Is ‘Legion’ Brilliant Or Just Willfully Obtuse?

I’m not sure, but I can’t stop watching it.
Legion Rachel Keller As Syd Barrett

Legion finally seems to have come to terms with the fact that it isn’t much of a superhero show. It’s an art piece. And I’m mostly okay with that.

Armed with only a tangential connection to the X-Men universe, Legion has never been the crime-fighting shoot-em-up or the standoff between mutants and the rest of the world that it could have been. The first season had some of these elements, but they were arguably the weakest. The show really stood out when it went off the wall and into its star David Haller’s head. If I wanted to see superheroes doing their superhero thing, I could go to the Avengers.

But there was nowhere else I could see Dan Stevens terrified and playing “The Rainbow Connection” on the banjo. Or Aubrey Plaza in a leotard dancing erotically to Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good.” When the first season broke into the stylized and the truly bizarre, it was at its best.

And the second season, or at least the first four episodes that I’ve seen, acknowledges that fact and runs with it. The first several opening scenes of the premier are disorienting, strange, and downright creepy. They’re also stunningly shot. They are as follows:

Lenny and Oliver are barely conscious and soaking up the sun on beach towels floating in a pool where an unseen wet butler refills their drinks. Lenny observes that they’re trapped, and the two laugh. We zoom into Lenny’s eye and see an unknown man in an office overlooking Paris. We zoom out on him and emerge through Oliver’s eye as he’s sitting at a bar. “Groovy,” he says. The screen goes black and we get a full minute of darkness and a verbal description of madness. Then we enter a door simply labeled “Club.” Inside we find David saying “Help them. They’re in the maze.” Another door opens to reveal a crowd of people standing in the dark, chattering their teeth. Then lights and sirens go off in a hallway, and David is rushed down it on a gurney, ER style. Cary tells him he’s safe and welcomes him to Division III. Next, we see Syd grooming herself like a cat, as an announcement warns us to beware ideas that are not our own. The camera zooms out to reveal that she’s holding a cat.

Obviously, she’s switched bodies with it. Finally, something that makes sense.

This opening deluge of images is an excellent indicator of the mood of the new season. Viewed a second time in the context of the next few episodes, it does make sense and is actually a decent introduction of the story to come. But as a season opener, it comes off as intentionally opaque.

And maybe that’s okay.

Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement)

The new season seems to have accepted that it’s not particularly plot-heavy. Last year had to do a certain amount of heavy lifting by necessity, in order to establish the characters and story. But this season is blessedly light on both, allowing us to drift along and soak up the style of it all, like Oliver and Lenny in their pool.

The story is minimal — The Shadow King is looking for his body, and a mysterious mental plague is sweeping the world. And the new characters are few — one that has yet to be introduced, and Admiral Fukuyama, a cyborg with a basket on his head who speaks through small GLaDOS-voiced women with mustaches and Prince Valiant haircuts. Does that sound like a bit much to you? You’re not alone.

But there’s something freeing about Legion’s new embrace of the visual over the substantive. Without a doubt, it looks unlike anything else that’s on tv right now. Regardless of the amount of depth beneath it, the artistry of the camerawork and the conceptualization is undeniable.

And there is, if you look closely, a certain sense of irony and self-awareness in the sheer indulgence of style. The first episode ends in a dance-off, a narrative device that hasn’t been played straight since I don’t know when. Structurally it comes at the exact point in the episode as last year’s pilot dance number — a much sillier French/Bollywood/Boyband/Dreamscape musical break. It was at that point in the pilot that I knew I was in for something strange, and also that the show didn’t take itself quite as seriously as it let on. While this new dance scene is performed completely deadpan, and with higher stakes, there’s still a certain amount of irony beneath.

David Haller (Dan Stevens)

And that seems to be the theme throughout the new season. Gone are the few moments of outright silliness, but under the veneer of art (dare I say pretentiousness), there’s a simmering self-awareness and outright relish of the absurdity of it all. This shines through in the wide-eyed beats David takes to let some new bizarre element sink in. And, of course, it shines through in the bizarreness of those elements. The second episode begins with two back-to-back scenes that, while played completely straight, had me laughing out loud with their almost camp absurdity. Was this the show’s intent? I have to think it was at least somewhat.

Not everything is art for art’s sake, though. The fourth episode, in particular, is a beautiful break from tradition that makes for a very sincere and unprecedented meditation on autonomy and individuality in love. It also offers a creative and exciting interpretation of what constitutes a cold open. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite episode, as I’m actually fond of the show’s wild artistry, but I suspect it might be the best.

Am I coming off as unkind about the new season? Am I missing the point? I hope not, on both counts. While Legion may be going all-in on style, it’s a style that’s beautiful, innovative, and mesmerizing. The world has enough superhero shows (and God knows we’re in store for many more). I’m thrilled that Legion is doing something so different.

Liz Baessler: Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)