The following review contains spoilers.
Well, that was certainly intriguing.
“Legion” is the rare superhero show that I know nothing about. This really excites me. While it is connected to the big-screen “X-Men” franchise, the pilot episode makes it very clear that “Legion” will stand on its own.
Starring Dan Stevens and created by Noah Hawley, the creator of FX’s “Fargo”, “Legion” follows superhuman mutant David Haller and his battle with paranoid schizophrenia. The show truly follows David, as the viewer is welcomed into the protagonist’s crowded, voice-filled head.
Unlike other shows with mentally troubled characters like “Mr. Robot,” “Legion” wastes no time in proving that anything is as it seems. David Haller is, and will be, an unreliable narrator. Almost from the very beginning, characters are confirmed to be figments of David’s mind, and the viewer is treated to David’s tortured nightmares featuring the terrifying “devil with yellow eyes.” I deeply respect the pilot’s choice to confirm the narrator’s unreliability, rather than have a future episode confirm that David is hallucinating as some kind of twist.
Visually, the show quickly establishes a stylistic and unique look of its own. For instance, the detailed locales are methodically revealed to the viewer, some moments are shot upside down, and the scenes inside David’s mind can be quite psychedelic. David’s panic attacks are depicted in a tense and strangely beautiful way, especially when they result in an eruption of debris or kitchen utensils. Even the opening moments show a striking montage of David growing up and dealing with his mental illness.
In regards to the opening moments, “Legion” has no cliched exposition. There is no explanation for why David is a mutant, what a mutant is, or even the time period for which the show takes place. All of these decisions further the notion that “Legion” will be independent from Fox’s grander “X-Men” properties.
About halfway through the episode, the viewer finds out that David has been told his powers are imaginary and a product of his schizophrenia. The idea of David having powers is deemed crazy by the organization that has captured him. If David believes this, although the organization knows it is a lie, that would lead one to believe David has never had concrete proof that mutants exist. This makes me think that the show takes place before any of the mainline X-Men movies. (Many of the clothing and decorative choices also have a 1960’s vibe to them.)
Once again, the most exciting part of “Legion” is that it is a comic book property unlike anything we have seen before. To all but the most hardcore of superhero fans, these characters will be new, mysterious, and have stranger powers than most other TV or movie superheroes.
David seems to have telekinesis, but his escape from the mental hospital also seems to indicate that he can literally transform his surroundings. Sydney Barrett, played by Rachel Keller, is also an ambiguous character, who appears to have the power to switch bodies when in physical contact with other people.
Further differentiating “Legion” from other superhero properties will be its narrative focus. Compared to the CW shows, or even the Netflix Marvel series, “Legion” will be the darkest superhero show on TV right now. For example, David is shown attempting suicide in the opening montage, while the voices in his head try to stop him.
“Legion” will also be a more compact story, given it only has eight episodes in its first season. I hope this will keep it from having the filler episodes that plague other superhero shows.
Lastly, my biggest gripe with other superhero shows is the insistence on having one villain every season. The plots become predictable, with the villain always dying or being imprisoned in the finale. As it looks right now, the focus of “Legion” will be David’s mental state, and the antagonist might even end up being his own mind.
While the visual style and unpredictable nature of “Legion” are exciting, I have fear that the show may get lost in its own artistic and narrative flair. For instance, “Mr. Robot,” another show about mental health, has become lost and unfocused in its attempt to trick the viewer with hallucinations and hiding the details of the plot. “Legion” has already showed that it is not afraid to get weird with its visuals and plot, but I hope this never comes at the price of the actual narrative, as it sometimes does in the pilot.
On this note, narrative pacing is the episode’s biggest issue. “Chapter 1” covers a lot of narrative ground, covering David’s troubled early life, his time in a mental hospital, his escape, his capture by a seemingly evil organization, and then another escape. This does not even delve into the details, like his love for Sydney or his complicated relationship with his sister.
However, this all just goes to show that the pilot feels a little crowded and rushed. I did not even realize until after I finished the episode that David spent six years in the mental hospital. It seemed much shorter due to the pacing of the episode. As with “Mr. Robot,” the episode’s focus on strange visuals could have been reduced in order to better explain the story.
In addition to this, the show is visually gorgeous, except for the final scene in which David is rescued by other mutants. The escape is impressive in scope, but the rather mediocre special effects are quite jarring compared to the attention to detail shown in the rest of the episode.
Overall, I highly enjoyed “Chapter 1” of “Legion.” The world and characters take a bit to get used to, due to the show throwing the viewer into David’s troubled mind, but the show becomes more watchable as it goes on.
The performances from Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, and Aubrey Plaza are fantastic, and the writing flexes humor at the appropriate times. While having an unreliable narrator may prove to hurt the pacing and plot, “Legion” is one of the most visually and narratively interesting shows on TV right now, and it certainly makes a bold mark in the crowded genre of superhero dramas.
Some leftover thoughts and questions:
- Is Aubrey Plaza’s character, Lenny, definitively dead? Lenny’s quirkiness suits Plaza well, and if the character lives on as a figment of David’s mind, I look forward to seeing what the writers do with Plaza’s comedic wit.
- Who or what is the devil with the yellow eyes? It is referenced and shown on multiple occasions throughout the episode, and I am curious to see if it will actually manifest itself or prove to just be a fictional monster in David’s mind. Either way, the creature is quite disturbing.
- What is the nature of the mental hospital? Is every patient a mutant? It makes sense for the hospital to be a place to send mutants who receive power-suppressing drugs in order to convince them that their powers are hallucinations. This also could be the last we see of the hospital, which makes this a moot point.
- The details of David and Sydney switching bodies were confusing. When did David stop being inside Sydney’s body? Regardless, I enjoyed Lenny’s jokes about the body swap in a later scene.
This article was originally published on MUTV on February 11, and was edited by Olivia Jacobson.