Earlier this month I tweeted about why I think more people should watch Legion.
Here’s more on that topic, before the month is out.
While adoptee tropes present in the films Superman (1978) and Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) are gloriously turned on their head in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014) & 2 (2017), and Brian and Mark Gunn’s horrific send-up of a superpowered adoptee, Brightburn (2019), I find a similar, but deeper exploration of these tropes on television. Those films each deal with the empowered adoptee male, but from slicing in through various narrative frameworks, showing the different faces of the empowered adoptee shading from acceptable to sociopathic–or lawful good to chaotic evil, if you’ll pardon the D&D intrusion. They all deal with the bad adoptee expressed as not simply a chaotic, destructive force, but as a literal destroyer of worlds. There are a number of examples of a world-ending adoptee in media, but the one I feel most passionate about wasn’t a film, it was the three season, 27 episode arc of Legion (2017) on the FX Network.
David Haller, the biological son of Charles Xavier and adoptive son of the Hallers, finds himself caught between multiple competing entities. There are initially two organizations, a mutant-hunting branch of the government, which seeks to imprison and kill mutants deemed dangerous, called Division 3, and Summerland, a secretive retreat where mutants can come to terms with their abilities and help each other. David is also caught between his own mental illness, and an in-dwelling parasitic entity that has been warping his perceptions of reality as well as his own memories of childhood.
The description on IMDb: “David Haller is a troubled young man diagnosed as schizophrenic, but after a strange encounter, he discovers special powers that will change his life forever.”
David’s journey in the series moves beyond the anticipated portrayal of world-breaking adoptee, and becomes a story about an individual who undoes their own timeline. It is a complicated, breathy, artistic and intricate piece of television, tackling ideas that are groundbreaking and unexpectedly moving throughout. I cannot speak for all viewers, and clearly many viewers were shed during the transitional second season, but I personally was glued throughout the three seasons, only missing one episode on initial airing. I appreciate the programming that somehow makes it onto the FX Networks in general, and Noah Hawley’s writing and work on the Fargo series is also fundamentally compelling. I knew when this program was first announced that Hawley’s dive into. Legion’s story, with full blessing of Marvel, was likely to be mind-bending. I did not expect to become so emotionally overwrought that I would weep multiple times throughout the series, including three separate moments during the final episode. Every time I’ve watched the final episode, I’ve cried. Sometimes I think I’ve made it, and the final shot of the infant David, at peace and alone without himself looking on, causes me to choke up. I’ve watched this multiple times, in part to understand exactly how the third season tied off all the threads, depicted all the relationship traumas of ad hoc families, the healthy versions of interpersonal relationships coming into alignment while the trauma was addressed and redirected. What seemed like demonic forces ripping apart time are revealed to be guard dogs, pets, really, protecting reality from the side-effects of David’s quest. Time itself, or rather, Time’s fashion-conscious daughter, becomes swept up in David’s desire to undo himself with energized meditation. He is presented as the enlightened leader of his own (clearly sex & drug-influenced) cult, with Lenny, his right-hand, pursuing her own dreams of motherhood with her close-to-term wife. As the forces of Division close in on him, he develops a strategy to unmake the events of the past and prevent his adoption.
For the purposes of this chapter, I want to displace both my own enjoyment of this television show as a program, and strip out all of the action of the show and trace only David’s relationship to his adoption. In every instance of the show, the relationship David articulates with Farouk is a conversation he is having about being an adoptee, about the fulcrum between being a victim and being a villain, an instigator. Repressing this memory and experience led to outbursts of rage, which led to problems with law enforcement and his family, which led to the discovery of his power–ultimately leading him to attempt suicide.
David identifies Farouk early on as a parasite, but in so doing he also discovers he is adopted–the realization is twinned, illustrated (literally) in season one, episode seven. David’s “legion-ness,” his many selves, are revealed as the swaying force in his own self-defenses, similarly in season three, episode “War” when Syd’s consciousness swap with David results in the swarm of Davids, his “legion-consiousness” or counsel of selves from all other possible realities, overtook her control of his body and powers.
David’s mental illness is as powerful as his mutant abilities within the storyworld of the show, but it is separate from the problem which is his adopted experience, framed as an experience with a false self (or selves) overlaid on his memory and his interactions with others. As shown in early episodes, he tried to medicate, as a way to avoid thinking about the parasite, which was a metaphor for the moment of adoption, as shown later in the series.
I cannot stress how deeply moving I find this show, moving enough that I know I cannot cleanly write about it without multiple passes on the subject matter. Legion took on the adoptee’s search for self as a story that could be exploited within the Marvel framework of time travel, multiple dimensions, astral travel, telepaths, and omega-level mutants, of particular interest as those mutants are classified as having world-ending powers.
Throughout the seasons, David is continuously referenced as one who has world-ending abilities, that he can alter reality. In the second season we see the different lives that David could have led, the different results of his abilities, depending on how he applied himself. We see him driven mad, we see him and Lemmy clearly living the billionaire lifestyle, all before being snapped back to the pitiless, existential struggle between Farouk and himself, with the institutional forces of the different Division levels as backdrop. The institution serves to provide a purpose for the struggle, but ultimately it is David who is both antagonist and protagonist, his search for purpose in the pain and trauma ultimately attracting the attention of the universe itself, who acknowledges the pain of Syd, David, and the rest of Division when. Daughter Time tells her it did mean something, that “Nothing of value is lost.”
The adoption of David began a life of trauma that was externalized in the character of Farouk, who ultimately came to love David as his own son, having shared a life alongside him. And the knowledge of the pain of that life as an adoptee was the catalyst to undo the pain. Articulating the wisdom of the pain granted resolution, gave David the final confrontation with his biological father before dissipating into the ether, the adoption no longer to take place, and his sins, struggles, and damage he brought to the world and the people whom he tried to love now negated.
Legion is not a perfect show, but it brought me to tears many, many times throughout the course of the episodes that made up its three season run on FX. The first time I cried was the first episode. I was surprised by my emotional response, and somewhat confused, blindsided. Adoptees certainly are aware of the emotive triggers that can be latent in media, that can catch you in just such a way that you gasp at a ruthless turn in the representation of a character that it alters your own self-awareness? Television used to catch me off-guard, particularly that first season of Heroes, when adoptee representation was concerned, but I’d become immune to it, so I’d believed, until Legion aired. Episode one season one caught my attention, but it was episode seven of season one that struck me so deeply I re-watched it multiple times, crying (weeping that first viewing) as David puzzled his way out of the adoptee fog with the use of blackboards and lots of astral chalk drawings.
The show’s aesthetic is absurdist, dreamlike, and very, very beholden to psychedelic narrative trappings. The structure of the story itself seems sensed by a character who is shown outside of time, existing like an astral stowaway, a doomsday prepper telepath who refuses to live in the real world and has disassociated details of his own life to the point that he aggressively assails any attempt to bring things into his conscious awareness. Adoptees are often struggling with emotional and mental content that is so painful that keeping it even in one’s mind requires effort. The mind is always trying to slip the details of one’s life back into the woodwork, into the wallpaper. Pain that exists but lurks outside of conscious awareness, still sapping strength and vitality from interactions with others. An awkward association with time itself, as Oliver says in episode nine of season two, “I sense this is a conversation about time. I try to never have conversations about time.” He seeks to remain in the present, even when the present is filled with horrible things, because he is unwilling to face the past, to face the moment the world became doomed.
Ultimately he and his wife are reunited, he rediscovers his lover for her, and they live in the extended eternal moment for as long as they can, in love, together, even raising Syd again so that she can rediscover her own truth, heal her own self, as their adopted daughter in this astral spacetime. These subplots articulate all this different detritus of the adoptee experience. Lemmy and her wife seek to have a child, only to watch that history be stolen from her, driving her out of the narrative entirely in what feels like another mirroring of the birth mother experience, yet also (as Lemmy was not the one pregnant) the adoptive mother cheated from the real mothering by the demons of time. Lemmy’s arc was truly tragic, as her pain and presence ends long before the final results play out. She was always the expression of David’s Id, and when he is seen as the destroyer of worlds in episode ten of season two, it is Lemmy at his feet who writhes amidst the bones of his victims. Lemmy is his anarchic cheerleader, preparing the world for his rise to power, firing the shot that triggered the first confrontation between David and Farouk in episode eleven of season two. If she had still been a factor in his cult, in his life, at the end of season three, David would have likely been able to murder Farouk in the past.
This would have similarly undone the world, ad similarly protected the infant David by undoing adoption, but would there have been a lesson learned? Seeing Farouk brought to tears by understanding the trauma he had done as a de facto adoptive father, and realizing the pain of it, the gift of empathy undoing the demon–this was a more powerful story and much better executed than any other narrative on the adoptee experience than I’ve seen previously on television.
Fortunately, I doubt it will be the last of the great shows. Niche television scripting is fast becoming the predominant factor for streaming services. Television that articulates a lived personal experience can move audiences to share those stories within their own private worlds. Streaming services bring narratives into pockets and off of televisions, and broadcast television is altering alongside this evolution in content. Writers are being real about raw, rough experiences, and writers rooms are filling up with people who can speak to their lived experiences. If Legion and Andi Mack and This Is Us can get in front of audiences, there’s even better shows coming.
Family preservation turned out to be the theme, the reason for existing, behind the show Legion. It was a marvelous introduction to a different, caring, very self-aware Professor Charles Xavier, and his use of mental powers was merely a contrivance to get to the meat of his purpose on screen, his heartfelt apology to David for having given him up for adoption in the first place. As of this writing I’ve watched this scene twice, and each time I’ve been reduced to gasping, shuddering sobs. Crying as I watch television I’m trying to watch for pleasure is a complicated experience as a man. I want to speak publicly about how important I find this program, but lauding it by exclaiming I’ve been reduced to a blubbering, emotional wreck thanks to Noah Hawley’s narrative framework on a comic book character seems like a tough thing to wrap up into an Instagram post. A selfie of my face, shining with tears, is unlikely to achieve the results I feel are warranted. All cathartic moments are private, even the ones that happen with other people. These experiences don’t translate. But I do think that the story that is there, that weaves its way through the seasons, teaches viewers a few basic truths about the adoptee mind.
The king of shadows, the villain, is the articulation of the fears of the adoptee. He rides the mind like a strait jacket, keeps David’s focus on specific tasks to control David, but never to any final end. By the series ending, everyone is frustrated with where David’s ended up, even Lemmy. Farouk being disgusted with David and abandoning him for a different, ostensibly better telepath at the end of season one was as emotionally devastating for David as losing his sister to the new incarnation of Lemmy, it represented a break from his past, a further distancing from the self he should have been if he were never adopted.
For him to return to the past, to track down his parents, then confront Farouk, was in a sense to demand justification for the abandonment as well as for the torment.
And in retrospect, the fact that Farouk never seemed to lead David to take power, that he was never able to work in concert with David, that the entire parasitic period was one of blackouts where Farouk ostensibly pursued power in some way, but never shared power, never sought upkeep for David’s body, or basic hygiene, and that David bounced from therapy to institutional setting, clearly nowhere near the seats of power that Farouk seemed to desire is interesting –I am certain some of the tears shed by Farouk in the final episode were for himself, bound to live out two decades in a body without the sensual lifestyle to which he had long been accustomed.
My favorite moment of the entire show comes in episode nine of season two, David is sent by a time-travelling Syd to help Oliver who is being controlled by Farouk. David’s growing awareness that he is crazy even without Farouk, that adoption even outside of it’s grip has still left a scar, is paired with his deep love for Syd, his empathy for the pain Oliver’s experiencing as a victim of the same parasite, and a series of film dissolves overlaying interpretive dance create a throbbing experience unlike anything else on television that year. Legion took absurd risks and while it sometimes became slow, gruelingly plodding, other times it created layered, multidimensional narratives backed up by whip-smart dialog between talented actors who held the camera without flattening the moment.
Also of note, no effort is made to tie in the mutants with existing costumes, other than the establishing shot in the first moments of episode ten season two David does not look all that much like his four color counterpart in the comics. His balls of light, and his ability to manifest multiple selves in astral spaces is consistent, but the mental difficulties he faces in the show are significantly different from the mental manifestations that appear throughout his comic history. Because the show is squarely focused on his adoptee-ness, the mental difficulties he wrestles with (literally, in many cases) are the same script we see Farouk narrate for him, the delusion the narrator hints at in episode five of season two, that delusion that frames all of David’s post-adoption identity: he’s no good, he’s unlovable, he was given away because he’s wrong, tainted, broken.
David’s repeating this in his head, wearing it like a mask, this assault on himself is always happening but locked away behind closed doors in his mind. Throughout the seasons we catch glimpses of David’s many selves, often questioning or berating him for the choices he’s making. The fact that he is in pain, struggling with his choices does not absolve him of wiping Syd’s memory then having sex with her once she’s forgotten how angry she was with him. He knows he’s lost her, and admits as much in that final episode. She confirms this, and it is the unforgiveable sin that likely lead to David’s decision to undo himself through this energized projection. Spoiler, this ends with him undoing the entire timeline from the point of his adoption. His decision to do so is a tragic undoing, and in some ways, the purest expression of self-sacrifice. That this is a fantasy makes this no less a cathartic story, at least for this adoptee.