In the strange series of FX superheroes, Legion, the protagonist David Haller (Dan Stevens) passes the first episode of the second season acting as an audience proxy asking the questions that the rest of the characters do not. What happened to Summerland, the forest refuge for mutants that was the stage for much of the first season? Why are the other main characters now receiving orders from a guy with a basket on his head and a trio of women with mustaches singing? What's going on?
After spending the first season of the show answering the question of whether David is crazy, overpopulated, or both, Legion could have switched to a much more conventional superhero program. But while the real and psychically constructed mental institutions of season 1 have been left behind, Legion feels crazier than ever.
Legion creator Noah Hawley says that although the first season of the program was dedicated to a man's mental health, the second is about "a sane man in an insane world." David has been missing for a year, although for him, it seems only one day, and his reappearance makes him a stranger to an extremely strange space that his friends and allies have accepted as a new normality. The basis of Division 3, the secret organization that employs good mutants to search for the Shadow King (Navid Negahban), feels like a facility that could have been used for the MKUltra experiments of the CIA in the real world, if in the middle of the Project the test subjects given free rein to redecorate in order to make their acid trips more intense and enjoyable. As in season 1, the period of time in which Legion is established can not be determined. The aesthetic combines archaic technology, disconcerting art, small rooms and strangely depopulated public spaces.
Seeing Legion is the mental equivalent of interval training, with Hawley offering the public brief respites of rarity, but never leaving them really comfortable with a predictable routine. One way he is doing it this season is with interludes narrated by Jon Hamm who explore the nature of sanity and perception, through references to philosophy and psychological disorders. These intervals are also visually different, from a magnificent animated sequence that shows a butterfly in flight to a frightening image of a man with an identity disorder of bodily integrity who tries to cut his leg. But, why are these stories told? Are they a warning about the growing delusions of a character or the inability to understand their own nature? The invasion of a monstrous and skeletal chicken from an interlude to the rest of the show's action makes it clear that the two narrations are connected, but that it is disturbingly opaque.
Photo of Prashant Gupta / FX Networks
Hawley seems to want to go beyond what other shows like Mr. Robot, The Tick or Alphas have done with unreliable narrators. He explores the link between superheroes and mental illnesses through images and plot twists meant to keep viewers wild and enthralled. It is exploring all forms of altered states. The disconsolate mutant leader Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) retires from her responsibilities in a haze fueled by drugs. David tries to remember his lost year with the help of an isolation tank that feels like a nod to the same plot device that is used repeatedly in Fringe. With some exceptions, such as the incredible episode "Diethylamide of lysergic acid", Fringe kept his explorations of mental illnesses and drugs in parallel plots. In Legion, however, it seems to be the main event. The show is full of psychedelic images and open references, such as playing "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane so slowly that it seems like an attempt to create a drug-induced version of time dilation.
The history of season 2 pretends to settle into something mundane, but remains true to the roots of the series. Division 3 fears a plague that turns people into statues with chestnut teeth, but it soon determines that this disease is purely psychological, possibly caused by exposure to the Shadow King. If this was a physical illness, it would make sense to treat it in a hospital. In a brutal critique of the treatment of mental illness, Legion has just had its victims stored, literally abandoned in an empty room.
Photo by Suzanne Tenner / FX Networks
David is told that Division 3 and the Shadow King are searching for the body of the psychic villain, and if the Dark King finds him first, it will be unimaginably powerful. This sounds like the most standard of superhero plots, with the heroes trying to prevent the villain from getting a changing McGuffin. But before the first episode ends, a future version of David's girlfriend, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), tells her that she should help the Shadow King. Is that vision of Syd real or a dream? The first season could have shown that David is not crazy, but does he really have control of himself? There remains a remnant of his long-term bond with the King of the Shadow, which allows David to feel his presence over great distances, but does that connection give his enemy continued power over him? The real question of season 2 is whether the King of the Shadows' exorcism was a cure for David's afflictions, or more a medication that helps control his symptoms.
As the second season opens, David does not get satisfactory answers to many of the questions he asks in the first episode. And that's not surprising since Legion is still more of a mystery than a superhero show. By keeping viewers in the dark, Hawley establishes the suspense that will make the inevitable much more satisfying. The sets have changed, and some of the questions of the first season have been answered, but Legion remains true to its mission to use a family genre to tell an extraordinary story.