“I’m having a really hard time finding the landmarks here,” says an exacerbated David (Dan Stevens) at a turning point early in the second season of Legion. His frustration is understandable. Visually, the show’s new season is as opaque and disorienting as its inaugural one, even as its narrative more closely adheres to traditional comic-book conceits. David’s quest is now more or less straightforward: find the body of the Shadow King. And he must do so before the King, a telepath who was long ago disembodied after being fatally wounded by David’s father, reunites with it to become all-powerful.
David’s race against the Shadow King is typical superhero fare, with forces of good and evil racing for a MacGuffin as world domination hangs in the balance. David maneuvers against his nemesis alongside a team of mutants who are all working for the well-funded special government unit known as Division 3 that hunted them throughout the show’s first season. But while the season’s narrative appears to be following a familiar trajectory, Legion maintains the engrossing visual and storytelling peculiarities of its first season, with a nonlinear narrative and phantasmagoric images that highlight the gap between David’s estimable reach and his grasp. He often understands very little of what he sees, which makes him, as ever, an unreliable narrator.
David frequently visits astral planes, other time periods, and the minds of others, uncovering bits of discordant information which Legion asks us to sift through, and to determine what’s meaningful from our perspective. Furthermore, when David sometimes withholds from other Division 3 mutants the crude data he discovers on vision quests, his motivations are similarly cast into doubt. As season two wears on, the possibility that the Shadow King is manipulating David from afar becomes a central source of tension.
During David’s search for the Shadow King’s body, a behavioral plague strikes the human race: mimicry apparently run amok. Jarring expository asides, which bring to mind stylish science documentaries, explain that the condition spreads like a yawn, or laughter, leaving victims dumbstruck. They’re awake but vacant, left to chatter their teeth and stare blankly, stuck in the maze of their own minds—a construct which affords Legion the opportunity to devise fantastical, exotic environments whenever mutants are temporarily afflicted. David’s girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), gets stuck in a remote igloo in her mind that morphs into a birth canal, while Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), another Division 3 mutant, is found plucking flowers in a fantastically lush garden.
Legion presents itself as a maze, but it’s more accurately an imaginatively adorned straight line in season two.
As David’s search for the Shadow King becomes more desperate, he grows distant from Syd, and the series considers the consequences of his telepathic gifts. As the most powerful mutant in the series, David is constantly enlisted, manipulated, even weaponized. Last season, he learned that the Shadow King latched onto his mind at a young age; now, ostensibly free of his tormentor, David is expected to work for Division 3. He’s the most potent mutant but also the one who’s least free—a fact that becomes tragic when he glimpses an apocalyptic future that even he might not be able to prevent.
The quiet moments between Syd and David in season one provided a sweet reprieve from the chaotic and often bizarre nature of the show’s visual style. Syd’s power forced her to refrain from physical contact, yet her steady, committed presence in David’s life allowed him to gain a foothold in his splintered mind. In season two, less attention is paid to the mutually beneficial effects of David and Syd’s relationship: Once interested in illustrating how the duo’s complementary flaws helped them to form a relatively healthy whole, Legion is now consumed with how they might defeat, or at least survive, the Shadow King. When Summerland leader Melanie (Jean Smart) urges David to take Syd and run away, to find a hilltop and settle down—“The world will be fine,” she says—it’s hard not to agree with her.
Legion’s villain has also grown less interesting, even as his power has increased. Last season, the Shadow King inhabited Lenny, a wild-eyed ex-junkie who Aubrey Plaza imbued with an energy that was both frightening and seductive. She was elastic, at turns resembling a possessed pole dancer and a rabid animal. In season two, she and Oliver (Jemaine Clement) are trapped inside the mind of the Shadow King, whose true form is a man named Ahmal Farouk (Navid Negahban). At his least compelling, Farouk intimidates David with platitudes, comparing himself to the sun and the moon, and as his motivations remain vague in the season’s four previewed episodes, the self-dubbed King of Kings can feel like a bland threat. So far, his one interesting quality is that he isn’t explicit about his hunger for global domination; the desire is merely presupposed by Division 3. Like a nascent nuclear power, he’s suppressed by those who figured out the science ahead of time.
If Legion overcomes its regressions toward comic-book familiarity, it’s because David’s world—and his mind—remain so intriguingly bizarre. Division 3 is a quirky mish-mash of 1970s modernity and futuristic tech, and the series is absorbing when David transcends reality. While there’s nothing as immediately stunning as the “Bolero” sequence from last season’s penultimate episode, the new season doesn’t lack for mesmerizing images and set pieces, such as a darkly comic dance-off between David, Lenny, and Oliver. The season opens with a series of striking unconnected shots, cutting from Lenny and Oliver floating in a sun-soaked pool to David seated in a nightclub full of plague-stricken people. Even expository flashbacks to Farouk’s body being hidden at a monk temple are boldly cinematic. Legion presents itself as a maze, but it’s more accurately an imaginatively adorned straight line in season two. The series performs an effective illusion: It can be uncanny, but it’s rarely truly impenetrable. The flamboyant peculiarity of David’s world convinces us that we’re seeing something for the first time.