The last hour of the second year of Legion strips away any conception of David Haller as a hero. Or, to use the show’s own terms, maybe the idea of David being the hero was just our delusion, based on what we brought into the show.
Creator Noah Hawley has been issuing warnings for weeks; we’ve wondered about David being “good” since at least the second episode of this season. We’ve had to at least consider the possibility that this powerful mutant is incapable of becoming the man we want him to be. We’ve had to understand that he might be the great evil that could end the world. A big red flag unfurled a couple weeks ago when David is said to become Legion after his turn. Note to self: when the name of the show is the same as the name of a main character who becomes totally evil, it could be a signal.
David’s slide into savage amorality is still unpleasant. It’s the final act of a season that has consistently prodded us to figure out what we want out of a television show, and why. Legion is often abstract, but this finale stripped away all the big superhero stuff to focus the conflict on few people.
So this wasn’t a breakup story after all, but a story of horror and reckoning. Syd has to face who David is, and David has to face himself. Going in we knew how Syd would likely feel at the end, but even then there was no preparing for this episode. And everything we’ve seen about David this season suggests he’s not ready to look openly at himself.
David Haller violated Syd, the woman he claims to love, twice. What’s worse is that he, and possibly a percentage of the audience, doesn’t even understand the second act as a violation in the moment it takes place. Their sex act looks consensual until you consider that, only hours before, David altered Syd’s memories to restore their “love.” Without that act, they would never be in bed together. It takes Syd saying it – “You drugged me and had sex with me” – for him to start to get it. The show does not try to justify his actions. It does not invite us to see him as a nice guy who makes the wrong choice.
The tipping point that leads to those violations follows a wildly-rendered psychic battle between David and Amahl Farouk, set to an ominous cover of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ which is just about the perfect needledrop for David’s current state of mind. Director Keith Gordon and cinematographer Polly Morgan absolutely knock out this sequence, as they do the rest of the episode.
At his moment of victory over Farouk, David bashes the Shadow King’s head in with a rock, awash in the same ugly glee we saw when he tortured Oliver last week. Syd steps in. Time for that breakup. “I’m the good guy,” David says. “He’s the monster.” Syd differs. “No, you’re not a good guy. I saw the things you hide.”
That’s the tipping point, the moment where David turns. He doesn’t turn in the face of “betrayal” by Syd. He turns in response to being called out, to being forced to face his own nature. He evaded responsibility last week when he said he was what the Shadow King had made him. Now Syd gives David a chance to come clean. He fails.
Not only does David fail, he commits a great crime. In a moment provided by a Lenny ex machina, David wipes Syd’s memory. His turn, not even from hero to villain, but from potentially moral to absolute amorality, is in that moment where he could have left Syd alone to wake up with her past and perceptions intact. A different choice could have proved the love he professes for Sydney. It could branch off into one of those other worlds we’ve glimpsed. That’s not what happens.
“Love is the thing we have to save,” goes Syd’s refrain, “if we’re going to save the world.” But David doesn’t actually know love. He doesn’t believe he deserves love. His delusion, he tells himself, was the idea of being good, and deserving love. After the last ten weeks it's no surprise that David doesn’t know what love is. If he recognizes selfless love – Amy giving up part of her life for him, Syd believing him when there was no reason to do so – it is only after the fact.
David’s second crime this episode, when he initiates sex with Syd in her memory-wiped state, is awful, and it follows from the crime of the moment of his turn. (That experience is very directly connected to Syd’s own troubled history.)
In this moment Legion crashes into the real world. It’s a fast, jarring transition. David’s evil is precisely the sort of thing we see from men in positions of power. For an episode that begins with a big animated psychic battle, David’s most awful actions are, at their core, very small, very selfish. Very familiar. This season has regularly felt very deliberately disconnected from reality, so this very abruptly heavy connection is bracing.
There’s more plot, with Melanie and Oliver in hiding three years after the main events of this episode, unable to remember quite how or why they got there. Oliver reads ‘The Dandelion,’ a poem that elevates a common wildflower to an image of constant forward motion and rebirth. For him, it might be aspirational, but in the moment they’re caged. A few other light moments come courtesy of Kerry Loudermilk even as Cary begins to understand that the situation between Syd and David isn’t as it appears.
Most everything that happens after David uses his powers on Syd, however, is overwhelmed by that action. Eventually, David is “tried” at Division 3 in front of a panel of basically everyone else who is still alive. Goaded into a cell that looks like an icon representing atomic power, David explodes. And in a way, the whole trial feels like vindication for him. He never believed he deserved love, and now it’s all gone. Everyone is against him. He gets to be precisely who he wants to be, or at least who he thinks he wants to be. So he escapes, in a Christ pose surrounded by glowing white light – the second moment this episode that suggests David has begun to come around to Farouk’s way of thinking of himself as a god.
As David carries Lenny off with him into some great beyond (to “play,” as he ominously puts it) I don’t have any idea what to expect from the third season of Legion. This finale executes the season’s long-range plan of remapping what we know and believe about David, and how we feel about him. Much of this finale is the result of Farouk’s machinations. We’ve visualized him as the villain for so long that it’s tempting to think this is all a trick to be undone. But to go back to the Narrator’s ideas, it could actually be that Farouk is the green light and David the red, and we’ve just been conditioned to believe otherwise.
A grand reveal of hidden truth doesn’t seem likely. Legion is not cheap, nor is it insensitive. This episode ends with a cover of ‘Cornflake Girl’ by Tori Amos, a song about the people who betray friends and family. Lenny was known, in a prior life, as the Cornflake Girl, but it obviously applies more to David now. Their union makes perfect sense. “This is not really happening” goes one line, but that’s a denial, not a realization. The line after? “You bet your life it is.”