“Something new needs to happen soon.”
David Haller (Dan Stevens) mutters this line to his sister, Amy (Katie Aselton), as he exits the visitation room in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, and his words are an apt description of the current state of superhero film and television properties. There are certainly exceptions, but the vast majority of these stories are extremely repetitive, offering slight variations on the basic concept of superheroes taking on supervillains and defeating them with spectacular violence. While the specifics may change, there’s very little in the way of true experimentation with form, structure, and genre tropes.
Legion is something new. It’s unlike any live-action superhero project that has come before it, with a superpowered lead character who’s thrust into an abstract journey through his fractured mind. As an offshoot of the X-Men franchise, Legion does contain some of the things X-fans have come to expect: super-powered individuals, a malevolent government organization, and a group that offers sanctuary to oppressed, misunderstood mutants. But the similarities stop there.
Developed by Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, who wrote and directed “Chapter One,” Legion uses psychic superpowers to offer an unconventional approach to the subject of mental illness. David Haller is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, but the true nature of his illness is an open question, particularly how it relates to his telepathic and telekinetic abilities. This first episode begins with a summary of major moments in David’s life while the Who’s “Happy Jack” plays in the background, a blend of powerful imagery and evocative music that will be immediately familiar to Fargo viewers. Hawley has been given free rein to maintain his distinct style while playing in the X-Men sandbox, and the result is something much more psychological and opaque than what Fox previously delivered with Marvel’s mutant team.
The X-Men franchise is in a strange place right now. Last year’s Deadpool was a hyper-violent satire that poked fun at the genre while still adhering to the conventions that define it, while X-Men: Apocalypse was an uninspired, ugly disaster that failed on nearly every level. Legion is a major departure from both, one that embraces complexity and confusion as it presents a subjective view of the world through David’s perspective. “Chapter One” is challenging in a way the X-Men movies definitely are not, abandoning the crowd-pleasing superheroics in favor of a narrative that focuses on the variability of memory and the struggle of coping with debilitating mental illness.
In “Chapter One,” the viewer isn’t supposed to understand everything that’s happening, which is especially refreshing because mainstream superhero stories are so concerned with easy comprehension of the plot. Superhero movies need to reach the largest audience possible to justify those nine-figure budgets, but Legion doesn’t have much financial baggage as a cable-TV series. It has the freedom to leave viewers with lots of questions, and while that may turn some people off, it allows the show to do things that are genuinely, thrillingly different. I’ve seen the first three episodes of Legion, and the seemingly random moments in “Chapter One” will make much more sense on a second viewing, after gaining more context about David’s life and the memories that are shown in brief, disorienting flashes. In other words, be patient. It’s okay to be confused.
The subjectivity of the storytelling is responsible for much of that confusion, and the events of this episode are filtered through David’s unreliable point of view. His mind is scattered, so the sequence of events is scattered, presenting moments without information regarding what comes before or after. The scene with David’s big telekinetic explosion in the kitchen of his old apartment is the special-effects centerpiece of “Chapter One,” but the audience doesn’t know why it happens or if it was the event that led to his time at Clockworks. Another mysterious event is David hanging himself with a red cord at the end of that opening montage; rather than provide any answers about that attempted suicide, the episode only introduces more questions.
Hawley wants viewers to be bewildered by what’s happening onscreen, and that brings a sense of wonder to Legion that is lacking in more traditional superhero narratives. When the same plot unfolds over and over again, how do you recapture the astonishment of seeing a superpowered person tap into their extraordinary ability? For Hawley, the solution is clear: throw the audience into the deep end, trust that they’ll enjoy the plunge, and hope that they’ll find a way to swim. The word dive figures prominently in David’s interactions with the government organization that has captured him, and Legion is all about diving into David’s mind and letting it envelop the viewer.
Questions like time and place don’t matter. There’s no set location except for Clockworks, which isn’t in a specific city, and the time period isn’t easy to grasp. The production design and clothing suggests the ’60s or ’70s, but there’s also anachronistic technology, like the tablet used by Hamish Linklater’s unnamed government interrogator. There’s a sense of being adrift while watching “Chapter One,” and the final shot of David grabbing the hand of Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) is the first step toward gaining some footing on solid ground.
After establishing himself as a pristinely handsome leading man in Downton Abbey and The Guest (I’m just going to leave this here), Dan Stevens shows a new side of his acting ability on Legion, playing a jittery, anxious, frightened character desperate for stability and affection. He still holds on to his leading-man charisma, but there’s an intense vulnerability behind those piercing blue eyes, a weakness that begs the audience to care about David and care for him. He is a man craving connection, and that need leads to so-called “The Incident” that brings him to the attention of Linklater’s character and the shadowy government organization, which wants to uncover the full extent of his abilities. An over-hasty kiss with Syd (Rachel Keller), another patient at Clockworks, reveals her body-swapping ability, and when Syd is in David’s body, his raw power leads to devastating consequences.
This situation is obviously fraught, but Hawley also makes sure to include moments of humor that prevent “Chapter One” from becoming overbearingly bleak or alienating. David cracks jokes in his first conversation with his sister, Amy, who quietly removes all the sharp objects in her basement after he has a telekinetic outburst, and Aubrey Plaza brings a gleeful mischief to Lenny, David’s friend at Clockworks who meets a grisly fate after Syd and David switch bodies. (Unable to control his abilities, Syd releases a telekinetic blast that transforms every door in Clockworks into a solid wall, literally cementing Lenny within the threshold.) In a later scene, Lenny reappears as a sinister, swaggering hallucination. Then there’s David’s musical dream set to Serge Gainsbourg’s “Pauvre Lola,” which plays like a mix of a Bollywood group number and an American Horror Story musical sequence. Hawley finds room for fun and joy in the midst of the intensely paranoid atmosphere and disturbing imagery (what exactly is going on with the Devil With the Yellow Eyes?), making it easier to engage with David’s story on a personal level.
Rachel Keller made a big impression with her nuanced performance as Simone Gerhardt in Fargo last season, and she does exceptional work in Legion as Sydney “Syd” Barrett (an allusion to the founding member of Pink Floyd, who suffered from mental illness as a result of heavy psychedelic drug use). For most of this first episode, Keller is playing the idea of Syd that exists in David’s memory, and she gives a broader, flightier performance in the scenes detailing their courtship at Clockworks. Syd represents a sense of serenity and comfort that David is denied, and he’s able to achieve a sense of calm when he’s with her. This is reinforced by the episode’s recurring backlighting of Syd; she’s literally radiant, a flash of light in the pervasive darkness of David’s life.
When Syd appears at the end of the episode, Keller’s performance is more focused and has heavier emotional weight. This is the real Syd, not an idealized memory of her. She’s more aggressively direct, but still warm and loving. She genuinely cares for David, and that compassion is what ultimately allows him to differentiate between the hallucinations in his mind and what is real. In a thrilling sequence that is closest to the action typically associated with the X-franchise, Syd rescues David with the help of a small squad of mutant do-gooders, but David doesn’t know if this is just another trick of his mind. He finally accepts the reality of his circumstances when Syd tells him she loves him and prods him to reciprocate, which he does. In that moment, love becomes David’s anchor. His relationship with Syd will be what guides him down the winding path to healing and self-realization.