In the months leading up to its premiere, I got the sense that FX’s Legion would be a pretentious superhero show about memory and identity, and “pretentious superhero show about memory and identity” is so verifiably my shit that I wondered if the whole thing was an elaborate prank at my expense. It seemed too good to be true and too tailor-made to be real, and its stacked cast, proven showrunner, and endorsement from Patrick-goddamn-Stewart only deepened my suspicion. This had to be a mean joke, just getting my hopes up and immediately dashing down.
WELL, HIGH FIVES FOR ME, BECAUSE I WAS TOTALLY RIGHT AND IT BREAKS MY HEART.
Legion is a superhero show, to be sure, and its (genuinely really great!) arthouse visuals establish its pretentiousness cred, but it’s not about memory and identity, at least not any more than Transformers is about personal growth. And for all the screentime dedicated to mental health, its interest in the topic extends only to the aesthetics of hospitals and the opportunities for trippy scenes. In fact, “aesthetics and trippiness” seems to be the bulk of the show’s interest in anything, including its characters. And so Legion, for all its pedigree and potential, is a superhero story only slightly more human than Batman v Superman.
“What if your problems aren’t in your head?”
There a lot of problems with the show that aren’t minor, but are more surface issues than structural failures. Solving them would be easy, and doing so wouldn’t dramatically change the story. The decision to write the character Syd like a film noir dame but play her as a mumblecore love interest doesn’t work, but if they’d commit to one or the other, it’d be fine. The sixth episode is a weird, needless detour that accomplishes little, but it’s so extraneous that it’s pretty forgettable too. And while its villains’ leers are bad for the plot and bad for the world, removing them would cost the story, literally, nothing.
But some of its problems are deeper. There’s a scene in the finale where the protagonist, David, casts out the exactly-as-one-dimensionally-evil-as-the-name-suggests Shadow King, a psychic parasite who’s been in his mind since birth. Tonally, the scene is fascinating, quiet and bright, Aubrey Plaza as the King in full-on nightmare wardrobe but visibly uncomfortable. “We’ve been together so long,” David wonders aloud. “What happens to me when you’re gone?” It’s an interesting question, maybe even an important one, asking what we make of ourselves when the damage finally heals. The parasite’s answer, though, is a cop-out. “I’m…not…leaving,” he says, and he chokes David as the screen turns red, and real-life complexity is traded for visually inventive menace. It’s effective, but it’s so straightforward that it’s boring. And this is a move the show pulls again and again, asking fascinating questions and giving one-note non-answers.
Take Ptonomy, a warm cynic with memory powers whose fight against an oppressive government cost him his loved ones: the show uses him mostly for expository arguments and then promptly forgets about him. Or Syd, who can’t touch people without exchanging bodies, whose clunky romance with David could explore what people lose of themselves for love but is mainly there for narrative convenience. Or David’s varied hallucinations, rationalizing pal Lenny and unreal beagle King and paper mache murder child, all of which could be compelling metaphors for distinct pieces of David’s mind, but are revealed to be just masks for the Shadow King. Legion continually verges on productive strangeness, and it always falls back on convention.
To be fair, “incredibly stylish conventional narratives,” can still be enjoyable, which Legion often is. Its striking shots are filling the void Hannibal has left in my life, and making its antagonist look like something out of Cool 3D World is brilliant. The score is great, the soundtrack is great, and the performances are so overwhelmingly fantastic that it’d be tedious to list highlights (BUT I’M GONNA ANYWAY: AUBREY PLAZA JEREMIE HARRIS JEMAINE CLEMENT AND ESPECIALLY KATIE ASELTON MORE ON HER LATER). It can be okay to have a world populated with psychics for no other reason than psychics are fun.
But, god, what a wasted opportunity.
“We tell our children two types of stories.”
We’re at a point (I think. I hope.) where we’ve pretty much accepted that speculative fiction can be just as literary as realist fiction, just as insightful and just as essential. Sci-fi by Octavia Butler or Margaret Atwood (or more recently Xia Jia) are stories that confront social forces and individual pain in personal, agonizing ways that realism can’t always offer. Butler’s Kindred turns lingering history into literal time travel, historical abstraction into visceral threat. Grounding the experience with a modern protagonist, from a different historical context but still at history’s mercy, is a move unique to spec fic. It’s probably a tired quote by now, but there’s that bit from Junot Diaz talking with Hilton Als, and it’s worth repeating.
I’ll sit at the Christmas table next to my grandmother, who basically grew up in a proto-medieval…almost slavery background in the Dominican Republic, working as a tenant farmer, in a terrifying kind of subsistence. I’m squinting at her with one eye, and then I’m squinting at my little brother, who’s U.S.-born, a Marine combat veteran, who sounds like someone turned the TV to the Fox channel and broke the dial. And I’m thinking, how do we create a self that takes both of those people in? … It’s really helpful to assemble selves not always deploying realism. Realism cannot account for my little brother and my grandmother, but Octavia Butler’s science fiction can. Samuel Delany’s generic experiments can explain them. I read his book and that range is present, not only present, but what is unbearable about trying to hold the two together in one place. So it helps not to have realism as the only paradigm to really understand yourself.
And maybe this is more my fault than Hawley’s, but I wanted Legion to offer that gonzo clarity. Superheroes are everywhere in 2017, and fantastical powers can isolate and exaggerate real personality traits and real political realities. Legion could have told a story that was timely and vital. It could have drawn from the zeitgeist to speak to the large swathes of my life and psyche that don’t make any goddamned sense. By focusing more on essence than detail, Ptonomy’s memory-diving and Syd’s body-switching and David’s overcrowded mind all had the potential to explore foundational human weirdness, in all its loneliness and all its wonder. Like Jordan Peele’s Obama, or Frank Langella’s Nixon, or Bob Odenkirk’s minimalist iguana (kind of a sad skit towards the end!), Legion could have looked nothing like reality but been unmistakable as anything else.
And, occasionally, the show lives up to its promise. Syd’s first sexual encounter—swapping bodies with her mom to sleep with her mom’s skeezy boyfriend—is gross and uncomfortable for so many reasons, but at least one of those reasons is that it rings true: we learn sexuality through emulation, and the world we’re learning it from is a predatory one. Ptonomy reliving the childhood memory of his mother’s death with his adult body swapped in, still dressed like a first-grader and playing under the kitchen table, says something about the half-life of memories and the size of loss without saying many words at all. And catatonic psychic Oliver Bird, a beat poet caricature lost in his own mind, is a tragicomic cautionary tale. “You can imaginify yourself a kingdom,” he says, “but nothing is ever real.”
But this is the exception for the show, not the rule. For every scene grounded in something real, there are five where the sci-fi logistics don’t leave room for humanity. Nowhere is this more apparent than with David and the Shadow King.
“We were wrong. We were wrong. It wears a human face.”
Over the course of the series, it becomes clear that the Shadow King can outright possess David. David seems to owe at least some of his periodic omnipotence to the Shadow King, which is fine, but making David’s instability and violence the work of an external, malevolent force is boring writing at best and abuse apologism at worst. David assaults (kills?) his therapist, cruelly interrogates his sister (THE GREAT KATIE ASELTON MORE ON HER LATER), and slaughters an entire building of soldiers, but because the Shadow King was in control, the story’s particular sci-fi mechanics absolve him of every one. In the show’s universe, it would be unreasonable to blame him for these things, to treat him as anything but a victim. But when real people hurt others—even when they’ve been hurt themselves—that blamelessness is troubling. Here the fantasy becomes toxic—not the fantasy of psychic powers and mental parasites, but the fantasy of absolution, off-loading your sins to something else.
The Shadow King is probably a symbol for addiction and mental illness, but it’s a symbol that distorts instead of reveals. How to reconcile personal responsibility with addiction and mental illness is a complicated discussion where easy answers have no value, and Legion’s “it’s all the parasite’s fault and David is innocent” is an easy answer. When speculative fiction makes good use of possession as a metaphor, it makes a point of implicating the possessed. Penny Dreadful’s American-imperialism-by-way-of-werewolf, or (arguably) Twin Peaks’ hurt people hurting people, or the annoying Mr. Robot’s annoying Mr. Robot, or The fucking Vampire Diaries’ recovering serial killer shtick, or even Fight Club’s big twist all pay enough respect to realism that their fantasy actually matters. Let me say this again so that it really sinks in: Legion is less psychologically grounded than Fight Club. Dual personalities can work as a potent thematic tool, but not as the wish fulfillment of forgiven sins.
If spec fic’s great power is exaggerating parts of reality and excising others entirely, then that’s its great danger too. It can make order out of chaos, but it can just as easily see patterns where no patterns exist, or even justify the worst sort of trends as natural or inevitable. We can see sci-fi mechanics heighten real dramas, like Akira’s petulant teenage boy almost destroying the world. Or, when Metal Gear Solid explains that a character must always wear a bikini because she breathes through her skin, we can see those mechanics propping up the silliest, most regressive shit. The latter case feels like those convoluted thought experiments to justify something awful—“would you waterboard someone if it would save a thousand lives”—where fiction is scaffolding for an argument that could not stay upright in the real world.
“It’s just human spit.”
I don’t want this to read like some hit piece, a boom-roasted review that tears into the show with glee, because there is just enough brilliance in Legion to make its many failings tragic. There’s Amy, Katie Aselton’s character, David’s caring, complicit sister, heartbreaking in her earnestness and anxiety, her inability to say the things that matter but to feel them desperately all the same. She’s scared for her brother and scared of her brother and terrified by all the weird shit happening in the finest Bill Paxton tradition. She is sweet, and sad, and doing the best she can, and knows the best she can isn’t good enough. She is the one character in the entire show whose dialogue has subtext. She is achingly human, and that ache starts to fulfill the promise of lofty sci-fi.
So, of course, the show uses her as a MacGuffin, then tortures her for exposition, then forgets she exists.
Amy is Legion’s best character, hinting at what the best speculative fiction can do for its audience, but Legion insists on being Oliver. Stylish, ridiculous, ambitious but heavy-handed, fascinating in its own domain but useless outside it. It has imaginified itself a kingdom.
But none of it is ever real.