complaints, so now I’ll try to sandwich in some positives. One thing I appreciated about the finale was that it jettisoned everything I thought was going to be conventional about it and did not care if the viewer missed it or not. It begins the episode with a gorgeous battle between Farouk and David, played out first as a karaoke battle of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” and ending as a dazzlingly animated samurai sword/amorphous animal fight among the clouds in the barren desert. Farouk ends up in captivity within the first 10 minutes. There’s also a (temporary) time skip that shows us Oliver and Melanie in an icy room after the world essentially has ended. For a minute, I almost thought the whole episode was going to play out a post-apocalyptic vision of the world as it ends under either Farouk or David (whichever the show would have decided was the real bad guy) and that that would have been just as daring, but probably less sensible than what actually happened. When we come back to Division 3, we realize that the big fight is over with 45 minutes still left in the episode. Except in drips and drabs, the finale wasn’t concerned with explaining anything more about David’s battle plan, the control over Melanie and Oliver, Ptonomy, the Minotaur, David’s sister, or really anything apart from David vs. Farouk and the way the tables would turn between them. If I didn’t like where it all ended up, I at least like how quickly they moved beyond some sort of traditional hero vs. villain conflict.Continued below
4. Long Live The Shadow King
Another thing about the episode that I could appreciate is the way the show clearly values Navid Negahban as a performer and recognizes how effective he is as “Farouk.” Even though he has not been with the show for both seasons as an actor, the Shadow King has been the major villain presence throughout most of it. It would have been easy for Legion to move on from him after this, but instead they appear interested in keeping him around with a new purpose. I’m not sure it’s believable that Division 3 would so readily take Farouk in and use him to keep David at bay while they put him on trial (after all, even if David is a bad guy, Farouk is still a murderer too), but this is the sort of thing comic books do all the time.
Legion is attempting to do this delicate dance between having two villains in David and Farouk whose constant battling ruin the world for everyone else and Dan Stevens and Negahban are definitely the right performers to pull this off. The Shadow King is a horrible entity, and yet there’s something so magnetic about the performance that I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to see more of him. As it stands, Stevens as David Haller has the unenviable task of making an irredeemable version of David into someone we actually care to watch more of. David has spent much of 2 seasons getting us to root for him, even if we aren’t always sure why. I’m not sure viewers will be “rooting” for him any more, but I’m sure he’ll be as magnetic as ever, too.
5. Where do we go from here?
But even two magnetic central figures (among a watchable and quirky supporting cast) might not get me back next season. This finale really soured me on the whole show, even if it was technically impressive and a strong narrative misdirect. Others may read the show differently, but I spent the last few scenes of the finale dismayed at what Noah Hawley and company did to these characters. I’m sure that was the point, but the consequence is that I no longer care what happens to these people. Much was made, through a hefty dose of meta-narrative from Jon Hamm’s narrator, about the nature of delusion and how false or bad ideas become real. I wonder how many will remember that in Season 1 of FX’s Fargo, Hawley communicated this idea to us through Martin Freeman’s character, having just killed his wife, looking at a poster of one different colored fish in a lake of other fish that were all the same color. The caption said something to the effect of “what if you’re right, and they’re all wrong?” Fargo wraps up its story each season and Legion carries it across the hiatus, but still, I can’t help but think about how Fargo took a definitive stance on Martin Freeman’s character being delusional. There was never any doubt that he was going to get what was coming to him. This poster prop served to tell us more about “Lester Nygaard” in one scene than a half dozen meta-interludes have actually told us about the characters or the story of Legion. In Legion, instead of having the idea of “delusion” culminate in a finale that gave us insight into the characters on the show, it told us that even what we saw in the final moments of “Chapter 19” might not even have enough context to be properly evaluated. I don’t need a show to spoonfeed me everything as a viewer, not by a longshot, but I do need some assurance that not every difficulty the show presents can be met with “maybe it’s not real.” Maybe I’m the deluded one for expecting anything else.