This week one of my second-favorite TV shows of… probably this century… came to a planned end, and I’ve been drowning in obsession and finding very little place to share it. Legion is, frankly, a very weird show. It’s an easy show not to like, for big reasons or small, so I can’t fault anybody who decided it wasn’t for them. But I want to gush, and hope to have someone to gush with, so now I’m going to gush spoiler-free(ish) so you can all understand me.
When Legion first started on FX three seasons ago, there were big divisions here on GeekMom alone between people who were outright offended by its portrayal of mental illness and people who thought that portrayal was nuanced and deep. I was one of the latter: there have been a few small references toward psychiatric meds in a negative light that I don’t care for, and a few other times I’ve “really?”ed at various attitudes expressed or alluded, but on the whole, I love the questions it raises.
Then there’s the surreal, purposely confusing, psychedelic way the story is told, which could be quite off-putting. It even lost me a bit in the middle of the second season, when it started to feel like it was being weird just for the sake of being weird and not for the sake of actually telling the story (and also had an extended and unfortunate lack of Loudermilks, see below). But being that the third season gets back on track with the storytelling, I almost wonder if the middle of the second season functioned a bit like the sea noises in the third-quarter of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” a small pool of chaos to make the eventual return to (relative) order that much more powerful.
But I, as I explained in detail at that last link, am a sucker for psychedelia. I was sold on Legion FX as soon as I heard “Noah Hawley [whose storytelling I adored in the Fargo TV series] is working on a new project based on an X-Men comic [the themes of which always fascinate me],” but when I tuned in and saw how completely trippy it is on top of that? I was in love. Somebody made a show so exactly pertinent to my interests!
And I already miss it. There was nothing like it. There could be nothing like it. So now I want to celebrate all the mindblowing bits of it. Maybe, now that it’s all out there, you’ll find my descriptions interesting and decide to binge it. (I’m keeping this basically spoiler-free.) Maybe you’ll say, “uh, yeah, definitely not for me,” and that’s okay because you’ll at least understand why I loved it. And maybe you, too, loved it and just want to hear someone else going on and on about why. So, here’s why:
1. What IS?
As I said, I like X-Men stories for the themes: What does it mean to be human? How do you fit into the world when you’re different? What if your very existence is dangerous? What is the right thing to do with superhuman abilities? So Legion, of course, addresses those questions, but it goes even farther: What is REAL? What is madness? Who decides whether you’re sick or just different? What if you have the power to change the very nature of reality? Is what was real before still real?
Legion doesn’t just ask these questions, it plays with them. It asks these questions of you, the audience, and then stretches everything you experience so that your answers keep changing.
2. “Who teaches you to be normal when you’re one of a kind?”
That’s a question our heroine Syd asks several times throughout the series. The questions in point #1 aren’t merely philosophical, or there to make you question reality, but they have actual ramifications for all the characters on the show.
Legion, of the title, refers to David Haller, who is mentally ill. No, wait, he just has powerful psychic abilities. No, wait, he’s mentally ill AND has powerful psychic abilities. Maybe the psychic abilities caused the mental illness by way of the trauma they brought him. Maybe it was outside influences. Maybe it’s also just genetic. Does it matter?*
I wrote a whole article about this just a few months ago, on the difference between mental illness and neurodivergence and how they often intertwine and make treatment difficult. Imagine if your neurodivergence is a superpower! Imagine trying to untangle it all then!
Mental health is something that affects everyone, not just the severely mentally ill like David. All the characters struggle at least a little balancing their differences and their sanity. All the characters become confused over who to trust, over what reality to trust. And through a series of outright lessons on mass insanity in season two, you, yourself, see how easy it could be to cross the line.
One thing that turned some people off partway through the show was a sense of being not sure who to root for. Good guys do terrible things. Enemies become partners. Villains are right. David goes from sweet and sympathetic to monstrously evil and back and forth over the course of the show. But that’s the whole question. How do you BE in a world where who you are is so extreme?
3. Can we discuss the acting?
The acting that makes such complicated characters possible? Dan Stevens plays every side of David believably, the terrified and the terrifying, the rational and the out-of-control. It’s incredible how such an extremely multifaceted character never feels out of character. You can love him and hate him and pity him and relate to him all in the same episode, and every bit feels genuine.
Then there’s Aubrey Plaza, who steals every scene she’s in as Lenny, who starts out as David’s junkie best friend and then… well, I can’t say too much about her twisting, turning journey, except that throughout it she’s manic and horrible and glorious all at once.
But you don’t have to portray someone with a personality disorder to be fascinating to watch. Cary Loudermilk is probably the most consistent character on the show (more about his character in a moment), but he’s played by Bill Irwin, aka Mr. Noodle.** He’s like watching a live-action cartoon. The script takes full advantage of his physical humor skills, too, and it’s pure delight.
The truth is there’s nobody whose performance I dislike, but I have to give a special shout-out to a technically-guest star who’s earned his own bullet point in this article:
4. Jemaine Clement being gloriously straight-faced kooky
The shorter half of Flight of the Conchords plays Oliver Bird, a beatnik telepath who’s gone and lost himself on the Astral Plane. Talk about a scene-stealer: he commands scenes in episodes he’s not even, technically, in. He feels like such a presence even though he’s in only half the episodes, and looking back, all the best episodes (in my opinion) had Oliver. He’s someone who exudes confidence but has gaping holes in his memory, so simply trying to follow his quick but often inaccurate proclamations is a trip.
He’s also the only character to break the fourth wall, on several occasions telling stories directly to the audience, and somehow it feels in character—as if he’s simply the only one aware that they’re all on a TV show.
In any other show, Oliver would be my favorite character. But this show also had:
5. THESE TWO. Er, one… These one. This two?
A survey once asked me for my Top Five Favorite Marvel Characters, and after Peggy Carter and Peter Parker—once I decided that characters created outside of the comics for a Marvel property that wasn’t even the MCU counted— I had to put the Loudermilk twins. As one of the five. Two characters for the price of one!
I’m sorry, people who haven’t seen this show, you must be very confused. Cary and Kerry Loudermilk are two very different people who just happen to sometimes share one body. But not in a multiple personality sort of way. More like Kerry lives inside Cary? Except when she gets bored or annoyed or feels the need to beat someone down, and then she comes out and does her own thing? Is she, like, the embodiment of his Id or anima? Is she some kind of partially-absorbed twin who somehow developed into her own self anyway? Does anyone care when they are so freaking lovable just the way they are?
The Loudermilks are what Tumblr would refer to as “pure cinnamon rolls.” Cary is the shy, stuttering nerd who somehow always remains shocked that anyone could choose to do evil no matter how much evil he sees, the sort who naturally evokes “my pure baby I must protect” reactions; Kerry is his exact opposite, a warrior who lives for a fight, but she greets the world with such a childlike enthusiasm that even she exudes that pure-baby feeling. Whenever they are on screen, they just bring so much heart to the story no matter what other ugly things are happening in it.
And I, as someone on the asexual spectrum, have great affection for portrayals of incredibly deep yet platonic relationships. Relationships don’t get any closer than with a person you’re not entirely sure isn’t just another part of you. I see the Loudermilks almost as a metaphor for loving yourself even when there are things you don’t quite like about yourself. Cary and Kerry often disagree, and bicker like any siblings would, but they love each other so fiercely, protectively, and unconditionally you can feel it just watching. They honestly can’t live without each other.
I mean, no matter how sympathetic or not you might find the other characters to be, the Loudermilks are ALWAYS the best. If they’re the only people you’re rooting for as you watch this show, so be it. I’m properly obsessed with them, and find myself writing more fanfiction about their life than I’ve ever written about any other character in my four decades of existence. Somebody who writes comics for Marvel, please work them into a comic so they stay canon forever long after this show is forgotten!
Which makes a great transition. SPEAKING of canon comics characters:
6. Look, I may have a thing for young Charles Xavier.
That thing I said a few paragraphs back, about being on the asexual spectrum, means I don’t normally look at “heartthrobs” and go “whoo-eee hot diggity,” but occasionally I do feel a sort of stunned appreciation for a lovely bit of eye candy if I see him in character. James McAvoy is someone who’s always kind of kicked my mind off track so I can’t think anything but, “What a beautiful, beautiful man.” I spent all the prequel X-Men movies in a bit of a “Charles Xavier is a beautiful, beautiful man” haze, actually.
Okay, so what this has to do with Legion: Charles Xavier is actually David Haller’s biological father, and while the show has primarily stayed away from using direct comics characters beyond David and the main villain whom I’m not naming in case you consider that too much of a spoiler (though I’m sure later promos haven’t shied away from it), in this final season he was actually set to show up, as a character, on-screen. A young version, in his twenties or thirties. But they didn’t have the budget for James McAvoy, so they cast Harry Lloyd.
When I looked at the initial casting news picture I just sort of shrugged. BUT THEN, he showed up in the story, in character, and guess what? Young Charles Xavier is still a beautiful, beautiful man. And he got to be in multiple episodes, which is great because I never wanted to stop watching him! His calm, authoritative manner. His, excuse the term, cerebral earnestness. That beautiful sad smile. I found myself hypnotized by his loveliness. Has he been messing with my brain or something? It’s not like he doesn’t have the ability.
But I’ve never felt this way toward old Charles Xavier, so maybe it’s the hair, not the psychic powers. That sounds terribly shallow, but somehow Charles Xavier is only a beautiful, beautiful man before he lost his hair. Please don’t tell my balding husband I said that.
But SPEAKING of aesthetics, we haven’t even gotten to the main thing that makes Legion so unique yet.
7. It’s like a dream on your TV!
It’s surreal, psychedelic, and nonlinear. It makes unexpected connections. It’s occasionally nightmarish. It’s heavy with symbolism, some of it classic collective unconscious stuff, some of it references to other stories and shows—just, as I mentioned in my last post on dream interpretation, like real dreams do. If you so desired, you could use dream interpretation to attempt to decode it—a Twitter friend of mine and her husband do a whole podcast deconstructing all the symbolism and references in this show (and it’s delightful).
The creators made a conscious effort to set the story somewhat out of time. It’s got a retro, seventies vibe, and probably does take place then if you line it up with actual historical references, but then it throws in countless anachronisms of pop culture, technology, and societal norms. You can never definitively say it takes place at any one time—and that’s even before time travel works its way into the plot. You’re drifting in a timeless dreamscape.
The show is not only not afraid of breaking the fourth wall, it breaks all the walls. One minute it’s absorbing you so deeply in the plot that even your TV seems to be succumbing to the warped reality, the next minute it’s blatantly reminding you, outright in words, that this is all just a show.
There’s so much weirdness that it’s hard to tell which weirdness is completely random and which weirdness actually means something. But it doesn’t cheat, either. The underlying plotline and characters are real, even if some of it is not really corporeal.
8. The title cards alone are fun.
I want to point that bit of weirdness out specifically because it delights me every time. “FX presents Legion” is never seen the same way twice. The letters could be seen in a piece of the set, on somebody’s shirt, made of some sort of symbolic objects. And you never know when in the show it will happen. Sometimes you get the whole way through an episode and never realize you never saw the title card until it shows up at the very end. I have been known to applaud certain title cards when they appear. Not that this is a reaction most people would have.
9. It’s an adventure in setting and cinematic techniques.
Legion is a treat to look at. The sets use color and patterns to bring a sense of motion and life to a scene. Maybe the backdrop will disappear, leaving the characters in a blank mental existence. Maybe sizes are distorted. Maybe patterns of light require an epilepsy warning. Maybe visual references to other stories are subtle, or blatant. There were a lot of visual references to the Yellow Submarine movie in season 3, for example, which I of course enjoyed.
The show goes full-on horror movie quite often. But not in a gory way. Not much blood. Which is great because I don’t like gore. Yet, still, people do die in horrifically creepy ways (just, not gooey), and some of the monsters have me peeking from between my fingers. (“Don’t look too closely,” I tell myself, “or you’re never going to get to sleep tonight.”) It’s a beautifully done sort of terrifying, though. I appreciate it objectively. Did I mention this show is rated TV-MA? Yeah. Not for kids on many levels, but the fact that it can be utterly terrifying is a big one.
It goes beyond tricks of lenses and camera angles and filters and cuts, though there’s plenty of that. It sometimes incorporates animation alongside the live action. Or it turns into a series of sepia-tinted still photos with speech balloons. The entire soundtrack might drop out, or it becomes a full-on old-fashioned silent movie set to “Bolero,” which also happens to be being woven into a shield. The song is, I mean. Because of course it is.
Did I mention the music?
10. NO, SERIOUSLY, HAVE I MENTIONED THE MUSIC?!
Let’s be honest. If you know me at all, you knew this was my favorite part of the show. I already linked it, but I’ll have to link it again: I am a fanatic for psychedelic rock. And of course the psychedelic visuals require a psychedelic rock soundtrack!
My second favorite band is Pink Floyd, and Pink Floyd seemed to be the biggest influence to the soundtrack and to the show itself. They even went as far as naming the heroine of the show after Floyd’s founding member, Syd Barrett, significant in this case because he’d had to quit the band due to mental health issues.
Even when the songs are not, strictly, psychedelic themselves, they’re used in a psychedelic way, ranging from being utterly ironic to completely on the nose—so on the nose it sometimes felt like the song had been written for the show, even when I’d heard it for decades before. (I mean, what a lucky coincidence that Dan Stevens just happens to have blue eyes. Pete Townshend can see the future!)
11. It’s not just a soundtrack. It’s a MUSICAL!
Several times a season, the music breaks into the story itself and the characters sing or dance. It’s all part and parcel of the general surrealism, but also usually has some story purpose, even if only a character beat that could theoretically have been expressed through a line or two of dialogue instead. Sometimes a musical number is used to portray face-offs happening on a strictly mental level—because it’s not a physical fight, it now becomes a dance-off or a rap battle. Sometimes the musical numbers are silly, sometimes they’re touching, and the massive magical animated sky battle performance of “Behind Blue Eyes” at the end of season two is still one of the most jaw-droppingly amazing things I have ever seen on TV, EVER.
12. Special shout-out to Jeff Russo and Noah Hawley’s cover songs
Turns out the cast aren’t the only ones to let their secret musical talents out on the show. Showrunner Noah Hawley paired up with music director Jeff Russo to perform a whole series of acoustic cover songs used throughout, often during the end credits of an episode but sometimes used in the story itself. I’m not sure what inspired this collaboration—were there songs that they really wanted to use, but they could only get the rights to record it fresh, not to play the original recording?*** It sounds like a terrible idea, letting the showrunner sing a song instead of just settling for a different prerecorded song, but the results are consistently fantastic. In most cases it’s a totally new arrangement, so they’re not trying to recreate someone else’s performance, and at least half the time I’ve said, “I think I like this version better than the original!”
Jeff Russo, you’re a genius, and I salute you. The whole soundtrack of this show has been utterly brilliant, whether selected recordings, acoustic covers, cast performances, or the instrumental background music, which does so much to set the trippy and often creepy mood. (There are a lot of Pink Floyd-inspired bits in the background music, too). I want a soundtrack album that includes every bit of it, but the best I can do is piece it together from other people’s Spotify playlists.
13. Finally, UNANSWERED QUESTIONS!
This show was so complex (and so full of “but where is this GOING?”s in season 2), that lots of plot and character threads were laid down but broken off before the end. It is frustrating. “But what about [insert one of myriad dangling plot threads or characters without closure here]?!” the logical part of my brain kept fretting afterward. This is technically a criticism, but the sort of criticism that adds to the sadness of the show ending. I want more of the show so it can more successfully tie up all those loose threads!
Luckily, they did a decent job of tying up the emotional threads. That made it less of a detached mind game and more of a real, empathetic story, when all was said and done. If I had to choose between getting every logical question wrapped up and getting an emotionally-satisfying ending for as many characters as possible, I’m glad they went with the latter. But the happiest option would have been more episodes to clean all the rest of it up, too!
Ah, but I’ll have to settle for tracking down playlists, writing Loudermilk fics, and watching the three seasons we have over and over. They’re definitely good for rewatching. There’s so much happening to catch.
I know the show is not perfect, and I know it’s not for everyone. But Legion did mash up so many of my favorite things in one utterly unique package, and I will forever remember it fondly.
*I feel like I should spell this out for people who are sensitive to these issues, going into it, so you have fair warning if you need it. David, in the show, was originally diagnosed as schizophrenic, but this turned out to be a combination of uncontrolled telepathy and a psychic parasite. But, um, having a psychic parasite is a pretty bad mental illness in and of itself, wouldn’t you say? And now he’s got post-traumatic issues from dealing with a lifetime of this. Over the course of the show, as he wrestles with the craziness that has been and continues to be his life, he develops Dissociative Identity Disorder (the source of the name Legion) and, most dangerously, a severe case of narcissism. Yes, it’s important to understand that the majority of mentally ill people are not dangerous, but if that mental illness is narcissism and you happen to be an Omega-Level mutant… yeah, slightly different story. Oh, yeah, and it turns out schizophrenia runs in his family, so maybe he’s not entirely immune to that after all. It’s complicated, isn’t it? That’s why I wrote that article on co-morbid disorders, and that was about much less extreme cases.
**You’re all parents, so that’s all I need to say. It still tickles me that the guy has been on two of my favorite TV shows ever, and the two shows are on extreme opposite ends of the Parental Advisory Ratings spectrum. Don’t worry, Cary’s a sweetheart, he won’t ruin Mr. Noodle for you forever. It’s just the show around him that’s utterly not child-appropriate. Cary’s sister does occasionally disembowel people, after all.
***My only personal disappointment with the soundtrack is that there were no Beatles, which I’m sure has to do with usage rights. But, man, I would love to hear a Russo/Hawley cover of “It’s All Too Much.” It would totally fit, too.