By Kaleb Lyonnais
On March 29, FX premiered the first season finale of Legion, a television program about the character of the same name taken from Marvel Comics. The eight-episode season was short but potent, distinguishing itself with creative use of special effects and a uniquely-unpredictable plot.
Legion is set in the same continuity as the X-Men movie franchise. The X-Men are a group of mutants, people with superpowers gained through random genetic aberrations. They were created in 1963 by Stan Lee who, after creating many other superheroes, was tired of writing origin stories for each character. David Haller, the mutant known as Legion, is the son of Professor X, the leader of the X-Men. However, with minimal references and no crossovers with the movies, anyone can understand Legion even if they have not seen the X-Men.
David is telepathic and telekinetic. Unfortunately, he is also schizophrenic, having hallucinations of strange voices and images. At the beginning of the season he believes that whenever he hears someone else’s thoughts, whenever he sees something fly across the room, or whenever anything inexplicable happens, that it is a symptom of his insanity.
As the story progresses David does not know if he is insane or if he has superhuman abilities. He must decide who he believes, the psychiatrists who want to treat his illness or the fellow mutants who want to train him to use his power.
Meanwhile David’s new friends, a group of mutants from the “Summerland” institute, are at war with Division 3, a government agency trying to control mutants. The mutants vs. government motif has been done in the X-Men movies, but Legion took the novel approach of focusing on telepathic deceit instead of combat.
Special effects are used throughout the series to portray these illusions, from monsters projected into people’s minds to entire fantasy worlds with different laws of physics. The producers stated that they aimed for a 1960s aesthetic, with bright colors and surreal scenes. The result is a memorable and palpable affect that provides continuity between the real world and the various illusions.
Much of the story is told in a non-linear order. Courtesy of another mutant, David and his new friends explore his memories. They visit many incidents where David’s power manifested, jumping from year to year. David’s memories have been corrupted, leading to an unreliable, convoluted search for the truth. Despite this complexity, the audience can follow the story easily as David tries to explain it all.
Legion‘s cast is small, allowing the audience to focus on the story instead of trying to keep track of all of the characters. David is played by Dan Stevens, who does an excellent job acting confused and uncertain without dehumanizing the character. Rachel Keller plays David’s love interest Syd, a woman with an intense aversion to physical contact (which, considering her ability to switch bodies with people she touches, is a reasonable precaution). Aubrey Plaza plays Lenny, David’s friend who dies the first episode, then makes recurring appearances as David hallucinates about her. Their allies/co-stars include the memory-exploring Ptonomy (played by Jeremie Harris), the body-sharing Cary and Kerry (Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder), and the leader of Summerland, Melanie (Jean Smart).
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the show is its portrayal of mental illness. David begins the series in a mental hospital where melancholy patients endlessly take pills from uncaring psychiatrists. Several times mental illness is used as a trick to convince mutants that they do not truly have powers. Even David’s real hallucinations (as opposed to the real events he thinks are hallucinations) are revealed to be the result of meddling by another psychic mutants. The series gives the impression that mental illness is a lie and that mental hospitals are traps for social outcasts.
Because of the unreliable narrative and layers of illusions, the plot takes turns that are nigh unpredictable. It is made clear to the audience that David is both telepathic and schizophrenic, but this makes it unclear which events are real and which are imagined. Every episode has a revelation about an seemingly-real character doing something unreal or a seemingly-unreal event launching a real plot line.
Legion has a unique style of storytelling and captivating special effects. Its characters have multi-faceted motivations and do not rely on stereotypes to fit into the story. The plot, while complex, flows smoothly and does not resort to patronizing the audience with exposition. It is an enjoyable show to watch and an excellent experiment in entertainment.