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Alan Sepinwall on ‘Legion’ Season 2: Less Style, More Substance Please

FX show’s sophomore season proved that not all the flash in the world can cover up wonky character work and narrative loopholes

'Legion' Finale season 2 read 2018 FX

Alan Sepinwall recaps the Season 2 finale of 'Legion' – and how its emphasis on style over substance and storytelling logic nearly sunk the show.

Suzanne Tenner/FX

A review of the Legion season finale – and thoughts on Season Two as a whole – coming up just as soon as I repeat the story about the time I cut the head off a Minotaur …

Late in “Chapter 19,” David Haller‘s friends stage an extreme intervention for him, confronting him about his increasingly erratic and destructive behavior. They offer him a choice between getting healthy or being executed to prevent him from destroying the world. David is indignant that he’s being put on trial while the monstrous Farouk has been set free, and rages at the thought that Syd and the rest want to turn him into “something easy, something clean.” He uses his powers to escape Cary‘s force field, declares himself God to Lenny and teleports away to parts unknown.

The climax isn’t an exact unintentional metaphor for Legion Season Two itself – but it’s close. The series isn’t evil so much as it is fairly drunk on its own creative powers, where trying to be even slightly easier and cleaner might do it and its audience a world of good.

That Legion prizes style over substance isn’t news. This was clear even in that wonderful first season, but the style was so dazzling, and the story propulsive enough, that it didn’t much matter that the characters were largely hollow archetypes. In many ways, Season Two was even more stylistically audacious. If there wasn’t any one sequence as dazzling as the black-and-white “Bolero” montage, there was so much incidental weirdness (the chattering teeth of the monk’s catatonic victims, the Vermillion’s mustaches, the Jon Hamm-narrated lectures about the nature of delusions, David having a dance-off with Oliver and Lenny) that the show was certainly never dull. 

But all those flourishes rendered the season’s main arc irrelevant, illegible or possibly both. Every time it seemed like there was a clear goal in mind – the race to find Farouk’s body, David secretly aligning with the Shadow King at the behest of Future Syd, David seeking revenge in the wake of his sister Amy’s murder – the story and characters would be brushed aside in service of whatever weird idea Noah Hawley and company wanted to dramatize next.

A cool image delivery system is just a hard thing to maintain over 11 episodes of television, without some kind of clear foundation in plot or character to support it. Season Two would introduce story ideas – Cary and Kerry struggle with the role reversal Farouk forces upon them, Ptonomy dies and is placed inside the bizarre Division 3 computer, a Minotaur is stalking our heroes for some reason on both the astral plane and the physical world – and then quickly lose interest. The main arc about the race for Farouk’s body had so many false starts and reversals that it never developed the momentum the first season had in such abundance. Certain twists and turns seemed to happen only because the story required it, not because it made any sense: Even if Cary has recognized that David telepathically drugged and raped Syd, that doesn’t absolve Farouk of any of his own atrocities … yet he is still set free to hammer home the hero/villain role reversal.

But it’s the emptiness of the characters – and David Haller in particular – that’s the real problem. The supporting actors do what they can to invest the likes of Syd, Cary, Lenny and Oliver with an inner life that’s lacking on the page, but it’s only occasionally enough to make them feel like people whose behavior makes sense and whose emotions matter enough to stick with the story at its most opaque. (The season’s big twist about Lenny taking over Amy’s body didn’t hit nearly as hard as designed, not only because the season had all but forgotten about David’s sister at that point, but because she was barely a character even when she was around last year.) A recent episode devoted entirely to the supporting cast seemed designed to correct this flaw, but extra time spent with the sidekicks didn’t offer any extra insight into any of them. And while Dan Stevens is often fun playing alternate versions of David (whether the ones in the parallel universe episode or the devils on his shoulder in the finale), he rarely seems the right match for whomever the primary version is meant to be, leaving our protagonist a forgettable cipher.

To a degree, this is the point of the story Hawley is telling, about a man with so many voices inside his head that he’s never quite found his own. But there are ways to dramatize that without your hero feeling quite so bland, or without Stevens’ performance frequently seeming at odds with the way Syd and the others describe him.

That the season ends with David embracing his own amoral godhood is at least promising. It plays more to Stevens’ strengths in the role(*), and it will theoretically force most of the supporting characters(**) to stand on their own now that they can’t just turn to the character to deus ex machina them out of any problems.

(*) He’s far from the first actor in a sci-fi or fantasy series to only figure out their performance after getting to play an evil version of their character. See also David Boreanaz in Buffy‘s second seaso, or Avery Brooks before and after Star Trek: Deep Space Nine showed us the Sisko from the mirror universe, to name just two.

(**) My expectations aren’t high for poor digitized Ptonomy, and I’ll be curious to see if Melanie and Oliver are still part of the show going forward, given that their home movie sequence inside the astral plane ice cube was set three years in the future. Jemaine Clement’s a busy guy, and the show has never quite known what to do with Jean Smart – so it wouldn’t be surprising if this is it for both of them.

At the start of the season, I resolved to stop asking about the deeper meaning of characters’ choices and different stylistic departures, since the answer always seemed to be, “I don’t know. Somebody just thought this would look cool.” At times, this was enough, for effects both complicated (David and Farouk’s animated avatars battling each other under a desert sun that resembles the Eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings) and simple (the season’s single creepiest recurring image was achieved by Aubrey Plaza wearing blue contact lenses). But coolness alone isn’t enough over the long haul of a series like this, not without something real – and, yes, maybe something easy and clean – to support it. 

In This Article: Alan Sepinwall, Aubrey Plaza, FX, Marvel, X-Men

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