Tuesday, 26/9/2017 | 6:03 UTC+0

Legion’s first season fizzled into a conventional superhero story

The first season of FX’s Legion ended last week. Created by Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, the show is set in Marvel’s X-Men universe, and it provided some closure to a handful of storylines while blowing things up just enough to lay the groundwork for a second season. Right until the end, it’s a tight, quirky, well-acted, visually arresting series that’s unlike just about anything on television, including its superhero show kin.

So why am I left wanting?

By the end of its run, Legion reminded me a great deal of the first season of HBO’s True Detective. Even though Legion never becomes the water-cooler show Detective became, Hawley’s series is similarly ambitious, sprawling, atmospheric, and frustrating. It rewarded weekly viewing by changing the stakes, raising new questions, and dangling the possibility of a mind-bending mystery. But in its final act, that hoped-for mystery gets cast aside in favor of a smaller, more straightforward conclusion. In the end, Legion is auteur television at its strongest and weakest. It’s a well-told, even innovative story, but in spite of the gorgeous window dressing, it’s still deeply conventional.

Spoilers for the Legion finale ahead.

In the season finale, David Haller (Dan Stevens) finally faces off against Amahl Farouk, an ancient psychic entity known in X-Men comics as the Shadow King. After being defeated by Professor X, who the audience finally learns was David’s father (even if he’s never named), Farouk burrowed deep into David’s mind and eventually took the form of David’s “friend” Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza). But as David finally gains control of his powers, he and his girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) manage to exorcise Farouk before a final showdown that eventually allows the demon to escape.

Powerful psychics duking it out with ancient enemies may sound familiar. If so, that’s probably because it’s a well-trod storyline in X-Men history, and superhero stories in general. (It’s not all that far off from the plot of X-Men: Apocalypse, in fact.) Borrowing from “The Muir Island Saga” that ran in X-Men and X-Factor back in 1991, the show zeroes in on David’s battle with the Shadow King and makes him a hero. At the end of the day, his heroism is the entire point: while the series does deal admirably with the effects of mental illness, it’s still a superhero series featuring colorful characters battling the forces of darkness.

That’s not to knock the show’s effectiveness. It’s still more satisfying than Westworld from a narrative standpoint, thanks to its ability to create investment in David’s twisty journey. As the protagonist, he’s painted as both deeply damaged and relatable, and how he deals with the people and places around him is naturalistic, even when he goes to places as out-there as the astral plane. But this is a series that asks its viewers to question the reality they’re presented with, and accept the possibility that nothing and no one in the series is truly real. Its set design references everything from mid-century architecture and fashion to present-day technology. The editing suggests we’re constantly watching a dream unfold. Everything about the show seems made to unsettle viewers, including an absolutely demented turn from Plaza as Farouk.

Landing on such a conventional ending, which pits good vs. evil, feels like a cop-out, or even an outright disappointment. Hence the comparison to True Detective. That show drove its audience wild with artful links to the occult, hinting at something far darker, more sinister, and more compelling than anything that came to pass on-screen. Fans dug deep to discover the true meaning of the Yellow King, Carcosa, and the well of Lovecraftian horror creator Nic Pizzolatto used to create an almost palpable sense of terror surrounding protagonists Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. So when the finale revealed the show was really yet another essentially mundane series about sad white men wrestling with a terrible crime, the fervor felt wasted, no matter how well told the story was, or how masterful Cary Fukunaga’s cinematography was.

With all this in mind, it’s much easier to see Legion’s limitations — and much harder to forgive them. In focusing so narrowly on David, Hawley never fully fleshes out the ensemble players. Whole episodes are spent fretting over the lead’s mental state, while scant time is given to the inner lives of characters like Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris). That may have seemed like part of the strategy when it was possible each character was a manifestation of David’s cracked mind, but when it turns out that isn’t the case and everyone is real, the supporting cast feels under-developed. Ptonomy even rails against that treatment by the middle of the season, telling Syd that he, too, has a family and loved ones. David has god-like abilities, but he’s not the only one who matters. While the show does explore some of the characters’ attachments, like Dr. Melanie Bird’s (Jean Smart) undying love for her husband Oliver (the always delightful Jemaine Clement), everyone feels limited to a collection of quirks and character imperfections designed to never distract too much from David.

No one suffers more from this character problem more than Syd herself. As David’s girlfriend, she has agency, but she only uses it in service of David’s journey. She’s committed to keeping him safe, connected enough to him to see the Shadow King’s various forms before anyone else does, and utterly devoted to him, even though the show never clearly defines why she loves him so fiercely. She has the power to switch bodies with people she touches, but she mainly deploys it to create sexual tension between her and David. (At least, when she isn’t offering horrifying reveals about how that power can be used for sexual assault.) Syd is an otherwise fascinating character, and Rachel Keller’s performance ranges from aloof and funny to downright heartbreaking. But since she’s written as essentially an appendage to David, it’s easy to feel like she’s been short-changed.

Image by Michelle Faye / FX

After eight episodes, there’s still plenty to like about Legion. The cast is stellar, and they consistently elevate their material, making their show stand out among other prestige shows. The production design is spectacular, the score is brilliant, and the madcap way the story unfurls makes the show one of the more inventive efforts of 2017. But when audiences are looking for narratives that truly break new ground, the tried-and-true origin story polished up with a few new ideas doesn’t quite cut it. A Legion that went further in questioning which character is actually the protagonist, how he or she perceives themselves — or for that matter, a Legion set in a world that’s completely malleable, according to the protagonist’s mental state — would have paid off the possibilities that the pilot promised. Instead, Legion is just a great remix of a tune audiences have heard before.

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