Warning- there will be spoilers below for the season 2 finale of Legion. I will give a warning before discussing the spoilers.
A long time ago, in a country far far away, I used to read comic books. I didn’t get to choose what comics I would read; instead there was a selection of different comics every month that just happened to show up at the one store in the country that had them, and I would get whatever comics they had that month. Which wasn’t great for continuity, but certainly gave me an appreciation for variety.
Anyway, in between the Thors and the Spider Mans and the Avengers and Dr. Stranges and the West Coast Avengers (!) and the X-Men*, there was one comic that stuck with me then, and that I occasionally still think about.
The New Mutants. Specifically, a three-part series released in 1985.
I still remember reading that particular comic. Sure, a lot of comics could have wild art (Doctor Strange? Thor?). Some had crazy plotting (Spider Man’s new suit wants to eat him). But I still remember the depiction of the New Mutants going into someone’s brain and seeing all of the different personalities. It had an outsized impact on me then, and now. Whose brain did the New Mutants enter?
David Haller. Legion.
But getting back to the comic, the reason it had an outsized impact on me at the time is it forced me to change my perspective on reading comics, and, really, interpreting “art.” Before, I would read a comic like a story, and that’s what it was. A story. To entertain. But reading this New Mutants series? That was the first time I remember thinking- wait? Why are the drawings done this way? What does it mean? Why is the art like this? Is it trying to say something?
It was like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but for comics (at least to a young mind that still considered Def Lepperd the height of musical artistic expression). Wrestling with the questions I was asking myself (does the different art mean different things? can I trust what I am reading?) forced me to be a better reader, and it was the unresolved questions, the tension between the answers I wanted and the reality that those answer may never be provided to my satisfaction, that continued long past the time when I forgot about the machinations and membership of the West Coast Avengers.
So this brings me to Legion, the FX series. For those of you have read my prior posts, you know that an issue that I sometimes address (poorly) is the idea that there can be a difference between trying for something more and failing, as opposed to not trying at all.
This idea often comes down to preferences. For example, you will see people denigrate certain things as “low brow” or “commercial” to indicate that they aren’t attempting anything more than, well, telling a story. On the other hand, a different set of people will attempt to dismiss other things as “pretentious” or “art school” because they are attempting to do more than just tell that story (or are telling it in non-traditional ways). Of course, this is usually just pejorative mudslinging- a show** can be intelligent without being too difficult, or a show can be both dumb and “smart” (and then called “pulp” or “genre” or, ahem, a guilty pleasure). There is nothing wrong with enjoying, for example, a CW superhero show, or to use a recent and awesome pulp show, Banshee. There is comfort in good stories, well told, and in genre conventions. You don’t always need to be challenged and confronted and disturbed by your entertainment.
Legion is unlike those shows, and also unlike any other show on television. And I mean that in both a good and a bad way. Perhaps the closest comparator currently airing would be Mr. Robot, in that both shows deal with mental illness and unreliable narrators, and combine some amazing cinematography with deliberately off-putting and occasionally alienating storylines. But Mr. Robot is relatively straightforward compared to Legion. But, and this is the important thing, Legion is apparently doing one thing that is very, very different than Mr. Robot and almost any other show on television.
It is deliberately alienating its viewers. It not only isn’t allowing you to identify with the hero’s journey, it is telling you, in big, neon green lights, to fuck off. And this is important, because there are different ways of getting to issues. There are different ways for TV to be “smart.” To use two recent examples-
Legion’s FX stablemate, The Americans, also was a smart show, and also discussed big issues, but did so obliquely; instead of putting forth the big ideas, it worked via small, minute characterization. Minimalism and character development stand in for concepts, and a shot of someone staring at a closet full of clothes while Yellow Brick Road plays can be as emotionally devastating as a death in any other show.
The Leftovers might be closest to Legion, especially as it got employed more tropes from magical realism. But while it masterfully examined depression, and faith, and broken people, it always kept a core humanity for those individuals. You wanted some light for Kevin and Nora ... for others. There was an essential humanity amidst the pain. For better or worse, Legion wears its big ideas on its sleeve.
HERE COME THE SPOLIERS.
IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED LEGION, YOU PROBABLY SHOULD.
(And if you’ve read this far down, and you know that there are spoilers, you also know that there will be some discussion of sexual violence.)
So the reaction to the second season finale of Legion was ... mixed.
These were the two most extreme negative reactions, and there were some positive ones as well. But they, rightfully, concentrate on the most controversial aspect of that episode- the sexual assault of Syd.
Now, in order to examine why this criticism is (IMO) misguided, I’m going to start by picking on Beth Elderkin’s reviews of the show, and contrast the one above with the one here-
For those of you who aren’t following, Beth Elderkin makes the following observations in those two reviews:
1. Knowing that Syd swapped bodies with her mother and had sex with her mother’s boyfriend, and that caused the boyfriend (when the bodies swapped back) to appear to have had sex with Syd, thus causing the mom’s boyfriend to be arrested and destroying his life, doesn’t make the episode terrible because “[t]his, along with all the other things she’s done in her life, is a source of strength. These things are what made her who she is.”
2. David Haller, erasing Syd’s memories of their conflict, and then having sex with her, is unforgivable because it can only be an unnecessary plot point that the show can’t recover from.
The reason I think that these arguments are incorrect isn’t because of some “double standard” or because they are logically inconsistent; it’s because Elderkin has entirely missed the point of what it means to identify with the protagonists, and why these moments are powerful and contradictory.
Almost all successful television programs end up causing some amount of identification with the show’s protagonists; even when the show has an “anti-hero” at its core, eventually, the viewer becomes complicit with the protagonist, because the viewer will end up identifying with the characters it sees. Sure, maybe you don’t want Tony Soprano to kill all those people, but c’mon, he isn’t all bad ... maybe he should get away, amirite? Even a show like Breaking Bad, which got really bleak, still allowed Walter White the chance in that final episode to come to terms with what he did (imagine if, instead, it had ended at Ozymandias). And one of the essential struggles with Breaking Bad was that there were people that, despite everything Walter White did, still wanted to identify with him.
We have the same essential issue in Legion- identification. Since Syd is a main character, and we are seeing something that happened in the past (to a nameless boyfriend of her mother’s), we are prone to excuse it, or at least, not accord it weight. Sure, it might be unforgivable, or something, but it’s also “a source of strength.” Because she’s a main character and because it didn’t happen in the current timeline of the story. The issue isn’t a double standard due to gender; it’s an examination of framing. If the framing had been that David, at some time in the past, while struggling with his powers, had made some character we weren’t familiar with love him ... then that would be different. Yes, we would intellectually acknowledge it as wrong, or unforgiveable, but we wouldn’t have the same visceral reaction.
The main dilemma the show has been teasing the entire second season is whether or not David Haller is a hero, or a villain (and, of course, this is all muddied by his mental illness). And for most viewers, it was pretty clear cut that he was the hero- because he was the protagonist of the show, and the character whose point of view we were usually inhabiting. It didn’t matter that he killed, or that he tortured, or that his plan was to bash the Shadow King’s head in, or that future Syd had warned us (the viewer) that he was going to end the world ... he was the hero of this story! Even when Syd was confronted with the knowledge of, well, everything, it could be argued (and was argued by many) that Syd was just being manipulated by the Shadow King.
There might have even been people who, seeing David “adjust” Syd’s memories, would still argue that David was merely undoing the damage of the Shadow King. And when I say might have been ... there were. And still are.
Which is why it was refreshing to see Syd (with the help of Cary) tell David exactly what he had done. I have to admit, I was somewhat surprised by the negative reviews on her announcing this- the idea of memory manipulation and vitiating consent is so unfortunately common in science fiction and fantasy, it barely gets remarked upon.
Just look at the last season of The Flash. There was an entire subplot about the main villain continually drugging his wife and making her forget so she would love him. And while that plot... sucked ... for other reasons, no one complained that it was uncharacteristic for a villain to do that. Because villains do terrible things, right?
But the idea of mind control being used to control people has a long history in science fiction. From Star Trek: TOS on, the concept that mind control would be used in a ... questionable fashion for wish fulfilment was always present, and the announcement by Syd finally brought what was usually subtext into text. This type of toxic wish fulfillment, however well-intentioned (Syd was planning on shooting David, after all) is evil. What a villain does.
The shocking thing, in fact, is that the show called it out for what it is. I recently watched season 2 of Wynona Earp (because I hate myself, apparently), and there is an entire subplot of demon possession, and characters having sex, which is swept under the rug. Because ... well, it’s okay when you love each other or something. I can’t even hate on the show for that ... there are plenty of other reasons to hate on it ... because it’s such a well-established trope that the writers probably didn’t even properly consider it, and I don’t trust that show to handle it.
In Legion, David wasn’t the good guy, and all the illusion was laid bare; he had used his powers to hurt those closest to him, and there could be no forgiveness for that. This wasn’t about future crimes, this was about what he had just done.
In the end, this is effective because it should force the viewer to ask themselves questions that may not have good answers. Why was this, and not the murders or the tortures, or ... well, you get the idea, the final straw? We just had an entire season devoted to the power of delusion; what greater delusion could there be than the viewer’s continuing delusion this season that David Haller was the hero?
*Yes, you noticed correctly. We only got Marvel. Also? NERD!
**I’m discussing tv shows, but this applies as well to movies, or books, or whatever.