It can be one of pop culture's biggest sins: When great actors and actresses lend themselves to iconic, career-defining performances, then fail to find additional roles that live up to their talents. Think of Sarah Michelle Gellar post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the late Carrie Fisher outside of Star Wars' Princess Leia (save for a memorable secondary role in When Harry Met Sally). Unfortunately, Aubrey Plaza was treading a similar path after seven seasons as the lovingly deadpan April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, which ended in 2015.
Since then, Plaza has assumed a few comedic roles in films that have been panned, such as Dirty Grandpa and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. She also portrayed Aaron Burr in Drunk History's take on Alexander Hamilton, though her performance was overshadowed by Lin-Manuel Miranda's hilarious tipsy storytelling. It's just been a couple years, sure, but Plaza's career appeared destined to become synonymous with April Ludgate.
Then along came Legion. FX's first X-Men series has been beloved by critics from the get-go for its opaque storytelling and trippy visuals, though its use of Plaza did lead to some early questions — take the Ringer's "What the Heck Is Up With Aubrey Plaza's Character on 'Legion' (and What Is She Going to Do)?" piece. It's a damn good question, considering Legion kicks off its premiere by killing off Plaza's character Lenny in some decidedly gruesome circumstances.
As a result, Lenny is a constant presence in the mind of the series' protagonist, David Haller, becoming a sounding board of sorts for the character's troubled psyche. At one point, she posits to David whether the folks at Summerland — basically, a Professor X's School for Gifted Youngsters equivalent — ought to be trusted. She says of Summerland's head honcho Melanie, "the bitch's secrets have secrets." Lenny is quirky, if not a bit one-note, and not unlike an unhinged version of Parks and Recreation's Ludgate.
However, Legion eventually shows its hand with the true nature of Lenny, and holy shit, it's great.
Lenny isn't actually a friend of David's from the Clockworks psych ward or a recovering addict. Lenny is one of several forms taken by the "Devil With Yellow Eyes," the parasitic mutant that's latched itself to David, ostensibly since he was born. Other forms include an adorable beagle named King, the Babadook-esque World's Angriest Boy in the World and a bulbous yellow monster in a tattered suit. The latter is presumably the creature's actual appearance.
But it's Lenny — and by extension, Plaza — that's taken most of the villain's screentime, and viewers are being rewarded with some terrific (and terrifying) work from Plaza. Episode six takes place in a faux-Clockworks Lenny traps all the main characters in, with Lenny taking Melanie's role as the head psychiatrist. She probes each character's personal traumas, including Melanie's lingering feelings for her long-lost husband Oliver and Ptonomy on the sudden death of his mother. She revels in their sorrow.
Setting her sights on a distraught David, she lectures him about the eerie fungus that essentially turns ants into zombies before revealing she knew David's real father (in the comics, Professor X). "He thought he could hide you from me, but he was wrong," she says. "I found you. Such a sweet little baby. And me, your very own walking, talking fungus." Mind you, this is all happening while Lenny presses herself against him, tussles with his hair, licks his ear and gyrates around his waist. It's unsettlingly erotic, and considering how much control Lenny has over David, genuinely frightening. She ends the conversation by banishing his mind toward a dark, coffin-like void somewhere in the astral plane.
Plaza's Lenny is so good, it's hard to imagine the character existing in any other form. And yet, Legion showrunner Noah Hawley initially envisioned Lenny played by a middle-aged man (the fact that another potential yellow-eyed demon form is a middle-aged guy named Benny is probably a clever nod to it). But Hawley changed his mind once he met Plaza.
It's a good thing he did; not just for the show to have an engrossing villain in its first season, but for Plaza to step out of the shadow of April Ludgate. Lenny is, in many ways, the perfect, chaotic vehicle for Plaza's strengths as an actress — an unpredictable character with a wry sense of humor and sinister undertones. Legion is a scary fucking show, and the image of the yellow-eyed demon in his true form is still nightmare-inducing. However, Legion co-star Katie Aselton said it best.
"I'm definitely Team Aubrey if we're talking about her being terrifying."
Mic has ongoing superhero coverage. Please follow our main superhero hub here.