In Mic's TV club, senior arts writer Kevin O'Keeffe and arts writer Miles Surrey will watch an episode of a TV show with no regard to how familiar we are with it. The next morning, we'll dissect it in a conversation with one or two other Mic staffers. This week's show: the season finale of FX's Legion, with guest Jason Berman.
Miles Surrey (MS): FX's strange, but ambitious superhero series Legion wrapped up its first season tonight with "Chapter 8," which reintroduced a character from the premiere — the "Interrogator" who works for Division 3 — while setting up a final faceoff between David and the Shadow King.
That sounds relatively straightforward on paper, but as Jason, a fellow Legion watcher knows, that's rarely the case. The show — technically, an X-Men series — has featured a dapper man living in an ice cube, at least two memorable dance sequences and some of the scariest imagery on TV I've seen in awhile. How weird is it? Well, Twin Peaks is coming back later this year on Showtime, and it'll have a run for its money on WTF-ery thanks to Legion.
Kevin, you're new to Legion, what did you think of the finale and the show's very surreal, specific tone? Jason, did the finale live up to your expectations for someone who's watched the full season?
Jason Berman (JB): I will start off by saying that Legion has been one of the strangest television experiences I have had in recent memory — and I loved it! The entire first season was so wonderfully weird, horrifying and exciting all at the same time. Other than a brief misfire in "Chapter 6," I felt the entire first season was incredible, and "Chapter 8" definitely lived up to my expectations. And I will say, per usual, Aubrey Plaza killed it as Shadow King/Lenny. I'm thrilled it looks like she will still be around in subsequent seasons.
Also, Legion has forced me to start using a night-light again, and if that is not evidence of its greatness, I don't know what is.
Kevin O'Keeffe (KO): I will fully disclaimer my opinion of Legion by saying it is clearly not a show designed for leaping in at the last second. But I really could not get into it, and no amount of furious Googling to figure out the plot could help. My problems were less about the story — which, yes, was incredibly confusing — and more about the tone.
My roommate has previously compared it to Hannibal, a show I admired more than I enjoyed, and I think given a bit more time with Legion I'd get there. But aside from Plaza, who I think is kind of a marvel (maybe to the detriment of everyone around her; she's so on a different level), I really couldn't get into the vibe here. It's incredibly self-assured, but I don't know if that's enough to call it successful. I have more faith off this one episode of its ability to sell the shit out of its weirdness than to do anything interesting with that weirdness.
JB: I will certainly say that out of all shows, it is tough to ask someone to jump into the finale of Legion and have any idea what is going on. And there are times where it appears that the series could be going for confusion out of confusions sake. But after watching the entire season, I find it almost incredible that it was able to successfully, in my opinion, keep up its tone, while advancing the plot despite doing very little exposition.
MS: Kevin, while I was watching most of the finale I kept thinking about how you'd react to it, since it was your first episode. But I think it also speaks to our specific TV tastes. The New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik recently wrote about Legion and the recent rise of "surreality TV," and they're all shows that fall in my wheelhouse. Legion, Mr. Robot, Westworld — all shows that I've enjoyed thoroughly, and if I'm not mistaken, you haven't taken a liking to any of these series.
It can be frustrating — with Legion in particular — because I think it struggled in its final episodes between being a "weird" show and trying to be a superhero show. "Chapter 7" might've been my least favorite episode because it was so exposition-heavy, it had an aggressive info dump on Aubrey Plaza's Shadow King, and plainly suggested that David's father is Professor X (which is true in the comics).
But I think we can all agree that Aubrey Plaza's Lenny/Shadow King is the best part of the show. It's early in the year, but it's my favorite performance on TV so far. I live for her dance number in the sixth episode.
KO: Yeah, surreal TV isn't quite my beat. Reality TV is surreal enough for me. But agreed about Plaza; she's the only thing that makes me want to watch the rest of the show.
There's a pretty passionate debate raging in critical circles right now about the value of episodic television at a time when creators seem to be more into this idea of TV as movie or as chapters of one story. Legion definitely falls into the latter camp, which is another point of frustration for me. While I appreciate dense TV that trusts the viewer to keep up, I also sensed right away this is a show that has no interest in the validity of episodic payoff. To me, there will always be merit in being able to watch an installment of a show and, even not knowing what happened before or after, still get something good out of it. This episode of Legion, with fights in headspace and the gay Interrogator (Interrogaytor?) getting his face burned off, was all climax and no build.
MS: Yes, and certainly Mr. Robot, Legion and Westworld fall into the latter category — and Game of Thrones' showrunners infamously called the series a "73-hour movie." I love my Thrones, but holy shit guys, no!
I won't feign to argue that one style of television is better than the other — I can't speak for your guys' TV preferences, nor anyone else's — but I will say it was much easier for me to dive into NBC's This Is Us for a previous TV club than I imagine it was for you to dive into Legion.
What I'm most curious about, with show's like Legion and Mr. Robot, is how this will translate to what matters for most networks: ratings. Because there's no episodic payoff (and we watch television as a profession, so it's a tad different) I'd imagine a lot of viewers will eventually become impatient and jump ship. This was the case with Mr. Robot's second season, at least.
JB: I completely agree about Plaza. She just knocked it out of the park every time she appeared on screen. And she was required to do so much.
She noted in a recent interview that the role was originally written for a man, but when showrunner Noah Hawley cast her, she asked that the dialogue not be changed. And you can see that in some of the scenes and it works so well. Because inside David's mind, that Shadow King can be anyone. Of course, my preference was seeing him as Lenny and not the most terrifying yellow-eyed thing on television.
JB: Kevin, you are absolutely right that Legion does not work if you are only watching individual episodes. I can only imagine what I would think seeing Lenny deteriorating in Syd's mind if I had not seen a single episode before that. And there are things to be said about both forms of television.
Legion, in my opinion, works as an eight-part story, one that requires an eight-week commitment from its viewers. I doubt very much it could have kept that up for a longer season order. Personally, I tend to prefer series that seem like a movie cut into pieces. But there definitely are shows where that becomes frustrating, especially when they appear to take their viewers for granted. There has to be some payoff in each episode to continue interest. I believe Legion did enough, but it will be interesting to see how things play out in a second season. Despite Legion's strong reception, and what appears to be a loyal base, I believe the ratings were not the strongest, so it is absolutely an acquired taste.
KO: So yeah, that was my other point of curiosity: What is season two for this show? Though the post-credits tag and the appearance of Lenny/Shadow King in that car would indicate some kind of sequel hook, it felt pretty open as to what the next step is.
MS: That's a great question, and I'm honestly not sure. The logical side of my brain would assume David and everyone else would be hunting down Oliver and the Shadow King, but David was fucking imprisoned in some type of weird robotic sphere. My only theory on what happened to David is that Division 3 decided to imprison him — we hear one of their unnamed military lackeys call for the "Equinox" in an earlier scene. I assume he wasn't talking about a workout regimen.
While I'm stoked to see Plaza's Shadow King return — she is so, so good and I can't stress it enough — it does feel like the show needs to move on from the villain sooner rather than later. The real treat for future seasons of Legion will be when David's own mind and alternate personalities become a tangible threat. It's what I assumed the Shadow King's yellow demon presence was — an alternate personality — before they revealed Lenny's true form.
Jason, will you keep watching Legion? What do you want to see from season two?
JB: For a second season, I have some thoughts and concerns. On one hand, I do not want Aubrey Plaza's Lenny to go anywhere. She was the clear highlight of the series for me, and she needs to be involved -- and it appears like she will be. However, as an avid watcher comic book television, it can be highly frustrating when new villains do not emerge. For Legion to be successful, I think a new antagonist has to be introduced. I would hope that Lenny plays a role, and perhaps remains as the series' over arching antagonist, but specifically to a second season, I believe Legion would be smart in introducing a new primary villain.
That being said, I will continue to watch regardless. Legion has done nothing yet to turn me off. If a second season fails to evolve, who knows. I agree that future seasons need to continue exploring David's mind. In the comics, David Haller is not mentally ill because he has the Shadow King wreaking havoc in his mind — though that at a point happens. Rather, he does truly suffer from dissociative personality disorder. It would be interesting to see other personalities emerge in subsequent seasons. Perhaps those that were dormant while the Shadow King had control.
MS: I agree, though if Lenny were to be latched onto anyone, I'm so glad it's Oliver, who was probably my second favorite character from the series. They need to work on some beat poetry together.
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