by Josie Kafka
Noah Hawley’s Legion, inspired and perhaps adjacent to the X-Men universe, is the latest and sharpest entry in the superhero genre: trippy, gorgeous, and otherwise impossible to describe. I loved it.
Here’s what we know: David Haller has paranoid schizophrenia. His delusions, and any related mood disorders, led to a suicide attempt that landed him in a mental institution, where a cocktail of drugs keeps the worst bits at bay. He also has powers. Some people in the show acknowledge this. Even David seems to realize it, as he claims at one point that he did have powers, but the drugs like Haldol took them away. Everything else is up for grabs, resulting in a show I’d call impressionistic if its aesthetic weren’t so clean, and postmodern if it weren’t for the throbbing heart at its center.
The first two seasons of Fargo, Noah Hawley’s splashy debut, vacillated between “almost saccharine, but…not” and a “black—or even bleak—comedy of death and mayhem.” With this first episode, Legion looks poised to find a perfect balance between the two, all dolled up in Hawley’s remarkable visuals.
In a commentary on an episode of Buffy, Joss Whedon discussed the TV learning curve, describing his own process as a gradual realization that TV was more than just “radio with faces.” Hawley’s mastered that curve, and then some, to create a mélange of striking shots that communicate just as much, if not more, information than the dialogue—sometimes in fascinating counterpoint.
For instance, there is a contrast between what we hear and what we see. Early in the episode, a banal voice asks David the classic shrink question: “How does that make you feel?” as scenes from his life, scenes of him using his powers, and even the words “The Devil with the Yellow Eyes” appear on screen. When we see the devil, we assume he is not real. But this is the X-Men universe, in which David’s ability to float objects is both real (to us, as aware watchers) and astonishingly unbelievable to him (as a young man who knows that not all he experiences fits into the tidy box we label “reality”).
Legion is also just pretty to look at, from the juicy reds and clean whites of the interrogation room to the earth-toned 1960s haze of the institution. Does it matter that the red-and-white color scheme of the interrogation room matches Philly’s kitchen, where David made objects float? Is the dated aesthetic of some places and clothing meant to indicate a trippy reality, or just take us on a trip through David’s head?
Those are questions we’re not supposed to answer yet, making this entire world as uncertain as Lester Malvo’s motivations in the first few episodes of Fargo. But Hawley has earned our trust, and the nuanced characters and sweet romance at the center of this episode ground the ambiguity of the world.
Dan Stevens brings all the right puppy-dog emotions to his portrayal of David—and I mean that as a compliment: deep shame at destroying the kitchen, sweet exuberance at the prospect of sharing a bed with his favorite human, tail-wagging glory at using his powers in the interrogation room. I had been hesitant to even watch Legion due to my distaste for Stevens’s character on Downton Abbey, and now I just want to give David a plate of cookies, a kitten, and a pat on the head to make him feel better.
I’m less certain of some of the supporting cast, not because they’re bad (they’re all wonderful) but because I’m not sure if I should get attached to people who might not exist. Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny, for instance—I was convinced Lenny was a figment of David’s imagination, but The Interrogator talked about her like she was real. Now that she’s been en-walled, of course, she’s joined the brigade in David’s head, a sort of obscene cheering squad.
Rachel Keller’s Syd Barrett* is fascinating. In an interview, Keller explained that Brigitte Bardot was an inspiration for her look, and Keller’s haunting eyes and fabulous figure are a match for that iconic beauty. But what is she? She hates to be touched—or “handled”—and seems to have the power to create body-swaps and enter people’s memories. She works for an organization led by Jean Smart. Beyond that, I have no idea what’s going on.
Except that I like it. I like the look. I like the characters. I like the mystery and ambiguity, and the way that little details (like the psychiatrist touching Syd, which seemed wrong until we learned it was David in Syd’s body) show the depth of thought that went into every moment.
There is a lot that is unknown. We have big questions: What is real? Who is real? And plot questions: What is Jean Smart’s team doing? Are they and The Interrogator’s team locked in a battle for powers over mutants? Those questions wouldn’t be enough to keep me watching on their own. But combined with the look, the characters, and my own faith in Hawley, I can’t wait for the next episode.
Without the Meds, It’s Really Hard to Keep Things Straight:
• I have not read any of the Legion comic books, nor do I intend to. If you’re interested in learning more about the character in the comic books, I recommend this article.
• And, perhaps related to that ignorance, my first question: some of the promotional material for this show calls Dan Stevens’s character David Haller, others call him Steve Young. Um…?
• Second question: David Haller, Legion himself, is an X-Men character. But this show clearly doesn’t take place in the X-Men film universe. So…?
• Was that one guy in the interrogation room carving animals out of soap? Did the animals have power? (Does that question just sound stupid?)
• Programming Note: Due to life, work, and not having cable, I won’t be able to post my Legion reviews until Friday, at the earliest. I also want to avoid another Westworld debacle.
Let’s go for a three Dancing Dan Stevenses out of four, so that we have room to grow.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)