Legion Season 1, Episode 1: I Can’t Believe This Show Actually Exists

Let’s begin with a brief history of the way that the X-Men and the various surrounding mutants have been treated in live-action over the years.

Like shit. History complete.

But seriously folks, if there was ever a franchise more consistently underperforming to its potential, it would be the X-Men. A rich group of characters with potent dramatic scenarios ripe with tension and subtext and cultural potential that constantly get shoved into action movies and action movies. Great individual portions (Jackman, McAvoy, Fassbender) have never amounted to a necessarily cohesive whole, and it’s a universe that has ultimately had more failures than successes.

Which makes Legion (based on the character created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz) all the more impressive for simply how much of a success it is coming out of a franchise that has so often settled for good at the best. This isn’t just “good for a superhero show.” This is great television, announced by a pilot that packs one of the most potent opening punches I’ve ever seen.

So…What The Hell Just Happened?

Legion is the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a young man currently living out his years in a mental ward after a schizophrenia diagnosis and a psychological break that has left him disconnected from reality. He shuffles through with his friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), going to his appointments, taking his pills, occasionally seeing his sister Amy (Katie Aselton).

One day, he meets another patient named Sydney “Syd” Barrett (Rachel Keller). She doesn’t like to be touched. He falls in love with her. On the day Syd is released, the two kiss, which causes David and Syd to switch bodies. Syd loses control and unleashes a torrent of power from David’s body, which draws the attention of the Government.

This is then intercut with scenes of interrogation by a mysterious figure (Hamish Linklater) who appears to be working with a shadowy governmental organization to keep David under their control, as they believe he may be one of the most powerful mutants who’s ever lived. This is also intercut with flashbacks to David’s childhood and his breakdown, flights of fancy (including a Bhangra musical number), and the recurring appearance of the unsettling “Devil with the Yellow Eyes.”

There’s a lot going on here, this is as linearly as I can tell the basics of this story.

What Works?

Where do we start?

This is probably one of the most aesthetically and formally ambitious television shows…ever. Showrunner and director of the pilot Noah Hawley has thrown down the gauntlet with the first episode of Legion. This is a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, hallucinatory dose of pure television insanity. 60s clothing and architecture clashes up against modern technology and villainy. The aspect ratio shifts constantly, there are time loops and unknown visions, and as I said, David and his mental ward companions break into a dance number.

I hate to be so cliche, but I really don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this on TV. Legion doesn’t care whether or not you can follow it, it’s so confident in the twistiness of its vision, borrowing heavily from Kubrick and the psychedelic and avant-garde filmmakers of the 60s. There’s something to admire in the basic level of a show that’s asking you to follow along with it and not necessarily minding if it leaves you behind. There’s such amazing confidence here that creates something so…fun out of something so fundamentally challenging.

See, this is where Legion crosses into great television. It’s mired in mythology and heavy ideas and psychedelic terror, but it glides through all that with such a sense of excitement, a giddiness that it brings you along with on every step. You’re having a lot of fun with what’s happening here, seeing the next twist the story will take, seeing the next little dark joke, marveling in the next visual firework.

Hawley seems to have abandoned necessarily sticking to the canon (the same success that led to the amazing Fargo) for finding the human and the extraordinary inside the property. It’s X-Men, but it feels like the product of a unique storyteller.

A storyteller who knows how to tell a story that welds its form to its function. You, the viewer, are absolutely as disoriented and as disconnected from reality as David is. You have no anchor on what the reality is, Hawley makes sure to keep you as off guard, as questioning as David. As the plot snaps into focus, we start to find our legs in the show, we lock into a story and into a reality.

It helps that there’s an extraordinary amount of talent here. Hawley’s direction I’ve said enough about, but his script crackles too, as much as it’s willing to let words get out of the way for images. It’s also willing to keep everything from getting buckled under the weight of “THIS ALL MATTERS” portentiousness and just have some fun.

Legion is also gifted with Dan Stevens at its lead. Stevens is a remarkable actor, absolutely in control of every aspect of his physicality and gifted with a truly staggering amount of charisma. The only thing Legion really takes from him are his good looks, turning him strung-out, but even through that he shines. His David is perfectly calibrated, constantly searching and processing and sorting through the haze of his unreality. There’s a casualness to his performance that really stands out, an acknowledgement of how normal this pain has become for him.

His supporting cast is still largely untested, but Rachel Keller and Aubrey Plaza definitely intrigue right away, and I’m dying to see what else they’re going to be able to do with them down the course of this show.

What Doesn’t?

If there’s anything I didn’t love here, it’s the future potential this pilot sets up. The plotline is clear here but the concern is how they’re going to keep this up while keeping some semblance of forward motion. Or more accurately, how do they balance the two of them? Legion could be a show of constant and incredible dazzling that becomes frustrating because it never really goes anywhere. It could also abandon all that makes it so unique in the pilot for a more conventional narrative. The pilot doesn’t do much to reassure how it’s going to pull off being a weekly show.

Soundtrack Cut of the Week.

There’s some great tracks, including “She’s A Rainbow” in slightly on-the-nose musical cue and “Happy Jack,” the track that kicks things off. But this week’s winner is “Pauvre Lola” by Serge Gainsbourg. It plays over the Bhangra number and is so delightful and unexpected and exactly what this show needs.

Fan Theory of the Week.

So, what is the Devil with the Yellow Eyes? Let’s go ahead and give out what I’m sure is the most common theory right now. Meet Mojo.

Just saying what we’re all thinking.

Mojo is an X-Men villain who functions something like an intergalactic reality TV show producer. Besides the physical resemblance, there’s recurring motif of being monitored, of being watched, and David seeing the parts of his life playing out on TV, in addition to Hawley’s playing with aspect ratio and the cinematic form of the show. The possibility of Hawley using this whole thing to play with the idea of prestige television is too juicy to pass up, and Mojo could turn a show already playing with reality into an even more meta exercise. Food for thought.

Grade: A-