The series finale of FX’s Legion opens with a series of title cards letting the viewer know that this is the end. We are told that, “What it all means is not for us to know. It is for history to decide. All we can do is play the parts as written. All we can know is ourselves.”
Here’s what I know about myself: Legion should, in theory, have been extremely my bag. I like psychological thrillers, superhero stuff, and psychic battles rendered as musical sequences. Legion occasionally nails its tonal balancing act, exploring the flimsiness of human perception mixed with flashy effects and strong performances, in moments that make me feel like there’s something deeper I’m missing.
But I also know that the show pisses me off, because it sucked.
I am not a fan of creator Noah Hawley’s work, but in the interest of making sure I came by my most searing opinions honestly, I watched every episode of Legion. And unfortunately, I learned something: I hated this show because it was so close to everything I thought would make for great TV, and the many ways in which it falls short made me question what I wanted out of the medium.
This is a television show that replicates silent film as a stand-in for a world without time, features lots of shots of a man in a wheelchair who isn’t Professor X in a show ostensibly based on the X-Men, and culminates with an inversion of the big Smiths-versus-Neo fight in The Matrix Reloaded. So how is it possible that it doesn’t feel like anyone involved is having any fun? And how is it possible that a seemingly hopeful ending has left me feeling nothing but angry?
In the Legion finale, David Haller (Dan Stevens), the mental patient-turned-superhero-turned-supervillain-turned cult leader, successfully returns to the past to meet his father: the one and only Charles Xavier. Together, they confront two versions of Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban) aka the Shadow King, a mutant who has literally lived in David’s head for most of his life and served as the primary antagonist of the series.
Meanwhile Switch (Lauren Tsai), a time traveling mutant who turns out to be a god of some sort, dies (or transcends her body, I guess) and serves her narrative function of protecting the rest of the cast, who are, in turn, protecting the baby version of David from Blue Meanie-esque demons called Time Eaters that, uh, eat time. Eventually, the Xavier men and the Farouks reach a detente, a mutual understanding that allows Charles and his wife Gabrielle to be real parents to David, whose issues stem in large part from both the fact that his parents abandoned him and the presence of a malevolent spirit in his head. With the past successfully changed, the characters vanish into thin air as they get the chance to do it all over. Back to square one.
There are more than a few good ideas here. The sequence where the Xavier men pull raw telepathic power out of their ears and shape it into weapons (a mace for David, a bullet for Charles) looks cool, and feeds into the show’s eventual critique of the superhero genre; later in the same scene, Farouk questions why the characters’ considerable mental powers are used to create weapons instead of literally anything else. On the whole, the cast brings a degree of real tenderness to the end of the characters’ stories, in particular Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder as the frequently underserved Loudermilk siblings.
But for most of the show’s run, Legion’s aim was to dazzle, the smoke and mirrors and choreographed dance battle sequences hiding the fact that it wasn’t really about anything at all. This is a show that spent its first season asking what mental illness even was, man, before deciding the answer didn’t matter. The second season recruited Jon Hamm to do elaborate narration about delusions for no reason and staged equally elaborate musical numbers where the whole emotional point was contained in the title of the song. This is a show that, in its third season, became a superhero story about not wanting to kill someone while claiming that as special and not the basic premise of Batman.
I responded to moments of Legion because I vibed with its project, but all of the aspects of that project ended up working better in other shows. I might have wanted a superhero show to go “dark,” but Amazon’s new series The Boys does that while also including jokes about Chace Crawford trying to bone a dolphin. I might have wanted a show that uses lavish metaphorical musical sequences, but The Magicians explores similar themes, is more fun, and seems to actually enjoy being a TV show. Legion’s commitment to evacuating its bowels of subtext bordered on perverse, culminating in the finale’s astonishing misread of Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” a song that in the context of The Wall is about an unhealthy maternal relationship encouraging a child to put up walls and close out the world that Hawley uses to somehow cement the fact that David is loved enough to, like, win a fight.
Maybe that’s not fair. Legion’s ending pivoted away from throwing plates of overpriced penne at the wall to something … well, to something. The story, it turned out, was about empathy, about getting the chance to do it over, to resolve the cycle of abuse and insecurity that afflicted Gabrielle and then David and Syd. In two sequences of memories being projected onto faces, characters acquire a rapid, total understanding of David: Charles eats a Proustian cake that allows him to experience his son’s life, while the older Farouk uses his sunglasses to allow his younger self to literally see through his eyes. Both characters are overwhelmed by the sheer meaning of David’s life, which is to say they are overwhelmed by the brilliance of Legion itself.
But for a show that ends with a fantasy of empathy, Legion doesn’t care much about its non-David characters. David’s adopted family is gone, including his poor murdered sister Amy. The relationship between the Loudermilks is squeezed into a few scenes of Kerry swinging her sword. Farouk, a supervillain who has enslaved tens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of people, and inflicted innumerable suffering on others, just sort of hangs out and makes jokes about taking over the world. He appears to have only gained empathy for David; to Legion, that is apparently enough.
The entire finale revolves around everyone just needing to understand David, to give him another chance, even though up to the end he callously tells his father that Switch is “no one” and essentially forces her to go back in time until she dies. Syd tells Gabrielle that she needs to love her son more, which has the effect of somehow allowing David to win a fight happening halfway across the world. At the end of the finale, Syd vanishes smiling next to David, largely papering over the fact that he raped her at the end of the second season. Sure, he apologizes, and sure, she tells him she helped him because of the baby. But, like Walt admitting he liked being a meth kingpin to Skyler in the Breaking Bad series finale, this is too little, too late. Merely acknowledging that you fucked something up — apology without reparation — is meaningless.
Generally speaking, criticism should be about evaluating a work of art by how well it did what it tried to do, not suggesting entirely new directions — or, at least, that it’s on some level unfair to criticise something for being what it is. However, in the spirit of Legion’s insistence on flaunting the rules (or pretending they never existed in the first place), as well as its penchant for imagining other possibilities for the characters (one episode imagines several possible lives for David, while another follows a mythical second childhood for Syd), I would like to say: fuck that.
Tragedy would have been far truer to Legion. The best possible ending for the show would have been one dark enough to indict the very premise of David’s quest and acknowledge that its protagonist was truly beyond saving. The first time I watched the final two episodes of Legion, I was convinced that Farouk was not originally villainous and David’s trip to the past, his cruelty toward Switch and Syd, was, in fact, what incited his father to violence, and eventually to the abandonment of his son. Grim, but the twist wouldn’t let David off the hook.
Things are, at least a little bit, up in the air. Charles is still going to go do the X-Men, I guess, which means he’ll probably be a terrible father. If I’m being generous, there’s a hollowness to the “Mother” scene that suggests that David having his parents around will just give him a different set of issues, though Hawley never makes that explicit text. And the finale ends with “Happy Jack” playing over the final shot of Baby David, mirroring the beginning of the first episode, which layers “Happy Jack” over a montage depicting David’s childhood, diagnosis, and eventual suicide attempt. It might just be time to do it all over again, in the overlapping ending style of The Wall.
On one level, this is a ridiculous thing to complain about. The series finale of a television show will narrow the focus. But Legion willingly took on some pretty fucking serious themes — mental illness, sexual assault, consent, the integrity of the mind — and blanched before it could feel the full impact of those decisions. (Though Gabrielle describes the term “mental illness” as “such a clinical name for something so raw,” it doesn’t help that we still don’t know the extent of David’s problems, and that the show doesn’t seem to care.) It would be relatively simple for the show to treat this as tragic, or as a tentative new beginning.
So of course Legion ends by thinking about what it could have done with the freedom it allotted itself. Maybe David will turn out exactly the same, but it doesn’t matter because at least he can change. The astral plane is gone for now, but at least we know it is pure, limitless potential that could be used for all sorts of things, if the show ever got around to it. Eventually, the world exists as David wants it to be. The most important thing is not just the mind, but his mind, not just his mind, but his innocent mind.
David gets away from all of the things he hates about himself, protecting himself and preserving the possibility that he might be a good person after all. The end of Legion is engaged in the same process of projection and avoidance — and maybe in panning the finale, so am I. (After all, if I criticize Legion for being all sound and fury, and masking the lack of a central idea, there’s no way I could possibly be doing the same thing.) This is some galaxy brain shit, but it’s the whole point of the show: As Hawley told Polygon at the beginning of the season, “the ending is what gives the story its meaning.”
In the end, Legion valorizes potential, potential that has been squandered and will, in all likelihood, be squandered again and again and again. I guess Hawley is right: all we can know is ourselves.
Eric Thurm is the founder, host, and overall doofus behind Drunk Education, which started as a party at his house that several people had to be tricked into attending. He is also a writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club, and other publications, and the author of a book on board games forthcoming from NYU Press in October.