When word reached the internet that Noah Hawley, the mastermind behind the wildly successful TV adaptation of the Coen Brother’s Fargo, was being tasked with making a show from Fox’s portion of the Marvel licence, it raised some questions. Firstly, what would he be making? Fox own the TV rights to everything in the Marvel canon relating to mutants, so might that mean the X-Men? And if it does, would he bring his surrealist brand of existentialism to the property or would he have to reign in his more Lynchian instincts?
The answer, as with all things in this regretfully centrist world, lies somewhere in the middle. No, it was not the X-Men proper, although the shadow of that franchise does loom over the series, constantly reminding it why it was allowed to exist. There’s references abound, even going so far as to have the iconic X in the show’s logo, winking at you like a sinister marketing man, promising you that there will be some familiar features in there amongst all of the odd-ball stuff that Hawley’s known for. Rather, this series serves as a story about a pivotal, if relatively unknown, figure within the Uncanny X-Men universe.
Dan Stephens is Legion, or as the series would have him be known, David Haller. David is a troubled young man struggling with schizophrenia, a diagnosis that has led him down the paths of isolation, narcotics, theft, and depression. He spends his days in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, a mental health facility that could have been a set in a 70s science fiction film about a utopic society that goes badly wrong. And, as if by magic, badly wrong it goes. David’s world comes crashing down around him when he finds out he’s the Star Spangled Banner in an interspecies game of capture the flag.
On one side, wearing the all-black body armour and wielding automatic weapons, we have the ever-threatening ‘Government officials’, who seem quite reasonable in their requests to talk to David in a calm and collected manner, but their aggressive methods do not match their civility. The other side, brightly coloured in 60s chic, seem much more agreeable and even have David’s crush on their side, Syd Barrett played by Rachel Keller, who worked with Hawley previously in the second season of Fargo.
Both sides are convinced that David’s mental illness is actually a powerful, but dormant, mutant power desperately trying to break free. The US militia want him subdued so that he can be studied and possibly used as a weapon in the eradication of his mutant brethren. The Brady Bunch want him for the exact same reasons, only they want to use him as a tool for their protection, not necessarily for their conquest.
For anyone wondering if the cerebral musings of Hawley’s breakout show, Fargo, would be a feature of this series, you needn’t have worried. While the philosophical musings of that series were mostly featured via long, compelling (if occasionally rambling) monologues on the subjects of evil and survival, Legion takes a much more visual approach to its parables.
You never quite know in Legion if the action is taking place in real life or in the character’s heads, and even then, you might be scratching your own trying to figure out whose psyche we’ve delved into. But, despite the often perplexing ambiguity, the blurred line between reality and delusion is a fascinating space to work in and within it, Hawley has created some of his most mesmerising work yet.
The use of colour and symmetry makes much of the show look like a Rorschach test, strengthening the idea of this series being an exploration of the mind, especially the id. It veers between obscure art-house project and mind-bending musical, constantly keeping its viewers on their toes with changes in tone and style, all the while keeping the main mood of the show one of curiosity and mystification, allowing it to keep a feeling of consistency through the swerves. The constant need to pay attention to truly maintain a grasp of what’s going on makes viewers feel like we’re not so much watching the programme as studying it, a feeling that directly puts us in the shoes of the protagonist.
Dan Stephens as David Haller is remarkable, presenting a comic book depiction of mental illness, all twitches and screwed up expressions, that always feels sympathetic while never being condescending. He has a looseness of limbs and elasticity to his face that recalls Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, but he never allows his character to lose the ambiguity that keeps his motivations so murky.
Rachel Keller plays his love interest Syd Barrett, another patient in his facility with similarly freaky powers. She switches minds with someone on the slightest point of contact, meaning that she can never physically touch David or else she would enter his body, taking on his powers, and they would almost certainly overwhelm her. Theirs becomes the relationship at the heart of the story, and their lack of intimacy makes for one of the most scintillating romances ever filmed for television. In lieu of physicality, the eyes they make at each other have more sparks than Electro’s jockstrap and the methods they invent to find some way of being close to each other are dimple-diggingly adorable.
However, while ethereality is the show’s biggest strength, it can also hold it back from true greatness. The show’s lack of rules surrounding its character’s powers – often the only thing dictating what each character is capable of is the whims of the scriptwriter – stops the show from being grounded in any consistent logic. That can leave any show feeling aimless and immaterial, but that’s especially bad for a series like this, one that promises you all of this madness is leading somewhere, just have some (blind) faith. There’s also a real discussion to be had in there about the realities of mental illness, but it gets lost in the spider’s web of enigmatic symbolism and metaphor.
Legion is some the most visually arresting live-action television I’ve seen since TV scribes were banned from bringing acid into the writer’s room, and it has a narrative style that constantly demands your attention while keeping you guessing. But it also favours its mystery over substance and its opacity over clarity. It will leave viewers as confused about some things as it will leave them satisfied with others, much of the time in a frustrating, aggravating way. Still, it provides some of the most sumptuous artistic and cerebral nourishment available on the box, it shatters the notions of what we should expect from a superhero drama and it does it all with one of the most blissful, chilled-out soundtracks this side of John Peel’s record collection. But just wait until you find out who’s playing the antagonist in the next series.
Created by: Noah Hawley
Prd: Regis Kimble, Erik Holmberg, Craig Yahata, Brian Leslie Parker
Scr: Noah Hawley, Chris Claremont, Bill Sienkiewicz
Starring: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Jemaine Clement
Episode Run Time: 1hr
No. of Episodes: 8