Legion isn’t going to make people believe in heroes, because it’s not a show about being super. It’s a complex, twisted look at a man who struggles with feeling powerless, even as he discovers he’s the strongest mutant in the world. But, that might make it one of the most powerfully entertaining shows on television.
The core of Legion is David Haller (Dan Stevens), an X-Men mutant who struggles with his massive abilities, which aren’t yet defined on the show. When we first meet David at the hospital in “Chapter 1,” we’re already intimately familiar with his life, as the opening shots unveil him growing into his powers. His mind is a blur of voices, thoughts, and emotions, and by the end of the montage, it’s no surprise he comes to believe he’s schizophrenic. Of course, you and I both know he’s actually an incredibly powerful mutant, someone everyone wants to get their hands on, but that’s something that will be unveiled over time, and I’m psyched to see how they approach it.
David’s brought to Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital after attempting suicide at college. As David transitions to life in the institution, receiving therapy (and drugs) for the voices in his head, he’s constantly asked “How does that make you feel?” That might be the most important question of the series, as the whole show’s dedicated to making us feel exactly how David does, largely through use of color, perspective, and pacing.
The show is very symmetrical. Every frame is designed to draw your gaze to a specific point. Scenes are colored to inspire different moods, alongside the settings themselves, which are a mix of dated 1970s schtick and sleek, modern gadgetry. It feels like the show knows what you need to be focused on before you do, helping viewers spot things they normally would miss, like the weird-eyed guy whittling the wolf figurine during the interrogation scene.
The series draws a lot of inspiration from Wes Anderson—which is kind of fascinating, since Legion creator Noah Hawley has been effortlessly channeling the Coen Brothers in his TV adaptation of Fargo. Hawley, who also wrote and directed the episode, manages to capture Anderson’s signature style while still making it his own. Hawley has an amazing eye and ear, and I honestly think he’s one of the best showrunners on television right now.
One of Hawley’s biggest strengths is his timing, and Legion is fantastically paced. Oftentimes, the show is painstakingly slow, mainly during the hospital scenes. It gets tiring and, frankly, a little bit boring. But that’s no accident. It lulls us into complacency before immediately thrusting us right into David’s head as he’s frantically sorting through his memories, since a lot of the episode is told in flashback. But it’s clear we’re seeing it through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. One moment, we see David’s college freakout where he levitated everything in his kitchen. The next, he’s doing a Bollywood-style dance with his fellow mental patients.
On top of that, David’s dealing with the voices in his head, which come and go over the course of the episode. It’s uncertain how many voices and personalities are warring in his head, but Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny is the only one seen bouncing around his mind by the end, which is great because she brings a much-needed levity to some of the heavier scenes.
That doesn’t mean this is all just some heedless mind trip—no, there’s some serious shit going on in Legion. David might not be aware of his potential, but a lot of other people are, like the government, which kidnaps David to get a handle on his abilities... or kill him. He’s later rescued by his in-hospital “girlfriend” Syd (Rachel Keller), who turns out to be mutant herself, and seems to be part of a larger resistance. In fact, the violent and intense rescue scene suggests there is a massive war going on between humans and mutants... and David, who’s struggling with severe mental instability, is thrown smack dab in the middle of it.
That’s how we know the show is doing something right. Even though the world is real and scary, by the end of the episode, we’re so deep in David’s mind that it’s hard to tell what is real and what is fiction. There’s a moment when David turns to Syd after she and her team of mutants rescue him, and he asks her “Is this real?” In that moment, I was just as uncertain as David was, and I’m still not entirely positive. For all I know, the next episode could start with him at the mental institution, and I’d be, like, “Yep, that makes sense.”
Legion has positioned itself as one of the most dynamic, intriguing, and complicated shows on television. Much like Logan, it’s taken a darker, more mature comic book storyline and molded it into something visually and emotionally insightful. Legion doesn’t care about crazy villains, flashy costumes, or awesome powers. Hell, there are barely any special effects until the final five minutes. In the end, only one thing matters: How it makes you feel.