Marvel Universe Expands with Legion

Rachel Keller and Dan Stevens star in FX’s Legion. (Photo courtesy of FX)

The following review contains spoilers from the show’s pilot episode.

“I need to know, is this is real?” David Haller (Dan Stevens) asks Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) in the pilot episode of Legion, FX’s outstanding new X-Men spinoff series. Created by Noah Hawley, based on a lesser-known Marvel Comic character introduced by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, Legion is an origin story centered on a mutant named David Haller whose telepathic and telekinetic powers mimic symptoms of schizophrenia.

Hawley, the mastermind behind FX’s brilliant Fargo, constructs an original story in the shadow of the X-Men universe. [1]The pilot, written and directed by the show-runner, is a frenetically paced psychedelic mind-bender that successfully subverts expectations for not only comic book adaptations, but prestige dramas as well. The first of the series’ eight episodes debuted on February 8th and it’s sensational. Legion eschews traditional storytelling for a wild, unpredictable and thrilling ride into a mutant’s brain that should delight both comic book fans and non-fans alike.

David’s story begins with an opening childhood montage accompanied by The Who. David transforms from a happy kid to a hopeless young man, suffering from an endless onslaught of auditory and visual hallucinations. He’s diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and medicated; however, his severe psychological pain drives him to an unsuccessfully suicide attempt. Subsequently, he enters Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital where he spends the next six years. Heavily medicated and treated by a series of therapists, David’s worst symptoms and his mood stabilize; yet, he continues to be haunted by a relentless voices and lurid visions, including frequent visits from a grotesque “Devil with Yellow Eyes.” Spending his existence in a clouded Kolonopin daze, David passes the time by hanging out with his best friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). His only connection to the outside world is his sister (The League’s Kate Anselton), who drops by for visits on his birthday. So it goes.

His life takes an unexpected turn when a new patient arrives, the beautiful and mysterious Sydney “Syd” Barrett[2] (Fargo’s Rachel Keller). Syd suffers from anti-social anxiety disorder and David’s spur of the moment meet-cute attempt backfires. David’s psychosis has isolated him from maintaining meaningful relationships and he’s desperate to make a connection. He receives a second chance when Syd joins his therapy group. The duo effortlessly banters like they’ve known each other for years. She’s sarcastic, intelligent and thoughtful. David is smitten and decides to ask her out. She accepts, but divulges her fear of physical contact. This isn’t a deal-breaker for David and the couple embarks on an emotionally intimate relationship, shown through an inspired montage. They creatively discover ways to show affection, as they laugh, cry, and dance. It’s a heartfelt glimpse of two misfits falling in love.

David is jolted awake in an unfamiliar place and greeted by “The Interrogator” (Hamish Linklater). The Interrogator works for a shady government agency that’s holding David captive at their covert location. David is questioned about his involvement with “the incident at Clockworks” Unsure of the reason for his detainment, an understandably skittish David slowly shares what he remembers. David admits he once believed he could control things with his mind, but his delusion has disappeared through years of therapy and psychotropic medication. Twist! His powers are real and they’re spectacular! He just doesn’t know it. He may even be the strongest mutant alive. We see evidence of his abilities through his memory of a psychedelic freak out in a kitchen, triggered by a volatile blend of anger and despair. The scene is filmed in spectacular slow motion, with David’s vast telekinetic abilities on full display, unwittingly causing cabinets and drawers to violently swing open as their contents swirl through the air with the force of a tornado.

The episode’s most pivotal scene is David’s hazy memory of the “incident” and it’s catalyst: Syd’s news that she’s leaving Clockworks. David’s happy for her, but the thought of life without her scares him. David decides to express his feelings by impulsively kissing her goodbye. This seemingly innocuous romantic gesture has dire consequences for everyone at Clockworks, as we discover Syd is much more than just a manic pixie dream girl with an aversion to physical contact. She’s a mutant, too, with mysterious powers of her own. Syd and David’s superpowers unintentionally collide in an explosive sequence where Legion’s camera races through the hospital and flips upside down, while simultaneously zooming in and out and switching point-of-views. This creates a disorienting effect as the audience is hurled into the middle of pure chaos.

The episode’s second half bounds back and forth through time, as David tries to piece together his memories, dreams, and visions, in order to outsmart his captors and grab hold of his reality. A trio of allies, Kerry (Amber Midthunder), Ptonomy[3] (Jeremie Harris), and Melanie (Jean Smart), come to David’s assistance in an undeniably jaw-dropping climactic rescue, setting the stage for upcoming episodes.

Legion’s cast grounds the cerebral thriller with winning performances. Dan Stevens, a British actor most famous for his role on Downton Abbey, is terrific as man tenuously grasping reality. Stevens nails every aspect of a tricky role, believably expressing existential dread and earnestness, while also added touches of self-deprecating humor. Rachel Keller, Fargo’s young femme fatale Simone Gerhardt, is also superb. Keller is a versatile and magnetic actress, whose expressive eyes reveal Syd as someone balancing a desire for human connection with the secrets of her past. Her relationship with David adds dimensions of heart and the two actors play off each other wonderfully. Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) provides welcome comic relief as David’s delightfully disheveled best friend, Lenny. Resembling Lou Reed, Plaza steals scenes with her distinctive delivery and squirrely body language, with eyes twinkling with maniacal mischief. Lenny’s interactions with David lead to the show’s most laughs, serving as a disarming detour from the darkness.

Legion is not only a journey into David’s fractured psyche, but one also into Noah Hawley’s boundless imagination.[4]. With his 2016 novel Before the Fall and Fargo, Hawley’s excelled at creating suspenseful stories with intricate plotting, sharp dialogue, and compelling characters. Legion strikes the same chords as his previous work, but distinguishes itself with a more complex, non-linear story structure and visual style unlike anything on TV. The sets are meticulously detailed, filling David’s delirious fever dreams and fuzzy memories with bright, saturated colors. David’s trouble distinguishing dreams from reality gives the show a timeless vibe. Many of David’s visions are fueled by his consumption of popular culture; the hospital’s name and interiors are a nod to a several Stanley Kubrick films and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. The characters dress in styles from a myriad of eras. David’s sister looks like a 1960s housewife, the hospital’s patients wear uniforms that mirror 1970s ABA warm-ups, and the government agents wear suits ostensibly fitted by a tailor from a dystopian future.

The show’s brilliantly shot, using a myriad of disorienting camera angles that expertly evoke a malleable tone. The visuals seamlessly move from the look of 1970s conspiracy thriller, to the menacing sensory distortion of a David Lynch film, to the joyous dance numbers and offbeat montages seen in Wes Anderson’s movie. Each reference serves a purpose and Hawley masterfully blends the divergent styles into his own singular vision.

Composer Jeff Russo adds to the show’s mind-bending tone with an unnerving score. Russo’s ever changing soundscape expresses David’s kinetic mental state toggling from jittery percussion to 80s synth infused electronica to ominous trombones to uplifting cinematic strings. There’s also a collection of tracks by bands including The Who, The Rolling Stones, Jane’s Addiction, and Pink Floyd.

Noah Hawley’s Fargo ranks as one of the best shows on TV, and if this masterful debut is any indication, Legion will reach similar heights.



Legion airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.

[1] I’m not sure how much the show will incorporate elements of X-Men in its story. David Haller has a famous relative in the comics, but I’d be surprised if the character is featured on the show.

[2] Keller’s character shares a name with one of the founding members of Pink Floyd, who left the group due to his deteriorating mental health. “Brain Dead,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” all deal with the aftermath of Barrett’s departure.

[3] Here’s another Pink Floyd reference. The pilot seems to evoke many of the themes from the band’s The Dark Side of the Moon.