It's unlike any other superhero show out there, and its realistic portrayal of what it's like to be different in society is gripping.
Aubrey Plaza and Dan Stevens are phenomenal in their performances as Lenny and David.
The use of special and visual effects doesn't overshadow the storylines and character development.
The pilot, with its schizophrenic editing and antiquated views on mental health and healthcare, is not a strong beginning to the series.
At times, the desire to maintain mystery and intrigue ended up with too many loose threads that overwhelm us as the audience.
A completely unexpected take on superhero mythology, Legion both frustrates and delights us with fractured stories, stunning special effects, and memorable performances from its talented cast
FX’s new show Legion is based on a Marvel comic by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, with its characters existing within the X-Men universe. It focuses on the life of David Haller, a young man who was diagnosed as schizophrenic because of the voices and people he would insist he heard. His only remaining family appears to be his sister Amy, who keeps her distance but remains dutifully attentive. He is constantly accompanied by a loyal but enabling best friend, Lenny Busker. While institutionalized at Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, David meets a new patient named Syd Barrett, who not only opens his eyes to the possibility of love but power he never knew he had.
In Season one, David discovers after years of being treated as mentally ill that the voices inside his head might in fact be real. After an unfortunate incident at Clockworks leads to the death of Lenny, David is targeted by a secret government agency known as Division 3. With the aid of his new love Syd and her mysterious friends, he narrowly escapes and heads off to a secret sanctuary for mutants. As he begins work with Summerland leader Melanie Bird on understanding his gift, a complication arises when Amy falls into D3 hands. What follows is a frantic attempt to piece David back together in time to rescue her, but not before a much darker force reveals itself.
It may be a case of delayed gratification, but the results are worth the wait.
Some shows start off their series premiere with a strong pilot, one that both engages the audience and demonstrates the potential of the rest of the episodes. Others unfortunately turn away viewers due to a lackluster beginning or a cast of characters that are just unrelatable. For those of you who stuck with Legion past the first couple of episodes, you can attest that the latest Marvel product was more the latter than the former out of the gate. The pilot, while ambitious, tried too hard to set itself apart by attempting to imitate the chaos within David Haller’s mind on screen. The result was an hour and a half of choppy editing, confusing timelines, and an overload of information that had audiences struggling. Combine that with a rather antiquated (and fairly misinformed) initial representation of mental health care, and we had a premiere that made us question whether it was worth continuing.
“He’s (David) a haunted house, and the things that he’s seeing, the things that he’s hearing, they might have a logical explanation, but he doesn’t know that.” – Hawley on Legion, Vulture interview
Luckily, if you were already a fan of the comic book version of Legion, you knew what to expect and hung in there. For those of us unfamiliar with the mythology, there was just enough to make most of us curious enough to keep watching. No matter our reason for tuning back in, show creator Noah Hawley and the team of writers made up for it by offering the addition of outside perspectives, as well as a more rounded approach to David’s purported schizophrenia. Add to that a ragtag gang of equally quirky mutants at Summerland against a visually stunning backdrop and surprising musical selections, and you have the real Legion. By the end of season one, we come to realize the true genius behind Hawley’s unusual presentation and see the story for what it really is – an unflinching look at how society deals with nonconformity.
The cast makes it hard for us to tell where their characters begin and where they end, and it’s amazing
Let’s face it, David Haller would be a difficult character to play even for most seasoned actors. There’s always a hint of unhinged madness and potential for psychopathy beneath the surface, but in spite of this, we are supposed to want him to grow and succeed. While Dan Stevens has shown he can be commanding on both the small and silver screens, we have yet to see him play a character quite as fractured as this one. David does not start out as inherently likeable, but Stevens gave him a vulnerability that had us rooting for him even in his creepier moments. Despite his tall stature and handsome face, we still get the sense that David is a lost little boy waiting to be rescued. He takes our hand and becomes our tour guide into David’s world, forcing us to face the harsh realities the same way his character must.
“I think there are still many, many elements…waiting to be explored on David’s mental makeup…and I think one of the interesting narratives from this season was the idea of we are the stories that we tell ourselves.” – Stevens on David, Fox News Entertainment interview
While Legion is focused on David’s journey of discovery, we cannot forget the supporting cast of characters who impact his life. Aubrey Plaza’s turn as the irreverent and sardonic Lenny had us glued to the television every week, even when we were furious with her for holding David back. As her true identity is revealed, her level of crazy actually surpasses her supposed friend’s, which is terrifying. Rachel Keller, fresh off Hawley’s other show Fargo, gave us hope in the form of her unconditional love and unquestioning loyalty for David. Jean Smart’s interpretation of the maternal leader of Summerland is exactly the quiet confidence needed amidst all the chaos, and Bill Irwin’s serious turn as Cary was a pleasant surprise. Katie Aselton, Amber Midthunder, and Jeremie Harris round out the main cast, and each bring their own unique take on the mutant experience with them.
This is not the typical superhero origin story, and that’s why it should matter to you
One of the standard tropes we see often with any superhero is the struggle over whether to accept one’s differences from someone else. As we see with Rogue in the X-Men movies, her primary conflict is the desire to be normal and trying to come to terms with her ability. While this is definitely an intriguing and vastly relatable approach, it results in a rather predictable landscape of origin stories. What Hawley’s Legion does differently is to present a world in which those with mutant powers are in fact, much more damaged, and focusing on trauma and isolation that comes with that. The show does not shy away from the impact that their powers have on our characters, making it clear how it keeps them from having meaningful relationships and fulfilling lives. With David, his issues are so disruptive that he is imprisoned by both his mind and society.
“If you have a character whose experience of reality is unusual, that’s the show. You shouldn’t look at him from the subjective, normal point of view. But that brings you to a place that’s surreal…” – Hawley on Legion, Variety interview
It is too often that we see superheroes portrayed as more than “just human,” that they must learn to deal with their superiority over others. In David’s world, there’s a richer and more complex set of interactions. Amy is the sympathizer, someone who loves David but is at the same time terrified of him. She tries desperately to understand her brother, but falls short on more than one occasion. While those at Summerland remain indelibly marked by their pasts, they do not vilify those who rejected them. Even within D3, motivations and opinions are quite varied, as evidenced by The Interrogator versus The Eye. The idea is to point out to us that it’s not good versus evil or black versus white – it’s a spectrum of blurred lines. The episodes turn a mirror onto the audience, forcing us to face our own biases and prejudices while stirring thought provoking conversation.
Final Verdict: Legion is an unexpected contender for fans in the Marvel universe, but it’s fresh (albeit risky) take on David’s journey has won our hearts over
With Noah Hawley, known for his award-winning work on FX’s Fargo, at the helm, we knew Legion was going to be an unexpected perspective on the predictable Marvel universe. While we still love our cocky heroes, gentle giants, and skillful fighters, this show filled a void that we previously didn’t notice. By approaching mutant abilities within the context of mental illness, Legion humanized its characters and framed their stories in an unflinchingly realistic way. While initially falling back on misconceptions of psychiatric treatment that was off-putting at the least, the show quickly proved it was going to challenge the public concept of mental illness.
David’s struggles are those of everyday people who deal with rejection, loss, insecurity, and isolation, and matched by the experiences Syd, Ptonomy, Cary, and Kerry. Amy, The Interrogator, and Lenny represent the ways that society can react to such a person, while The Eye reflects those who use their differences to justify their behavior. Melanie’s quiet determination and therapeutic approach is much more aligned with modern mental healthcare – a constant push for destigmatization, normalization, and individualized plans of action.
Of course, we still get our fair share of action, special effects, and perfectly selected visual and auditory backdrops for each episode. We were treated to the musical number with Stevens and Keller early on and a touching partnership between Cary and Kerry. Add to that the beatnik poetry recited by Oliver Bird and an endless supply of Ptonomy’s witty one-liners, and we have enough entertainment to fill the entire season.
Ultimately, what makes this show successful is its willingness to see beyond the obvious when dealing with its subject matter. Hawley and the cast explore the psychological turmoil within each character unrelentingly week after week, even when it is so dark that it’s scary. Legion takes you on a journey that will ask hard questions and challenge your perceptions. If you accept the invitation, however, you won’t regret it – and you might even learn a little something.
Season One Final Verdict: Legion