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The Best Superhero Show You’re Not Watching: Josh Reviews Legion Season Three

December 9th, 2019

There are very few people I know who watched Legion, Noah Hawley’s magnificent, mind-bending three-season series based on the somewhat obscure X-Men character David Haller, who was created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz in the eighties.  I keep saying to people: you’re missing out on one of the best, most delightfully bizarre and original super-hero TV shows ever made!!  The show’s eight-episode third and final season brought the series to a satisfying conclusion.  I’m still not certain I understood half of what was going on, but I hugely enjoyed the journey.  (Click here for my review of Legion season one, and here for my review of season two.)

Legion is unlike any superhero TV show I’ve ever seen.  The show has very complicated storylines, but at the same time, I often felt like the show wasn’t really focused on the plot-lines.  Similarly, while Legion is packed with fascinating characters, I often felt like the show wasn’t really focused on the characters.  Noah Hawley and his team’s goals seemed to me to be more about the experience they were creating for the viewer, watching the show.  Legion is stuffed to overflowing with incredibly bizarre and memorable imagery; sequences and moments that were completely unexpected and out there.  The show doesn’t follow any sort of standard narrative path.  There are none of the expected super-hero/super-villain punch-em-ups one might expect from a show like this.  Legion is a much weirder, much more unexpected experiment in telling a story about super-heroes and super-villains that avoids all of the cliches and expected paths of the genre.  All of this sounds like it could have/should have been a mess.  But in the capable hands of Mr. Hawley and his team, I have found Legion to be a riveting experience, one that continually delighted me with its surprising twists and turns, and one I have been thinking about for quite a while after finishing watching it.

Legion’s main character is a relatively minor X-Men villain/supporting character, David Haller.  David first appeared in New Mutants #25 back in 1985.  He was revealed to be the son of Charles Xavier and Gabrielle Haller; he was a mutant with extraordinary psychic powers (rivaling those of his father), but who was also beset by a multiple personality disorder.  Although a sympathetic character, David was generally presented in the comics as a villain.  I was at first surprised that this minor villainous character would be chosen as the main character of an X-Men TV show, but I assumed it was just a way to tell stories in the X-Men world on TV without connecting in any way to the X-Men movies.  It seemed clear to me that the show would ignore the issue of David’s true parentage, and that this villain character would be reworked for the TV show so as to be the heroic lead.  I was surprised and delighted that, on both counts, I was wrong.

Season one slyly made clear (to X-Men fans paying attention, at least), that Professor X was indeed David’s father.  (Indeed, I was so happy that the show, right from the start, embraced the wonderful backstory from the comics of young Charles Xavier’s conflict in Israel with the terrifying villain Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King.)  But even with that groundwork laid, I never expected young Charles Xavier to actually appear on the show!  And so I was so happy that, here in season three, Charles (played quite well by Harry Lloyd, who Game of Thrones fans will recognize from his work as the very-different character of Viserys Targaryen) became one of the main characters on the show!  The season’s third episode gave us an extended flashback of Xavier and Gabrielle Haller (played by Stephanie Corneliussen).  This story has never before been told on-screen.  It was very excited for me to see this bright to life!  And then, even better, I was so happy that we continued to see young Charles (as well as Gabrielle) throughout the rest of the season.  Seeing Charles and his son David teaming up, as the season reached its climax, to take on two versions of the Shadow King (both the villain from young Charles’ time-line, and also the one from David’s timeline, decades later), was awesome.

Season two went down a path I’d never have expected, allowing David to, it seemed, transform fully from the troubled hero of season one into a full-on villain.  (It was the amazing gut-punch surprise that Daenerys’ transformation in the final episodes of Game of Thrones should have been, but wasn’t.)  My biggest question, going into season three, was whether the show would full-on embrace the idea of David as a super-villain, or whether they’d try to find some way of redeeming him.  I suspected it’d be the latter, but I wasn’t sure there could be any way to walk back David’s shocking sexual assault of Syd in the season two finale.  I was very pleased, ultimately, with the way the show handled this and wrapped up David’s story.  I was happy that we get to spend some time with the off-the-rails, villainous David (brainwashing a cult of young people who are drugged by his power, among other disturbing acts), while also getting to see him attempt to ultimately climb his way back into the light.  It made sense that this show wouldn’t wind up being a nihilistic tragedy about the victory of a super-villain, but I was also glad that they didn’t allow David to be forgiven for what he’d done.  The way this resolved in the final moments of the finale worked very well for me, and left me satisfied.

This always-surprising show kicked off the season with a wonderfully unexpected choice.  Even though this final season was only eight episodes in length (season one was eight episodes as well, while season two was eleven), they spent almost the entire first episode of this season exploring a brand-new character: the time-traveling mutant who we eventually learn is called Switch.  On the one hand, it seemed a very unwise choice to spend a whole episode on a new character, when the show had so many other characters with dangling story-lines that needed resolution.  On the other hand, I loved how I could never predict this show; and this introduction of Switch gave us some of the season’s most surprising and weird imagery: I loved her look (her colorful outfits, her omnipresent huge white headphones); the bizarre “rules for time travel” that Switch watches (which serve as this season’s version of the wonderfully weird Jon Hamm-narrated instructional sequences from season two), the strange, cold scenes in which she shared a meal with her father who was present only on a TV screen; the tunnel filled with doors through which Switch could access her time-travel abilities; and so much more.  Switch became a fascinating audience-surrogate character to take us through this final season.  I really enjoyed Lauren Tsai’s performance.

The season’s biggest weakness, in my opinion, was that the core characters from season one — other than David and Syd — were mostly ignored.  I’d have loved to have seen a little more time spent with these characters, and for them each to have gotten a bit more satisfying of a resolution in the end.  The standouts of the ensemble continued to be Cary and Kerry Loudermilk (played by Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder, respectively).  These are my two favorite original characters created for the show.  Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) was sort-of killed off at the end of season two, though he sort-of survived by merging his consciousness with the “Mainframe” computer system.  I was looking forward to an exploration of what this meant for him, and whether any of the man’s original true self remained.  Sadly, the show didn’t take the time to delve into any of that this season.  We mostly just got scenes of Ptonomy acting all robot-like, which were often funny and as classically weird as this show loves to be, but not that satisfying on a deeper, character-based level.

Melanie (Jean Smart) was the leader of the group of mutants back in season one, but she was sidelined for most of season two, wallowing in depression over the loss, for a second time, of her husband Oliver (Jemaine Clement).  I loved Mr. Clement’s memorable work as Oliver in his season one appearances, and I was happy he was more involved in season two (though I hated seeing this jolly character trapped under the thumb of the Shadow King for the whole season).  I was bummed that both of these characters only appeared in a single episode this season, episode six — but, wow, what an episode that was.  It was sweet to see Melanie and Oliver living their happy ending (even though we, the audience, could see it as a sad ending because both characters seemed to be dead — at least, their physical bodies were dead, while their minds/spirits continued to exist, somehow/sort-of, on the astral plane).  It’s super-weird that they wind up as parents to Syd in her second life, reborn on the astral plane, but somehow it all works, and it was satisfying to see how their love of Syd enabled her to move past all the trauma she’d suffered.  Also: that episode gives us Jason Mantzoukas as the fairy-tale-like villain “the Wolf” — amazing!

One of my favorite aspects of season one was the off-the-wall, full-throttled performance of Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) as the villainous Lenny.  I loved that the male character of the Shadow King was reconceived as a female for the show.  While it was cool, in season two, to see Navid Negahban (Aladdin) playing a more traditional version of Amahl Farouk (the Shadow King), I was bummed to see Ms. Plaza shifted out of the primary villain role.  I was happy, then, to see season three take Lenny down paths I’d never expected.  The short montage at the end of episode four, in which we see Lenny’s daughter with “New Janine” live an entire lifetime in just a few minutes (due to disruptions to the timeline caused by the “time eaters” unleashed by Switch and David), leaving Lenny alone at the end, was one of the emotional high-points of the series for me.  Those few minutes took the often-despicable Lenny and suddenly transformed her into a hugely sympathetic character.  Her death at the hands of David in episode five was far more tragic than I ever expected her demise to be.

I was pleased that Division-3 agent Clark (Hamish Linklater)’s husband, Daniel, who I believe was entirely absent from season two, returned here in season three.  I was pleased to see this homosexual relationship get some more screen time… and saddened by the tragic end both characters ultimately met in episode five.  Chills.

As always, this season gave us a number of amazing moments of singing and dancing.  (What did I say, before, about this show being unlike any other superhero TV show??)  My favorite has to be the spectacular, heartbreaking, what-the-hell-is-going-on montage of all of the show’s characters singing “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” in episode five.  Wowsers.  (Runner up?  The amazing rap battle between Jemaine Clement and Jason Mantzoukas in episode six!)

Another of my favorite aspects of the show was the amazingly creative and unusual ways the show’s title, “Legion”, would appear at the start of each episode!  I loved the creativity on display in those brief moments!!  Very cool.

Other thoughts:

* I loved that we got to see Amahl Farouk in two different time periods.  That was cool.  Navid Negahban was just as terrific as the villain as he was in season two.  Really great, memorable work.

* I was delighted to see the show fully embrace its central premise, and its title, in episode five when we see Syd beset by a swarm of Davids as they all declare: “I am Legion.”  What a moment!  Also spectacular — the scene in the finale in which multiple versions of David burst out of all the doors of a circular room, over and over again, to take on Farouk.

* I love that, just as David and Syd met in a mental institution back in the series premiere, we see in episode three that his parents — Professor X and Gabrielle Haller — did the same.

* In episode three, we see “The World’s Angriest Boy” in baby David’s crib.  Are we meant to understand that this was once a real thing, which the Shadow King then twisted within David’s mind as he was growing up?  But it’s hard for me to imagine that bizarre, horrible book ever actually existed.  (It seems way too frightening for a kid to have!)  So did that event not actually unfold the way we saw it?  That confused me.

* Most of episode four was spent with our heroes fighting against the “time eaters” unleashed by Switch’s journeys through time (at David’s behest).  That was a very creepy episode, and the stop-motion effect of these creatures was a visually striking way to show how they could jump over and through time.  But, on the other hand, that episode felt like a bit of a time-waster in this eight-episode final season, in which every moment was so precious, with so much story to tell.  I’d noted above how the first episode might have seemed that way, too, but in the end I loved it for the unexpected digression it took in introducing Switch and her world.  But the real estate of this episode, I think, might have been better served by focusing more on the show’s other characters.

* On the other hand, episode four was also incredible in the way it dug deeply into the pain at the heart of Syd and her body-jumping powers.  Circling back to events hinted at previously (and explored in season two’s very memorable fourth episode, in which David lived Syd’s life over and over again), we learn how horrible so many of Syd’s experiences with her mutant powers have been.  In the extraordinary scenes in which old Syd converses with her younger self, she talks a lot about her mutant power in language similar to what one might hear from survivors of sexual assault.  Since we’ve seen Syd be literally assaulted by David at the end of season two, this was doubly painful.

* If I’m understanding the finale correctly, when David and Farouk reach their detente, the decades of David’s life (and the three seasons of Legion we’ve been watching) are undone/redone.  David will get to relive his life without Farouk living as a parasite inside his mind, and so hopefully much/all of the terrible stuff that’s happened to the characters we’ve liked on the show will also therefore be undone.  It feels like the proper place for this show’s twisty, time-hopping narrative to wind up.  I wish the finale, though, had given us a montage of our characters in their new, hopefully happier lives.  As it is, it’s left to our imagination.  (For instance, the last we see of Cary/Kerry, she’s aged into an old woman in her fight with the time eaters.  This seems horrible — she’s had so much of her life stolen from her.  But this is undone in the end, right?  I’d have liked a final scene to confirm that.)  I did love David and Syd’s final conversation, though.  It was sweet and melancholy, and about as much of a reconciliation as it’d be reasonable to expect between these two.  (I’m so happy the show didn’t make Syd forgive everything David had done to her.)  I was also glad that the finale gave Switch — who had unexpectedly become one of the main characters this season — a happy ending as well (and allowed us to finally meet her mysterious father in the flesh).

* I feel like I still have lots of questions left over from the run of the show that were never quite answered to my satisfaction (I’m still not certain I ever fully understood all the business with Future Syd in season two — I was hoping that’d get better resolved here this season) and I wish that some characters had gotten more attention in this final run of episodes (I didn’t like the tragic death suffered by David’s sister in season two; I was hoping season three would give her a better ending, though sadly we never saw her again — though if I’m understanding the finale correctly, her death was undone, even though we didn’t see that).  But overall, this final run of eight episodes was hugely enjoyable — as clever and strange and surprising as the show has always been.

I’m going to miss Legion — but I’m very thankful for the three wonderfully unique and memorable seasons of the show that we got!

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