Season 3 of FX’s Marvel mutant series Legion is Alice in Wonderland crossed with the Manson Family. The final season of Noah Hawley’s X-Men adjacent mind-bender is as visually captivating as ever, and is even more prone to its peculiar flights of fancy — like impromptu musical and dance sequences that serve to spice things up a bit, but have little bearing on the overall story — but as the series careens toward its endgame, the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens) leans hard into the sort of psychedelia commonly associated with Lewis Carroll’s literary creation, balancing it with an often bracing comparison to the infamous commune turned killer cult headed up by a psychopath.
The two elements immediately feel of a piece with Hawley’s vision for the series, even as Legion becomes, at times, a living cartoon, complete with giant hooks pulling character’s offscreen so fast their tea cups spin, suspended in the air for too many seconds before succumbing to the laws of gravity. That’s also Legion in a nutshell: a kooky blend of influences (visual and otherwise) that borders on pastiche but somehow manages to feel original. While season 1 and 2 occasionally tilted more toward an impeccably designed twee terror filtered through the lens of an unreliable narrator — Doctor Who meets Mario Bava, as directed by Wes Anderson — season 3 looks and feels almost garish by comparison. It’s loud and fun and even more obvious than seasons past, but it also moves like it’s on rails, even when it lets itself go completely off them.
After a fun but overly indulgent first season, Legion stalled out in season 2, wallowing in its familiar excesses and seemingly refusing to tell a story, opting instead for presenting abstract hours of television that occasionally featured interludes narrated by Jon Hamm. The basic premise of the season was the search for Amahl Farouk’s (Navid Negahban) corporeal form, which would presumably make him so powerful that he could not be defeated, even by David. As the season went on, however, the somewhat ponderous storytelling focused on a potential but unseen apocalyptic future and David’s misuse of his staggering powers to influence Syd (Rachel Keller), the woman he loves. It all led to an apparent heel turn by the Omega-level mutant that turned him into the story’s antagonist, making Farouk — or the Shadow King — the world’s ostensible savior.
Despite the cliffhanger at the end of last season, Legion doesn’t begin its end run by catching up with David or Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), much less the members of Division 3. Instead, it opts to introduce a new one: Switch (Lauren Tsai), a young mutant with the ability to travel through time. The narrative possibilities of a time-traveling mutant are myriad, and Hawley and the premiere’s co-writer Nathaniel Halpern spend most of the first hour luxuriating in those possibilities, as does director Andrew Stanton who discovers a compelling way to represent time travel onscreen. And the hour also luxuriates in what can only be described as very Legion-y things, like the strange anachronisms that have populated the series from the beginning, convincing some the story was set somewhere in the past, as opposed to some indeterminate place in time where the past never fully faded and the future never quite arrived.
Thankfully, Legion isn’t interested in explaining the reasons for such things; they just are. That affords the show the real estate to be whatever it wants to be, even if its imaginative and stylistic excesses give an impression of instability (meta or otherwise) or, more kindly, mercurialness. But it also leaves little room for plot, which, in this case, has probably become the third or fourth thing on the list of reasons why people continue to watch the show. Unlike season 2, however, there does seem to be a clearer narrative path — clearer for Legion, anyway — in which David wants only to bring peace and love to his followers and to the rest of the planet, but he also wants to travel back in time to undo all of his mistakes, particularly the one that turned Syd against him. In turn, Syd, Farouk, Clark (Hamish Linklater), Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), and Cary and Kerry (Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder) are bound and determined to stop him dead in his tracks, and as the premiere demonstrates with an orchestrated raid on David’s compound, they’re serious about the dead thing.
It’s a simple premise for the final season, but if Legion is known for anything it’s the ability to obfuscate the simplest idea into head-scratching befuddlement. That sort of gleeful fumbling of certainty is part of what makes watching Legion entertaining, provided that sort of thing doesn’t leave you feeling exhausted. But of the episodes made available to critics prior to the premiere, Legion season 3 is given purpose by its pending climax. That motivation affords the series greater leeway with its many, many whims, even if it doesn’t quite justify them completely. If nothing else, the final season feels primed to anchor its lofty visual aspirations with a story that may well satisfy those who enjoy the show for what it is, and those who are hungry for a meatier story.
Legion season 3 premieres Monday, June 24 @10pm on FX.