David Haller has a lot on his mind.
Dan Stevens' David has always had a lot on his mind, as the series premiere of the FX comic book series Legion made quite clear to us last year. You'd probably be the same way if you were the vastly powerful mutant son of Charles Xavier (never yet named in the series, but heavily implied) gifted with, among other things, telepathy and telekinesis, and cursed with an inability to know what's real, as well as the presence of an impossibly hungry psychic monster in your head. One of the earliest visual metaphors for David's chaotic mind — one of many such distinct representations the show gives us — is a shot of David himself, hunched over in a dark room, hands over his ears, while a virtual army of nameless people scream at him in dozens of different voices.
By the end of Legion's first season, the show presents another, very different visual metaphor for what's happening in David's head: David standing in a lecture hall, in literal conversation with himself while he attempts to chart his origins, his present struggle, and his future objectives with the help of a large blackboard.
In place of the first visual metaphor, imagine a superhero fan entering a crowded comic book store for the first time after being lured in by a movie, TV show, or single graphic novel they borrowed from a friend. In place of the second, imagine that same fan a year later, having read comics until their brain is bursting, outlining a massive swath of Marvel or DC continuity in a notebook or a blog post, or on a podcast conceived for just such a purpose.
Legion, which returns for its second season tonight on FX, is a show that definitely knows where it came from and how the world of superhero fiction works, even if David Haller sometimes doesn't. It's this understanding that makes it one of the most effective and compelling superhero stories being told right now — because it wields its superhero-ness as both a badge of honor and as a means of commenting on just how flat-out bonkers superhero stories can be.
Legion Season 2 begins as David's friends and allies finally rediscover him after Season 1's cliffhanger ending, in which he was zapped into some kind of orb that promptly flew him away from Summerland to parts unknown. David returns to Syd (Rachel Keller) and the rest of the Summerland crew to find certain things have changed — how and why is best left until you watch the episode — and that he's been gone a good deal longer than he thought. What follows is yet another attempt to unravel David's brain and uncover its secrets as David himself parses out what's real and his friends parse out what, on David's part, is genuine confusion and what could be deception. Along the way, we return to all the usual Legion weirdness, from strange new characters to extended monologues about human psychological conditions to dance sequences.
Legion's second season is, at least in the episodes FX has made available to the press prior to its return, so far just as brilliant, strange, and unpredictable as its first, full of compelling visuals and clever writing and tremendous work from its ensemble cast. The level of quality in Season 1 is maintained, while the level of strangeness as the plot progresses is perhaps exceeded. As weird as Season 1 got, we were perhaps unprepared for how far Season 2 might be willing to go.
Even before it aired its first episode, Legion was gaining a reputation as being the trippy comic book show, the one attempting to do things with its source material that no other show or movie at the time was daring to do. That continues in Season 2, and it continues in a wonderful way.
But that's not what makes Legion work, or at least, it's not the only thing.
Legion doesn't work because it's trying to be something other superhero stories aren't. It works because it understands that it's a superhero story, and a scene in the season premiere encapsulates this perfectly.
David, recently returned from his Season 1 disappearance, is sitting in a restaurant across from a character who shall remain nameless for the time being in the interest of dancing around some spoilers. That character relates a story from their childhood: They used to sit around with a loved one, eating ice cream and watching soap operas. Whenever something particularly soap opera-y would happen — a sudden twist, a secret evil twin, a dark secret, what have you — they would eat ice cream, like a kid-friendly version of a drinking game. This character tells David that so much ice cream was eaten during the course of the game that they were "kind of a fat kid" because that's just how soap operas work. The character then motions for a waiter to bring over a bowl of ice cream, holds their spoon above the bowl, and waits to hear what David will say next.
Warren Ellis once said that, to write a superhero story, you just replace the sex scenes in a soap opera with scene of people punching each other.
That brief scene, the one with the bowl of ice cream, says more about Legion's storytelling style than perhaps anything else the show has given us in its run so far. This could have easily been a show that stripped out all of the comic book weirdness in an effort to tell a story that's more about mental illness and recovery and the isolation that often comes with being different than it is about superpowers. It could have been one of those "grounded" or "character-based" movies and shows that you hear so much about when people start talking about why their comic book adaptation is "smart" and "serious" and "adult" and "not just another ridiculous story about superpowers."
But that's the secret to Legion's success, not its weirdness or its character building or its visual dynamism, though those are all great assets. Legion's secret is in its willingness to eat the ice cream, to be both a ridiculous story about superpowers and a smart story about mental illness and recovery and the isolation that comes with being different. That's why the best X-Men comics worked in the first place, and that's what Legion has carried over to another medium in the trippiest, most twisted way possible.
This is a show that's always ready to subvert the conventions and expectations of its genre even as it's indulging in them. It's a show where characters can recite Beat poetry in the astral plane, then look around and remark on just how weird it all is with a winking sense of self-awareness. Season 2 could have tried to engage some kind of well-intentioned but ill-fated course correction in that regard. It could have tried to be more "grounded." Instead, it turned into the skid of superhero strangeness, and we got more amazing episodes out of it.
Legion Season 2 premieres tonight on FX.