The nature of the television beast is that characters you come to love can suddenly become the villains. As most viewers grapple with their perceived changing political allegiances of say, the titular character on Roseanne, FX’s trippy series Legion is ready to turn its own hero into a villain. Dan Haller, expertly portrayed by Dan Stevens, may be morphing into a villain in the series’ second season.
FX ventured into superheroics last year by adapting X-Men character David Haller for television with Legion. The psychedelic, mesmerizing series has a late-’60s/early ’70s aesthetic (though not set in any actual time or place in order to exude timelessness) and has broken convention with more than just superhero shows: Most prestige dramas would be lucky to match what Noah Hawley accomplished in a single episode. The creatively audacious and visually sumptuous series looks like nothing else on television. I visited the set of Legion as they filmed their second season and talked to creator and Executive Producer Noah Hawley as well as Stevens, to find out what we can expect this year on the series.
The first changes with David are the fact that he’s seen time completely differently than the rest of his team, as well as his girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller). David is kidnapped at the conclusion of Season One and according to Hawley, “We find David [in the premiere]. He returns to us. He thinks he’s been gone for a few hours, but he’s actually been gone for a year and a lot has changed. We thought it would be the plucky band of outsiders against the empire, [but] if Season One was about examining an insane man in a sane world, this year I wanted to flip it. Maybe David is the sane man in the insane world. If you take away all those voices, what is his mind filled with? It’s his own inner struggle this time. Who’s a hero and who’s a villain… there’s a sense that David’s story could be heading toward becoming a supervillain.”
According to Stevens, most of the change will come from formerly having Lenny stuck in his brain (thanks to the villainous Shadow King). “You have [David’s] identity with an illness, or with some sort of external body inside them, and then their identity without that. So what remains and how attached to that was he? What’s the dynamic there? David’s obviously very fond of Lenny in a kind of weird, hostage-y way, but nonetheless, he feels that absence.” If the series last year was about “the enemy within,” Hawley says, then “the second season, in my head, was always the enemy without. The enemy is now out and so it would appear that our mission is to find Farouk [The Shadow King] and put an end to him.”
The series delved into the idea of mental illness heavily the first time around—but as it turns out, mental health was a MacGuffin. For all of the scenes set in psychiatric hospitals and Pink Floyd references, Legion never actually set out to tackle mental illness. Stevens gave a stirringly nuanced performance as a character who’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia—but he wasn’t actually schizophrenic. It was a condition laid on him by men who either didn’t understand his gifts or knew the full scope of them and sought to control him. In that respect, Hawley’s series operates as a modern update of the ’70s paranoid thriller, revamped for the age of fake news and openly dishonest politicians. But the dependence upon the illness trope harkens to how often the X-Men genre (at least in film and television) uses human conditions as metaphors for mutant powers. Homosexuality, for instance, has been tied to “coming out” as a mutant and though David himself isn’t schizophrenic, the show still uses that “is he or isn’t he” air to loom over the series.
Stevens loves it. “I love ambiguity,” he said. “I hope that the audiences are entertained by that. I wouldn’t want a show that sort of told me everything in hour one, because if I got the joke and all the information in one hour, then I wouldn’t need to watch the other nine, or 20. I’ve really enjoyed the response to Season 1—that people have felt really, like, wonderfully confused by the show, and rewarded visually.”
On the mental-illness aspect, Hawley said, “I couldn’t leave that question of mental illness behind. It’s an integral part of the show and it’s also something interesting to me as an idea to explore this idea of ‘What is normal? What is reality, if not simply an agreement that we make?’ Someone once said that the definition of reality is that which doesn’t cease to exist if you stop believing in it and I thought that was really interesting There were some things that were very important to me about telling more stories in this world. The first thing was that I didn’t want to leave the mental illness component of the show behind. The first season was based around this idea of… is he mentally ill or does he have these super powers or both? [This season] we’re in this genre world. There are people with these abilities. There is the Shadow King, who David thought was part of his personality, and then it turns out to be a separate entity and that entity escapes and is out in the world.”
The show touted an exciting take on mental health in the series, but explaining away Haller’s struggle as the work of an all-powerful Big Bad deprived the show of its potential to say something about the toll that mental warfare can exact on Americans. Haller is the world’s most powerful mutant, according to the comics (his dad is Professor X, and according to Hawley, “The one thing about David that can’t change is his origin story and who his father is: We continue to address it in our second year, which the audience might like, but I still believe this show has to stand on its own and be its own story. I don’t want, too quickly, to start incorporating elements from the movies because I feel like it’s cheating.”) But years of believing lies about his abilities would have surely weighed on him mentally in the same way the 24-hour news cycle has a way of beating you down through the nonsense of the world. Could this series be a call to arms the way that a series such as Roseanne has been on network TV?
Perhaps that call to arms with come with Aubrey Plaza's Lenny. She was allegedly killed last year, at least physically, but then became a mask for the Shadow King to wear. Hawley told visiting press to the Legion set, “So now that the mask has come off, Lenny is still, on some level, a puppet that’s being used by Farouk. Yet, we have this journey for Aubrey as someone who was really used and victimized in this traumatic experience. David was, really, her only friend, and now she has to make a choice: is she going to help her friend or is she going to be a tool of the Shadow King? [Aubrey] did such a phenomenal job last year that I didn’t want her reward to be a mustache-twirling eternity of being a villainous creature. I think it’s much more interesting to take a very weak moral character and put them into a position of ‘Well, you’re not a tool anymore, so what are you going to do?“
For restless viewers who might feel helpless with their own plights in the real world… maybe Legion Season 2 will be their call to arms after all.