Following Netflix’s success with TV adaptations of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist from Marvel’s ‘Defenders’ universe, FX looked to the peripheries of the X-Men world, and to Noah Hawley, creator of the Fargo series, to produce what must be the most visionary and bizarre superhero show to date. Not that Legion viewers unfamiliar with the name David Haller would necessarily have known that this character was intrinsically linked to the X-Men, because it was never made explicit. In fact, the word ‘mutant’ wasn’t used until relatively late in the season, although the eagle-eyed among us may have spotted the incorporation of the X-Men logo into the ‘O’ of the series title.
Part superhero origins story, part exploration of mental illness, and all mindfuck, Legion‘s first series pushed the envelope in pretty much every way. It chronicled the life of David Haller, a man who discovers that the schizophrenia which has plagued his young life might not be mental illness at all, but rather the manifestation of superpowers. After meeting Syd, a beautiful patient who can’t bare to be touched, David realises his delusions may have very real consequences, and escapes the psychiatric hospital he’s been languishing in. In the outside world, he seeks refuge with his sister, and is eventually taken in by a team of mutants led by Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), who offers to help him control his abilities. Pursued by the obligatory shady government organization, David must pick through his memories, hallucinations, and multiple realities to combat an even greater threat which is lurking inside his fractured mind.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between Legion and its Marvel stablemates is the aesthetic. While most superhero action takes place against a backdrop of dark, rainy cityscapes, Legion looks like an homage to cult movies of the sixties and seventies. Drawing on influences such as Jules Verne novels, psychedelic and glam rock music (the character of Syd Barrett is named for the original Pink Floyd frontman, himself a schizophrenic), Kubrick movies, and Bryan Fuller‘s Hannibal, Legion is a highly stylized show, outside of any clear time and place. Set in a dizzying array of realities, and filtered through various characters’ unreliable perceptions, the show forces the viewer to experience the confusion and uncertainty felt by its protagonist.
While most origins tales have the reluctant hero coming to terms with their superhuman abilities and learning to navigate the moral dilemmas having such power usually entails, Haller is mostly concerned with establishing an identity and routine he can live with. In the season finale, he expresses a desire to stay in the Shadow King’s construct, a life of evenness and meds twice a day, with Syd, in the hospital, and when he finally conquers his demonic parasite, he questions the very existence of his own personality, having never known an inner life which wasn’t held hostage by the Shadow King.
As well as a compelling and flawed main character, Legion offered a host of unabashedly odd allies and foes, and out-of-the-box casting added to the quirky and original nature of the series. Aubrey Plaza shone as Lenny/Amahl Farouk/Shadow King, fully embodying all facets and incarnations of the malevolent brain-squatter, swinging between deadbeat, sexy, and downright creepy in the blink of an eye. Jemaine Clement added some wry humour as Oliver Bird, Melanie’s estranged husband who was stranded on the astral plane and had more than a touch of the Austin Powers about him. But while his outmoded quips and penchant for a well mixed cocktail were mostly played for laughs, his remembering his heartbroken wife’s name just before having his body hijacked by the Shadow King was a bittersweet moment with real emotional resonance.
Similarly, Bill Irwin‘s twitchy tech nerd, Cary, provided some of the most unexpectedly touching scenes of the series during his interactions with symbiotic savant, Kerry. The visual of a young girl literally sharing a body with a much older man, and the codependent nature of their relationship could have easily been creepy, but both Irwin and Amber Midthunder played it with genuine vulnerability and affection.
Jean Smart brought a palpable longing to Melanie, along with a quiet, steely strength. Her musing on the extinction of the dinosaurs in the season finale hinted at a potential for her to go rogue, much in the vein of Magneto, the best friend turned nemesis of Haller’s real father in the comic book source material, Professor Charles Xavier. Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris) was somewhat sidelined in the final episodes, but I’m hoping to see bigger and better things for the dream manipulator in Season 2. Syd (Rachel Keller) was a natural companion to David, their messed up, impossible love sweet without being cloying. The inventive ways in which David and Syd shared intimacy without physically touching was both amusing and cute as all get out.
Even the ‘bad’ guys were more rounded and sympathetic than one would expect from a genre show. The Eye (Mackenzie Gray) was the most archetypal of the villains, looking like Tom Waits with a perm, and largely silent. He could shape shift Mystique-style, and his violent death in the astral plane was of the most strange and affecting screen deaths in recent memory, eerily reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s victims in Under the Skin. The nameless interrogator of the first episodes, presumed dead after being spectacularly immolated, returned in the finale, and much of the episode was dedicated to the story of his recovery. Clark, as it transpired he was named, had a husband and an adopted son, and the fleshing out of his character and lingering over his suffering spun the entire notion of good and evil on its head. Having rooted for David and friends over eight hours, suddenly we were being asked to reframe our ideas about them and their actions. A bold move.
While many genre shows are relatively formulaic and heavy on exposition, Legion is pretty unforgiving as far as spoon feeding the viewer goes. Moving at a lick, packed with red herrings, hidden clues, nods to popular culture, and liable to give you emotional whiplash, it is non-linear storytelling at its most challenging and exciting. While the finale was arguably the closest this show got to regular superhero fare, the post credits sequence dragged us back under a tide of WTF? The self-consciousness weirdness and lack of anchor in the form of highly-relatable characters may alienate some viewers. But there’s no doubt that auteur Hawley has served up something unique, gorgeous to look at, and a refreshing antidote to the glut of gloomy TV vigilantes.