Legion Tackled Mental Illness With Wisdom and Subtlety

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Legion. Photo: Michelle Faye/FX

Mutants are among the most well-worn metaphors in the eight-decade history of superhero fiction. First introduced in the pages of Marvel Comics’ The X-Men No. 1 in 1963, they were conceived of as outsiders; a minority population of individuals blessed with inborn superpowers and cursed with the persecution of a terrified public. Since then, their stories have served as parables about the trials and tribulations of various stigmatized groups: ethnic minorities, despised religious populations, queer communities, and so on. By using mutancy as an analogy, generations of creators in comics, film, and television have been able to discuss what it’s like to feel you don’t belong and your body is a thing to be feared and scrutinized, in the process making the X-Men corpus the most boldly progressive subsection of the capes-and-tights genre. But there’s one population that has been more or less ignored in the X-Men’s cavalcade of social simile: the mentally ill. In just eight short episodes, Legion has changed that.

The surreal FX prestige drama, created by Fargo helmer Noah Hawley and very loosely based on the comics adventures of a relatively minor X-Men figure named David Haller, wrapped up its first season tonight — a season that has been startlingly frank in its depiction of what it’s like to be neurodiverse. The discussion of mental illness on Legion has, like all things in the Kubrick-infused tale, been somewhat ambiguous as to who has what and what aspects of the illnesses are real or purely metaphorical. As such, there have been deliberately confusing plot points and tropes that can be interpreted as antiquated and a little retrograde. But on the whole, as the show has progressed, it’s made a number of vivid statements about ailments of the mind.

Perhaps the best summary of what Legion says about that topic comes in the finale during a bit of dialogue between Dan Stevens’s reluctant Chosen One, the unstable psychic David, and Rachel Keller’s untouchable Syd. “That’s the trick, the mind-killer,” he tells her, “your disease convinces you you don’t have it.” He’s describing his own struggle with his schizophrenia diagnosis, something he’d lived with for years before the show begins and led him to a dismal hospitalization in which he was “drugged, doing nothing, contributing nothing.” One day, miraculously, Syd and her mutant-renegade cohort recruit him and, as he puts it, “they tell you you’re not sick; you have superpowers. And more than anything, you wanna believe it, because that means you’re not crazy.”

That notion — that David’s alleged schizophrenia is really just his tremendous psychic abilities at work — forms the core of Legion’s wrestling match with the notion of mental health. Early on in the show’s narrative, it felt like a step backward into hoary stereotypes about treatment for mental illness. Since at least One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, there’s been a tradition of depicting psychiatrists and hospital administrators as quacks who are ignorant at best and sadistic at worst, and Legion carried the banner for that tradition in its first episode: We saw Clockworks, a psychiatric facility where David was told he was nuts and kept hopped up on pills that fogged his mind and deceived him about his tremendous abilities.

That is, to put it mildly, not a great model. Convincing yourself that you’re perfectly normal and that you’re being lied to by medical professionals can lead a person to eschew lifesaving medication or therapy. It’s also, frustratingly, a story structure that’s not uncommon in superhero fiction: The hero is told that his powers are all in his head and that he needs to be wrapped up in a straitjacket and kept under lock and key. Most recently, that sort of thing was a key plot point in the spring’s other major superhero TV event, Marvel’s Iron Fist: The protagonist found himself in a grim mental ward where bad doctors trapped innocent people and made up diagnoses to hold onto them long after their initial hospitalization. On Iron Fist and, it seemed, Legion, we were meant to think of this treatment program as something tantamount to brainwashing and torture.

However, as the latter story progressed, it became clear that, as is true of much of the show, all was not as it seemed. Sure, David gets rescued by Syd’s pals in the resistance, and their leader, Jean Smart’s wizened Melanie, repeatedly reassures him with variations of You’re not crazy. But by the season’s conclusion, David has realized that this, too, is a dangerous mentality. As he tells Syd, he has come to understand that faith in the idea that you’re not ill is both refreshing and potentially life-ending. It “means you can fall in love and live happily ever after; but you know if you believe it, if you surrender to the hope and you’re wrong, then you’re never coming back.” He doesn’t spell it out (the show never does with anything), but you can read “never coming back” as meaning the death or irretrievable madness that comes when a serious mental illness isn’t taken seriously in time.

That theme also comes up in one of the season’s most quietly devastating scenes, which occurs in the crackerjack sixth episode. The whole chapter is set within an illusory version of Clockworks constructed by the show’s psychic villain, and it also draws on a longstanding narrative conceit: the psych-ward illusion. In serials ranging from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer to comics’ Moon Knight (and, in parody form, a great episode of Community), there have been tales in which the protagonist wakes up in some form of mental hospital and is told that all of their daring adventures have merely been insane delusions. At first glance, the Legion installment looked like it was just leaning on that stale idea as some kind of time-filler before the big climax.

But there is much more going on here, especially in the aforementioned scene, which sees David taking a therapy session and talking about what sounds a lot like bipolar disorder. He’s recovered from a period of bleak depression and is finding a certain degree of peace and optimism; however, when his doctor asks him if he’s afraid he might lose that new hope, he wisely points out that losing it isn’t the problem — the high’s very existence might be dangerous. “I think about the mirage, how this feeling of clarity, how maybe that’s just a symptom of the other side of the disease kicking in.” “You’re talking about mania,” the doctor replies; David says yes. Here’s where the scene gets more viscerally honest — and, one suspects, personal — than TV usually is in its confrontations with mental health. “People always talk about the depression side,” David says. “But it’s the other side, that invulnerable feeling, that’s dangerous.”

As anyone with a bipolar variation can tell you, that statement is right on the money — and quite smart in its subtle subversion of the superhero fantasy. The genre is largely about the fantasy of powerless people finding power, and there is a special despair in the powerlessness of the mentally ill individual, especially someone in the depths of a brutal depression. While plumbing those depths, it can be useful to imagine yourself overcoming incredible odds and taking control of your life, as well as discovering that your perceived weaknesses can actually be strengths; your idiosyncrasies actually unique assets. But you can go too far down that path as well. It’s good to feel hope; it’s not so good to prevent yourself from acting on that hope by giving up on necessary and healthy treatment. It’s good to remind yourself that illness isn’t craziness; it’s dangerous to think you don’t have any illness at all. Legion gets that paradigm.

Also in that sixth episode, it reveals its clever plan to deepen the mutant metaphor. The whole squadron of David’s allies sit on the therapist’s couch over the course of the episode, an idea not totally new to the X-mythos (writer Peter David famously put a group of mutant compatriots into therapy for the classic X-Factor No. 87), but it’s never been explored quite like it is here. All of the characters’ superpowers are depicted as manifestations of various breeds of mental ailment: the supernaturally wonder twins Cary and Kerry are separation-anxiety-prone codependents, Syd is a haphephobic, the time-jumping Ptonomy is obsessively fixated on past trauma, and so on. On a surface level, this is merely an example of gaslighting, insofar as they’re all being told that they’re nuts, not gifted.

Gaze a little longer, though, and you see something special and powerful, something that permeates this pioneering superhero show: a story about how one’s neurodiversity can be both an advantage and an impairment. Your brain’s cognitive and emotional mutations can give you a particular perspective and resolve, but that doesn’t invalidate the fact that it makes your life hard. There is healing to be found in the acceptance that both things can be true.

And yet, as all X-Men stories remind us, you’re never alone in your marginalization. There are always other mutants out there who struggle just as much as you do to be accepted and healthy. “I am so sick of myself,” David says in the finale, expressing a sentiment that anyone who has lain at the bottom of a mental pit can relate to only too well. He then follows that sentence with something much more optimistic: “This only works if it’s not about me.” He’s right. For those of us who live with mental illness, accepting that you’re worthwhile and beautiful and deserving of happiness isn’t about seeing yourself as a lonely me; it’s about seeing yourself as a part of a beloved and healing us.

Legion Tackled Mental Illness With Wisdom and Subtlety