Aubrey Plaza Just Secured Her Emmy Nomination on Last Night’s ‘Legion’

By  · Published on March 16th, 2017

Expect a Best Supporting Actress nomination for “Chapter 6.”

Two things have happened with Legion that surprised me. The first is that it’s only gotten weirder and weirder since the pilot episode, when I’d assumed it would level out and be clearer and have at least a slightly more normal narrative by midseason. The second is that Aubrey Plaza has gotten better – no, absolutely amazing – where I’d kind of written her off as an annoyingly overplayed internal voice for the main character, like “a batshit crazy Jiminy Cricket,” as Collider’s Haleigh Foutch perfectly described her.

Last night’s episode, “Chapter 6,” did actually clear some things up as far as confirming part of Plaza’s role as being an incarnation of The Shadow King, a villain from the X-Men comics Legion is based on, albeit without directly calling him/her that. We at least got clarification, after a return full circle to the mental hospital from the pilot where all the main characters are now patients and prisoners inside a subconscious plain, that he/she is a parasitic being living inside the mind of David (Dan Stevens), whose consciousness is ultimately locked away so it can take full possession.

Ok, so that’s probably still kind of confusing, even if you did watch. Yet “Chapter 6” is nevertheless a delightfully strange trip of an installment for viewers enjoying Legion primarily for its visuals and who just go along with the unconventional narrative for stuff like Plaza’s incredible (and very GIF friendly) dance sequence set to Bassnecter’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and more One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest homage, this time complete with Katie Aselton wonderfully going full Nurse Ratched, as well as the continuation of last week’s dive into peak Nightmare on Elm Street territory.

And of course, the episode was owned by Plaza, taking over the focus of the series like she’s possessing it, too, after previously just showing up as a randy mental patient, then a misremembered-as-female representation of an old junkie friend combined with a basic hallucination/imaginary friend/conscience. As she explains in a revealing The Hollywood Reporter interview, all of the personas she’s been playing, including more recently the haunting “Devil with the Yellow Eyes” in disguise, culminate in the climactic moment opposite Stevens when she outs herself as the deep cover villain.

“Essentially, I’m playing four different characters in one scene – or at least that’s how it was in my head. This scene is kind of the big reveal. You’ve seen drug addict Lennie. You’ve seen overalls Lennie appearing as these hallucinations. You’ve seen Lennie in a suit that’s kind of this crazy Beetlejuice character who has some other agendas. You’ve seen therapist Lennie. So that scene was very complicated for me, and it was really fun and really challenging. It’s Lennie’s biggest moment in the series.”

Plaza’s work on Legion had already begun interesting me lately after I learned the role had been written as a middle-aged man, her lewd behavior becoming all the more understood from the perspective of the page and all the more appreciated in that context. She talks about that in the THR article, and divulges that she’s had a lot of freedom with the part since her casting. The dance became something more than it was written as, and the interpretation of the character(s) have been pretty much all her own.

It’s a challenging gig for the actress, who has until this point been pigeonholed and typecast as the same kind of sardonic and apathetic yet sometimes wild character she broke out as on the sitcom Parks and Recreation. And for those, she’s mainly been known for having a deadpan style of acting. Her Lennie/Shadow King on Legion is a whole new thing for her, and for us following her. I still don’t think it always works, but she’s clearly having fun as a manipulative evil queen, sometimes going for a camp performance, sometimes something more reserved. Just in that one scene.

Following in the wake of two tremendous and heavily honored seasons of Fargo, Noah Hawley’s new series could be under pressure to also be recognized at the Emmys, but it hasn’t been easy to tell who might be a contender outside of Stevens in the lead role until now. Rachel Keller could be a possibility, though the TV movie/miniseries arena is full of strong lead actresses lately (especially with two of them surely coming from fellow FX series Feud: Bette and Joan). All of the other supporting cast members are great, including Fargo Emmy nominee Jean Smart, but none have stood out.

‘Legion’ is An Evolution in Superhero TV

Part of the reason for that is that they’ve been upstaged by the look and structure of the show. The thing about that is, all the actors involved with Legion deserve awards for doing such an amazing, seemingly simple job given the difficulty of working with material that’s so incomprehensible on the page from episode to episode. And even when it is ever clear in an overarching sense, these are challenging performances to achieve with the amount of sudden shifts in setting, both physically and narratively.

“We worked really hard. We rehearsed a lot. We would live as those characters in a way together. We were all up in Vancouver, dealing with these insane and confusing scripts where we didn’t know what was happening half of the time. We only had each other to lean on and I think in a way that energy and confusing, trippy ride we were on, it was all kind of helpful because we were able to use it and make choices we otherwise wouldn’t have made.”

The cast better get whatever ensemble accolades they’re qualified for, too, I guess. But Plaza is the only sure thing or must-thing for Legion, acting-wise, and hopefully she doesn’t face too much competition and can actually win the Emmy and the Golden Globe and the SAG and whatever else, if only so she doesn’t have to keep playing the same crass and cynical women in mostly bad comedies. She’s finally had this opportunity to show what else she can do, and I believe she has even more in her. And she doesn’t even have do it all in one scene in one role like she did last night to get my vote.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.