In a world still innocent of the knowledge that mankind is evolving how would the world react to someone who says they hear voices, or claims they sometimes move things with their mind? Without the knowledge that mutants exist they would be cast as mentally ill, psychoanalysed, drugged, even incarcerated. Would treatment help them, or cause them to fall further into psychosis? Where mutants are yet to be known to the wider population, those who do not conform to what is considered normal are treated as disturbed individuals.
David Haller (The Guest‘s Dan Stevens, soon to be seen in Beauty and the Beast) has led a troubled life. Diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age he has struggled to fit into a world that is more full of noise, voices and chaos than that which those around him experience. The constant shifts in everything around him make his ability to focus on the real world difficult, as who can say which of the worlds he sees is real? Seeking escape through years of alcohol, drug abuse and suicide attempts he has spent the last several years in various mental institutions.
Now resigned to the daily routine of medication and limited human interaction, he is woken from that minimal expectation by the arrival of the enigmatic Syd Barrett (Fargo’s Rachel Keller), no stranger to mental illness herself. Avoiding human touch entirely she has a alternative view of their condition: what if they are not ill, or cursed, or damaged but just different? “You’re in here because somebody said you’re not normal… but you know who else wasn’t normal? Picasso. Einstein.”
Based on the character of Legion created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz and introduced in March 1985’s New Mutants issue 25, it remains to be seen how much the show will draw from the comics. Currently telling its own story it will be interesting to see as the show develops whether David’s diagnosis is a misunderstanding of his currently undefined powers manifesting, whether his illness is genuine but unrelated to his powers, if one is a side effect of the other, or even if everything which he believes he experiences is delusions?
With soft focus, hazy lighting and gentle fades, the audience follows David through frequent shifts of perspective, as confused and lost as he is; while this could become jarring if done continually through the season it sets the show apart from the style associated with the X-Men films and illuminates David’s disjointed view of reality.
From a playful opening which turns traumatic and with moments of whimsy and abstraction, the structure gives room for levity as it balances just on the edge of “weird or too weird” as it alternates between David’s nightmarish visions of the “Devil with the yellow eyes” to fantasy dance sequences which seem entirely the natural order of things.
Highly stylised, much effort has been put into creating the unique look of Legion and the costumes and design feature elements of the sixties and seventies but mixed with modern clothing and technology, the anachronism of a dial knob oscilloscope and an advanced tablet device in the same scene.
While not as specific in its style as Stranger Things’ eighties focus it has the look of the seventies, touching on that decade’s view of what the future would be with clear inspirations drawn from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, an aesthetic which makes for compelling viewing.
Distinct from the X-Men movie universe, FX Network President John Landgraf has indicated that “the series Legion takes place in a parallel universe, if you will, in which the US government is in the early days of being aware that something called mutants exist but the public is not.” While some may see this as disappointing, especially as the other planned X-Men show Hellfire seems to have been shelved, that Legion will not have to fit with the already complicated continuity gives it more freedom to tell its own story rather than having to find ways to work within the existing framework.
Vulnerable, unpredictable and dangerous because of it, Stevens shows a man trying at each moment to figure out what is real and manage his mental health, a character who has lived with his condition for a long time and has become resigned to the daily struggles, and while generally affable there are already hints that there may be darker elements to David beneath what he allows others to see.
Having lived a lifetime with her issues, Syd comes across as equally comfortable with herself, and seeing the world as broken and unable to deal with her rather than the other way around she is for now a stronger personality than David having decided that “normal” is neither something to aim for nor accept as an unchallenged default. Within the hospital the only other apparently coherent patient is Lenny (Life After Beth‘s Aubrey Plaza), who even with only a few scenes shines as the fast talking optimist and counterpoint to her friend David’s reticent nature.
Executive producers Noah Hawley and John Cameron, known for the award winning Fargo, have clearly set out to create another unique show with a short initial season of eight chapters to tell a distinctive story. The opening chapter raising more questions than it answers, and while those familiar with the style of the films may be frustrated those more open minded will feel Legion calling for them to binge watch. If it continues with this strong style it could become a fan favourite, setting a high bar for any X-Men universe shows that do follow.