Legion returned with its season two premiere last night. I still can’t get it out of my head. Neither can Kotaku’s Gita Jackson, which is why we decided to sit down and discuss the episode at length.
But first a quick recap of where the show’s first eight episodes left us. Last season ended with David Haller finally free from the Shadow King, a psychic parasite that had been terrorizing his brain since childhood. While the Shadow King escaped in the body of Oliver Bird, Haller’s friend and the husband of his kind-of-boss Melanie Bird, Haller is sure he can find him and destroy him once and for all. Then, a floating metal ball captures him and takes him away (really!). In this first episode, David Haller’s buds finally find him after a year. He only thinks it’s been a day, and he can’t remember what happened after he was captured.
In this latest episode we learn what everyone was up to and begin to try to piece together what happened to David.
Gita Jackson: Hey Ethan! Legion has returned and I basically don’t know how to feel. Help?
Ethan Gach: Hi Gita! Don’t know how to feel? I thought you said you were pumped? There was a LOT to unpack in last night’s premiere, and like you I’m still chewing through it, but my first impulse is to say, “Wow, that was gorgeous and a ton of fun.”
Gita: I’m just overwhelmed with emotion. I absolutely fell in love with this show, having been a big fan of Noah Hawley’s Fargo series and a huge Dan Stevens stan after seeing him in the excellent movie The Guest. Last night’s premiere was absolutely beautiful to watch, but also bizarre, very dense, and full of foreboding. I can’t wait to watch it again, but let’s try to break it down.
Ethan: Okay, so first how did you feel about Jon Hamm’s metaphoric storytelling corner? It kind of worked for me, even though during the commercial breaks the same voice was trying to sell me a Mercedes. I think this episode struck a better balance than some of the past ones when it came to meshing together the abstract mind puzzles with the rest of the plot and character motivations. Each of Hamm’s story segments gave me a useful way to think about what was going on with David’s return and the “One Year Later” world the rest of the people are now operating in.
Gita: All in all, this is one of Hawley’s strangest and most ambitious episodes of television, and I think he used the experimental storytelling techniques to great effect. This, more than the show’s pilot, felt like I was being set up for a specific story about a specific thing—mass delusion, or as one of John Hamm’s chapter headings said, “the madness of crowds.” Letting the more abstract symbolism live in its own space, like the chick hatching from one egg and a demon chick hatching from another, representing the two kinds of ideas that can live in your mind, allowed me to draw my own conclusions about how to apply those ideas to the show. This meant that, after establishing those symbols, Hawley can repeat them, as he does near the end of the episode with the demon chick leaving a greasy trail, crawling under Syd and David’s bed.
Ethan: Was that a very video game thing to do? I can never tell if pop culture writ large continues to emulate games in subtle ways or because that’s what I spend so much of my time with I just end up seeing those elements in everything else. I agree with the way you explained the setup. It sort of gives us a toolbox of ideas to play with and then leaves us to apply them to the rest of the show however we want. Hawley similarly cut through some of the confusion of the original pilot (which I really liked) by laying out clear stakes. Everyone wants to be the first to find the Shadow King’s body. Out of that simple challenge, though, we’ve already got a ton of interesting things to think about. Is David being honest with the group? Is Division’s 3's mission really that straightforward? Are we all just stuck in David’s head at the moment? What do you think the main takeaway questions were from last night’s episode?
Gita: More than video games, this reminded me of theater, though I guess games remind me more of theater than other kinds of narrative visual media. I feel like the goal of the episode was to make us, the audience, feel unsettled. Which is certainly how I feel! There are enough seeds of doubt that have been planted every step of the way for the audience to feel like they can’t trust anyone. We already distrust Division 3, even if our heroes are working with them. We can’t trust Melanie Bird, who is grieving her husband, again, and strung out on drugs. We can’t trust David, because he doesn’t even know his own mind. And we can’t even trust Syd, who is normally his rock, because we saw a vision of her in the future who is telling David to do the one thing he was told not to do—return the Shadow King to his original body. Despite presenting a lot of this information in a surreal way, I feel really emotionally engaged with how the characters feel. They’re lost, and I don’t know what they should do.
Ethan: You know who’s not lost, or at least doesn’t seem to be? Admiral Fukuyama, aka basket head, aka Mister Portal 2 Fan Mod. I found his gimmicks extremely effective and yes, very theatrical. Putting a basket over your head is one of those things that’s easy and simple and kind of stupid but then an actor does it in front of you, commits to it, and it unsettles the fuck out of you (or at least me).
Gita: Legion feels like a show that’s just a dream for an actor. There are so many moments in this episode, like Admiral Fukuyama and his three mustachioed assistants, when you feel like everyone involved must be having the time of their lives. More than that, these are all unique challenges that push an actor to throw themselves into bizarre situations and sell them to us, keeping us engaged. One of my favorite scenes last season was David sitting on the bed in his little mental construct, barefoot, playing “Rainbow Connection” on the ukulele as his voice begins to waver and fear spreads across his face. Syd walks around the bed to the door he’s had shut in his mind, which is eerily glowing red. That silence, Stevens’ expressiveness in his singing and playing, that eerie red glow—it said more about the foreboding than the characters explaining to me what was happening. This episode is mostly that kind of shit, and I’m totally here for it. Especially the dance fight—what did you make of that?
Ethan: The dance fight was bonkers! Okay, so a long time ago I watched Across The Universe because I was a Beatles fan and young and still full of cheer. Then someone with a degree in dance told me the choreography in that movie, which I’d been raving about, was actually really simple and bland. Sad and deflated, I’ve been super critical of every dance number I’ve seen since. So when Dan Stevens, Jemaine Clement, and Aubrey Plaza started twitching on the dance floor I immediately went into hyper-critical no-fun mode. In seconds that all melted away though, and I was completely sold. It was the kind of scene that would be easy to push too far and oversell on the goofiness, but they instead went for the slowburn build up and I loved every moment of it. More psychic dance battles please! Also Clement floating in a pool spilling martini all over himself. Stevens calling his Whole Foods version of Cerebro a daiquiri was another great moment.
Gita: I loved the dance sequence so much because it wasn’t pushing the actors to suddenly become dancers—they could just have that psychic battle and let that do the talking. Honestly, I feel like there should be no more putting your fingers to your temple in X-Men. Next time psychics need to fight, it should be a dance off. All the other small moments you mention point to another great part of this episode and whole show. Everyone seems like they’re having a damn good time. I mean, Dan Stevens eating waffles! Jemaine Clement in a tiny swimsuit! Rachel Keller pretending to be a cat! It’s got the same psychobabble nonsense and bombast as say, Westworld or The Expanse, but I actually feel like this show is trying to entertain me.
Ethan: Yes, I think you’ve put your finger on it. Amidst all the drab prestige genre TV out there inspired by the True Detective opening credit sequence, this show has fun and finds room to celebrate and riff on the visual, historical, and comic book influences swirling around while still crafting an interesting mystery. Speaking of which, the way they showed time traveling Syd was perfect. The scene as a whole worked so well, despite it being two people playing with glow-in-the-dark infomercial markers. It wasn’t overly dramatic or sentimental. It’s great how visually lush the show is without ever feeling overstuffed or just a mess of special effects.
Gita: Legion feels comic book-y in the best way. It feels like picking up a random issue of a random series in the grocery store when you’re a kid, and not always following where it’s going, but being entranced by the bright colors and loud characters nevertheless. There have been a few pretty good super hero movies this year, but for me, Legion bests them all, because that spirit of pulp nonsense really shines through. I cannot wait to see where this season goes after such a powerful premiere.