The director Larysa Kondracki knows how to open an episode of television. On “Fifi,” the stellar late-season episode of “Better Call Saul” she helmed last year, she started of with a continuous shot of a smuggler’s truck weaving its way across the border that lasted over four minutes. This was just the start of a tour-de-force hour, in which Kondracki framed actor Rhea Seehorn’s starry-eyed attorney Kim Wexler like an ecstatic saint and Jonathan Banks’s sad-eyed killer Mike Ehrmantraut like the subject of a chiaroscuro portrait by a Dutch master. She seemed to intuit and internalize the already impressive visual palette established by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, then surpass it.
In that respect, lightning just struck twice. On this week’s episode of “Legion,” Kondracki used her considerable talents to fulfill the promise of creator Noah Hawley’s iconoclastic but inconsistent pilot episode and its subsequent installments. Funnily enough, she did so with another multiminute opening shot. But instead of a swooping drone-cam drive-along with a drug-runner’s 18-wheeler, it was a woozy in-and-out close-up of a paunchy middle-aged mutant in a leisure suit, staring into the camera and breaking the fourth wall.
The mutant in question is Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement, half of the folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords), the comatose husband of the mutant underground leader, Melanie (Jean Smart). Looking right into our eyes, he stumbles his way through a monologue about the two kinds of stories parents tell their children: fairy tales designed to uplift them with empathy, and cautionary tales meant to cow them with fear. “Good evening,” he says. “We are here tonight to talk about violence, or maybe human nature … ” He then backtracks. “We are here to talk about human nature.” Later, he overrules himself. “We are the root of all our problems,” he says, adding loftily, “Violence, in other words, is ignorance.” He then promises a five-act play (there are five episodes of “Legion” remaining) in which our hero, David Haller, will discover just what kind of story he’s in.
Whether it’s Oliver’s very ’70s leisure suit, his direct address to the audience, or an overall sense that suddenly this show, y’know, knows what it’s doing, this episode is the first time “Legion” has felt in the same league as the magisterial second season of Hawley’s “Fargo.” That period-piece gang-war epic was television at its most cinematic, a blend of operatically high dramatic stakes and equally operatic visual and sonic spectacle. In this case, the throwback references — jazz and the Kinks on the soundtrack, antiquated vinyl and reel-to-reel playback technology depicted with fetishistic reverence — are just the tip of the iceberg. (Semi-literally, given the frozen purgatory in which Oliver and David find themselves imprisoned.) Now, with Kondracki’s steady hand at the tiller, Hawley’s new series finally feels as substantial and assured as its predecessor.
I reviewed last night’s Legion for the New York Times. Kondracki’s a hell of a talent. She makes it look not just easy but logical.