If you were under the impression that Harry Lloyd joining the cast of Legion season 3 as iconic X-men leader Charles Xavier would result in a more straightforward, comic book-faithful storyline, then woo boy I have a giant unexplained pig monster to sell you. (To clarify: Legion season 3 contains a giant pig monster. It is not explained.) The third and final season of Noah Hawley‘s wild ride through mental illness and mutation is, if anything, more prone to flights of fancy, unorthodox editing, and the occasional random musical number than the two seasons before it. With David Haller (Dan Stevens) officially off the deep end and established as the show’s “big bad”, Legion leans hard into a sort of drug-fueled 70s sci-fi aesthetic, adding a time-traveler named Switch (Lauren Tsai) to the mix to make sure you’re never quite on solid ground, even when you’re sober. But like any good hallucinatory trip, your enjoyment of Legion season 3—at least the 6 episodes I’ve seen—depends on how well you can go with the flow. If it’s a linear path you’re looking for, you’re gonna’ have a bad trip. But if you can appreciate the lights, the odd angles, and the Time Demon over there in the corner, season 3 is downright blissful.
David has, more or less, started his own cult, a crew of devoted hippies that call him “daddy” and get high on a drug crafted from their leader’s psychic aura. The shack they live in is an eye-popping bit of filth courtesy of production designer Marco Niro, with phosphorescent tubes lining the walls and screaming blue flowers sprouting from the ceiling. Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) is there, now going under the name “The Breakfast Queen” and feeling a bit put-out by David’s newest recruit: The time-traveler Switch, who David hopes can help him change his own fate as the person who ends the world.
The fact David partnered up with a time-traveler makes life just a bit harder for Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) and Division 3, who is now singularly focused on apprehending David. “How do you surprise someone who can go back in time and warn himself?” asks Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King, who has aligned himself with the “good” guys to take down a common enemy.
On the surface, it’s a simple cat-and-mouse story. Division 3 wants to stop David, David needs to stay one step ahead so he can stop himself. But Legion is a show both about and defined by choices, the choices these characters make and the creative choices Hawley and Co. make to tell their story. Switch’s power, for example, isn’t just a simple jump through time. She walks down a barren hallway, doors on each side marked “10 minutes”, then “20 minutes”, etc. Travel too far and you rouse those Time Demons, terrors that movie with the ticking sound of a clock that quite literally eat your precious time.
It’s emblematic of the way the journey on Legion is never just A-to-B. Here, there are diversions to the past, where we learn the tragic story of Charles Xavier and David’s mother, Gabrielle (Mr. Robot‘s Stephanie Corneliussen). To the space between time, which is rendered in still shots like a flipbook. To actual outer space. To an episode that takes place primarily on the astral plane that sees the return of Jean Smart and Jemaine Clement, plus a guest star I will not spoil here because their appearance made me howl with joy.
The miracle of Legion season 3, though, is that it doesn’t lose its characters underneath all the technical fuckery. This show has a huge cast, but it doesn’t give all its shine to David. Plaza is a ball of wide-eyed and unpredictable energy as always, but a storyline that sees Lenny fathering a child with a cult member—it’s Legion, don’t ask—manages to ground the character in surprisingly tragic ways. As the same-bodied Kerry and Cary Loudermilk, Amber Midthunder and Bill Irwin are the endearing lighthearted relief this show desperately needs every so often. And season 3’s newest addition might stand out the most; as Switch, Tsai doesn’t need to say much to exude the type of loneliness that would drive someone to the welcoming words of a cult, even if it’s run by a super-psychic mutant. It helps that the character constantly listens to a book-on-tape titled Lessons in Time Travel, containing nuggets like, “when one exists in all times, one exists in no times.”
If there are qualms to be had with season 3, it’s the fact that the strength of the character work is so strong, you really do sometimes wish Legion would get out of its own too-cute way and tell the dang story. The show has always shared a flaw with its title character; it’s not that it’s clever, it’s that it knows it’s clever and uses it like a weapon. But when the stakes are this high and the performances this good, you do occasionally wonder if a conversation would’ve been more effective than the cast breaking out into an Elvis Costello song.
But that’s not the show Legion is, and Hawley’s faithfulness to being as weird and infuriating as possible until the end is admirable. And when it’s working, as it does so often throughout season 3, it’s easy to get swept up in the freewheeling creativity of it all.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Legion season 3 premieres on FX on Monday, June 24.