The following review contains spoilers for the premiere episode of Legion.
The X-Men franchise has, strangely enough, become the home for auteur storytelling in the superhero landscape. Last year, we got the unapologetically vulgar and cartoonish Deadpool and in March, Hugh Jackman will send-off his most famous character in a blood-soaked western. For now, we have Legion from Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley. It becomes clear very early on that Hawley isn’t interested in telling the conventional super-hero story that has come to dominate television. Instead, he’s created an unnerving and often perplexing look into the mind of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a schizophrenic mental patient and telepath extraordinaire.
The story takes place in the 1960s, beginning with a stylish montage set to Happy Jack that chronicles his life up until now. We see him go from a happy little boy to a deeply troubled young man who’s starting to hear voices. He lashes out with petty crime, and after a suicide attempt, he finds himself in a mental health facility. His only friend seems to be Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), a quirky wheelchair-bound patient until Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) comes along. She seems like the perfect gal for David, withdrawn, cynical and pathologically incapable of being touched.
All of this is well and good until she is released. David lashes out in fury when she is and inadvertently discovers Syd’s ability to switch bodies with whoever she touches. From there, we’re taken on a wild ride through David’s consciousness as he attempts to piece together the circumstances of his escape while evading a shadowy government organization who wants to pry information out of him.
This is one of the most singularly stylish television pilots I’ve ever seen. This feels less like an episode of a comic book show than it does like an independent film. Hawley has an orchestral command of the camera here. He won’t just show us a room, he’ll wind his way through it to the point of disorientation. There’s a palpable sense of unease in every composition. We’re often a bit too close to David for comfort and start trembling with him when he starts to fly off the handle. Hawley will even play with the aspect ratio of certain sequences to express something new about David’s mental state. Masterful sound design and score aid this discomfort, often adding disconcerting background noise to the quieter moments. There’s a sequence in which David and Syd are just lying in bed, with the horrifying sounds of the hospital behind them that is as tense as any action scene that pops up later on.
The story is told non-linearly, particularly in the second half after David and Syd escape. Normally, something like this strikes me as gimmicky, but it really works here. It feels as though we’re inside David’s scattered mind, trying to piece together what he’s experienced with him. It’s not a show that can be easily ingested. Every episode will likely take multiple viewings to fully unpack, especially if this manipulation of the story structure continues.
David seems like a rather compelling character and that is mostly due to some incredible characterization by Dan Stevens. His body movements are so manic, his words so loose and hard to wring out, that we feel as though he could explode at any moment. He has a nerve-wracking presence but he’s also rather likable. He’s as confused and scared as we are, which brings us along for the ride. He has great chemistry with Keller, who’s creating a strong and grounded character in Syd. However, Plaza is laying the on the goofiness just a little thick. She can’t seem to decide if she wants to deliver the dialogue in an exaggerated or understated way, so she does both. However, her character seems to have met her end pretty early on, so we’ll likely only see her as a delusion now and again.
I do worry about the show losing its voice as we carry on into the season. I was so on board with it being a comic book version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but the final 10 minutes of this episode tease a whole other story. We see secret group of mutants who are fighting a shadowy government organization, who seem to want David for his skills. That’s not nearly as interesting as the material in the hospital, and I hope that the mental illness angle isn’t put on the sidelines to support a fairly standard X-Men story. There clearly isn’t a budget for that sort of thing if the final action sequence here is any indication. A fake “long take” with atrocious Dr. Who level special effects, it gives us a peek into the worst version of what this can become. I suspect that Hawley knows this though and will ensure that this doesn’t turn into schlock.
Legion’s pilot promises a superhero series that’s demented and tippy enough to make Dr. Strange look like a five cent haunted house. It certainly has a compelling lead and a fascinating narrative structure to carry on with. However, we can only hope that it will stick to its guns and give us what we’re being promised, as opposed to the same story we’ve seen hundreds of times.
One way or the other, I’ll be here to let you know.
Legion airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.