Dan Stevens tackles his most challenging role yet with effortless ease.
The set design, costumes, and special effects really knocked it out of the park.
It's a great extension of the Marvel universe, and once that gives us more insight into the world of the X-Men.
The negative representation of mental illness and mental health care is outdated and a bit offensive.
Although creative, the presentation of the pilot from David's point of view only created too much confusion and frustration.
Legion “Chapter 1” is a schizophrenically paced pilot filled with chaos, confusion, and dark comedy
FX’s new show Legion is based on a Marvel comic of the same name by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz that exists within the X-Men universe. It focuses on the life of David Haller, a young man who was diagnosed at an early age to be schizophrenic because of the voices and people he would claim to exist. His only remaining family appears to be his sister Amy, who keeps her distance but remains dutifully attentive. His constant companion is his friend Lenny, who is equally troubled but seems unperturbed by her own madness.
During the middle of his sixth year at Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, a new patient arrives in the form of a beautiful blonde named Syd. After a chance encounter results in a spectacular but deadly outcome, David finds himself out in the free world for the first time. Unfortunately, the incident quickly draws the attention of Division 3, whose interrogator poses as a policeman to determine his role in what happened. Rescued by his new love and her friends before his captors can torture him, he is introduced to a woman named Melanie and boards her boat to what he hopes is safety.
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There were so many things to keep track of in this series premiere that we were left with our heads spinning. We spent half of it wondering whether Syd or Lenny were even real, much less whether the events we were watching were only in his mind. Let’s try to make sense of what Legion “Chapter 1” presented to us before we lose our own minds!
Syd makes for an unusual love interest but even more interesting ally
Despite the constant companionship of endless voices in his head, David (Dan Stevens) craves genuine social connection. We see that in flashbacks throughout the episode as he recalls playing with his sister, attempting a relationship, and his constant (albeit dysfunctional) friendship with Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). It isn’t until a new patient arrives at Clockworks Psychiatric, though, that David finds what he is looking for. Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) is beautiful, blonde, and infinitely untouchable in more ways than one, but he still falls head-over-heels in love with her. She certainly has her quirks, but we can tell she seems too “normal” to be institutionalized. It seems that they are meant to be, however, because she quickly agrees to his request to become his girlfriend, as long as they have no physical contact. What follows is a montage of Pushing Daisies-esque moments.
Syd: “Please keep talking, so we can pretend that our problems are all in our heads.”
David: “What does that mean?”
Syd: “It means that you’re in here because somebody said you’re not normal.”
Lenny: “Oooh, I like her! I like you. You’ve got what the kids these days call moxie.”
Syd: “All I’m saying is, what if your problems aren’t in your head? What if they aren’t even problems?”
In spite of her mysterious origins and reasons for being at Clockworks, Syd seems to be a good influence on David. We see that he grows from a depressed, passive person to a relaxed young man wanting to engage in life. This is a stark contrast to the visiting scene we see with his sister, during which he is extremely restrained. Keller plays Syd initially as more sullen than relatable, but as time passes she shows us Syd’s vulnerability and damaged sense of self. We definitely get the sense that these two people share some sort of common pain, although we do not yet know what it is. She also thankfully grounds David, leaving those of us watching with less nausea-inducing scenes. We are also curious to find out why she is so insistent there’s more to things than meets the eye, and we soon get the answer.
An impulsive joining results in bizarre and lethal consequences and a new discovery
Knowing how quickly David and Syd bonded with one another, even without the aid of physical contact, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t respond well when they must part. She abruptly tells him that she has been scheduled for discharge, and he retreats back into the dark recesses of his mind. When the day finally arrives, David decides he isn’t going to accept the situation and races after her to say goodbye. We know from flashbacks that he impulsively kisses her, and in the blink of an eye the two of them switch bodies. Syd-David is held back in the unit as the day room turns into a Stephen King inspired red prison, while David-Syd is kept away in a safe outer room by Dr. Kissinger. After things quiet down, both David-Syd and the doctor go back inside and find a grisly scene – every door on the unit is missing, and Lenny’s dead body is trapped within the wall of her room. Eventually, the effects wear off and each returns to their own body, leaving one under custody and one free.
The Interrogator: “Stop. Would you say that again?”
David: “I said I looked in the mirror and I was her.”
The Interrogator: “Who?”
The Interrogator: “She was there with you?”
David: “No, somehow we – she took my place and I took hers when we kissed. But it wasn’t me – I didn’t do – it was her power – I think.”
Although presented in a very disjointed manner, we’re able to piece together (along with the interrogator) what probably happened. This is the first time we get a clear sense of what we’re going to see out of the show – that David is not (at least, not completely) mentally ill but gifted with mutant powers. It’s easy to say that those of us who tuned in knew that David had telepathic abilities, since we’d seen hints of it throughout the first part of the episode. However, we were completely taken by surprise at what happened once he touched Syd, and the switch could almost be attributed to David. It is only later that we realize it is not his gift, but hers, that allowed this to occur. This was a brilliant move on writer and creator Noah Hawley’s part to inject a little dark humor into the episode while generating excitement for any future scenes featuring the two of them using their powers. Personally, this is the point where I became truly invested in the episode, but what about you?
Say hello to the most functional dysfunctional family ever
With so many action-packed scenes crammed into this first episode alone, one of the most poignant moments turns out to be one of the quietest. Early on, we have a chance to meet David’s sister Amy when she brings a birthday cake by the hospital as part of her visit with him. They sit across from one another, separated by a partition reminiscent of prison, with no glass but a guard standing in the background. We witness one very awkward attempt at small talk between the two siblings as Amy tries to catch up and David is focused on getting out. Despite Amy’s assertion that he appears better, we don’t get the sense that she is entirely sure or that she thinks he is ready to rejoin the rest of the world.
David: “There’s, um… you can’t give me that (referring to candle on cake).”
Amy: “Oh. Oops. So, do they let you throw a little party here, or…”
David: “Yeah, they clear out the furniture. We get a DJ.”
David: “No. We do get better drugs, though.”
David: “No. It’s just Thursday. Like the 260th Thursday as a passenger on the cruise ship ‘Mental Health.’ On the plus side I’ve mastered eating with a spoon.”
Amy: “You’re getting better. The voices – you’re not seeing things that aren’t there?”
This exchange is short and one of many in “Chapter 1,” but it speaks to the potential of the series. The design of the set by Ide Foyle really reminds us how David feels about being in the hospital. It’s a prison to him, and we’re made to remember that. Placing David and Amy on opposite sides of the partition reflects the emotional distance between them, and the fact that they are the only colorful things in the room automatically makes them the focus of the scene. The costume design by Carol Case allows us to see that Amy takes great care in her appearance and is very put together, while David’s tracksuit is worn and slightly dirty. All of these things are meant to point out the tension that exists beneath the surface between the two siblings despite their desire to be connected. This scene shows us the David beneath all the chaos and confusion, and we cannot be anything but empathetic over his plight. He’s just someone who is resigned to his life, but he wishes desperately to be whole and to be loved.
Final Verdict: Legion “Chapter 1” delivers on its promise to showcase David’s distorted view, but the disjointed timelines and frenetic pacing may turn off audiences
Series premieres are often tough to do, because a show has to capture an audience almost immediately while carefully setting up the tone and feel of the rest of the series. Show creator Noah Hawley had previously stated in interviews that he wanted audiences to really understand the world from David’s eyes, but at the same time see how unreliable he is as a narrator. In that sense he succeeded, but the result was a pilot episode that too often makes us feel frustrated, confused, and reluctant to continue.
Even with the glimpses into David’s power isn’t enough to keep us adequately engaged, and the extreme nature of his distortions likely turned off many viewers who tuned in. The second half of the episode improved, but it was too little too late for a lot of us. On the plus side, the costuming, set design, and overall feel of the first episode was impressive, and the few peeks at the special effects were exciting.
It we could get through the premiere episode of this show, we would realize that we have as many questions as the interrogator for Division 3. What happened to the rest of David’s family, namely, his parents? Why was Syd in Clockworks in the first place? Was she a plant? Could Dr. Kissinger have tipped Summerland off somehow? What exactly is Division Six and why are they so determined to kill off all the mutants? Why is Melanie so interested in David, and what’s her story?
We’ve already touched a bit upon the flaws that made this episode less enjoyable. Although we know it was Hawley’s intent to give us a realistic portrayal of David’s mind, it was a very difficult way to be introduced to a series. It would have helped if he offset some of it with more linear perspectives from those around David. Syd and David’s relationship felt somewhat forced and the lack of clear time passing made it hard to determine how long they were together. There was an additional flaw that was personally distressing for me. As a mental health professional, it’s hard to see such stereotypical representation of mental illness and psychiatry in general. Although there was a time when these institutions existed (and some were horrible), the idea that it was a place for all those who didn’t fit into social norms is misinformed and spreads a negative message about mental health care.
Despite all these issues, many other aspects of the episode were phenomenal. The costumes by Carol Case were truly spectacular, and clearly evoked the best of 60’s fashion. The sets were beautifully rendered, leaving even the most disillusioned of us to smile at the random person hiding against the greenery wall or the tranquil landscape on which Summerland rests. Dan Stevens gives us a completely different performance in Legion than in his Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast roles, but it is one that really demonstrates his range. He truly has us believing David is tortured and damaged, and yet still manages to translate the tiny moments of happiness and hope amidst the madness.
In all honesty, this season premiere was a tough one for us. It was a struggle to get through the first half without checking out because of the lack of continuity and confusing setup. However, the second half, with its action, special effects, and introduction of Division Six and Summerland, were more of what we expect to see from the Marvel universe. It seems that if given the chance, Legion could redeem itself if it focuses more on its mythology and not on flash.
It’s safe to say that we are just as confused as we were at the beginning of the episode. If the end is any indication, we hope that next week will bring us more settled and constructive storytelling. At this point, our curiosity over seeing David transforming into Legion might just be enough to keep us tuned in for more.
You want questions? You can’t handle the questions!
- What just happened? No seriously, what the hell just happened?
- Who is behind Division 3? Why do they know about David?
- What is the extent of Syd’s gift, or that of the others at Summerland?
- Why does Melanie run Summerland? What is her true intention?
- We’ve seen glimpses of David’s abilities, but just what else can he do?
- Mr. Yellow-eyed devil – what or who the heck is he?
- If David isn’t crazy, then why does he hear voices?
- Can we go live at Summerland? It’s so pretty!