If you’ve ever wondered what a live-action version of Salvador Dali’s paintings and photos put together would be like, then seasons 2 and now 3 of Noah Hawley’s Legion on FX will scratch that itch. After two seasons of stretching and twisting the guts out of realism and linear story-telling (season two was particularly mind-melding), Noah Hawley has now completely let his inner Dali loose, dressing it all up in 1960’s hippyism (peace and love, dude) as he and his team conjure up scenes like Dali’s Atomicus and tackle time-travel head-on at full-throttle as if through The Persistence of Memory (how fitting for a show dealing with a mutant who can control and shape other people’s reality and their memories with his mind).
Then he mixes, not stirs, in Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Don’t Come Around Here No More (how I love that video) pours it all into a blender and ta-da! S3Ep02 with Lenny as the creepiest Mad Hatter.
(There are spoilers from here on)
But Legion isn’t just a sumptuous feast for the eyes, luxuriating in a wealth of surreal imagery. It is also a crash course in cognitive behavioral science. And as with most sci-fi/fantasy, it is tinted with a bit of political realism.
The cognitive dissonance the show masterfully creates for its audience with its visuals and defiant story-telling techniques mirrors that of the mental state of its anti-/hero, David Haller. David (Dan Stevens) believes he is good and can save the world. But the group of powerful mutants, who had initially seen in him a glimmer of hope in the good fight against bigotry but unwittingly convinced him that he was their savior along the way, have now teamed up against him. With the bad guys — the remainder of the decimated shadow government’s anti-mutant brigade and the father of all monsters-under-the-bed, Amahl Farouk, a.k.a. the Shadow King (played with ineffable coolness by Navid Negahban).
The trouble for David, his former pals, and us is that in the beginning, David seemed like a nice enough guy. Sure he was a hot mess, but he was a lovable and endearing one with that lost, hang-dog look in his eyes. He was also sympathetic: for most of his life, David had been misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and was trapped in a revolving door of admission into and release from mental institutes. How could any therapist have known that he is the son of Professor X of the X-Men and has the ability to control reality with his mind? Worse still, how could anyone have known that the monster in his head is quite literally a monster in his head?
When David was an infant, his father banished the mind of the 2,500 year old “evil-incarnate” mutant, Amahl Farouk, from his body and into the astral plane, setting off a terrible chain of events for their family; in fear of reprisal, his parents give David up for adoption to hide his identity, but before they can do so, the Shadow King, in revenge, infests an infant David’s brain. David then grows up fighting both literal and figurative (displacement and abandonment) monsters in his head.
It turns out, though, that the Shadow King was appropriately keeping David busy and, thus, saving the world from both of them.
In season 2, the Shadow King is no longer the monster in David’s head. His mind having been reunited with his body, Farouk is now David’s crutch/excuse: If I do bad things it’s because I grew up with a monster in my head. (Yes, he’s that person.) Meanwhile David’s former pals have been forced to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance. David is not the hero that they thought he could be and that he still thinks he is. All the tools at their disposal — super cool “weird science” machines, hypnosis, sleep therapy, intervention, love, friendship, straight-talk, and talk therapy — have failed. I dare say, there probably isn’t a therapist, mutant or otherwise, in the entire Marvel multiverse who could possibly treat David. But David still tries (and maybe it’s his earnestness that has us semi-rooting for him even as the show makes us confront how uncomfortably wrong we are, knowing what we know).
In season 3, David turns a time-traveler and ally into his make-shift therapist. He tries to work through his past by changing it, by preventing Farouk from entering his brain. It is his one chance to prove that with the proper nurturing he is good. But as powerful as he is, he is like the rest of us in this; he is unable to change the past and is forced to deal with the fallout of his cumulative mistakes and betrayals. With that failure, the show finally disentangles itself from the “nature vs. nurture” debate it has been entwined in for most of season 2.
In season 3, episode 3, where all this takes place we find out that David’s father, the future Professor X, abides by a strict code of ethics when meddling in people’s minds. His son clearly does not; doing all sorts of awful mind control things to them, including mentally date-raping Syd Barrett, his love interest, and making her forget. Neither does David show any real remorse when he is confronted about violating his lover’s and friends’ mental space/trust — he thinks he is doing it for the greater good. The ends, he believes, justify the means. Except they don’t. Future David is apparently responsible for the end of the world. The debate about nature vs. nurture now simply no longer matters. Like so many of us, whatever side of the debate we may favor, Syd and the gang hold the adult David fully responsible. As they should. Except his friends set out to kill him, probably ushering in the monster he is destined to become as they fail to both kill him for an act he has yet to commit and to examine, again, the ethical questions behind such actions.
So it remains to be seen: Will David finally recognize and reconcile the cognitive dissonance? Will he be able to see the version of himself his friends see? Or will the gang and the rest of the world be forced into accepting a dystopian nightmare, a mentally-projected utopia? The warriors are used to playing defense, and the odds are stacked against them.
For now, David is like any strong man (feel free to insert any dictator of your choice here) who was ushered into power by an equally powerful group of people who believed in his abilities and power to effect change: they lack foresight and a study in history, and he doesn’t see the damages his megalomania brings. And he also has a legion of sycophants, pulled in and lulled by the promise of better days, who at a moment’s notice can become an efficient and unquestioning, drone-like army led by a charismatic enforcer (here, David’s old stoner-buddy, Lenny, the Breakfast Queen and Mad Hatter). And for a few episodes more, David will keep the warriors busy fighting the good fight to save the world.
But if they are successful, they will be saving the world from a mess partially of their own making. They set out to find someone powerful enough to help save them from the existential threat they faced from a bigoted and well-resourced shadow government and are now trying to eradicate what they see as a bigger existential threat. It is an infinity loop of reprisals and repercussions — the second of three revolving doors the show explores. (The third being the intimate interconnections between past, present, and future). Since it is the last season, Hawley and team will have to end this at some point in the loop.
I doubt, though, that the stopping point will see our mutant warriors going back to dealing with bigotry. It has become abundantly clear that tackling bigotry was never the show’s main interest. It was its catapult. The focus of Legion has been a toss-up between the ripple effects of bigotry (fear continually fueling action and reaction), mental health issues, and the lack of decent access to mental health care for people who fall through the cracks in an overloaded system or are completely out of it (the growing solidarity of men identifying as incels is one that seems especially pertinent here). That might have been as much a business choice as a creative one, since The Gifted, which airs on Fox — FX’s sister network — details the daily, painful struggles and personal sacrifices of mutants tackling bigotry and extremism from all sides, including the government, and on all fronts.