WORDS: Alex Welch
“Welcome, to the madness.”
A man and a woman lie in the center of a perfect, aqua blue pool, soaking in the sun. But the woman suddenly realizes that she doesn’t even know what day it is, while the man, has his drink refilled by the arm of a man, who otherwise isn’t actually there. The woman starts laughing. “What?,” asks her companion. “We’re trapped,” she says, and the scene continues until they’re lost in a fit of mad, hysterical laughter.
That scene, which opens the season 2 premiere of FX and Marvel’s LEGION is a better example of what this show is than any I can give. Especially as the camera pulls out from that scene to reveal the many mental layers under which the swimsuit-clad man and woman – in this case Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny and Jemaine Clement’s Oliver Bird – are buried by the villainous telepath, Amahl Farouk/The Shadow King (Navid Negahban). Never mind that this doesn’t quite track with how we thought the show’s first season finale had ended last year, with Farouk still using Lenny as his preferred form, even after having taken over the mind and body of Oliver. The bright hysteria of that opening image, of Lenny and Oliver trapped in a sun-soaked psychological prison, is so effective of a hook, that it’ll give any viewer the confidence to wait for an explanation.
courtesy of Legion
Those kinds of images, which have always been an integral part of LEGION, take the lead in the season 2 premiere, an episode that plays a fun game of catch up with many of its characters, after going through a year-long time jump following the events of its season 1 finale. But between those moments, which follow David Haller (Dan Stevens) as he is reunited with all his companions again (including Rachel Keller’s Syd Barrett), are educational excerpts. Each narrated by Jon Hamm, the segments offer important insight into the central themes and conflicts of the new season.
Reminiscent of the brief anecdotes that opened Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the segments center around instances where a person’s delusions eventually drove them to insanity. Like how a man daydreamed that he was a butterfly, and then began to wonder whether it had actually been the other way around, that he was a butterfly dreaming of being a man.Or how a man, tormented by the thought that his right leg may not actually be his, eventually decides to saw it off. The point, showrunner Noah Hawley and his co-writer, Nathaniel Halpern, are trying to make, is that a delusion can start out looking just as innocent and pure as any other thought. Until it’s insidious insides eventually takes over your mind. Like how two white eggs may look the same on the outside, but while one may birth a perfectly natural baby chicken, the other could contain a tarred, parasitic creature, that devours the other. An example that keeps LEGION’s reputation for creating captivating and unsettling images very much alive.
Now, for those of you out there who haven’t watched LEGION yet, who think this doesn’t sounds like a traditional comic book TV show, it’s because LEGION could not be farther from that. Adapted for the screen by Noah Hawley (Fargo), LEGION is a complex and mind-bending series that feels more like a Stanley Kubrick film than it ever does a part of the Marvel or X-Men cinematic universes. A series that adopts the same mental instability of its lead, paranoid schizophrenic telepath, David Haller, and uses his trouble at comprehending reality to create a compelling and engrossing story about mental health.
courtesy of Legion
That’s an impressive mission statement for any show to have, but LEGION stood out because of how exceptionally it managed to live up to its own promises. It’s first season was such a trippy, quirky, and at times, nightmarish experience, that it was hard to ever forget. So much so, in fact, that the possibility of LEGION somehow maintaining that same balancing act for a whole other season could be deemed (understandably), unlikely.
But if the show’s season 2 premiere is any indication, then it looks like LEGION is primed to be even weirder and more ambitious than its first. Following a change in production locale, the show’s never looked any better. Rather than shying away from the quirks of its first season, the series has doubled down on every single one of its weird impulses. Dana Gonzales’ rich and colorful cinematography, combined with Michael Wylie’s impeccable production design and Jeff Russo’s psychedelic score, create a fictional world unlike any other on TV or film screens right now. One that feels as indebted to the work of filmmakers like Kubrick or Wes Anderson, as it does it’s completely own thing. One could accuse the show of suffering from style over substance, but that complaint would only be valid if its visual style wasn’t directly connected to the uncanny lives of its characters.
courtesy of Legion
With all that being said, it’s understandable why LEGION hasn’t ever been welcomed with the same kind of mainstream fanfare as TV’s other live-action superhero shows, despite succeeding at being a comic book adaptation in a way that not even those series do. It is the kind of overwhelming sensory-driven story that can’t ever quite be distilled perfectly into words. It can only be experienced. It is equal parts Alice in Wonderland and Twin Peaks. And like David Lynch, you go with LEGION because of how sure-footed Hawley is in his storytelling. He is a master of the television format. One who makes that age old saying feel outdated, because maybe, the madness of his stories and his methods are one and the same. Give it a chance, and LEGION will take ahold of you, before you even have a chance to realize it. Once LEGION does that, the only appropriate reaction is to laugh, and soak it in. The sheer, utter madness of it all.
In other words, if you haven’t already: for returning viewers of the series, this can be considered a joyous time, but for anyone out there who hasn’t checked out LEGION yet – it’s time to catch up.
LEGION airs every Tuesday night on FX.