So I know I said last time that I didn’t want to do three film-related posts in a row. And I meant that. I fully intended this week to write about that stupendous stack of new funnybooks I bought last week. But that was before I watched Legion.
Currently running on the FX network, Legion is a super hero series based on the X-Men character of the same name. So it’s funnybook related, at least. Or maybe funnybook adjacent. Because this thing takes some definite liberties with the original concept, and–
Eh. Y’know… That’s not important. The show’s funnybook pedigree isn’t why I want to write about it. I want to write about it because it’s a remarkable piece of genre entertainment, stylish and intelligent and weird and funny and terrifying. It’s even, at times, whimsical and heartwarming. The writing staunchly refuses (except for one particularly egregious bit of exposition in episode five) to spoon-feed the audience. So it’s challenging, but without being frustratingly vague. Its vagueness, quite the contrary, is never anything less than intriguing.
I don’t think the super hero genre’s ever seen anything quite like it on film. Hell, it’s seldom seen anything like it in print. The best comics comparison I can think of is the work of teams like Pete Milligan and Brendan McCarthy, or Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. And if you’re a long-time visitor to the nerd farm, you know that’s some of the highest praise I’m ever likely to give.
Even higher praise is the fact that I sat down this weekend and watched not just one episode, but all six that have aired so far. That’s unheard-of in my house. I’ll usually watch one, maybe two, episodes of something, max, before I decide that I need to get up and do something else. With Legion, the first episode ended, and I went scrambling for the remote. “Yeah, we’ll have more of that!” If I hadn’t needed to get up the next morning, I might have quite happily sat there all night watching the whole damn thing in one go. That might not have been good for my nerves, though, because… But we’ll get to that. First, we should probably get down to basics.
Legion is the story of David Heller, a vastly powerful mutant with psionic abilities including (but evidently not limited to) telepathy, telekinesis, and whatever you call it when you can teleport stuff with your brain. Raised without the benefit of guidance from anyone who knew how to deal with a child that hears voices in his head, David was incorrectly diagnosed with schizophrenia, and developed a host of real mental problems as a result. So the show opens with David in an insane asylum…
Where he hangs out with his buddy Lenny, an impishly amoral fellow inmate who–
Wait. No, wait. That’s not how it starts. It starts with David AFTER the asylum, being interrogated by a couple of detectives or government agents or something, one of whom doesn’t talk and has a weird cloudy eye…
…and from there we flash BACK to the asylum. Or… Wait. Maybe it starts with the frog.
No. No, the frog DEFINITELY comes later. Earlier. But later. It STARTS with the asylum, and the interrogation, and that time David switched bodies with his girlfriend.
Which, yes. He’s got a girlfriend. Sydney Barrett, or Syd for short (because this show is nothing if not unafraid to wear its influences on its sleeve). He had another girlfriend before the asylum, named Philly. But after the frog, and that thing that happened in the kitchen, she wanted to leave him. Wanted to, but
OHHOLYCHRISTWHATTHEHELLWASTHAT?! I’m not–
Hello! And welcome! Welcome to our review of Legion, the X-Men-adjacent series on FX, starring Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller as two mentally-ill young mutants who fall in love. Developed and masterminded by Noah Hawley, who’s also behind the excellent Fargo series (also on FX), Legion is one of the most stylish and intelligent shows on TV, one that…
Hrm. Have we… Been here before? I dunno, it just seems like… Well. It’s probably nothing.
Where was I?
Ah, yes. Legion.
It’s a super hero love story, in a way. When Syd walks into David’s asylum, she– Her name is Syd. Sydney Barrett. Because this show is nothing if not unafraid to wear its influences on its…
Okay, what the fuck? There is definitely something strange going on, and
So for a while in the first episode, I thought that was how things were going to go: we’ve got David being interrogated, telling the story of what happened in the asylum and before, and through that I figured we’d get the whole thing laid out for us piecemeal. A little story here, a little story there, a full-on old-style Hollywood musical number over yonder a ways…
And I would have been perfectly happy with that. The show was quirky and entertaining, and there was obviously more going on than what you were seeing on the surface. It leapt wildly from drama to comedy to horror, and it made those leaps with breathtaking fearlessness, somehow weaving it all together into a coherent tone. I found myself both excited and anxious, engaged with it in a way that I’m generally too experienced an audience to feel. It could have continued on like that, bouncing back and forth from the interrogation to the asylum to wherever else it needed to go, and it would have been glorious.
But then it went and moved on. Plot happened.
We find out that David’s interrogators are part of Division Three, which is some kind of black ops outfit, an organization monitoring his power levels and trying to decide if he should be recruited or killed. He’s rescued from their clutches by Syd and this other whole new set of characters lead by Jean Smart as Melanie Bird, a woman who finds budding mutants and helps them figure themselves out. She helps David dig into his memories, where we find out more about his childhood, and that’s when things get seriously weird.
Things we saw in previous flashbacks get contradicted or put in a new context that changes their meaning. In at least one instance, a single line of dialogue changes our understanding of David and his life. We also see that there seem to be different Davids in various different periods of his life. David the Junkie is disaffected and cruel…
…in a way that David the Devoted Boyfriend isn’t. And David the Troubled Youth seems to revel in his abilities, while David the Mental Patient seems perplexed by them.
Now, this is all metaphor to some extent. Seen from the outside, we might all seem like different people at different points of our lives. And memory is notoriously untrustworthy. People seldom remember things as they really happened. They forget details, and fill them in with things that make sense to them, or that make them feel better about a situation. Memory and identity are fluid for everyone. And it’s even worse for a schizophrenic mutant junkie god whose own brain betrays him on a regular basis. Because, since early childhood, he’s had
Gud dog. Gud. Good. Dog. Good.
Where was I?
Oh, yeah! Legion!
The other thing making this show stand out from the pack, other than the stellar writing and direction, is its sense of style. Noah Hawley is on record as saying that he believes narrative should mimic content. In other words, the way the story is told should connect in some way with what the story’s about. So a story about a schizoid telepath with a faulty memory is told in a disjointed, confusing, and sometimes intentionally contradictory manner. It’s also a comic book story, so he wanted everything to have a sense of heightened reality. So it’s all intense colors and striking imagery.
The costume and set design is a clean mix of retro-Sixties and modern-day, in an effort to avoid having it look like any specific place or time. It’s an alternate universe, Hawley says, so why should it be governed by the trends of our own?
He takes a similar approach to super powers, presenting them in a fresh and imaginative way, and thereby restoring some of the wonder to them. There’s a telekinetic on Melanie Bird’s team, for example, who can grab things with his mind and launch them away at frightening speed, and it’s never less than startling to see him do it in this world where such things do not often happen. Then there’s Carey and Kerry, a man and a woman who share the same body, and have vastly different personalities. Carey is a scientist who handles the boring details of life, and Kerry is an ADHD martial artist type who lives to fight.
But Hawley also deals with the horrific aspects of super powers, the terrible stuff that can go wrong. Syd’s power, for example, is that anytime she makes skin-to-skin contact with someone, she switches bodies with them. And that’s left her painfully isolated, and afraid to be touched. She’s this weird mix of tough, vulnerable and gorgeous, and it’s easy to see why David falls for her at first sight.
By episode six (of only eight, alas), the major plot points have all been laid out, and we’re heading into the denouement. But, the nature of this show being what it is, there are still holes in our knowledge. I’m not entirely clear, for instance, on whether Division Three ran the asylum, because David definitely wasn’t the only mutant being held there. Syd’s one too, of course, and then there’s this guy:
He first appears as a seemingly normal (if over-medicated) mental patient, drooling on himself in a wheelchair as David and Lenny speculate on the composition of his spittle. But later there’s a flash of him in the garden like this. And he appears again several episodes later, when
I like Larry.
That’s… not a first for me with Legion, however. So… yeah. Yeah…
As I motored through episodes, getting deeper into David’s troubled mind and the things lurking inside it, I started to feel a palpable sense of danger. The more I watched, the more wound up I got. Excited because I was enjoying the ride so much, but also anxious. Unsettled. Frightened. I had gone into the marathon thinking there were only five episodes to watch, and felt a bit relieved when they were over. Then episode six suddenly materialized in the video-on-demand list, and I realized that I was, helplessly, no question about it, going to have to watch it. And that almost seemed like more than I could bear. So thankfully, I needed to stop and make dinner first, and that gave me time to calm down before plunging back in.
Do you have any idea how rare that kind of visceral reaction is for me? Do you know how especially rare it is for me to get it from a damn TV show? Well, it’s rare. Exceedingly rare. Don’t-Remember-the-Last-Time-It-Happened rare. And it’s not that the show is really all that scary. It’s not. It’s just so good that it got me riled up, and that opened the door for the slow-burn freak-out I was experiencing by the end. When I told some friends I was going to do this, one of them offered me a bucket to catch my face when it melted off. At the time, I laughed. By the end, I was really wishing I’d taken him up on it. It’s just that good.
So here’s my question: how the hell did I miss this for six freaking weeks? Why wasn’t the interweb screaming at me, every week, every damn day, YOU MUST WATCH THIS NOW YOU DUMB SUNNUVABITCH! Because, seriously. SERIOUSLY. I should have been watching this from day one. And when I didn’t, the world should have risen up and slapped me in the face until I did. Jesus! I gotta git me some better interwebs…
Oh, yeah. And now, for no reason at all, here’s a picture of Sydney and a goat.