How do you show the inside of a person’s mind? Now what if that mind isn’t typical? What if that mind has supernatural powers? Each of these questions adds another layer to Legion’s portrayal of David Haller (Dan Stevens), and cements it as one of the most visually stunning television series perhaps ever on the air. Based on the Marvel Comic series and developed for FX by Fargo’s Noah Hawley, Legion explores the extraordinarily powerful mind of a less famous mutant (as in the X-Men, yes). But though we’ve seen plenty of Marvel and DC superheroes dominate the big and small screens in recent years, none have been as unique and genre-defying as Legion. Like David, it stands apart.
In the comics, David is the son of Professor Xavier, something the TV show is not ready to address for awhile (and it will unlikely be directly connected to any X-Men cinematic universe). But that shadow of a connection means that Legion doesn’t have to spend time world-building, and instead, can focus completely on David’s journey — one that will appeal to superhero enthusiasts and non enthusiasts alike. Well, if you like weird stuff.
What makes Legion’s story so compelling (and this is based on Hawley’s interpretation of it — I have not read the comics) is how it expresses itself through the framework of mental illness. The world doesn’t understand David, and he’s diagnosed as schizophrenic at a young age. In many ways the diagnosis does make sense: he’s plagued by a litany of voices, hallucinations, and rage blackouts. He has trouble controlling himself, and picks up a drug habit that helps quiet some of the mental storm. But even though Legion subverts this idea of illness, and instead makes it a power, it doesn’t save him.
As David starts to become of aware of his own abilities and the abilities of those around him, he finds himself pursued not only by a shadowy government agency looking to weaponize him, but also a benevolent group whose desire is to help him claim, understand, and control his powers. These are staples of a superhero origin story (even though David isn’t a hero yet), but what elevates it is the way Legion wraps it all up in a stylistic form that is challenging and beautifully weird. (There are times it even cribs its style from Wes Anderson, particularly in matching sweatsuits and the choreography around minor explosions). The entire lens of the series is through David’s perception, which is why there is a mesh of the present day with styles of the past. Legion isn’t just telling a story to a passive observer, it’s putting us inside it by showing us exactly what David sees. Sometimes, as in the case of a nightmarish recurring vision/demon that plagues him, it’s also deeply scary.
Though there has been a recent TV writing trend to lean on unreliable narrators or fantastical twists in order to keep viewers interested, it can often be used as little more than a crutch to prop up an otherwise faltering story. That’s not true of Legion, which does use the unreliable narrator convention, but in a way that seeks to be experiential. It’s also very upfront about it.
Nothing makes sense at first, particularly in the first episode (which was directed by Hawley). But subsequent hours ground themselves in a few touchstones of reality that are not just for our benefit, but for David’s. One is his love interest, Syd (Rachel Keller) who has powers of her own that keep her at a distance from David even though they are emotionally connected. But on the other side of things is David’s junkie friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), who floats in and out of his consciousness in ways that aren’t always clear. It’s not a mystery box to unpack as much as it is a fantastical ride.
Legion plays a lot with themes of identity and memory and emotion, and if the key to visual storytelling is to show and not tell, well, Legion grasps onto that wholeheartedly. But above all, it’s a deeply considered portrait of mental illness. Even if David’s schizophrenia is actually part of a mutant power, it’s also still literally angry voices in his head fighting to control him and his actions. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a problem for his daily life, and something he has struggled with since he was a young boy. The X-Men have always been a stand-in for outsiders, for people who feel persecuted or just different from the rest of the world. David’s journey is Legion is his own, but we’re connected to it, too.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material
Legion premieres Wednesday, February 8th on FX; be sure to come back to Collider after each new episode for Chris Cabin’s recaps.