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Aubrey Plaza Is Currently Serving Up the Most Terrifying Performance on TV

Photo: Michelle Faye/FX

The first season of FX’s Legion — Noah Hawley’s trippy, visually arresting psychodrama about a powerful telepathic mutant who may or may not be mentally ill — has been a surprise every step of the way. For one thing, I did not expect a show in the X-Men Universe to have so many groovy song-and-dance numbers. (The arrival of Jemaine Clement as an Austin Powers–esque scientist who lives in an ice cube in an alternate dimension was also a welcome treat.) But in a season full of unexpected delights, by far the best has been Parks and Recreation alum Aubrey Plaza, who spent the past seven episodes stealthily engineering one of the best villainous performances in recent memory.

When we first meet Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny, she’s living in a mental hospital along with our titular mutant David (Dan Stevens), who is being treated for schizophrenia. As David’s caustic, tweaky hospital pal, prone to lewd put-downs and old-fashioned turns of phrase (“you got what the kids these days call moxie,” she snarks at one point), Lenny feels like a familiar Plaza type–April Ludgate on uppers. But first appearances on Legion tend to be deceiving, and we soon discover that Lenny is not your typical sardonic sidekick. I’m reluctant to give too much plot description for those who haven’t seen it (and Legion is really a show designed to foil attempts at cogent summary), but as we venture further into the maze of David’s mind, we learn that our hero might not actually be schizophrenic after all. Rather (spoiler alert!) he’s a telepath of unrivaled abilities whose mind has been colonized since childhood by a monstrous parasite called the Shadow King, and Lenny is one of the forms that this invader takes.

Despite the character’s many key changes, Plaza’s most impressive feat is making Lenny feel like a coherent entity throughout: one beast with many shifting faces (it’s arguably the most impressive split-personality performance since Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black). In the beginning, she’s the mischievous devil on David’s shoulder, goading him into ill-advised high jinks. But as she begins to exert increasing control over David’s psyche, she becomes more and more overtly predatory. Her whole body transforms in service of the role: She leaps and crawls around on all fours as she paws at David and his girlfriend, her eyes bulging with wild desire like something out of a Tim Burton fever dream.

Creator Noah Hawley originally wrote the role for a 50-year-old man, and when Plaza took the part, she insisted that none of the dialogue change, imbuing her Lenny with androgynous energy that she has said was inspired in part by David Bowie. In Plaza’s hands, gender fluidity becomes a powerful dramatic tool: Lenny teems with both masculine and feminine energy, and both are tools in her elaborate game of psychological seduction.

At this point, I’d suggest you just go watch the show. But if you’ve sworn off all superhero-related fare and still want to see what all the fuss is about, then go straight to episode six. This is Plaza’s tour de force, a bottle episode in which Lenny imprisons all the main characters (the team of fellow mutants trying to help David harness his powers) in a mental-hospital simulation inside David’s mind (as I mentioned, this show does not exactly lend itself to easy synopsis). In the “mental hospital,” Lenny takes on the role of a sadistic psychotherapist, interrogating the patients’ traumas with the demeanor of a scolding dominatrix. While the previous episode saw Lenny emerge from David’s psyche like an old-timey magician in a bow tie and three-piece suit, this is Lenny at her most deliberately, menacingly feminine.

“What is the point of life? All of you running around trying to be, what, happy? Fulfilled?” she asks David during a ‘therapy’ session in her office, circling around him like a wild animal, her black-rimmed eyes (easily Plaza’s best dramatic tool) darting and bulging and narrowing. “I’ll say this,” she says. “There’s only one being in the vast multiplicity of space that matters: God. Do you know why God matters?” She stretches out her leg and shoves a plaid-socked, shiny-shoed foot right into David’s crotch. “Power. That is the point of what you call life. The only point.” The cat-and-mouse game eventually culminates with her crawling onto David’s lap, grinding her ass into his crotch, and wrapping a perfectly manicured hand around his throat as she reveals her plan to destroy him.

Then, of course, there’s the centerpiece of the episode: a jazzy dance sequence (did I mention this show has dance sequences?) set to a Bassnectar remix of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” We watch Lenny, silhouetted in red, preen and strut through familiar locations from David’s mind, a gleeful agent of chaos: Gyrating on a stretcher, kicking her fishnet-clad legs in the air, slurping laughing gas, humping David’s pillow, and clawing his bed apart into a nest of feathers. Yet Plaza isn’t vamping around Rocky Horror–style just for kicks. This may be one of the season’s most entertaining interludes, but it’s also one that carries a lot of narrative weight: that makes us realize for the first time how much control Lenny exerts over David’s psyche, and how much chaos her presence has already wrought.

In order to play a villain, actors often end up cloaking themselves in over-the-top mannerisms, signaling depravity with affectations and vocal flourishes. But the best villainous performances are those that feel less like a Halloween costume, and more like a peek at the actor’s id. That’s what’s great about Lenny: It never feels like Plaza is hiding herself behind a character; it feels like she’s using the role to unveil new shades of herself. Lenny takes all the attributes that make Plaza such a memorable and distinctive presence — her dry wit, her impish energy, her androgynous swagger — and dials them up to 100. For someone often typecast as dry and restrained, it’s a true joy to see her unleashed.

The moral of this story (other than that everyone should go catch up on Legion before the finale tonight): Next time you’re planning to cast a 50-year-old man in your pilot, consider casting Aubrey Plaza instead?

Aubrey Plaza Is Giving TV’s Most Terrifying Performance