This article contains mild spoilers through Season 2, Episode 3 of Legion.
In the first few minutes of Legion’s second-season premiere, a sushi-bar mini-boat delivers a plate of waffles, a human licks her wrists as if she’s a cat grooming herself, and some creature wearing a basket over its head communicates through the robotic voices of what appear to be girls with mustaches. Yet the gosh-wow, what-am-I-looking-at pinnacle of the episode isn’t till midway through, when the screen wipes to white, we see an animated butterfly, and we hear the voice of God, which is to say the voice of Jon Hamm. He’s there to explain it all.
Noah Hawley’s subversive X-Men spinoff on FX retains the preposterous ambition, daydreamer pacing, and zest to disorient that made it so divisive when it debuted last year. Fans who tune in to be ravished by the show’s psychedelia and then dissect it on Reddit will be satisfied, and skeptics who see Hawley as a mascot for the excesses of peak TV may still do so. But this season’s labyrinth is, gratifyingly, designed with a lower level of difficulty than before. For each bonkers non sequitur (say, a room full of people chattering their teeth en masse) soon comes a payoff (they’re all sharing a psychological disorder à la Megan Abbott’s The Fever). The plot vaporizes for long stretches, but the take-home meaning usually remains as blatant as Aubrey Plaza’s sneer.
This fits the story. Season 1 followed David (Dan Stevens), a telepath of fearsome power, struggling to expel a parasitic entity that’d been driving him insane. Season 2 has him return, after a mysterious year-long disappearance, to the CIA of the mutant world, which has been searching for him and for the aforementioned parasite thingy that’s now on the lam. David no longer sees the world through a prism of madness, so audiences are no longer subjected to as many it was all a dream or was it or was it fugues. They instead get a clearer-eyed look at a kooky supernatural reality that’s aesthetically foreign to our own (not least of all in the Art Deco–revival set design) but, through obvious allegory, a lot like fake news–addled real life.
The shift in approach gets epitomized in recurring “educational segments,” featuring the voice of Hamm. They’re introduced with chapter titles like “The Madness of Crowds” or “Delusions,” making it seem as though we’re paging through the DSM, and they unfold against a white background, making them feel like phantasmagorical Apple ads. In one, an egg is used to symbolize the idea of “an idea.” Some ideas hatch into fuzzy chicks. Some hatch into beasts resembling oil-spill birdlings. Viewers later see the gunky things—delusion monsters—crawling at the edges of scenes, rendering an abstraction as concrete.
It’s a tribute to the talent of Hawley’s team that these psycho-philosophical Voxplainers, far from draining momentum, prove to be highlights. Generally, Legion earns its acclaim during its audiovisual fantasias, which are almost unfailingly inventive even if unevenly entertaining. A lot of people are going to be talking about a campy nightclub dance sequence in the first episode, but more indelible is a later and quieter set piece involving someone conveying a message in what looks like long-exposure skywriting. When Legion is beautiful, it’s beautiful; when it’s scary, it’s scary.
But to call this stuff “surreal” almost betrays the point of surrealism, which is to convey that which cannot be said. Hawley feints toward that, but continually returns to decoding. You see this most clearly in a later-in-the-season plot arc involving David entering various minds, finding fascinatingly odd landscapes there, and then summarizing what he sees in a tidy koan about the owner’s deepest desires. The belief that an individual can be so reduced—to one tic, one wound, one need—may or may not inform the self-consciously stilted nature of the performances and dialogue (Wes Anderson now need not dip into superhero flicks). It probably does have something to do with the characters feeling emotionally remote even though the show bursts with backstory and internal exploration.
Legion often gets discussed as part of a wave of daringly hallucinogenic TV shows, but counterparts like Twin Peaks and The Leftovers resisted making strangeness—cinematic and cerebral—serve primarily as a glorified plot puzzle. Legion wants it both ways, turning the freakiness of human psychology into another vector via which to deliver ah-has. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that it’s not as good as it thinks. Legion insists that it has lots to tell us about who we are, but it’s worth watching, mainly, to understand what it is.