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How Legion’s season 2 finale exposed the emptiness at the show’s core

The superhero series would like you to think it might turn its protagonist into its villain. Too bad it kind of worships him.

David and Lenny plot their escape.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 10 through 16 is “Chapter 19,” the finale of the second season of FX’s Legion.

Legion’s season two finale had the worst of both worlds. Its long-planned reveal, staged as a twist, was so heavily foreshadowed that it was easy to predict, but it also happened so perfunctorily that it felt like the show had thrown it together at the last minute.

This might, honestly, sum up much of the FX superhero drama’s second season, which was always doing interesting things but rarely found ways to make them connect. Legion did many of the things a TV show must do in its second season to succeed — from spending lots of time with the supporting characters to developing some degree of skepticism about its protagonist’s journey — but every time it felt like it was settling into a groove, it would jet off on a new fantastical adventure that dragged it off into some other realm entirely.

This isn’t a problem, not exactly. At its best, Legion embodies the spirit of a comic by someone like Warren Ellis or even Alan Moore, someone who uses the form to examine deeper questions of human psychology and philosophy, often point blank. (It’s the best way to explain why season two of Legion kept pausing the action to have Jon Hamm’s narrator lecture the audience on the nature of consciousness.) As a collection of crazy things that happen, Legion remains unparalleled.

But the second season finale revealed how badly the series wanted to be a story about the roots of toxic masculinity, a show that would confront its central audience with their own failings and inability to police nerd culture’s behavior when it comes to the women within or near it. And the split between its “crazy things keep happening!” storytelling approach and a desire to consider the roots of toxic masculinity might be wide enough to swallow the show whole. Spoilers, of course, follow.

The second season finale pulls the rug out from under the audience — but it’s not clear how much intention it has to just put that rug right back

“Chapter 19” focuses on what happens when its hero, David Haller (Dan Stevens), finally does battle with the villainous Shadow King (Navid Negahban, in a delightfully odd performance). The two meet in the desert and fight after a short musical number. They battle via animated avatars, one of the show’s frequent nods to its main character’s roots in Marvel X-Men comics.

Eventually, the fight is interrupted (via means that would make the show sound too weird to exist — suffice to say they involve a tuning fork), and David’s girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), pulls a gun on her lover, revealing that she knows a future version of herself is trying to preserve the life of the Shadow King, because his help will eventually be needed to stop a future version of David from ending the world, a thread the entire season has been playing with. After a lot of sturm und drang, David wipes Syd’s mind of this particular set of memories. The two return home. They have sex.

He’s robbed her of her agency, of course. She never would have had sex with him if her memories had remained intact. To keep his relationship, David removed his lover’s autonomy. And to its credit, the show knows this. It doesn’t excuse David’s behavior, and it has Syd put said behavior in very clear terms: He drugged her and then had sex with her. He raped her.

The sequence that works best in the episode is when David tries, desperately, to deny to others and himself that he’s a rapist. “I am a good person! I deserve love!” he chants over and over to himself, an idea the finale earlier dismissed as “a delusion.” And that’s because he isn’t a good person. He broke one of the cardinal rules of morality in what he did with Syd, and he certainly doesn’t deserve her love any more.

Syd (Rachel Keller, left) doesn’t know how to stop David.

The finale leaves room for him to be redeemed, but via medication and treatment, not some grand act of romantic self-sacrifice. His life might be over-the-top and exciting, but if David wants to be a good person again, the route back will be mundane and a little boring, especially for someone who spent years in a psychiatric ward and fears going back. And even if he gets back to karma neutral, he’ll still have a black mark on his soul.

Instead of following that route, David escapes with the similarly damaged Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). The two jet off into nothingness, and it’s clear that season three will shift its focus to Syd as the series’ hero, trying to track down her ex before he can end the world.

It’s a weird, superheroic spin on our era of women using their voices to stop toxic and terrible men, and if I thought for two seconds the show would know how to do that, I’d be way more excited for whatever’s about to happen next.

Legion is probably too enamored of its weirdness to tell as rich and emotionally complicated of a story as it wants to

At every turn of Legion, the series has had ample opportunities to question David or develop a skepticism about what he’s doing or what he stands for. And at every turn of Legion, the series has nipped that questioning in the bud.

Very early in the run, for instance, it posited Jean Smart’s Melanie, the head of a mysterious division looking into the rise of mutants with superpowers on Earth, as a kind of authority figure who might be able to help David harness his raw power (which is apparently considerable, even as the series struggles to depict it half the time). But surprisingly swiftly it undercut whatever authority Melanie had, until she spent much of season two pining for her long-lost husband. (The two, reunited in the finale, mostly appeared in a weird flash-forward that seemed designed to write them out of the show.)

Melanie and Oliver share a little quiet time.

This basic pattern — the show starts to question David, then reveals that no, he is right! — has persisted throughout both seasons of the show. And in this interview with Entertainment Weekly, showrunner and creator Noah Hawley seems interested less in the idea of David’s villainy than in him as a sort of supervillain Walter White. This may seem a petty distinction, to be sure, but I think Hawley’s remarks are telling. Legion ultimately won’t be interested in David’s dark actions because of how they affect other people, I fear, but because of how they make him seem like a cooler, more complex, more badass character.

Breaking Bad succeeded because Vince Gilligan might have liked Walter, but he was also intensely skeptical of him; I don’t know that Legion has ever possessed enough skepticism of David as a character, a superhero, or a plot mechanism to really pull off what it wants to do. And that’s even reflected in how the show reveals his villainy — not through the eyes of Syd, but through the eyes of David, who experiences it as a twist. To really get the full weight of that moment, Syd would have had to be front and center throughout, but I’m not convinced Legion understands her as anything other than David’s great love.

I would love to be wrong about this! A dissection of toxic masculinity existing within a superhero series is a compelling way to smuggle some thoughts about the world we live in today into a genre context that makes them easier to approach than something more straightforward. And in the flawed but fascinating third season of Fargo, Hawley was able to do some of the same with the idea of capitalism as a global force gnawing away at the world, which had become broken and wrong.

So, yes, Hawley can dissect broken systems when he wants to. And there is room for Legion’s future to talk about something big and important in a way that not only better grounds the show but makes sense of its many thin supporting characters. (If it could make Syd more than a series of plot functions, that would be lovely.) But, boy, season two of Legion did not give me a lot of hope.

Legion is available on Hulu and FX’s streaming services. Season three will most likely arrive in 2019.

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