My main beef with Legion, Noah Hawley's spectacularly surreal Marvel show, is that it spent its first season spinning out fascinating images and scenarios, but refused to ground them in a way that made them legible. At first, that seemed like the point. But in compiling a list of questions the first season left unanswered, it seemed to me that the show — like many out right now — turned out to be more style than substance. The villain, Farouk (Navid Negahban), was incomprehensibly mutable, abstract, and motive-free, and the effects of his intervention on our hero, David (Dan Stevens) were as varied as they were opaque. I had no real idea what the scope of David's powers were, or to what extent he was in control of them.
I'm pleased to find that the show's second season, while no less weird, is done playing coy. This season's project is much clearer: Farouk is trying to find his old body in order to return to power, and David (for complicated reasons having to do with love and time-travel) is helping him. Summerland, the hippie tech colony where Melanie (Jean Smart) trained mutants and planned campaigns, appears to be a thing of the past. We don't quite know why, or how long David has been gone, but we do know that Melanie did not recover from the shock of her husband Oliver's amnesiac indifference to her. She's disconnected, despairing. These signposts are few, but they already offer more cause and effect than much of the first season.
Legion is still interested in horror — an unexplained epidemic that leaves people catatonic and chattering their teeth nicely replaces the first season's jump shots to Farouk's large strange vibrating head — but events are moving forward in ways that vaguely track (despite incidents like the Twin Peaks-type inky critter climbing into Ptonomy's ear). We don't have to wonder whether every physical environment the show depicts is real or someone's hallucination. David isn't swapping personalities inexplicably. And if the show has lost interest in David's childhood and family, the third episode of Legion's second season finally does what we've long been wanting: It lets us into some of these characters' heads.
The most surprising revelation is Farouk himself. Instead of being a nightmarish bad guy god, Farouk is dapper, well-spoken, and well-dressed. He has a body and a perspective. "You're still young," he tells David. "You think justice is a glass jar. You feel it with your hurt, your hate. Don't you think I have my own jar? I am a refugee. You know the meaning of that word? Refugee? Driven from my home. In exile. Prisoner in another man's body."
David points out that he made a choice — no one forced him to take up residence in David's head. "Of course," Farouk says. "If the choice is between death or life, I choose life."
This is a huge step up over how Farouk was portrayed last season; Navid Negahban plays this character with unsuspected depths. And the show's occasional Orientalist ouburst finds subversive expression as a result: As if nodding to the comic's investment in tensions between Israel/Palestine, Farouk takes imperial logic and colonization more seriously than I expected. As for Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), she may have started out as a fun demonic principle who seems to revel in the havoc she wreaks. That has ended with dizzying abruptness: In this episode, she seems to be almost literally at the end of her rope. She's done with Farouk and trying to end it all.
As for our principals, several have succumbed to the teeth-chattering curse that's been widely (though wrongly) attributed to Farouk. They're trapped in "the maze," a plane that, among other things, represents each individual's "core desire." David and Cary Loudermilk (Bill Irwin) snap Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) out of it only after taking a moment to appreciate the fantasy they find him in. It's a rose garden, and Ptonomy, wearing a blazer with a bold rose print, is happily cutting roses. "Our friend here is a memory machine," Cary explains. "He remembers every moment of every day. Now if that was a condition, what might you wish for?"
"To forget," David says.
"It's beautiful, really, to live in the moment. No past, no future," Cary says.
Melanie's core desire is a different kind of oblivion — her maze is a black text box where white letters spell the name. She includes a Minotaur on a "doggie wheelchair."
This is useful! It orients and explains! We come away with some sense of a) what these bewildering characters secretly care about and b) what they want. Cary cares about Kerry. David cares about Syd. But their deeper problems feel more than symbolically rich: They feel like they're being minutely mapped with the kind of exhaustive care that wasn't available in the first season. The show isn't uniquely focused on David's psychology anymore, or routed through it.
That's giving this series a lot of room to grow.