FX’s new dramatic series, Legion, draws its inspiration from a comic book character of the same code name, also known as David Charles Haller (played Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey). However, if you tuned into the psychedelic new program without any prior knowledge of the X-Men connection, you’re wouldn’t be missing much.
Despite its source material, as well as its significance as Fox and Marvel’s first joint production, this story of a paranoid schizophrenic is simply an engrossing TV experience that challenges the boundaries between madness and empowerment. Fair warning, though: check your perception of reality at the door. Also, minor spoilers ahead.
Showrunner Noah Hawley, known for his delightfully twisted Fargo saga, also directed the first episode, and does so with precision. “Chapter 1” begins with a concise yet beautifully constructed montage, introducing us to a young David, raised in idyllic Americana only to become a troubled teenager, and then a despondent, suicidal adult. Landing himself in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, as the show progresses, we’re introduced to a revolving cast of characters, although it’s never made clear who is real and who is a figment of David’s mind.
Hawley’s delightfully warped sense of humor also is on display through in David, his snide, headphone-clad cohort Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), and the overall amusingly surreal feel of his world. Legion also wastes no time in introducing David’s love interest, the body-swapping Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller). Their romance arrives abruptly, but their cutesy hands-off courtship grounds the otherwise untethered sense reality and gives it a heart.
Although the show has yet to unpack the awkward layers between David and his older sister, Amy (Katie Aselton), their estranged relationship is unquestionably the result of David’s tenuous grip on reality and her struggles to maintain a sense of normalcy with “crazy” sibling. The little brother-big sister leitmotif permeates the action, though, and their unique connection will continue to play a major role in the series.
Despite its strong core of character dynamics, Legion also teases its sense of non-reality by never tipping its hand to its true timeline. Hawley is clearly smitten with 70s psychiatric cinema and music, as warm colors and references inform the aesthetic, including strong A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest homages, psychedelic visuals, and a character named after infamous Pink Floyd drummer Roger “Syd” Barrett. Nonetheless, there are anachronistic elements, such as the modern tablet computer and the ubiquitous government dress used by the Interrogator (Hamish Linklater) and his superiors.
Of course, the challenge once again comes from sifting through the layers of tissue paper separating David’s mental catacombs from reality.
But what of that pesky X-Men pedigree? So far the psychodrama is rather short on answers for those who came searching for comic book connections. The unreliable first person narration offers glimpses at incredible powers and secret government agencies (and their pink-hatted stooges). It also offers hints of a united front of empowered people – a la the X-Men – as a team lead by the curious Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) and consisting of Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) among others, stages a dramatic, special effect-laden rescue, where they show off some unique “gifts.”
If there is one element Marvel Comics aficionados grasping for straws can clutch, though, it’s the keyword “mutant.” Wolverine’s adamantium claws probably likely unsheathe themselves, nor will David’s comic book father, Charles Xavier drop by to wink at the camera, but the term connects the show to the overall universe, even if peripherally.
Even without any direct connections, though, Hawley does an excellent job subverting expectations – and he couldn’t ask for a better source material. David Haller and his alter ego (first appearing in New Mutants #25 (1985)) is a long ways from an archetypal X-Man. Too close to the edge of sanity to truly grasp easily of night or day concepts, he often wound up on the wrong side of history, and even used his incredible powers to create a disturbing alternative history.
The comic book lineage could eventually make its stamp on the series, but its very loose connect may disappoint hardcore fans. Still, those who stick with it long enough will likely stumble across further Easter eggs and links to the overall mutant universe. Much like his four-color counterpart, Haller will never don the yellow and blue spandex or lead a team of superheroes. At the same time, with Haller’s permeable sanity, he could become an anti-hero of sorts for mental illness.
Our country is at a crossroads in that regard, as science very slowly unravels the human brain. Mental healthcare is in its infancy, and many tragedies perpetrated on and by our society result in our inability to comprehend complex psychiatric problems. Legion, as a character and a TV show, suggests without outright saying it that there’s something more subversive and sublime at play in the minds of those once and still condemned to institutions and misunderstanding. Legion’s strength will be its willingness to dive into the belly of the beast, examining normalcy, schizophrenia, and even the multifaceted nature of the reality without giving us any easy answers so far.
As the psychiatrists and government agents ask David (and us, by default) time and time again, are you a danger to himself and other? As Legion unfurls its mutant deconstruction, hopefully it will further expose the raw nerves of the psyche, giving us an opportunity to explore what is normal, what is “special,” and most of all, what is real in a world that grows more surreal by the day.