In FX’s oddball superhero series Legion, protagonist David Haller (Dan Stevens) spends the first episode of the second season acting as an audience proxy by asking the questions that the rest of the characters aren’t. What happened to Summerland, the woodland retreat for mutants that was the setting for much of the first season? Why are the other main characters now taking orders from a guy with a basket on his head and a trio of singing mustachioed women? What is going on?
After spending the show’s first season answering the question of whether David is insane, superpowered, or both, Legion could have transitioned into a much more conventional superhero show. But while both the real and psychically constructed mental institutions from season 1 have been left behind, Legion feels crazier than ever.
Legion creator Noah Hawley says that while the show’s first season was devoted to the mental health of one man, its second is about “a sane man in an insane world.” David has been missing for a year, though to him, it seems like only a day, and his reappearance makes him an outsider to an extremely strange space that his friends and allies have all accepted as a new normal. The base of Division 3, the secret organization employing good mutants to search for the Shadow King (Navid Negahban), feels like a facility that might have been used for the CIA’s real-world MKUltra experiments, if partway through the project, test subjects were given free rein to redecorate in order to make their acid trips more intense and enjoyable. Just as in season 1, the time period where Legion is set can’t be nailed down. The aesthetic combines archaic technology, disconcerting art, small rooms, and eerily unpopulated public spaces.
Watching Legion is the mental equivalent of an interval workout, with Hawley offering the audience brief respites from the weirdness, but never really letting them get comfortable with a predictable routine. One way he’s doing that this season is with Jon Hamm-narrated interludes that explore the nature of sanity and perception, through references to philosophy and psychological disorders. Those intervals also are jarringly visually different, from a gorgeous animated sequence showing a butterfly in flight to a gruesome image of a man with body integrity identity disorder trying to saw off his own leg. But why are these stories being told? Are they a warning about a character’s growing delusions, or inability to understand their own nature? The encroachment of a monstrous, skeletal chicken from one interlude into the rest of the show’s action makes it clear that the two narratives are connected, but how is unsettlingly opaque.
Hawley seems to want to move beyond what other shows like Mr. Robot, The Tick, or Alphas have done with unreliable narrators. He explores the link between superheroics and mental illness through visuals and plot twists meant to keep viewers unmoored and enraptured. He’s exploring all forms of altered states. Grief-stricken mutant leader Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) retreats from her responsibilities into a drug-fueled haze. David tries to remember his lost year with the help of an isolation tank that feels like a nod to the same plot device used repeatedly in Fringe. With a few exceptions, like the incredible episode “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” Fringe kept its explorations of mental illness and drugs to side plots. In Legion, though, it appears to be the main event. The show is filled with psychedelic imagery and overt references, like playing Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” so slowly that it feels like an attempt to create a version of drug-induced time dilation.
Season 2’s story feints at settling into something mundane, but it stays true to the series’s roots. Division 3 fears a plague that turns people into statues with chattering teeth, but it’s soon determined that this malady is purely psychological, possibly caused by exposure to the Shadow King. If this was a physical malady, it’d make sense to treat it in a hospital. In a brutal critique of the treatment of mental illness, Legion just has its victims warehoused, literally left standing around an empty room.
David is told that Division 3 and the Shadow King are both searching for the psychic villain’s body, and if the Shadow King finds it first, he’ll be unimaginably powerful. This sounds like the most standard of superhero plots, with the heroes trying to prevent the villain from getting a world-changing McGuffin. But before the first episode is over, a future version of David’s girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) tells him he should actually help the Shadow King. Is that vision of Syd real or a dream? Season 1 might have proven David isn’t insane, but is he actually in control of himself? A remnant of his long-term bond with the Shadow King remains, allowing David to sense his presence across great distances, but does that connection give his enemy continued power over him? The real question of season 2 is whether the exorcism of the Shadow King was a cure for David’s conditions, or more a medication that helps manage his symptoms.
As the second season opens, David doesn’t get satisfying answers to many of the questions he asks in the first episode. And that’s not surprising since Legion continues to be more of a mystery than a superhero show. By keeping viewers in the dark, Hawley sets up the suspense that will make the inevitable reveals far more satisfying. The sets have changed, and some of the first season’s questions have been answered, but Legion remains true to its mission of using a familiar genre to tell an extraordinary story.