For All Its Ups and Downs, Season One of Legion Is a Groundbreaking Act of Empathy

(Episode 1.08)

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For All Its Ups and Downs, Season One of <i>Legion</i> Is a Groundbreaking Act of Empathy

Forgive me for sounding like a broken record, but if there’s one thing that Legion consistently gets right, it’s empathy. At least for David (Dan Stevens). Everything about the series gears itself towards this: The plot arcs, dialogue, color palette, composition and effects have always worked with surprisingly subtle synchronicity to ensure that the audience connects to David’s thoughts and emotions.

It’s ingenious—even, dare I say, groundbreaking—and, when dealing with the concept of mental illness, absolutely essential. Yes, it’s through a science fiction filter, and there’s still a bit of coded metaphor, but Legion should be applauded for how it addresses people with mental health issues. These are not circumstances that those without firsthand experience can easily understand or imagine, and as such, this clear and direct attempt to generate not just sympathy— feeling compassion for someone—but empathy—putting yourself in their position—that makes Legion a game-changer.

It raises the bar in terms of production quality for comic book-inspired episodic television—a feat originated by Netflix’s Daredevil, and for a seemingly hopeless amount of time trapped there. But what really makes Legion stand out is the social commentary that comes with treating empathy as a core goal. Just as Jessica Jones addresses rape and domestic abuse or Luke Cage speaks to racial diversity, discrimination and empowerment, Legion fulfills one of the most critical roles of science fiction and fantasy: to explore topics we find difficult to discuss or understand in the “real” world.

This isn’t just a series about pretty visuals and zany superhero adventures. It’s finding common ground, a shared social language. In its way, Legion creates a common vocabulary for people who don’t suffer from mental illnesses to relate to those who do, while also equipping the latter with examples, however “unrealistic,” that might function as a point of reference when it comes up in conversation. As strange as it sounds, this means Legion is more closely related to Disney’s Inside Out than it is to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—an irony I’d like to make sure is lost on no one.

But back to the empathy: On the level of storytelling, it does cause Legion to struggle. Creating so much connection to our lead character may have important social implications, but it can and has hurt the series in other ways. The emotional focus on David makes forging a sense of connection with the supporting characters much more difficult.

Take a moment to think about it. There are only a handful of characters in Legion, and yet more than half of them feel a bit flat. It may be due to a lack of screen time or development, as with Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) and Amy (Katie Aselton). It may be because of one-note characterization, as in the case of Melanie (Jean Smart), Oliver (Jemain Clement) or The Eye (Mackenzie Gray). Syd (Rachel Keller) is particularly problematic, as she often carries the plot, particularly in terms of emotional tension, when David isn’t around.

These kinds of issues are traditionally laid at the actors’ feet. After all, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) is a black hat villain who’s had about the same screen time as Amy, yet she’s nothing but engaging when she appears. The counterargument here is that Lenny’s story, like David’s, is so integral to the production team’s stylistic choices that we feel like we know her as well as we know him. It’s the creation of a connection between the characters and the visual language that accompanies them, something most TV shows don’t bother with, that make Lenny and David feel much more fully immersed in this world than the others, and by extension they are also the most engaging.

That’s not to say that creating an audience connection with every character in this stylized universe is impossible. It’s just more complicated. I’m a bit surprised that, for the first time, Legion does manage to create an honest sense of connection with a character besides David tonight. And who it is turns out to be what’s most intriguing.

Last week we learned that The Interrogator (Hamish Linklater) survived his early season encounter with David and company. It’s a big enough surprise in its own right, but what Legion does with his story this week is a true deviation from form. We see his recovery and rehabilitation with his husband, Daniel (Keir O’Donnell), by his side. We wait with him—as much as any TV series can bring the plot to a grinding halt long enough to wait—and get a much clearer sense of how he views his role in this world. A few times in the episode, we see through his eyes, and quite literally. The writing is solid and Linklater’s performance is wonderfully sympathetic, but it’s in the use of the show’s stylistic elements that a real sense of sympathy for the character develops.

Trying to create a new way of doing anything is hard. Legion is successful in changing the way an audience relates to its lead character, which, in terms of innovation, is more than enough reason to be impressed. But it’s this successful use of technique that makes me most excited for the series going forward. (FX has already renewed the series for a second season.) It’ll be a puzzle, and finding the right combination of elements will take time, but Legion has shown that creator Noah Hawley and company can achieve it. Creating a story-changing level of connection with an underdeveloped villain in less than 15 minutes is only the start.

There are, however, some performers who don’t need fancy techniques or a lot of screen time to move me to tears. There’s a certain quality to the relationship between Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) that I can only attribute to the pair’s strength as actors. It’s a relationship that, even on paper, seems prone to mistakes—one of those ideas comic book writers in particular are enamored with because they, as the inner voice and logic of both characters, don’t have to face the real world issues that come with recreating two people written with one mind. The things that separate us from each other in real life, whether big things like cultural identity or little things like misinterpreted offenses, can’t be papered over as easily in performance. So the fact that Cary and Kerry remain so separate is, in a lot of ways, the easy part. It’s making their connection to each other work that could have proven disastrous. And yet, Midthunder and Irwin portray their characters’ social awkwardness and emotional missteps with such sincerity that watching their disconnect last week and tonight is heartbreaking.

There’s a lot to like in this season finale. If I had to nitpick, well, we still need to explain, or at the very least add a bit more consistency to, how our heroes’ powers work. Otherwise, you may find yourself feeling, as I did, that there were one or two deus ex moments tonight. The other would be that this season was just too short. There’s so much more we want to know about this universe that eight episodes isn’t enough—there are definitely a few details that would have been better explained this season, especially if tonight’s post-credits scene—and if you haven’t watched it yet, make sure you don’t miss it—is to be believed.

So, as we part, at least until Season Two, give yourself a pat on the back, viewer. This isn’t an easy show to watch. As engaging its characters can be, and as spectacular as its visuals are, it’s not a show to watch while multitasking. Playing Candy Crush on the couch while it blares in the background is not an option. You have to think about Legion, actively engage in its world. That’s a bit exhausting, but in a good way. Think of it like a workout for the intellectual and emotional centers of your brain. You’ve finished the 5K, now go get a smoothie. Or switch to junk food for a bit. I hear Iron Fist is pretty good.

Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based writer and director, and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website or follow her on Twitter.