From the beginning, Legion has centered around David Haller as a protagonist. We open with a vignette of his life, leading up to his suicide attempt and institutionalization, and continue to follow him throughout as the story unfolds. There are other characters, sure, and many if not most of them are well fleshed out, interesting people—Legion doesn’t give us anyone who is cardboard—but it is David at the center.
In the first season, the driving question is whether our friend David is mentally ill, or a powered individual possessed by a demon, or both. Signs point to both, but there remains the hope that it was his possession by the Shadow King that led to all of his problems, and maybe there is a David beyond all of that we could hope would finally get a shot at life.
Syd comes across as a symbol of this hope. She’s someone who loves David and accepts him for who he is. She tells him that God loves the sinners best, and wants to help him. Melanie may say that David’s problems are all a result of his powers and possession, but Syd never really seems to buy that. David is broken, and she knows it, but she loves him anyway.
Yet the Shadow King figures large as the villain of this story, particularly in Season 1. Aubrey Plaza is brilliant in her portrayal, but so too are the scenes where he features as more of a monster, creeping into view or showing up without warning. And the music—indeed, the whole style of Legion—feeds into this in a breathtaking way.
Once we get to the second season, however, things get a bit more complicated, as we have a future version of Syd telling David to let the Shadow King live to help with a threat to the world. And we get to know him as Farouk, an incarnation that is less frightening than those we had previously seen. And the door opens to empathy for this man in a certain way, insofar as he is not just a monster, but someone with desires and feelings we can at least understand.
Does it open enough for us to accept the turn at the end of Season 2, where the team seems to side with him against David? I don’t know. Despite all of the stuff about David presenting a threat to the world, this seems a bit undercooked as it is presented. It seems like the team has made this move all the way, as Farouk walks freely at the end of Season 2, but perhaps they haven’t. They must still know the threat he presents, right? That at best this is siding with the devil you know against the one you now believe might just destroy the world?
If that’s not the case, it’s a problem. David wasn’t wrong in wanting to destroy the Shadow King. He is evil. If the team has decided they need him for the moment, so be it, but if there is any attempt at a redemption arc here, sorry, no. He is beyond redemption.
The thing is that I hold the same for David at this point. And this is not about the threat he presents to the world, but what he did to Syd. He used his powers to suppress her memory, and then had sex with her. He may as well have given her roofies.
And, sure, he did this because he thought she was confused or whatever, and that it would give him the chance to reconnect with her, but that actually makes it worse, because he fails to see the violation. This was a rape, not through violence, sure, but in the deeper sense that her autonomy was violated. And yet he continues to think he was in the right.
This makes David the worst kind of monster—one who thinks he is on the side of the good even as he descends into evil. And that is a clear theme of the last episode of Season 2 of Legion, as he struggles with competing versions of himself and the idea that he is good and thus deserves to be loved.
The end of Season 2 marks David’s turn into a villain, and I am sure that Noah Hawley and others know that. But do they know that they have made him irredeemable? Some signs point to yes, such as the recently released trailer for Season 3.
And perhaps the fact that this will be the last season is another indication that they do.
Yet I worry that the identification with the character may have been so strong from the beginning that people will continue to root for him until the end, much like the disturbing number of people who kept rooting for Walter White in Breaking Bad.
If Legion moves forward in a way that properly recognizes the weight of the end of Season 2, continuing to root for David will be a mistake. If it doesn’t, then the mistake will be on the side of the writing team for not properly realizing what they themselves have done.
Because, at the end of the day, Syd is right when she confronts David in the final episode of Season 2: he isn’t the hero of this story; she is.