'Legion' And 'Jessica Jones' Played The Long Game — And It Paid Off

Jun 21, 2019
Originally published on June 26, 2019 11:25 am

Legion and Jessica Jones come from the more recent generations of Marvel comics, featuring relatively obscure characters. Neither show's protagonist is a superhero in the conventional sense of wearing a costume or having a secret identity, and both are battling inner demons as well as powerful adversaries. Yet even though they're technically comic-book stories, these shows are impressively ambitious and surprisingly satisfying.

Legion, which begins its final season June 24 on the FX network, stars Dan Stevens, who played the ill-fated Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey. Here he's David, a young man who for years has been haunted by the voices in his head.

It turns out David's a powerful psychic, and most voices were from the minds of the people around him. But one particularly sinister voice really was from within. It was the voice of another psychic power, who, like a mental parasite, took up residence in David's brain when David was just a baby – and never left.

The drama of Legion, so far, has been about David discovering those facts, and ejecting and conquering his long-time adversary. But nothing in Legion is simple, or predictable. The series began with David, hospitalized in a medical facility for a misdiagnosed mental condition, finding clarity and redemption after falling in love with fellow patient Syd (Rachel Keller).

But now Syd's been trying to kill David, because she fears he's going to bring about the end of the world — and she could be right. David is the central character of Legion, but, like Walter White in Breaking Bad, he may have ... broken bad.

Syd doesn't know whether David's good or bad, and at this point, neither do we. Nor does a new character, a time-traveler named Switch, played by first-time actress Lauren Tsai. And when Switch finally comes face-to-face with David, he's not sure, either – and asks her, quite sincerely, whether she thinks he's a good person.

That's the basic premise of Legion as it builds to a conclusion: a powerful mutant, infected by an evil force, may or may not destroy life as we know it. Compared to the most recent Marvel movies, the plot is part Dark Phoenix, part Endgame. But Legion is more bold and entertaining — and challenging — than either of those big-budget, big-screen films.

Created by Noah Hawley, who has hit home runs with all three seasons of his imaginative FX series Fargo, Legion uses visuals, editing, music and sound better than almost any series on television. And I don't just mean any series now — I mean ever. I've seen the first half of this final season, and that's even more true than before. I watch Legion with the volume up, the lights down, leaning forward.

This show is so much of a TV trip, its opening recaps of the previous week's episode don't say "Previously on Legion." They say "Ostensibly on Legion." For something comparable as a TV experience, playing with sound and images and reality and storytelling, you have to go back almost 30 years, to the original Twin Peaks. Or more than 50, to The Prisoner.

Marvel's Jessica Jones isn't on the same level as Legion, but its characters are just as conflicted. Jessica (Krysten Ritter, who played Jesse's girlfriend in Breaking Bad) has super-strength and agility, but uses those powers only as they come in handy in her job as a seedy private eye in New York's Hell's Kitchen.

The final season of the series, available now on Netflix, has the same sort of unsettling character development as on Legion. Only in Jessica Jones, it's Jessica's similarly super-powered sister, Trish (Rachael Taylor), who may be going over to the dark side. Trish has meant everything to Jessica — until, that is, Trish kills a bad guy and announces plans to keep on administering her own lethal form of justice, leading to an intense, sister-to-sister confrontation.

The acting in Jessica Jones, as in Legion, is first-rate. But it's the confident storytelling — the long game of a novel-like structure — that's really the strong suit of both these Marvel TV shows. And with Legion, its ability to play with television, and to turn it into pop art — that's its secret superpower.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.

In the movies, the Marvel Comics universe of entertainment currently is represented by the phenomenally popular "Avengers: Endgame" film as well as by the much less successful new X-Men entry, "Dark Phoenix." But the superpowered characters from Marvel Comics appear on television as well. Two TV series - Marvel's "Jessica Jones" on Netflix and "Legion" on FX are both calling it quits after three seasons. Netflix just unveiled the entire 13-episode final season of "Jessica Jones," and the last lap for "Legion" begins Monday.

Both of them are better than most other Marvel TV shows and movies and better than most other current television shows period. "Legion" and "Jessica Jones" come from the more recent generations of Marvel comics featuring relatively obscure characters. Neither are superheroes in the conventional sense of wearing costumes or having secret identities, and both are battling inner demons as well as powerful adversaries. Yet even though they're technically comic book stories, these shows are impressively ambitious and surprisingly satisfying.

"Legion," which begins its final season Monday on the FX network, stars Dan Stevens, who played the ill-fated Matthew Crawley on "Downton Abbey." He plays David, a young man who, for years, has been haunted by the voices in his head. It turns out he's a powerful psychic, and most voices were from the minds of the people around him. But one particularly sinister voice really was from within. It was the voice of another psychic power who had taken up residence in David's brain like a mental parasite when David was just a baby and had never left. The drama of "Legion" so far has been about David discovering those facts and ejecting and conquering his longtime adversary.

But nothing in "Legion" is simple or predictable. The series began with David hospitalized in a medical facility for a misdiagnosed mental condition, finding clarity and redemption after falling in love with a fellow mental patient, Syd, played by Rachel Keller. But now she's been trying to kill him because she fears he's going to bring about the end of the world. And she could be right. David is the central character of "Legion," but like Walter White in "Breaking Bad," he may have broken bad. She doesn't know whether he's good or bad. And at this point, neither do we, nor does a new character, a time traveler named Switch, played by first-time actress Lauren Tsai. And when she finally comes face-to-face with David, he's not sure either.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")

DAN STEVENS: (As David Haller) Do you believe in me?

LAUREN TSAI: (As Switch) What do you mean?

STEVENS: (As David Haller) Do you believe that I'm a good person - that I deserve love just like everybody else?

TSAI: (As Switch) Of course.

STEVENS: (As David Haller) Because we can fix this world - all the bad things. We've just got to start over. I do - go back, keep the house from being haunted. It's so important. Do you understand? It's not about a girl. It's about saving lives, starting with mine. So we have to fix you - your powers. You have the skill. We just need to turn up the volume.

TSAI: (As Switch) How do I do that?

STEVENS: (As David Haller) I know a guy.

BIANCULLI: That's the basic premise of "Legion" as it builds to a conclusion - a powerful mutant infected by an evil force may or may not destroy life as we know it. Compared to the most recent Marvel movies, the plot is part "Dark Phoenix," part "Endgame." But "Legion" is more bold and entertaining and challenging than either of those big-budget, big-screen films. Created by Noah Hawley, who has hit home runs with all three seasons of his imaginative FX series "Fargo," "Legion" uses visuals, editing, music and sound better than almost any series on television.

And I don't just mean any series now, I mean ever. I've seen the first half of this final season, and that's even more true than before. I watch "Legion" with the volume up, the lights down, leaning forward. This show is so much of a TV trip, its opening recaps of the previous week's episodes don't say, previously on "Legion." They say, ostensibly on "Legion." For something comparable as a TV experience playing with sound and images and reality and storytelling, you have to go back almost 30 years to the original "Twin Peaks" or more than 50 to "The Prisoner."

Marvel's Jessica Jones isn't on that same level, but its characters are just as conflicted. Jessica, played by Krysten Ritter, who played Jesse's girlfriend in "Breaking Bad," has super strength and agility but uses those powers only as they come in handy in her job as a seedy private eye in New York's Hell's Kitchen. The final season of the series, available now on Netflix, has the same sort of unsettling character development as on "Legion," only in "Jessica Jones," it's Jessica's similarly superpowered sister, Trish, who may be going over to the dark side, leading to an ultimate intense example of sibling rivalry. Trish has meant everything to Jessica - until, that is, the newly empowered Trish, played by Rachael Taylor, has killed the bad guy and plans to keep on administering her own lethal form of justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JESSICA JONES")

RACHAEL TAYLOR: (As Trish Walker) You don't like my methods? fine. But I know there is part of you that is relieved he's gone.

KRYSTEN RITTER: (As Jessica Jones) Not if it was you that did it.

TAYLOR: (As Trish Walker) And who was going to protect the people that he could hurt? You made it perfectly clear it wasn't going to be you. You've forgotten what it's like to feel afraid. The rest of us haven't.

RITTER: (As Jessica Jones) I have never been more afraid than I am right now because I need you to turn yourself in.

BIANCULLI: The acting in "Jessica Jones," as in "Legion," is first-rate. But it's the confident storytelling, the long game of a novel-like structure, that's really the strong suit of both these Marvel TV shows. And with "Legion," its ability to play with television and to turn it into pop art - that's its secret superpower.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, life after leaving a religion - Terry talks with Amber Scorah, a third-generation Jehovah's Witness who was raised to believe that Armageddon was imminent. Her decision to leave her faith left her without family, friends or a support system. Now considered an apostate, she started a new life. Her memoir is called "Leaving The Witness." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FELDMAN'S "SOCCER BALL")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FELDMAN'S "SOCCER BALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.