Everything about Legion is a risk.
Well, maybe not everything. Choosing Dan Stevens as the leading man was a good way for Noah Hawley and FX to hedge their bets. And reinforcing the cast with reliable, top notch performers like Bill Irwin and Jean Smart was a great way to further solidify the odds that Legion would succeed on some level. Even the riskier casting choices, like Aubrey Plaza as the Shadow King’s primary manifestation, or Rachel Keller, an actress whose only significant acting credit to date was a role in Fargo season two, were fairly safe, considering the range they’d shown in earlier performances.
But almost everything else about the show walks a precarious line. Consider the opening sequence of “Chapter Eight,” which consisted of nearly eight minutes of a character who hadn’t been seen since the premiere. To spend so much time on a minor bad guy who hadn’t been seen in six episodes was a strange decision, especially in a finale with so many loose ends to tie up. On its own, the element of humanization the writers were clearly going for worked; Clark is not just a villainous interrogator, he’s a family man with a partner and an adopted son who are devastated when he nearly burns to death. Although it would have been better placed in a different episode, the sequence functioned as it was supposed to, and suddenly Clark became sympathetic.
The trouble is that at some point while watching this sequence, I realized that I was possibly learning more about Clark than I ever knew about David, the main character of the show. When I evaluate a character and their development, whether in my own writing or someone else’s, I try to list five distinct personality traits that aren’t direct consequences of the story. If it’s too hard to list five simple things, then the character probably isn’t very developed. While Dan Stevens gives a great performance, and the material gives him a lot to work with, I can’t actually list five things about David. He’s kind of a smart-ass, but only sometimes, and he loves Syd. Oh, and he’s technically schizophrenic, depending on who in the story you choose to believe, although even that isn’t simple to determine. But that’s it. And that’s not troubling to see in a main character.
The other characters are largely the same, too. Melanie Bird is a charismatic leader, yet there’s a certain gentle motherliness to her. But how much of this is in the writing, and how much of this is Jean Smart’s performance? The same goes for Syd Barrett, whose relationship with David is the only significant thing about her, other than the performance, once again. The way she and David play off of each other, the easy chemistry they share, was a great source of early characterization, but at then end of the day, it isn’t enough. Viewers should care about Syd and David for reasons beyond simply how much they care for each other.
Having reached the end of the first season, it’s safe to say the show is at its best when it’s taking risks. While some of these, like the finale opening sequence, may have varying degrees of success, the best episodes of this season were those in which abstraction and form and void all overlapped. Chapters One, Four, and Seven were all the most playful and unconventional, and it is no coincidence that these were easily the best three episodes of the season. When the show returned to a more normal structure, like in Chapters Two and Eight, the cracks in the facade became a little more apparent.
Which is not to say that Legion is a bad show. This first season was far more creative and self-assured than any opening salvo outside of Twin Peaks, and when the risks are successful, they are goddamn magic. The jaw-dropping visuals and cinematography, the random Bollywood- or Chicago-inspired dance numbers, and the blearily abstracted voyages into the astral plane were easily the best parts of early 2017 TV. The fact that the show was so strong so often while attempting to rewrite the superhero playbook is a true testament to the storytelling capabilities of Mr. Hawley and Co.
Other random thoughts:
-Aubrey Plaza is a ton of fun as the Shadow King, and watching her find the breadth of her range outside of deadpan snarking has been riveting. That being said, the show is better off using her instead of the other manifestations of the Shadow King. That awful yellow thing that looks like Jabba the Hutt by way of Donald Trump is not scary at all. The more time it spends on screen, the more time I have to think about how stupid it looks. And The World’s Angriest Boy in the World feels derivative of the Babadook, who is a far more successful monster.
-The death of the Eye was a shock to me, and feels like a bit of a misfire. It felt as though he was killed so that the story appeared to have consequences, without actually getting rid of Ptonomy (who is awful) or one of the Loudermilk twins. He was an intriguing villain, and I was looking forward to learning more about him. In retrospect, I realize I never even fully understood what his power was.
-Speaking of powers, it took way too long for the show to explain the exact relationship of Kerry and Cary, and I vaguely recall Melanie being telepathic, but if so, it was literally only utilized in a single scene. When you make a show about mutants, one of the most important things to establish right from the beginning is what they are capable of.
-Hopefully next season Jemaine Clement gets bumped up to series regular, because in a show full of strong performances, he was easily the most captivating presence on screen. Hawley is phenomenal at taking typically comedic actors and finding interesting dramatic uses for them.