LEGION is bonkers and brilliant. If you were ever disappointed that Chris Claremont’s more out-there comic book stories weren’t adapted into the movies, look no further than this TV show to correct that. Although they still don’t go to space, sadly.
Following a strange accident, paranoid schizophrenic David Haller (Dan Stevens) is rescued from a mental hospital by a team of human mutants on the run from the government. David is diagnosed as a powerful psychic and is trained by his new friends to control his powers come to terms with his past. But there is something else sharing David’s mind, and too much poking around in his memories unleashes it…
“What if your problems aren’t just in your head? What if they’re not even problems?” The X-Men comics and movies have always been used to comment on prejudice. Civil Rights in the 60s comics, religious fundamentalism in the 80s and homophobia in Bryan Singer’s movies. Legion is a damning indictment of how we treat the mentally ill, particularly in institutionalised settings.
It’s a beautiful looking show with pristine surfaces reflecting tormented characters back at themselves and meticulous shot construction (notably in the pilot as an accomplished extended tracking shot follows various shady characters going about their business on multiple levels of an abandoned swimming pool). Telekinesis manifests as a far more interesting visual than in any of the X-Men movies as a swirling vortex of food and kitchenware surrounds David as a representation of his uncontrollable power, and later another character calmly conducts his powers as he would an orchestra to shield his allies from attack.
It’s a wonderfully weird show as well, featuring Lynchian hallucination scenes, disappearing doors, dance numbers and body-swapping (that’s all just in the first episode, though the dancing comes back on multiple occasions and it’s wonderful). As is natural for a show about fractured psyches, keeping track of what is really happening is a constantly shifting puzzle box. Following FARGO Season 2, unreliable narration seems to be a specialty of show runner Noah Hawley.
Chapter 6 has the characters trapped in a psychic spider’s web, reliving a world that’s “the same but different” to give the villain a proper set up. The next chapter covers the escape from that nightmare by navigating the labyrinth of David’s dangerously troubled mind. Our heroes conquer hallucinations (cue neat monochrome to represent reality), step in and out of and around time streams and David communes with his inexplicably British-accented rational mind to solve the mystery of his being (with the help of wonderful animated chalk drawings).
This is one of the most compelling ensembles in years, featuring an assembly of character actors and Hawley’s FARGO alums. The performances, the ways the cast play their powers and their torment works wonders. “Everyone keeps saying I’m sane, what if they’re wrong?” The way Stevens plays David, the answer seems increasingly likely somewhere in-between. He’s unstable, he intentionally distorts his own memories as he tries to shake off a malicious psychic parasite (portrayed by an actor who I won’t spoil). Having one character be a “dream artist” and another who takes on the powers and appearance of anyone she makes skin contact with, some trippy storytelling possibilities open up (see above).
Legion isn’t just a glossy superhero fever-dream, it’s a story that challenges how society views mental illness. Once we truly accept every facet of what makes us us, we can move forward with our lives. It’s not avoiding difficulty of living with mental health problems, or claiming that more serious cases aren’t a danger to themselves and others, but advocating that only acceptance of self and others can we be whole as a species. That is, those affected are able to find happiness with the help, support and understanding of loved ones, and once we defeat our demons (literal or otherwise). What a fine message for an out-there TV psycho-thriller. SSP