This post discusses details of Legion’s second-season finale, “Chapter 19.”
Erik Adams: There are lots of ways to dramatize David Haller’s ultimate descent into villainy. One of the things Legion’s second season did well was to put those endless possibilities onscreen: in the poignant “Chapter 14,” which hops through the character’s parallel lives like the panels of a “what if?” comic; and in the visions presented to Syd in “Chapter 18.” And while it’s part of Legion’s whole schtick to make you question everything the show puts onscreen, when David wiped his true love’s memory in the early parts of “Chapter 19,” I was pretty certain we’d witnessed the moment the man who will be Legion broke bad.
But then the team returned to Division 3, where David projects into Syd’s room and proceeds to get physical, a scene that’s written, blocked, and acted in a way that obscures the true nature of the interaction. It’s a typical Legion trick deployed at the exact wrong moment. If tampering with Syd’s brain is supposed to be the uncrossable line, then this is a bridge too far, the show’s morally compromised main character sexually assaulting his incapacitated love interest. If David’s aggression itself is meant to be the point of no return, then what a vile choice it is. And if it’s all supposed to be a setup for the reversal that occurs in the episode’s closing moments, in which Farouk is suddenly a free man and it’s David on trial, then that’s a lazy way of engineering a cliffhanger at best and an insensitive way of plugging Legion into a hot-button cultural discussion at worst.
And I have to be honest: I feel like my initial reaction to “Chapter 19” exposes some pretty ugly blindspots on my part. I registered the mental violations but didn’t consider the bodily ones until after I read Alex’s recap and discussed the episode with Danette. This is one area where Legion’s commitment to ambiguity and unreliable narration feel completely inappropriate. This is a series that begins with the dodgy prospect of using mutant powers as a metaphor for mental illness, and while it’s elegantly navigated the pitfalls of that premise, “Chapter 19” finds the show charging into the delicate territory of assault, agency, and accusation with all the grace of the minotaur Kerry beheaded last week.
It’s always seemed like there’s only so far that Legion can twist the Silly Putty of truth, reality, and logic until it finally snaps. It’s something that’s always made me regard the show with a certain level of skepticism, even as it dazzled me with its visual flare and music supervision. (From my notes on “Chapter 19”: “Legion is the only successful superhero musical.”) In using Syd’s trauma to make David realize that he might not be the hero of this story, I think we’ve finally found that limit.
Danette, you’ve had a more charitable view of Legion all this time. How do you think this finale reflects on the season as a whole? Where do you think the show can go from here? And do you even want to follow it there?
Danette Chavez: How do I feel about that finale? I’ll let Nathan Lane (as Albert Goldman) in The Birdcage answer for me: “How do you think I feel? Betrayed, bewildered.”
I’d say I’ve given Legion a lot of latitude with its storytelling, but until recently, it’s never felt that way. Although the balance between style and substance wasn’t always even in season one, Noah Hawley’s visual flourishes felt justified, integral. Legion set out to demonstrate how malleable reality is, through the perspectives of David Haller, who can alter it at will, and those who can only effect change at an infinitesimal level. The goal has always been to challenge our concepts of truth, time, and who defines what’s normal. So I expect to feel discombobulated at the end of every hour, to not be fully certain I’ve witnessed what I think I’ve witnessed. And it wasn’t until the season-two finale that I wished I hadn’t seen what I’d seen.
Hawley struggled to wrap up last season, as the fairly ordinary (compared to the preceding seven episodes) “Chapter 8” proves. At times, “Chapter 19”—which would’ve been “Chapter 18,” if the twist involving Melanie’s betrayal hadn’t required the heavy lifting of an additional episode ordered after the show had seemingly wrapped production—looks like Hawley’s response to criticisms that the previous finale was too conventional. Legion’s always leaned on its un-superhero bona fides, its un-reality; but this season closer chucks so much of our understanding of, and connection to, what’s come before it out the window, that it feels more like a reset than a cliffhanger.
There’s always been the potential for David to turn into the bad guy. You don’t have to have read the X-Men comics to pick up on that. But the desire to keep Legion outside of the realm of other superhero shows has led to the creation (or, since we’re talking about mutants, evolution) of a lead character that it’s now thoroughly impossible to like or relate to—assuming this isn’t, as you’ve pointed out, Erik, one of the Shadow King’s tricks. We already know David is flawed and mentally disturbed (the finale seems to confirm that), but now he’s a rapist, and I don’t know how the show can address that or walk it back. What makes it so frustrating, not to mention disappointing, is that Legion had already hinted at what David was capable of, including murder and torture. When they went back and added an extra hour to the season, Hawley and team included a whole montage of terrible things David’s done, like him repeatedly drilling into Oliver’s legs. The dramatic heft of Syd, the person who loves David and trusted him the most, admitting that he’s become a monster is diluted by the finale. Hawley’s taken to showing and telling in season two, but this was one case in which he should have left well enough alone. Ultimately, this overcompensation points to a lack of trust in the story Legion has been telling. Which is, again, such a damn shame, because I was fascinated by the exploration of the relationship between love and trust.
But since ambiguity is one of the cornerstones of Legion, Erik, do you think the finale left enough room for doubt about David’s destiny? Did we really watch him become the villain, or is he still a pawn?
Erik: I feel like the finale left a whole upside-wing-of-a-secret-government-facility-devoted-to-the-investigation-study-and-elimination-of-mutants’ worth of room for doubt. It’s part of what bothers me about the choices made in “Chapter 19”: This “Who do you believe?” question is so, so, so much more loaded than any previous one the show has posed, and I don’t think Noah Hawley’s Psychedelic Superpowered Fireworks Display is truly equipped to address it.
In postmortem interviews about the finale, Hawley has motioned toward two points of inspiration for his take on David’s story: Walter White, whose downward spiral is unequivocal no matter how many idiot Breaking Bad viewers say it isn’t; and Magneto, who’s flipped allegiances countless times over the course of the X-Men franchise. Legion seems like it wants to triangulate a point between those two fictional monsters, but lacks the storytelling rigor and sense of character necessary to pull it off. Walt’s arc was a precision-tooled machine; no matter whose side Magneto is on, he’s always grounded by the same philosophies and personality traits. Who is David Haller at this point? “I am a good person and I deserve love” is a start, but it’s not enough for a trick with this degree of difficulty—if we can even trust Legion not to wipe away what little we understand about David and start from scratch.
Hawley’s overlooking a better, more obvious model for David, and from one of the show’s biggest influences, to boot: the journey Dale Cooper takes in Twin Peaks: The Return. There was a show that started with a basic understanding of its protagonist—the FBI’s own square-jawed, “gee whiz” Boy Scout—and totally flipped it, forging a surreal narrative out of Coop’s crawl toward consciousness and the seeming defeat of the demon walking around in his skin. And Twin Peaks had the sense to make it clear that the Coop who committed rape was the villainous Coop.
Danette: I agree that, intentions and future reframing aside, Legion isn’t an ideal space for a discussion about consent. The show just hasn’t done the legwork; the characters are still underwritten, despite the extended season. We’re still getting to know David (and Syd and Melanie and...) after 19 chapters. I’m very open to the heel turn—it has all kinds of narrative potential and is the kind of bold thinking I’ve come to expect from the show.
But if we are, as Hawley says in that Entertainment Weekly interview, witnessing the birth of a supervillain, that story’s already been made redundant by the rest of season two. Farouk is also a rapist (Lenny refers to the abuse in “Chapter 15”), and he’s also felt like he was the voice of reason in a world of madness. David’s arc lines up a little too closely to Farouk’s, which might be the point, but in the context of the other reversals and reconsiderations, it comes across as another example of the show spinning its wheels. The second season is supposed to be an inversion of the first, which is a compelling concept, but the gratuitous flipping and stretching of truths cost the show momentum, and make the added layer of abuse look like embellishment for embellishment’s sake. And I say this as someone who couldn’t get enough Bedazzling in the first season.
So back to your earlier question—will I follow the show from here? Maybe. Because, despite finding the assault storyline unnecessary and Hawley’s explanation for it lacking, I’m holding out hope that Legion will hold David accountable, or that this long con by the Shadow King will prove worth it. I guess I’m saying I still trust the show, so it better not prove me wrong.