Season 2 of FX’s Legion is a race against time. David Haller (Dan Stevens) says as much in ‘Chapter 9’, the first new episode of the series in over a year. That proclamation comes after David has been given the chance to do some much-needed catching up and getting used to the new digs at Division 3, which, in turn, means Legion and creator Noah Hawley get to play around with one of their favorite toys: exposition. But Legion doesn’t do exposition like any other show. What other television series can you think of that employs Jon Hamm in voiceover only, and freely jumps from lengthy discussions on how a delusion is born to an extended interpretive dance sequence that although stylish and entertaining to watch raises more questions about where David was for nearly a year and what he was up to?
Still, it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest the manner in which the series is presented trades on substance at times, though it’s gratifying to report that’s not entirely the case in season 2. Don’t be fooled, though; just because Legion has set some ambitious goals doesn’t mean the season will unfold in any sort of conventional way. The aforementioned race is focused on recovering the body of Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban) before the Shadow King does, because if the psychic parasite now residing in the body of Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement) — with the metaphysical residue of Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) still riding shotgun — gets ahold of his former shell it’ll mean the end of everything.
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‘Chapter 9’ packs a lot into the show’s first hour. After season 1 angled at times to become the live-action version of your average college student’s stoned, late night dorm-room philosophizing sessions, it seems almost out of character for Legion to offer up such a relatively solid scenario upon which to launch the next eight episodes, yet here we are. David is back with all of his Summerland friends, and to him it’s only been a day since he was zapped into a strange orb during a fittingly bizarre post-credits sequence that capped off a mostly triumphant season 1 finale.
To leave the audience in suspense like that generates a great deal of expectation, which is magnified here, considering the sort or series Legion is. It’s not enough that Hawley’s comic book series is, well, a comic book series and by far the most interesting (visually and otherwise) show Marvel Television has been associated with, but it’s also X-Men adjacent enough that it can name drop Professor Xavier simply by using the word “dad.” The benefit being the show never has to directly involve the X-Man if it doesn’t want to. Keeping the father-son relationship mostly unstated frees David (and the series) from having to get too mixed up in the convoluted Uncanny X-Men of it all. If there’s anything this show doesn’t need, it’s more stuff happening in the margins, threatening to pull David, Syd (Rachel Keller), Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), Melanie (Jean Smart), and the Loudermilks (Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder), out of their extremely weird but entertaining and comfortable orbit around the question of what’s real and what’s not when your lead character possess a mind capable of altering the very fabric of reality.
But as much as Legion must pay tribute to certain comic book gods, it gets away with relatively lean offerings, which allows the series to get on with being whatever the hell it wants to be from moment to moment, episode to episode. What appears to be the show’s fickle nature is actually a sometimes nimble, sometimes awkward sleight-of-hand trick designed to help distract from the puzzle boxiness of it all. But perhaps what’s so charming about the show is that its not enough that Legion is essentially designed to keep you guessing as to what’s going on and what it’s all really about, but that it seems genuinely interested in digging below the surface to find out alongside you. Legion season 2 is digging for answers to some of the most basic questions it’s asking — and, just like David, even it’s not sure there’s really anything there.
Therein lies the rub with Legion: When a series plays fast and loose with the idea of what’s real and what’s not as often as this one does, the degree of difficulty in making events matter, or seem like they will matter, becomes exponentially more challenging. Legion does an admirable job convincing itself the importance (or the existence) of all that’s waiting to be discovered beneath the mystery and the uncertainty of it all — and season 2 sets up a series of doozies with a contagion leaving the infected standing still save for their creepily chattering teeth, and a time travel element that’s as invested in the inherent paradoxical problems such a thing creates as it is the narrative implications of David potentially knowing the future — but it’s biggest advantage is what’s lying right there on the surface.
For all its stylistic bombast and eccentric storytelling choices, Legion at least makes an attempt to back it all up with characters you can care about. A lot of that has to do with the performer, as Stevens remains incredibly engaging to watch whether he’s traveling the astral plane or scarfing waffles like a man who hasn’t sat still in almost a year. The same is true of Keller’s Syd, whose familiar phrase “He’s my man” now sounds a little uncertain. That uncertainty is underlined by an exchange with Melanie, in which Smart conveys the weariness of being a woman in a story like this, where the men must leave to save the world and the women are seemingly expected to sit back and wait for their return. Thankfully, the reveal at the end of the episode suggests otherwise.
Maybe the biggest surprise, however, is Clark Debussy (Hamish Linklater), former Division 3 villain, now ally of the Summerland mutants and the most grounded and human character on the show. Clark and David enjoy a short exchange wherein Clark describes with some melancholy the childhood memory of staying home from school to watch television with his sick mother and eat ice cream. Linklater’s personability not only helps bridge the gap between human and mutant, but also between the show and the viewer. A guy with a basket on his head and who speaks through three mustachioed female androids is a fun concept, but it’s also an incredibly tough hang when you get right down to it. Like so much of the show, it offers a fascinating product to look at and to consume, but it sometimes feels like there’s not much lurking beneath the surface — or in this case, the basket.
Without characters like Clark, or David and Syd’s relationship, or even the fascinating bond between Cary and Kerry Loudermilk, Legion would find it difficult to ask that the audience be invested in the series beyond its plentiful shiny surface elements. In the first four episodes made available to critics, there are hints that the show wants to move past its well-polished veneer by introducing a greater sense of urgency to the narrative. It’s still prone to lengthy digressions, but those departures reveal an attempt to dig deeper and to find something substantive. In all, Legion season 2 remains Marvel’s dazzling mutant mind-bender, one that, whether it succeeds or doesn’t, deserves credit for striving to become something more substantial.
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Legion continues next Tuesday with ‘Chapter 10’ @10pm on FX.