Editor’s Note: this post contain spoilers for “Chapter 9” of LEGION—proceed at your own risk!
Almost nothing in FX’s Legion is realistic. The dialogue often sounds stagey, like intertwining theatrical monologues rather than exchanges between actual humans. The visuals are set piece after set piece. Then, of course, there are the random dance numbers. Barely a trace of realism in the whole show. But that’s what makes it so great.
Unlike grittier TV properties adapted from comic books, Legion revels in its unreality, because why pretend to be something you’re not? Superhero comics are by nature rooted in the impossible. The show’s philosophy seems to be: if you’re going to make a TV series based on a superhero comic, especially one like X-Men, you’d better be prepared to get weird.
Feel free to imagine that line in his voice.
Season two of Legion leans into this hard with non-linear storytelling that makes the most of its televisual medium and will have you asking “Wait, what?!” at least five times per episode. Also, there is an inexplicable dance-off between three major characters in a club, one of whom is played by a retro-styled Jemaine Clement. (It’s amazing, is what I am saying.)
When last we saw main character David Haller (Dan Stevens), he’d gotten himself trapped in a small electronic orb, which then flew away to who knows where. Meanwhile, the Shadow King (appearing in the form of Aubrey Plaza‘s Lenny), found its latest host in suave scientist Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement), who at the end of season one was driving off in a sweet ride to an undisclosed destination. Now David’s back, albeit with some worrying gaps in his memory, and ready to help his fellow mutants track down the escaped Shadow King. That’s the end of Plot Talk Hour, because really, the plot isn’t what makes this show so freaking good.
What makes Legion so freaking good is its willingness to experiment, to push the boundaries of its medium. Its visual forays into the bizarre, such as a recurring character in season two who always wears a bucket over his head and speaks through a team of auto-tuned, mustached female androids, are signs that we are no longer in the realm of anything that would pass for real. The Shadow King’s physicality grows more impossible and disturbingly cartoonish; in one scene, for instance, you see Plaza extending her arm what looks like several times the length of a human body to pick up a faraway object, like a Tex Avery character.
The show’s sound work taps right into your lizard brain to keep you unsettled on a profound level. The mustache robots’ auto-tuned voices bypass the Uncanny Valley and head straight into Oh God What Even Is The Line Between Humanity And The Machines Anymore Canyon. PSA-esque background announcements concerning the nature of what is real play periodically over loudspeakers, telling characters to be wary of “attack[s] on reality” and reminding them, “If you feel something, say something.” There’s a particular chattering teeth/skittering insect legs sound effect that I would be happy to never ever hear again for the rest of my days.
However, the serious weirdness is conveyed through layered non-linear narrative techniques, asking us to consider how we construct meaning and extrapolate events into stories. The continually blurry boundaries between external “reality”—whatever that is—characters’ inner thoughts, false memories, and straight-up imaginary scenarios (technically the whole thing is imaginary, but you know what I mean) remind us that our minds are fickle things. When that chattering/skittering sound is laid over footage of a jaw moving rapidly up and down, we hear it as teeth; with footage of bugs crawling all over someone’s face, we hear insects. We hear what we think we should be hearing.
When David flashes back to spotting Oliver and Shadow King Lenny in a crowded club, is it a memory of an actual experience, or some sort of funky psychic battle? When the main narrative in one episode is interrupted by what appears to be some sort of Psych 101 audio lecture on delusion, narrated by Jon Hamm, laid over footage of a grotesque bird-skeleton monster covered in black sludge—who is speaking, and who are they talking to? Is this scene in itself meant to be a delusion in a character’s mind? We don’t know, and in that not knowing lies so much to explore.
In the first episode of season two, “Chapter 9,” there’s a moment where the screen goes black and voiceover narration kicks in, with some bonus insect/teeth SFX for good measure. Fine and dandy (except for the teeth noises, because no thank you), but the darkness doesn’t let up until the narration stops about half a minute later. While thirty seconds of talking in the dark may not sound like a lot, it’s enough time to start feeling…off. TV isn’t supposed to do this. I kept checking my screen and internet connection during the scene to make sure that it wasn’t some sort of technical snafu; that’s how sure I was that something was wrong, or rather that Legion had failed to adhere to the rules of its medium.
Of course, it hadn’t failed. The rules of how TV is supposed to work are based on our expectations and biases: the last hundred shows we watched did a thing, so subsequent shows should also do that same thing. But there’s no actual rule requiring all TV production to do the thing. In reality, whatever that may be, you’re allowed to have audio without visuals or vice versa on TV. You’re allowed to ask questions and keep viewers wanting to ask questions. You’re allowed to get really, really weird, and thankfully, Legion season two is ready to see how far that goes.
Are you looking forward to more Legion? Let us know in the comments!
Want Legion to Further Infiltrate Your Mind?
- Here are 6 questions we have for season two.
- We chatted with Noah Hawley about season two’s 11 wildest moments.
- And finally, was ANYTHING we saw in season one real?!