FX’s Legion Is a Decadently Inventive, Aesthetic Dream

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L-R: Rachel Keller as Syd Barrett, Dan Stevens as David Haller. Photo: Chris Large/FX

Legion is a trip: brainy, tight, yet so decadently inventive that I found myself laughing out loud at the sheer audacity of the damned thing. The first three episodes of this X-Men-styled mutant melodrama are superb, and the pilot in particular is an all-timer, but the whole thing is so aesthetically fresh that I could see myself continuing to watch it even if it suddenly became dumb as hell, just to see what new storytelling trick showrunner Noah Hawley and his collaborators have up their puffy magicians’ sleeves.

Told mainly from the point of view of a telekinetic loner named David Haller (Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey), this is a fractured, highly subjective saga, jumping around in time from the hero’s childhood through his present incarceration in a government facility, and ahead to events that won’t be fully explained until much later. As David jousts with sinister jailers, befriends a blissed-out wise-ass played by Aubrey Plaza, and becomes smitten with a beautiful loner named Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller) who says she doesn’t liked to be touched, he also travels deep inside his own tortured mind, revisiting, and in some cases revising, the story he’d presented to us and others, discovering contradictions and lies, filling in gaps created by trauma or repression, and otherwise making sense of himself.

Along the way, Legion packs a season’s worth of cinematic technique into the first few episodes made available to critics. It finds ways to suggest alternate, in some cases still-theoretical modes of perception, including consciousness-swapping (truly dazzling because so much of this is conveyed through the actors’ performances) and tours of other peoples’ memories (the characters’ avatars enter specific recollections and move around inside them, like tourists who’ve been permitted to loiter onstage during a play; they can also run particular moments forward and back like a YouTube clip). There are long single-take action sequences where six or seven things are happening at once and you have to decide what to look at, soundless outbursts of telepathic mayhem scored to operatic pop and rock, and (yes, really) a dance number. Everything but the kitchen sink. Well, there’s a kitchen sink in here, too, come to think of it. Mr. Robot seems austere in comparison, yet also paradoxically less focused. I never get the sense here that the storytellers are just trying things out, riffing or expanding a moment because they’re digging it. The whole thing seems very purposeful and exact, even if that doesn’t come across right away. You think, “That was random,” then ten minutes or two episodes later you realize, “Oh, right, that’s what that was about.”

The plot, drawn from the comic by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, is standard-issue superhero-conspiracy stuff, with David being packed off to a high-security mental hospital that’s actually a combination government medical-research facility and holding cell, a place where mutants are held until authorities can decide whether they can be controlled and trained or if they should be put to death in the name of public safety. I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that David spent his entire life thinking he was mentally ill but is actually an Incredible Hulk of psychic violence, and that the powers he thought he possessed and all the bizarre images he kept seeing were just figments of a damaged mind; all this is put across in the first few minutes of the pilot, a fiendishly vivid, compressed montage of David’s childhood and adolescence that is articulated, like most of Legion, mainly through images, sound, and music, rather than through dialogue or voice-over narration.

Hawley, who wrote and directed the pilot, is a novelist first and foremost, but unlike many filmmakers who made their bones in literature, he realizes that words are but one tool in a filmmaker’s kit. The control exercised here over tone and point of view as well as chronology is extraordinary, it continues in the next two episodes (albeit on a smaller scale), and is articulated in a genuinely cinematic way. Time jumps, shifts of perspective and attitude, even small adjustments in power dynamics between characters are conveyed through cuts, camera movements, dissonant sound effects, unexpected bits of music and so forth, rather than by having somebody walk onscreen and announce it, which is how probably 90 percent of television dramas, including good ones, would do it. (Even Jessica Jones, which had some extraordinary stretches of subjective filmmaking, wasn’t this experimental; much of the story was still conveyed in traditional scenes of people talking until the point had been made.)

Like Hawley’s sister FX series Fargo — which plays like an homage to every Coen Brothers film ever made as well as every piece of art that fed the Coens’ imaginations, yet somehow manages to maintain its own peculiar identity — Legion should never be turned into a spot-the-influences drinking game, because it would make your liver explode. Suffice it to say that two of the most prominent influences here are the least expected: Wes Anderson, whose deep-focus, often symmetrical compositions, mid-century analog designs, and retro-hipster soundtracks infuse even the most dire set pieces with pop fizz; and Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All That Jazz), who fractured his film narratives into glittering pieces without confusing the viewer. My major complaint at this early phase is that the show spends more time looking back (into the hero’s past) than ahead (to whatever the future will bring for him and his mentors and colleagues). Westworld and Mr. Robot suffer from this same problem, but at least Legion has figured out a way to make the information-delivery process kinetic and exhilarating, not to mention charming. And even if it never amounts to anything but a bunch of great notions and enjoyable performances, I’ll keep watching.

*A version of this article appears in the February 20, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

FX’s Legion Is a Decadently Inventive, Aesthetic Dream