The first thing we’ve got to ask ourselves watching the new FX series Legion is, what the hell is going on? Forget where this fits in with the X-Men universe. Forget about Easter eggs and references to the Marvel Universe. If you were watching Legion and thinking about any of that stuff you were either a) inexplicably bored by the material, or b) so hopelessly fan boy-ish that there’s no cure for you. What Noah Hawley‘s done with Legion is inexplicable. There are about a thousand ways to interpret the events of the pilot episode, and its hard to say if any of them are right.
Watching Legion is like watching a Grant Morrison comic, and I don’t mean Morrison’s run on New X-Men, I mean his Vertigo series The Invisibles. As soon as you think you know what’s going on, something happens that makes you doubt that carefully cultivated theory from the available evidence. Was anything that happened in the mental hospital real? I’m not 100 per cent sure. Of course, some events at the hospital, most importantly the apparent death of Lenny, had to be real. Right?
And what’s the timing of this series? Does it take place in the 70s? Or the 80s? Some weird not-too-distant future situation? Did you see anyone use a cell phone? And what was that music player that Lenny was listening to in the hospital? David’s sister Amy would have looked right at home on Laugh-In or The Brady Bunch, and Mackenzie Gray as “The Eye” looked like he just walked off the set of The Nice Guys. On the other hand, that was some kind of tablet that Hamish Linklater‘s “Interrogator” was using, yes? And all that’s to say nothing of the show’s internal timeline. How long was David in the mental hospital? How long was is it between Lenny’s death and when he’s picked up by the Division?
But in screwing with our heads like this, Hawley hits on a couple of things. First of all, the show does a great job of visualizing what it must be like in David’s head. His mutant power is mistaken for paranoid schizophrenia, and there are sequences where watching what’s going on sort of makes you feel like you’re going insane. At the same time, and this is something that’s definitely borrowed from Morrison’s X-Men run, Hawley makes you feel just how weird it is to be a mutant. The scene where Syd and David pull a Freaky Friday is amazing because it’s got to be a full five minutes before you realize just what the hell is going on. How long until we see an actual bird man mutant, or the Stepford Cuckoos? They would fit right in with Hawley’s world.
Still, it’s amazing how once seeing the completion of the pilot just how much the plot was advanced while you were focused on the inner workings of David’s mind and abilities. The Division, we learn, is trying to recruit and exploit mutant powers, and it seems that there’s an underground at work, including Syd, trying to save mutants, which is led by Jean Smart. Is she the Professor X of Legion? Of course, you’ve got to wonder if Syd was always a part of this group, and whether she was planted in the mental hospital to get close to David, and if so, how were they aware that David’s a mutant even though he isn’t?
The relationship between David and Syd was one of the most interesting aspects of the show, which is why it’s too bad that there’s now a bit of shade on Syd’s intentions. Following up on the weirdness of mutant life, we get to see how two people are romantic when one person has, as we’re initially supposed to believe, a touch-phobia. (It’s all the rage, ask the current president.) There was a genuine sweetness in seeing David and Syd walk around holding a piece of fabric together, but sweeter still was the scene where David and Syd’s reflections kiss in the window. One might be reminded of the Iceman/Rogue relationship in the X-Men movies, but I appreciated the way Hawley saw the romantic opportunities of one party not being able to touch anyone rather than the negatives.
Of course, none of that would have worked had it not been for Rachel Keller and Dan Stevens. Keller clearly shows there’s a lot more going on with Syd even before we learn she’s part of the mutant liberation front (which is a real thing from the comics, not that I’m saying that’s what they are). It would have so easy to just retreat into the weird girl tropes, kind of like Aubrey Plaza does playing Lenny, but Keller imbues Syd with a lot of sadness and longing. Stevens, meanwhile, is a revelation. I was never a fan of Downton Abbey, but he definitely commands attention as David without being overly twitchy or gregarious in playing the character for all his issues. I know where David ends up in the comic books, and if that’s the way TV David is going then I’m grateful that there’s such a magnetic presence as Stevens playing him.
On top of the performances, I can’t say enough about the technical skill of Hawley’s direction. Individual scenes where we see David’s power blow up beyond his control are marvelously executed with such artistry and restraint, but really the entire episode just had this wonderful flow. Although the narrative is disjointed as we jump through various points in the timeline, and perhaps various points in David’s memory, there’s a stream of consciousness to it that so easily carries you away into the story that every commercial break feels like you’re hitting a wall. The action scene at the end, which was a continuous shot of David, Syd and friends escaping from the Division, was an awesome cap to 90 minutes of television that really didn’t rely too much on action. Seeing that one mutant literally flick away soldiers was a subtle but awesome effect too.
The bottom line is that I’m eager to see more of this series. Legion is exactly the type of X-Men series I wanted to see, one that relies on exploring the nature and consequences of being a mutant as opposed to big superhero battles. The characters are fascinating, the plot is compelling, and it leaves you with so many questions you know that they can’t possibly get answered, nor do you really care. Legion, so far, is a slam dunk, and it will probably be imminently bingable, but for now we’ll just have to wait until next week for “Chapter Two.”