The first time I watched the trailer, I wondered what exactly FX’s and Marvel’s newest TV show, Legion, was about. Now, after an hour and a half of surreal, psychedelic goodness, I don’t have many more answers, but I don’t mind. Everything else, from the visuals to the outside-of-time aesthetic to the acting choices to the soundtrack, has me hooked.
David Haller (Dan Stevens) has been troubled for a long time. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he’s been in a mental institution for the past six years after trying to hang himself. But David’s got something else happening, too, a power he’s only just scratching the surface of. He lifts his bed and all his furniture in his sleep, leaving his room wrecked; he does much worse later in the episode. He falls in love with Sydney Barrett, a fellow patient at the hospital who can’t be touched. After a deadly reality-bending (and body-swapping) episode at the hospital, David is picked up by an unnamed government agency for questioning.
Legion is pretty much aesthetically and stylistically perfect. All of the choices, from clunky 60s headphones to weird 70s clothing and modern, iPad-esque touchscreens lend an air of temporal displacement to the entire show. We don’t know exactly where or when it’s set. I’m reminded of the aesthetic of The Double, which director Richard Ayoade described as “how people imagine the future would be, but in the past.” For Legion, it might be the opposite, but placing you in this topsy-turvy, psychedelic, slightly-wrong setting unsettles you enough to keep you on your toes. If someone were to ask me the definition of “uncanny,” I’d sit them down and make them watch this episode.
I kept trying to draw aesthetic comparisons as I watched, but the only one that really stuck was Twin Peaks. Legion is also surreal. Men in the secret government facility David’s being held in wear janitors' uniforms with pink beanies; flashes of memory interrupt on a near-constant basis; David dreams in a Bollywood dance number or hallucinates (here’s hoping) a nauseating “devil with yellow eyes.” The sound design is similarly dreamy (or maybe nightmarish) – shoutout to Jeff Russo, who also composed the music for Fargo and American Gothic. Small choices like the back-and-forth of ping pong balls and the shudder of low whispers heighten the atmospheric tension.
Dan Stevens could not be farther from Downton Abbey here, and he inhabits the fast-talking, shifty-eyed, earnest David completely. There’s something really endearing about the character, like when he asks Syd out with a straightforward “do you want to be my girlfriend?” minutes after meeting her. And the fact that Aubrey Plaza’s character was written as a middle-aged man and then changed specifically for her tells you most of what you need to know about Lenny, David’s best friend at the hospital.
All that said, the plot of this first episode is non-linear at best and scattered at worst. We hop back and forth between at least three different timelines as the episode continues (David telling the government agents about what happened at the hospital and also reliving earlier points in his life), but you’re able to piece together the entire story well enough. It’s a little sloppy, but that’s also what you get when you have an unreliable narrator telling you the story. Sometimes you get the same moments twice, slightly altered each time.
The pilot was fantastic, and I’m not sure exactly where the show will go. The last ten to fifteen minutes of the episode were a seismic shift, and they felt a little bit like they belonged to another show more in line with traditional X-Men fare. A few lines from Syd in the middle of the episode equating mental illness with misunderstood genius have me a little worried that they’ll shift into a more typical "chosen one" arc, where the hero only understands the depth of his power when he stops taking his medication. I’d love, instead, to see a superhero who’s also mentally ill, to show that those two things don’t cancel one another out. We’ve seen Tony Stark with PTSD; I really hope we get to see a fleshed-out protagonist dealing with his superpowers and his mental illness here.
Whatever turn Legion takes next, at least I know it’ll be completely and gloriously weird. And who knows? Maybe we’ll even get another Bollywood number.