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How ‘Legion’s Mental Health Themes Humanize Its Mutants

How ‘Legion’s Mental Health Themes Humanize Its Mutants

Everything about Legion, except the sneaky little ‘X’ in its title card, is against the mainstream.

Its style is kaleidoscopic, its storytelling is spastic and its most famous cast member found her break as a side character on a network sitcom. It’s a prestige show based on comic books, and it’s a superhero show with zero interest in superpowers. Nothing on Legion is what you would expect, and the show’s second season finds it embracing that marginal nature on every front.

Television’s format helps it afford weirdness. By contrast, when movies veer into strange territory, like last year’s mother! or this year’s Annihilation, the limited runtime compounds the risk. Movies have two hours to connect with you, and if they spend a lot of that time trying to wrest your brain onto another wavelength, it can be expensive in terms of emotional impact. TV can take its time, though, so shows can teach you how to watch them.

Consider the franticness of both Legion’s subject matter and its structure. The first season introduced dozens of scenarios with nary an explanation. There was a loose thread to the proceedings, but that thread oscillated enough to make room for colorful headtrips, jowly shadow monsters and extended Matrix-like bullet-time sequences. It was riveting, but elusive, and over the course of eight episodes the viewer had to adjust to Legion’s unique rhythms. For some, it was inaccessible. For others, it was the best thing on TV. Either way, to really sit and enjoy Legion, you kind of had to figure it out first.

Legion’s second season doubles down on its oddities, but it also follows a more straightforward path. That means the ludicrous moments (Aubrey Plaza dance-offs! Mysterious time travelers! Voiceover cameos from one of the most iconic modern TV actors!) feel a bit more rewarding than disorienting this time around. The balance works. Instead of always making you play catch-up, the new Legion welcomes you right into the moment, even when that moment is still far afield from most other things on TV.

That marginal approach extends to the characters, and again, Legion takes advantage of its home on TV and goes deeper into the headspace of its cast (literally) than most other cable offerings.

Dan Stevens’ David is still a remarkable guide through his own fractured, conflicted psyche, but season two of Legion devotes more time to the supporting players. Some new characters—Farouk has a face, and it’s certainly a memorable one—add their distinct flavor, and some old characters are rounded out in welcome, expansive ways. Syd in particular, one of the first season’s more emotionally distant figures, sees a boost after taking center stage for one of the series’ best episodes yet.

The b-side of this anything-goes approach means the cerebrality comes at the expense of traditional superhero mechanics. There aren’t a lot of traditional heroes, villains, alter egos or costumes in Legion, but that strategy ironically works really well with the X-Men property. Those comics (and movies) have for the most part revolved around themes of otherness and alienation, so for Legion to strike a fractal, labyrinthine tone within that makes complete sense.

What’s more, the X-Men label is still the anchoring point for the show’s ideas, and that helps the viewer stay grounded. It’s hard to lose your way when you can always mentally come back to, “Oh yeah, they have special abilities.”

Legion is a testament, then, to the true creative potential of modern comic-book stories. Almost every Marvel movie amounts to a bunch of explosions and pretty faces, but the brand’s television efforts continue to engage with current issues in smart and subversive ways. Legion started out visually arresting but structurally formulaic (Remember when David blew up the interrogation room in the pilot?), but it became the best Marvel show because it ultimately chose to be about something more than the X-Men.

Because ultimately Legion treats its mutants like humans, not gods or heroes. The powers here come strapped with disadvantages and consequences, and wielding those powers leads to alterations in the world around the characters. The X-Men have long been used as allegory for social issues—racial injustice, gender equality, sexual identity—and Legion continues that tradition in the realm of mental health. What if the voices in your head weren’t natural? What if they were hindering your true potential? What would it mean to discover your true self once you exorcised your demons?

Those human questions allow the viewer into a superhero story. So often, this genre limits its “normies” to the sidelines, positioning them solely to stare up in wonder or fear, but Legion shows you someone astounding struggling with the limits and challenges of their capabilities and lets you say, “I know what that’s like.” It aligns the ordinary with the extraordinary and brings all of its marginal themes, thoughts and characters to a singular point. The X here marks a smaller target than expected, but Legion finds that center every time.

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