“Beware of ideas that are not your own,” says a disembodied voice in the debut episode of Legion’s second season. That line is ostensibly a warning to the employees and wards of mutant-focused government agency Division III. It’s about the influence of the Shadow King, the show’s big bad, currently roaming free in the body of Jemaine Clement’s character Oliver, with Aubrey Plaza’s personality Lenny at his side, or at least in his mind.
The warning is really a thematic pointer. Legion exists in the real and the unreal simultaneously, flipping in and out of “reality” like a hummingbird sampling flowers. It’s a world where memories, imagination and identity are subject to corruption and revision.
To represent the overload and uncertainty experienced by the powerful mutant David Haller, geometric design elements constantly crowd the frame, persistent reminders of emotional clutter and disorder. Any of these bits could become relevant. Or they might just be stuff jockeying for space with more important ideas.
In the first season of Legion, Division III hunted Haller (played by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and The Guest) but now the organization shelters him. Or it wants to, at least. David has been missing for a year when this season opens, though in his mind he’s only been out of touch for a matter of hours. So we begin with David being found in a nightclub full of immobilized revelers whose only movements are their convulsively chattering teeth.
How did David get there after disappearing into a spherical droid in the finale of last season? What happened in the year between? After the Shadow King was expelled from David’s psyche, what kind of shape is he really in, and how many lies is he telling?
“Beware of ideas that are not your own.” That announcement recurs. The warning is also a gag, as Legion recontextualizes so many ideas, from film, television, art and music that it can be difficult to draw the boundaries between homage and originality. You could argue that few of Legion’s ideas are its own – and yet this is bold, unusual television that develops a compelling world, and conveys sensations in ways unlike anything else on TV.
This season debut, “Chapter 9,” is an elaborate reintroduction to the show’s chaos, effectively alternating between hallucinogenic setpieces and one-on-one conversations to bring the story up to date. It’s an extended debrief for Haller, who gets the lowdown on Division III (“we work for them now”) and the Shadow King (he wants to find his real body, which would be bad, like “tell him about the Twinkie” in Ghostbusters bad) and even the progression of his lover Syd (“I found a grey hair. I like cherry pie now”).
Even as the episode hits each beat, there’s still a sense of disconnect.
In music there’s a concept called a Shepard Tone, in which three sets of rising scales are layered together with two always audible, creating the illusion of a constantly rising sequence that never peaks. It’s a musical Escher staircase. (Hans Zimmer scored Dunkirk with this pattern.) Legion is a narrative equivalent. Explosive setpieces move but never quite crescendo. It’s a conceptual representation of madness, the show’s core preoccupation, a visual map of a mind that constantly loops back to the same ideas, never breaking pattern.
So when the climax of the first episode plays out as an electronic music dance battle three-way between David, Lenny, and Oliver, the pure willfulness of the idea is a showstopper, even if the sequence itself doesn’t ever explode.
Nothing in Legion ever quite explodes. There’s an emotional reach, but only rare connection. That can be frustrating, but that ever-rising sensation seems to be precisely what Legion is after. This is a circular narrative where the distinctions between cause and effect are blurred. Is David Haller hunting or being hunted; is he manipulating, or manipulated? He’s both – or all – and that creates something unique. That disconnect is the show’s real calling card. Everything else serves it.
The series has a narrator now – the disembodied voice of Jon Hamm – but we don’t know who the voice belongs to, or if it belongs to anyone. For that matter, we don’t know if he’s speaking to us, or to David, or through David. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Actually, “maybe it doesn’t matter” is a mantra for Legion, and not a dismissive one. David thinks he’s in control now. He believes the bad part of him, the Shadow King, has been cut loose, and that he’s free to make his own way. While that stain has been scrubbed from his psyche, David remains capable of his own inherent failures.
So when Syd – a Future Syd, who turns out to be the one who captured him in that little sphere at the end of the first season – tells him that reuniting the Shadow King with his body is a good idea, David goes along. Because he trusts Syd, and he trusts memories and ideas that are obviously subject to manipulation.
(Side note: There are a bunch of chatter-teeth bodies in a big room at Division III, all struck immobile by the Shadow King’s proximity. What are the odds the villain’s actual body is in there?)
Here’s a thing that does matter: the potential power in a unification of the self. Mind and body no longer disconnected and out of phase, but made whole. No one in this show is unified - David is fractured into memories and flashes forward and back in time. A touch throws Syd’s psyche into other beings – notably, a cat, in her first scene this season – while Clark (Hamish Linklater), who was nearly the agent of David’s death in prior episodes, has been burned like Two-Face, split into two distinct halves.
No one is whole, but they constantly seek unification – each is an emotional Shepard Tone, perpetually rising, never getting anywhere.
That’s a good ending, for this piece, right? But I didn’t even get into how Twin Peaks, specifically The Return, seems like the most important touchstone for series creator Noah Hawley (FX’s Fargo) and co-writer Nathaniel Halpern. Maybe it’s just this first episode, which features a delusion-sowing insect/worm that looks an awful lot like the Black Lodge insect that infected young Sarah Palmer in Episode 8 of Twin Peaks. (Hawley has already said the similarity is just coincidence; like so much of Legion’s weave of influences, the precise lineage here doesn’t really matter.)