I completely agree with Kwame Opam in The Verge, Legion gets the mystery box formula right where Westworld failed. Well, it's only been 4 episodes of Legion and it's very confusing what's going on, but I'm engaged and interested. I always felt detached watching Westworld because the only character I cared about was Maeve (and even now I had to look up her name). Mild spoilers for season 1 of Westworld and oddly, no real spoilers for Legion follow:
Both shows are dense, technically stylish sci-fi thrillers. Both shows weave rich mythologies across multiple timelines, with Westworld being set in a simulated Wild West peopled with robots that may or may not have consciousness and Legion set in a world filled with super-powerful mutants that may or may not all exist in the lead’s head. And both shows lend themselves to theories about who and what is real, where the plot is going, and if there isn’t something more sinister running beneath the surface.
Where Westworld differs is in privileging its mysteries and philosophical meditations over character and storytelling. Take William, who is much more an idea than a character. He doesn’t convey any fully realized motivations beyond a desire to be a good person for Dolores’ benefit, and his transformation into the Man in Black is an overreaction to the idea that suffering defines humanity, if not just a twist for twists’ sake. Or consider Maeve: she discovers that she’s a machine and that she’s being controlled, so she sets out to free herself. That’s a powerful and relatable motivation, but the series undermines it by questioning whether or not her actions are dictated by her programming. Don’t get me wrong: exploring the nature of humanity is a worthwhile pursuit, and I loved that about the show. But dancing around what it means to be human instead of creating memorable characters with goals turns the series into a lecture series instead of good TV.
Compounding the problem is how the show conceals information — no matter the illogical gymnastics — to maintain the mysteries until the final episode. So much energy is spent hiding the connection between William and the Man in Black, the true identity of Westworld employees, and the point of the Maze, that the show rapidly became a transparent Pez dispenser, slowly and arbitrarily dispensing treats even though we could see every piece of candy just waiting to be served.
Legion, on the other hand, is laser-focused on its main character by design. Despite being about a mutant with the power to alter reality itself, the story the series lays out is straightforward. David believes he’s a schizophrenic, but he might also be the most powerful mutant alive. So, after learning that people with powers are being targeted by a shadowy government organization, he chooses to learn to control his abilities to save his loved ones and maybe even the world. That’s all David knows, and, as a consequence, all we know. The show establishes David as a relatable person with an understandable purpose: in order to save the world, he needs to better himself. That the show subverts our expectations by asking us to question whether or not what’s happening on-screen is in his head is destabilizing, but always secondary. What he learns about himself drives him and the story forward. And when David learns something, we learn it, too. The show doesn’t withhold for the sake of mystery. Rather, the mystery is a product of its core dramatic premise.