So, FX’s Legion is an X-Men show. Though you wouldn’t necessarily know that unless you watched the credits or caught a single mention of mutants, or maybe that stylized “O” in the title rings a bell. Legion himself, in the comics, is the illegitimate son of Professor X. That doesn’t come up here. And they don’t call him Legion. He’s David Haller, a young man who hears voices and has incredible, uncontrollable mental powers. Legion isn’t stuffed with Easter eggs and winks to the source material. Magneto’s not going to show up. None of the characters on this show are going to reveal a connection to Wolverine. And in a world where even somebody who learned to read from comic books would agree there are too damn many superhero shows, it’s exactly what we need.
Honestly, Legion is more interesting for being a Noah Hawley show than an X-Men show. Hawley is best known as the Fargo showrunner, and I’d argue for Fargo as TV’s best drama. Not only am I going to check out whatever he’s up to, but the pressure is on for Legion to be worth the extended hiatus for Fargo Season Three.
And I think maybe it is. Based on the premiere (written and directed by Hawley), Legion is a lot like Fargo in the way it feels like a logical extension of the source material without being a re-tread. I’d almost buy that Hawley has never read a comic book but simply read an Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry on Legion and figured out what bits worked for him. What I’m saying is that other than some telekinetic shenanigans, this has very little to do with superheroes and everything to do with mental illness an a fluid version of reality.
Because here’s the thing about Legion - you may be fairly clear on what’s real and what isn’t by the end of the first episode, but you might also be entirely wrong. David isn’t sure and since he’s both schizophrenic and possessed of reality altering powers, it may be impossible to ever differentiate. For example, there’s Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), killed by a psychic feedback loop. She still appears to David and it’s not clear if she’s a hallucination, a ghost, or if she lives in his head now. It’s a natural extension of Fargo‘s Season Two, particularly the episode where an actual UFO shows up, only that episode is presented as a story told by a narrator so maybe we didn’t see what actually went down. Even though his two shows have been based in existing properties, Hawley is one of the most innovative creators on TV, whether he’s dealing with Midwestern crime or mutants.
The premiere jolts between David’s time in the Clockworks and an intensive interrogation that is apparently happening inside an empty school. The unnamed interrogator has questions about David’s powers and “the girl” he killed, while we zip between the present, David’s (seemingly accurate) memories, and altered versions of both the past and present. It sounds more confusing than it is because it almost doesn’t matter. Legion pulls you along through time periods and mental states and if David isn’t too concerned about it then you should just go along with it, too.
At the Clockworks, David befriends Lenny and falls in love with Sydney Barrett (naming her after Pink Floyd’s original frontman is more jarring than anything and feels like the only real misstep), a beautiful woman who can’t be touched. David assumes that has something to do with why she’s been institutionalized, resulting in some lovely scenes of the two of them walking together, each holding one end of a scarf. It’s only when Syd’s being released and David goes in for a kiss that he learns the truth – she’s a mutant, too. Touching her swaps their minds and when Syd can’t control David’s powers, she lashes out, killing Lenny and sending the Clockworks into a shutdown.
After that, accounts vary. David escapes and tries moving back home, the interrogation gets weirder, Syd either projects herself into his memories or somebody else poses as her (on this show, either is possible) to help him save himself from electrocution in the present. And when a group of mutants come to liberate him, the battle is literally in the background. David’s trying to make sense of his perceptions while a telekinetic casually flings away the attacking gunmen. And as the episode ends, we’re left to wonder who these people are and what their intentions may be. We don’t even know exactly who Syd is – having only seen her in flashback, we don’t know what’s David’s unreliable interpretation and what isn’t. And if what we’ve seen is true, was she playing a role as part of a larger recruitment plan? We know as much as David does at this point and he’s the least reliable of narrators. This is the first X-Men project that isn’t about the conflict between Xavier and Magneto but in reality and perception.
If you’re not sold on the nonlinear storytelling, the cast will help win you over. Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens is the perfect Legion – he has this broken charisma and manages not to overplay David’s tragedy. He’s confused but not lost. You know Aubrey Plaza is going to be great, but it’s still a surprise how good she is. She’s always doing something interesting in her scenes whether or not she’s the focus. And in her posthumous form, she’s just a little bit off – a little more aggressive, maybe. We’ve only known the character a few minutes and she still sells the difference between real Lenny and mental Lenny. And if Stevens and Plaza are guarded, Rachel Keller as Syd is entirely on the surface. Like Fargo‘s Simone Gerhardt, she seems incapable of guile or deceit. Every thing she’s feeling plays out across her face whether she wants it to or not. The relative unknown was excellent in Fargo and I’m thrilled to see her get a major role here. And while most of the people we see in the first episode end up dead, it appears we’ll see more of The League‘s Katie Aselton as David’s mother. She’s very funny as the only character we see without any kind of hidden agenda or ambiguity.
Then there’s Melanie Bird. We know nothing about this character who shows up for the last shot of the premiere, but she’s played by Jean Smart. She worked with Hawley on Season Two of Fargo as Floyd Gerhardt, and Melanie already feels like she’s cut from the same badass cloth.
I want to say Legion is a superhero show for people who hate superheroes, but I love superheroes and I’m completely on board. Actually, it’s a superhero show that you’d have to do some legwork before you’d realize it is one. And that’s necessary. If the superhero bubble isn’t going to burst, we need different approaches. The Marvel movie formula is great, but that can’t be every superhero thing. The DC movies are the Marvel movies but meaner, dumber, and less colorful. There’s a formula to the CW DC shows and the Marvel Netflix shows. And most of it is done very well. But there’s only so much of it that anybody needs or has time to watch. I don’t have time to watch it all, and that’s pretty much my whole deal. Legion is a break from that formula, taking a character mired in X-Men mythos and using him to tell a story about something completely different. Nobody’s going to mistake Legion for an X-Men movie or a CW show. It’s the TV version of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, except with even fewer superhero trappings.
I’m totally in love with Legion after this first episode even if it left me not knowing what the show is really about. I can’t wait to find out, though!