How Legion Continues to Upend Our Expectations of Hero and Villain Stories
Sydney, not David, may be the key to Legion's conclusion.Photo Courtesy of FX TV Features Legion
FX’s Legion has always been sort of the weird cousin of the television superhero world. Based on a character that most people have never heard of and featuring a dazzling array of bizarre musical interludes, raucous dance scenes, hallucinatory flashbacks and colorful animated sequences, this is a show that’s difficult on a good day and incomprehensible on its worst. But it’s also one of the genre’s most rewarding efforts: Brave, experimental, and willing to tackle themes that similar series simply aren’t.
Ostensibly the story of David Haller, the son of infamous X-Men leader Charles Xavier who possesses telekinesis, telepathy and other reality altering abilities, Legion is a saga about loss, pain and mental illness. In most superhero series like this, David’s trajectory would be a fairly predictable one. Freed from the mental institution he found himself in during Season One, he would ultimately figure out how to manage his powers, fight for the side of right against shadowy government agency Division 3, and take down the villainous Shadow King. Oh, and get the girl in the end.
That’s kind of the basic blueprint at the heart of every other superhero series on TV right now. As viewers, we tend to like origin stories; we enjoy the idea of a broody or otherwise struggling hero coming into his power in the end and saving the day.
But Legion is not that kind of show, and it never has been.
Instead, it’s a trippy mind-bending journey into the mind of a man who might have been a hero, if he hadn’t been saddled with both schizophrenia and a literal monster in his head. It’s a show that wrestles with our understanding of things like time and truth and reality, and asks us to consider what happens when the hero of the story we thought we knew turns out to have been the villain all along, despite his best efforts to the contrary.
As a series, Legion inverts almost every popular trope in superhero television today, which makes it difficult, uncomfortable and even downright confusing to watch at times. Its savior is actually a monster, its love interest turns out to be the hero, and everyone’s relationships become increasingly dark and messy as the show goes on.
Perhaps we didn’t necessarily want to see it, but the signs that Legion is ultimately David’s supervillain origin story have been there all along, from the very first episodes. It’s something that certainly feels hard to accept, given how generally likeable David is as a character. (And how charming Dan Stevens is as an actor.) We want to see David succeed; we hope that he’ll get better. We try to believe that his problems are external ones, things that can be battled physically rather than mentally, and we hang on to the hope that he can become the man we all want him to be. But even the best version of David Haller will always be unstable and untrustworthy, and that is the real tragedy at the heart of Legion.
While the revelation at the end of Season Two that Future David will end the world may come as a shock to some, it really shouldn’t have. David has been a questionable leader and a fairly unreliable narrator for the entirety of Legion’s run. The show has always wrestled with the question of whether David is truly gifted or wildly delusional, and the answer at the end of the day appears to be: Both. Perhaps David himself is equally capable of being a hero and a villain at the same time, a god of creation as well one of destruction. But either way, he is terrifying and always has been.
After all, David is capable of monstrous things. He’s murdered people. He’s tortured others. He’s forced his mind into those of people he cares about to control their understanding of the world around them. He slept with Syd after erasing her memory of their fight about his future villain status, removing her ability to fully consent to their encounter. His insistence that he’s a good person who deserves love may be true—for him. But this insistence isn’t something that’s borne out by his behavior, which becomes increasingly dark and controlling in service of his own ends as the show goes on. David’s determination to erase the past he believes made him a monster in the first place, a plan that involves time travel and a whole lot of collateral damage and death, is doing nothing so much as turning him into an even bigger one.
So instead the story of a hero’s origin, what we’re watching is actually a tale of disintegration, the undoing of the central idea around which the show seems to have been built up to this point. But maybe we, as viewers, were always just looking in the wrong direction for a savior. In comic books stories like this, we assume the attractive, emotionally stunted white guy is probably the one we’re supposed to root for at the end of the day. And to be fair, most of the time it is. But maybe this story has never been about David Haller’s redemption.
Maybe it’s always been about Sydney’s.
Legion almost completely shifts perspectives following its second season, centering David’s former love interest Sydney Barrett as the real hero of the story, complete with multiple versions of her character working to save the world.
This probably shouldn’t surprise us. Syd has always been smart, capable and empathetic, and brave enough to do the hard things that need doing. It’s just that now those things involve trying to kill a man she once loved, and working with another she once hunted. She’s also deeply damaged, thanks to her body swapping power that has left her with plenty of issues surrounding physical autonomy, control and consent. But, unlike David, Syd seems to understand that those problems can’t be corrected, erased or ignored, they can only be lived through.
Syd’s journey over the course of Legion has seen her grow from a character who only wanted to protect “her man” to one who understands that there are larger forces at work than her own desires. She recognizes the danger in David well before he assaults her, and though she tries to do the right thing by getting him treatment, she’s also willing to sacrifice him in the name of protecting the rest of the world if need be. That she loves David—even after the terrible things he’s done—seems fairly obvious, but those emotions aren’t driving her story. Her own choices are.
Legion is such an unpredictable series that it’s hard to guess where the series finale will take us in just a few episodes. Will David destroy everything in his search for a new beginning? Eventually erase himself from the timeline as some sort of penance for all he’s done? Could Syd truly kill him? Or is this all an extremely long con by Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King himself? That any of those outcomes seem completely possible is a testament to the series’ determination to be anything but what we expect. No matter how it ends, Legion will doubtless continue to write its own rules, all the way to its closing credits.
Legion currently airs Monday nights on FX.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.