[Editor’s Note: The following article contains light spoilers for “Legion” Season 3, Episode 4, “Chapter 23,” as well as “Avengers: Endgame.”]
When Noah Hawley decided to infuse time travel into “Legion,” he knew he didn’t want it to be like other time travel stories — starting with the impediment to traveling whenever you want.
“On some level, if you think about the early days of exploring the world with maps […] there were huge parts [where] you just wrote the word ‘dragon’ or ‘sea monsters’ — we just didn’t know what was out there,” Hawley said in an interview with IndieWire. “So I liked the idea that time, as an explorer, is similarly dangerous — a vast unknown. Like any ecosystem, it has its own flora and fauna at some level.”
“Legion’s” imposing flowers are the Time Demons. Yes, Time Demons: creatures that safeguard the temporal state of the universe and spring up whenever a time traveler goes back too far or travels to the same place too often. David Haller (Dan Stevens) tempts the blue-eyed, white-haired, goggle-wearing creatures whenever he asks Switch (Lauren Tsai) to take him back to his infancy, among other journeys to reset things to a happier, more peaceful timeline. Soon (as in “Chapter 23”), David gets trapped in another state, permanently walking toward the Time Demons, as more of the little buggers plague Division III, going in and out of sight as they stalk their prey.
They are, to be clear, incredibly strange.
“You always want to feel like there should be consequences for time travel. I just didn’t want them to be the consequences that you’re used to,” Hawley said.
Consequences are arguably the most important facet when integrating time travel. Whether it’s “Back to the Future” or “The Butterfly Effect,” consequences tell the audience what’s at stake: They could be personal, like if travelers can’t get back to the present day, or they could be wide-ranging, like when time travel forever alters the course of history. If there are no consequences, then there are no stakes, and no stakes means very little drama.
Similarly, how these consequences are explained and implemented can be the difference between viewers enjoying the story or getting hung up on questions, like “Why didn’t the time travelers just go back and try again whenever they failed? If time travel can fix any problem, why can’t it fix every problem?”
Just a few months back, another Marvel property tackled the time travel challenge, and while “Avengers: Endgame” earned massive approval at the box office, the consequences were handled rather casually (some might say clumsily). Once the surviving superheroes from “Avengers: Infinity War” discovered they could travel through time to save the world they failed to save before, the film struggled to explain why some deaths suffered on the second try couldn’t be altered on a third or fourth attempt. Usually, someone in the film simply said, “No, we can’t go back this time,” which is an easy stopgap for audiences to comprehend, but less than satisfying when you realize future films could always just say the opposite, go time traveling again, and bring back “dead” characters.
“Legion,” meanwhile, introduces the stakes early on: The opening episode of Season 3 is dedicated to Switch, her abilities, and the parameters within they can be used. The Time Demons are the greatest deterrent, but she’s also a key figure herself. If she doesn’t want to go back, then David doesn’t get to go either. Furthermore, David’s purported good intentions are clouded by his villainous leanings — “Should Switch help him go back?” becomes as important a question as, “What happens when they do?” These choices help keep the focus on the characters, which is something Hawley wanted from the get go.
“It’s not that I wanted to play with time travel. It’s that I wanted to solve David Haller,” Hawley said of his decision to implement time travel this season. “If the central dilemma of your character’s life is what happened to him as a baby, and you’re in a genre show, there is a gravitational pull. If you’re David, and your love story has ended and Division III is hunting you down, you think, ‘I just need to change it. My life was ruined when I was a baby, and I’ll never get a break unless I can change that.’ So there was a really strong story pull and character pull [toward time travel].”
In “Legion,” Hawley asks whether David should be time traveling in the first place, while “Avengers” uses time travel as a purely benevolent fix-all for a previous mistake. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but the approaches are different — as so many are across film and television.
“I didn’t overthink it, but there were a lot of tropes of time travel I wasn’t interested in,” Hawley said. “I never really entertained the idea of playing with [the temporal] paradox that much, or playing with the tropes of, ‘if he changes something and comes back to the present, it’s all different.’ That wasn’t something I was interested in.”
And this leads us to perhaps the most important time travel lesson of all: The “Looper” Rule. “I don’t want to talk about time travel, because if we start talking about it, then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” So perhaps it’s best to leave it there: “Legion” has its way of handling time travel, “Avengers” has another, and plenty more depictions are sure come. It’s just nice to see one working so well — especially one with demons.
“Legion” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.