Warning: This piece discusses events in the series finale of Legion.
When it began, three seasons ago, Legion was a show about a man who possessed the power of telepathy.
By the time it ended last night, Legion had become a show about the power of empathy.
The three-season journey that took not-quite-a-superhero David Haller (Dan Stevens) from reading others' thoughts to feeling others' emotions was one that proved wildly discursive, often frustrating, frequently funny and never less than deeply, deeply weird.
Even when the narrative stumbled (or, more precisely, languished), Legion wasn't the kind of show you could easily tear your eyes away from. Creator Noah Hawley roped off a quiet corner of the Marvel Universe and proceeded to fill the screen with visuals so striking, so surreal and so determinedly odd that it often took a moment to drink in just what the show was attempting to convey.
Some critics, especially in the early going, dinged the show's tendency to indulge in eye-popping spectacle as just that — indulgent. And back in that first season, when David's storyline seemed set to follow a familiar "hero learns his true nature and masters his powers" arc, those bits of visual flair did call attention to themselves.
But gradually, it became clear what Hawley and his team were up to: nudging the standard superhero narrative, which usually operates on an implicit, metaphorical level, over into the show's explicit, physical reality.
Film and television are lousy with psychic characters who demonstrate their powers by scrunching up their faces and holding their arms out rigidly before them. And certainly, Legion's Stevens did his fair share of mutant-miming. But the show took things further, using sound design, makeup, lighting, set design and cinematography to show us — to make us feel — how the world would seem to someone with the power to alter reality itself.
Thus, David's psychological trauma got transmuted into a literal monster living inside him. Delusions were rendered as black, virulent goo-creatures that took up residence in the brain and spread from person to person. In lieu of standard hero-vs.-villain slugfests, conflict took place on the Astral Plane, in the form of trippy musical numbers, dance-offs and/or rap battles.
But even when Legion's visual design went to the furthest extremes, producing some of the most unsettling images TV's produced in recent memory (The Devil With the Yellow Eyes, roomfuls of people standing stock-still in the near dark, chattering their teeth, and this season's grinning, unstoppable, perpetually-encroaching Time-Eaters) they were all in service of something. It just took a while for the show to understand, or at least to reveal to viewers, what it was really about. It finally did so at the end of its second season, by turning the show's ostensible hero into its villain, albeit one who vehemently insisted that the damage he was doing was for the greater good.
That's when we learned that while David's psychic parasite, Amahl Farouk, (Navid Negahban) may be capital-e Evil monster, it was David's desperate zeal to prove himself a good person that drove him to actions that were truly monstrous. In the final season, which saw the addition of Lauren Tsai as the time-traveling mutant Switch, that zeal turned to megalomania as he casually disregarded the pain of others in his quest to press a temporal reset button.
In the end, that button got pressed, and the world was saved — not by David's mutant powers, but by the very human thing those powers gained him unique access to: empathy.
The last half-hour served up plenty of the kind of thrills other superhero shows dole out all the time, with a sword-wielding Kerry (Amber Midthunder, the show's not-so-secret weapon) and Syd (Rachel Keller) making a last stand against those creepy Time Eaters. But the climax of David's storyline was weirder, warmer and — in keeping with the show's tradition — more abstract, and more satisfying.
On the Astral Plane, it was all hugs and tears and hard-won forgiveness as David's father Charles (Harry Lloyd) apologized for abandoning him. Meanwhile, an older, wiser Farouk showed his younger, evil self all the damage they'd done to David over the years. And it was that act of empathy — of Farouk truly feeling David's life as a whole — that defeated the villain.
Selfless compassion revealed as the greatest mutant ability? It's not where I would have bet the series would end up — but then, ever since that one dude showed up with the basket on his head and started speaking through those androgynous androids that looked like Sonny Bono in leotards, I've been content to let this show take me wherever it wanted to go.