Review: Legion: Season One

FX’s dangerously entertaining Legion is a volatile mix of complete chaos and complete control.

Legion: Season One
Photo: Chris Large/FX

Depending on which comic-book theory one subscribes to, mutants are either an aberration or the next logical extension of humanity’s evolution. Legion doesn’t assert which category David Haller (Dan Stevens) belongs to, but the series itself makes for an extremely positive evolution, and not just for television adaptations of comic books. The show’s bright, retro colors immediately help it to stand apart from the dour aesthetic of Daredevil and Netflix’s other Marvel series, just as its heady subject matter—the thin line between being psychic and psychotic—and the characters’ sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor distinguish it from the light, silver-age camp of the CW’s various DC projects. If Legion must be compared to other superhero shows, the way in which it uses superpowers as metaphors for illnesses and insecurities puts it most adjacent to the British sci-fi dramedy Misfits.

Legion, created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz, first appeared in the X-Men spinoff New Mutants, and thanks to the auteurship of Noah Hawley, the FX show quickly evolves beyond its roots. Hawley has respect for the comic genre, but he’s not beholden to it in the way that Zack Snyder’s lifeless Watchmen appeals to those with a panel-by-panel familiarity with Alan Moore’s comic. And unlike the Sin City films, Legion isn’t stubbornly hell-bent on aping the aesthetic of Frank Miller’s source material. By keying the show’s point of view to David’s unpredictably schizophrenic perspective, Hawley frees himself to indulge in a bounty of aesthetic whims.

When David gazes longingly at his girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), Legion resembles a romantic comedy in which the couple works together to help Syd overcome her fear of being touched; in one scene, they kiss one another’s reflections. When David is heavily feeling the effects of a drug cocktail at the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, his numbed headspace is articulated with a dissonant string motif and flash cuts to his medication procedure that recall Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Most situations, even when they aren’t borrowing from some recognizable bit of pop culture, find ways to visually manifest David’s feelings in outlandish, sometimes literal fashion, resulting in our own cognitive dissonance, as when the camera upends itself just as David’s whole world turns upside down. Sometimes the show’s metatextual elements even subvert our expectations: Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) is a junkie and fellow patient of David’s, and while she’s meant to evoke Fight Club’s Marla, she might actually be as imaginary as Tyler Durden.

Ultimately, there are only two rules about Legion: David is the show’s anchor and, as a result, it’s not his personality that changes, but the world around him, filtered through his fractured mind. This is true from the very beginning of the series: a montage that charts David’s growth from his birth to the present day. Throughout this sequence, the Who’s “Happy Jack” serves as a bitter counterpoint to David’s increasingly unhappy life. Whether he’s a wide-eyed and inquisitive infant or angsty teen, David is always fixed in the center of the frame, everything around him reacting explosively to the unstable conditions of his headspace. His unchecked emotions set Bunsen burners wildly ablaze and shatter the windows of a police car. When he attempts to block out the voices in his head by drinking himself into near-oblivion, he unwittingly unleashes his powers, causing a bunch of innocent bystanders to start looting a convenience store as he walks away from them.

Legion’s visual density on a shot-by-shot basis and the scope of its world-building is already impressive enough, especially in just over three minutes, but it’s a sign of the show’s creative aspirations that Hawley isn’t content to stop there. The opening montage begins with David’s birth and ends with him hanging from a noose. But when the sequence cuts to a shot of a sparkling candle atop a birthday cupcake, Legion’s metaphor of life and death has come full circle—from birth to death and back to birth again.

This fluidity of vision, as well as the show’s unreliable narrative, is designed to keep audiences feeling as untethered as David. That’s certainly part of why Hawley avoids exposition and often interrupts scenes with fragmented memories and dreams—like a Bollywood dance set to Serge Gainsbourg’s “Pauvre Lola.” It’s also why Legion adds a new mutant, Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), to Marvel’s X-Men universe, one who can dive into a person’s subconscious. It’s the most immediate way to bring audiences along for a ride into David’s psyche, and the closest the series comes to a direct conflict with the yellow-eyed monster who keeps unsettlingly popping into the frame.

Legion’s rare action sequences, staples of the comic-book genre, prioritize David’s emotional journey above violent kinetics. In one scene, the camera submerges itself into a pool alongside David, who swims serenely as bullets tear into the water; the sound of assault rifles is so muffled that it’s as if the skirmish that plays out above water doesn’t even exist. In another scene, the camera fixates on David’s shellshock in the foreground as soldiers are flung telekinetically through the air in the blurred background.

Once Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) brings David to her unconventional Summerland clinic, a rehabilitation center for mutants, a potential long-term structure for the series comes into focus, one in which David fights alongside Bird’s team of misfits to repel Division 3, which is presented as a government organization that regulates mutants. But the series remains ambiguous about Division 3’s ethics even after its lead operative, The Eye (Mackenzie Gray), kidnaps and interrogates David’s ordinary sister, Amy (Katie Aselton); after all, Bird is in no rush to help save her. In a natural evolution from Hawley’s work on Fargo, then, Legion cares less about observing the traditional good-versus-evil through line of most comic-book adaptations than about questioning the sort of shaky relationship with reality that could even dream up a sense of morality in the first place. At one point, Bird’s head scientific analyst, Cary (Bill Irwin), begs David to stabilize and stop breaking his equipment, and there’s an echo of the show’s anarchic streak and capacity to surprise audiences in the mutant’s response: “I’m not going to promise that.”

One of the key images that Legion keeps flashing back to is the one in which a younger David, having just broken up with his girlfriend, has an anxiety attack in his kitchen, the result of which leads to everything in the room spinning around him like a tempest. A butcher’s knife careens out of control and slices David across the cheek and we’re meant to understand just how dangerous his powers are without self-control. Within this world, David seems capable of almost anything, a freedom that permits Hawley to let his own aesthetic imagination go wild. In that sense, the dangerously entertaining Legion is a volatile mix of complete chaos and complete control.

 Cast: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Katie Aselton, Jean Smart, Jeremie Harris, Amber Midthunder, Bill Irwin, Scott Lawurence, Mackenzie Gray  Network: FX, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.  Buy: Amazon, Soundtrack

Aaron Riccio

Aaron has been playing games since the late '80s and writing about them since the early '00s. He also obsessively writes about crossword clues at The Crossword Scholar.

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