“Legion,” which finished its first season Wednesday on FX with some old business concluded and some new business suggested, began in a flurry of bold, seemingly abstract images whose connections were not always possible to discern.
Built upon Marvel's “X-Men” franchise by Noah Hawley — who previously turned the Coen brothers' "Fargo" into a TV series, also for FX — it skipped between levels of reality and points of view, introducing characters who were in other characters' heads, sometimes literally. It externalized dream states and made metaphors concrete, and gloried in noise and colors and design, before it dropped any specific references to what was what, or which of its several realities was the real reality.
In the case of "Legion," the real reality, the place where explanations find their footing and the narrative ground feels solid, is no less uncanny than the other realities, being full of superheroes and other things that don't exist in the world in which we mere viewers live.
Its main, mainly unreliable narrative thread — this is not exactly a spoiler, but skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid any kind of information — follows David Haller (Dan Stevens) as he learns that the voices in his head are not a sign of schizophrenia but of telepathy. David is a super-powered mutant, among super-powered mutants.
Of course, at the same time, all realities are equally lifelike on film; nothing is metaphorical. Oz is as real as Kansas in "The Wizard of Oz," and maybe more so for being in color. The shared illusion of "The Matrix" is no less palpable than the reality to which Neo wakes. When Holmes goes to his "mind palace" to sift the clues in "Sherlock," it is, from the viewer's standpoint, no different than following him into a pub.
Superheroes, for the most part being science-fictional, seem to require explanation in a way that supernatural characters don't. ("Why does a slayer come to every generation?" "Shut up and stake.") But many fictional series, if they don't begin with one, will eventually get around to an "origin story." (An upcoming "Star Wars" movie, according to Bob Iger, will tell you how Han Solo got his name, a thing you may have never even wondered about.)
This is not always unprofitable — a recent run of "Adventure Time" episodes that revealed something of Finn the Human's background and enlarged the mythology of Ooo — the post-apocalyptic Earth where the story takes place — was typically lovely, and plenty mysterious. It enlarged the canvas but was in no sense necessary to an appreciation of all that had gone before.
Sometimes less is more. Compare and contrast Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," with its mysterious psychedelic climax, and Peter Hyams' sequel, "2010," which offered explanations; people are still talking about one of those movies, and it isn't the latter. Patrick McGoohan's still-vibrant "The Prisoner" never got around to explaining itself, and went out with a finale — close in its late-'60s way to some of what we see in "Legion" — that dove straight into strangeness.
"The X-Files" was beautiful to me when I started watching a season or two into its run, because I had no idea what was going on – the long-arc mythology, involving the possible alien abduction of Fox Mulder's sister and various human cabals turning the wheels behind the wheels. What I didn't fully understand, in the prosaic sense, struck me instead as poetry, amplified by the series' superior use of light and color and mood. If there's a failing of "Doctor Who," it is that it fills in too many blanks about the Doctor and where he comes from and what he thinks about at all. As a viewer I am Team Why Ask Why.
As readers and listeners and viewers of stories, we are accustomed to conclusions, closure, the Big Reveal — and when did "reveal" become a noun? — or even the little one that shapes what we have been watching, the end that justifies the journey. Still, in practice, answers, even when satisfying, are less compelling than the journey. You might be interested to learn how a magician does his tricks, but do you really want to know how a magician does his tricks? Though each might be amazing in its way, there is a difference between magic and mechanics.
"Lost," for me, was a great example of that difference. There is something thrilling about a polar bear on a tropical island, an apparently sentient cloud of black smoke, a sequence of numbers that appears in unlikely and seemingly unrelated places that dissipates when the explanations arrive. The more we knew what was happening, the less compelling the show grew.
"Legion" is only getting started with, one would guess, more direction than "Lost" had at this juncture. It does not take long to identify the common science fiction and fantasy tropes and themes of possession, fear of the other, the coming of a chosen one. Things are named, and in the naming, lose a little of their mystery. The season finale is also the easiest episode to read and in that sense the least interesting.
But everything that dresses the narrative is beautiful to behold; nearly every shot carries its own quantum of mystery. Although untangling the narrative will provide hours of recreation for many, what makes the series great is the careful arrangement and procession of images, the visual play of theme and variation, the sound of words the actors say and the way they say them that gives the series its energy.
It has the magical, universal precision of a fairy tale (and climaxes, in fact, in a fairy-tale kiss). A man in a diving bell climbs a ladder into a floating iceberg inside of which he lives, or lounges, in the future the late '60s imagined. You learn the who and the why of this eventually, and it's fine, and necessary to the tale Hawley is working out, but the wondering is done.
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