Legion’s first season was a fascinating and at times even satisfying experience. Not content to be a great superhero show, it was eight hours of all-around solid television. The only other Marvel properties I can think of that even came close to Legion’s emotional realism and textured villains are Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, respectively; but as much as I loved both, neither managed in 13 episodes what Legion accomplished in eight. Legion was packed with a thematic richness that left me chewing over every episode, every scene, contemplating its significance and dying to see what would happen. The second season won’t air until 2018, and this already feels worse than waiting for the rest of Game of Thrones.
“And for the rest of their lives, these two stories compete: empathy and fear.”
“You’re gods and someday you’re gonna wake up and realize you don’t need to listen to us anymore.”
My favorite aspect of Legion is the way it introduced the mutual fear and suspicion between mutants and non-mutants. This fear is a hallmark of X-Men storylines, and Hawley’s execution does it justice. Clark’s painful recovery, along with his concern for his child’s safety, contextualize a fear otherwise easily dismissed as unfounded (“But the X-Men are the good guys!”).
On one hand, Clark’s conviction that mutants will eventually operate without regard for basic human morality depends on the (admittedly xenophobic) fallacy that powers encourage malfeasance. It’s tantamount to saying that simply owning a gun will motivate a person to commit murders, or that Olympic runners will use their athleticism to abscond with non-Olympians’ belongings. Clark privileges authority over agency, presuming people are incapable of respecting the vulnerable without the threat of retribution – in other words, that only the promise of Hell stands between civilization and anarchy. This assumption overlooks that it’s possible to possess mutant powers without misusing them, that mutants don’t choose to have powers anyway, and that non-powered people already have a pretty solid track record of hurting non-powered or less powerful people.
On the other hand, though, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in rooting for our heroes that we forget non-mutants’ fear of mutants is, if not reasonable, then at least understandable. Flip the script, and instead of Summerland standing against Division Three you have the Federation fighting the Eugenics Wars. The only guarantees in such conflicts are: 1) that violence is not the answer, and 2) that members of both sides – here, Clark and Ptonomy – will share the conviction that violence is the only guarantee of safety. Villains like Magneto (and to a lesser degree, Senator Kelly) are compelling because their fear is seductive. We understand why they don’t think of themselves as villains even as they commit atrocities. They’re only trying to protect themselves and their families. Won’t someone think of the children?
With that said, I want to believe Clark was sincere in agreeing to cooperate with Summerland. When David saved him from Shadow-Kerry, Clark seemed to grasp that mutants were not united in some default anti-non-mutant coalition. Even if he doesn’t relinquish his grudge against David and Summerland – and he probably won’t – he’s too smart to privilege it over the greater danger of The Shadow King running loose. He and D3 need David’s power to defeat TSK. It would be foolish to take David out of play now.
Of course, because D3 is a government agency, this is exactly what it does. It’s not stated explicitly, but that military officer (General Stanley in the credits but Stryker in my head) wouldn’t reference [Chekhov’s] Peacemaker and Equinox unless one was going to pay off with a gloriously bad decision. D3 probably thinks they’re keeping David safely neutralized until they can deploy him against TSK, but this plan would be colossally stupid even if David’s mental stability were not so tenuous. It’s practically a Greek tragedy: In its quest to prevent David from becoming a danger to others, D3 manufactures the very circumstances that escalate the conflict beyond the possibility of peaceful resolution. Consider: David’s healthy mental development has been sabotaged at every turn, as much by the lack of understanding around mutant powers as by TSK’s parasitism. What he needed was a safe space free of malicious interference to discover who he is and how to use his powers safely. Instead, he’s once again the victim of malicious interference that will keep him from achieving the very equilibrium he needs. This is a shame, because until Wheatley vacuumed him up, David seemed to share his bio-dad’s conviction that mutants and non-mutants just need a little empathy to coexist.
It will be interesting to see how Legion unpacks the tension between mutants and non-mutants, between empathy and fear, as David and Summerland grapple with his imprisonment and Oliver and Shadow-Lenny pursue their road trip dramedy. Patrick Stewart has expressed in interest in appearing on Legion as David’s comic-book-canon-dad, and although I would give a great deal to hear him say “We won, baby. Now gimme some sugar,” it would be more interesting for the show to confront the thorny question of mutant/non-mutant coexistence without Charles Xavier’s benevolent confidence. For all his anxieties, uncertainties, and imperfections, David has been the moral compass of the show. I’d like to see whether and how he balances near-omnipotence against the impulse to messianism.
“He’s my man.”
I’d also like to see how Melanie, Ptonomy, Syd, and Oliver respond to their respective situations. My one problem with Legion was that, outside of David and Lenny, the ensemble felt underutilized. It wasn’t clear to me, for example, what drove Oliver or Ptonomy, or why Melanie kept pining for her absent and alcoholic husband. Syd is the most glaring example of the series’ weak characterizations: Solid enough in early episodes, she’s less a character than a plot device by the end.
Legion tried to give everyone character moments (however hurried and belated) before the season wrapped up, but everyone at Summerland felt underdeveloped. The more experienced actors gamely fleshed out what they could, but the younger ones floundered under the weight of one-note development: Syd lurves David. Kerry likes to fight. Ptonomy wants to kill everyone. Rudy…Rudy has telekinesis, or gravity-manipulation, or something. He goes out in a blaze of glory that nobody explains or remarks upon. Just about everyone in the cast seems to possess the acting chops to make their characters real, if only the writers could have been bothered to write actual people. Even the Interrogator would have fallen flat if not for his montage at the top of Chapter 8.
It’s a testament to Legion’s solidity that this weakness doesn’t hobble the show; in fact, the series is so good that it’s not as glaring as it might have been. The cinematography is beautiful, the music exquisitely apropos, and the plotting suspenseful and tight. In its rare weak moments, Legion can be guilty of accused of deploying tropes like fridging (poor Amy!) and exhorting fans to “Tune in next week – same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel!” At its best, though, Legion combines the energy of The Unusuals with the deliberateness and anxiety of Fargo. Legion is a helluva lot of fun to watch, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.