The FX network has kept a lot of the details about its new series ‘Legion’ secretive or vague. Even after a 90-minute premiere, I can’t say that I’m entirely certain what happened in it. Somehow, that may actually be a good thing.
Aside from an X seen in the middle of the O in its title font, the network has not at all promoted the fact that ‘Legion’ is a spinoff from Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ superhero universe. According to some perfunctory research I did (read: skimming Wikipedia), the character debuted in the ‘New Mutants’ comic in 1985. Beyond occasional use of the word “mutant,” the pilot episode makes no mention of his connection to Professor X, Wolverine, or any of that. The TV adaptation was created by Noah Hawley, the mastermind behind the network’s weird and frequently brilliant ‘Fargo’ TV show. Hawley’s off-kilter influence is strongly felt all through this project, while at the same time this is decidedly the most ambitious thing he’s ever touched.
I’ll try to summarize the plot of the premiere as clearly as I can, but keep in mind that nothing about this show is clear. The episode jumps all around from the “present day” (which, as far as I can tell, is sometime in the 1970s… maybe?) to flashbacks, and from reality to dreams, hallucinations and fantasies. Remarkably, it all flows together seamlessly and feels like it makes sense, even when it doesn’t.
David Haller was a very troubled boy who grew up who grew up to have very serious mental health issues. He hears voices in his head, he can’t distinguish hallucinations from reality, and he’s tormented by something he calls the “Beast with Yellow Eyes” that spies on him. Also, at various points in his life, he has moved or damaged things with just the power of his mind… or thinks he might have, if he didn’t imagine it all. Now a young man, David (Dan Stevens) has been institutionalized at the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. He doesn’t like it there and wants to leave. His sister, Amy (Katie Aselton from ‘The League’), is sympathetic and visits often, but can’t do anything to help him and feels like she’s losing him.
David’s best friend in the facility is a wackadoo chick named Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). She’s obviously crushing on him, but he doesn’t notice that at all. He’s instantly infatuated with a new patient named Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller from ‘Fargo’ Season 2). Syd has serious personal boundary issues. She does not ever want to be touched, by anyone. David can work around that. He asks her to be his girlfriend. She accepts.
From there, the narrative jumps around so much I won’t be able to provide a comprehensive recap. At some point, Syd disappears. David insists that she was taken, but the hospital claims to have no record that she was ever a patient. David is interrogated by a man (Hamish Linklater) who’s never properly identified. He may be a cop, or may be an agent from the government, or may be a player for some more nefarious organization. He asks David many questions about his time at Clockworks, about Syd, and about “The Incident.”
On the day that Syd was to be discharged from the hospital, David rushed up and kissed her on the lips. Upon that contact, their bodies set off a shockwave blast that knocked everyone around them down and sent the hospital into chaos. Alarms went off, police were called. The walls of the building suddenly had no doors, trapping many patients in their rooms. Lenny wasn’t so fortunate. She was apparently in a doorway at the time, and now her dead body is stuck half-in/half-out of a solid wall.
Sydney was ushered outside the hospital, but as David explains to the Interrogator, it wasn’t Sydney. It was him. They switched bodies when they kissed. David-as-Sydney was freed, while Sydney-as-David was left behind. Eventually, David reverted into his normal body and went to live with his sister, upon which he started having visions of Lenny’s ghost talking to him. He tried to contact Syd in the hospital, only to be told that no such patient existed. His act of calling from a payphone set a mysterious man and woman stalking after him.
During one of David’s breaks from telling this story, the Interrogator leaves the room and we discover a whole army of workers and scientists and assorted other people on the other side of the wall. The Interrogator speaks to a man, a superior of some sort, and describes David as the most powerful mutant he’s ever encountered, even if he doesn’t know that he is a mutant and believes that his telepathic and telekinetic powers are figments of his mental illness.
The Interrogator tries to pressure David into telling him where Sydney is. David gets so agitated that he causes a pen to fly off the table and pierce the Interrogator’s face. A group of henchmen rush in and drug David.
David wakes up sitting in a lifeguard chair, his body half-submerged in a swimming pool. Standing on the deck, the Interrogator tells him that the pool is wired and he’ll be electrocuted if he doesn’t behave. The Interrogator has no patience anymore. He wants to know where Sydney is right away.
David digs through his memories of being chased by the strange man and woman. This time, Sydney approaches him and pulls him away. She says that neither one of them is really there. She has inserted herself into his memory in order to talk to him. David is confused. So is the audience. Syd tells him to slink down in the chair, submerge himself in the water, and stay there as long as he can. She’ll help him escape.
David follows her instructions. As soon as he goes under the water, he can see lights flashing and hear chaotic noises from up above. Incinerated dead bodies fall into the pool with him. When he comes up for air, David finds Sydney and some others waiting for him. She pulls him up (with a gloved hand, so he doesn’t touch her skin) and tells him that Melanie is waiting, whoever that is.
The scene both inside and outside the building is a war zone, with lots of shooting and screaming and explosions. The friends Syd came with use telekinetic powers to fling soldiers away. Syd leads David down to a beach. He pauses for a minute and asks if any of this is real, or if he’s just dreaming it all. She tells him it’s real. He believes her.
Syd then introduces David to Miss Bird (Jean Smart). She says she’s very excited to meet him and extends her hand. David hesitates for a moment and looks around, seeing the Devil with Yellow Eyes spying on him again. He decides to trust Syd anyway. The episode ends with David reaching out and taking Miss Bird’s hand.
Episode Verdict / Grade: A-
What I’ve described above is just the narrative of the show, but the most impressive things about ‘Legion’ have little to do with narrative. This series is a really stunning visual spectacle. Everything about its visual design, from the sets to the costumes to the fantastic VFX sequences, is fascinating to look at. I’ve heard it described by more than one source as being what a superhero movie directed by Wes Anderson might look like, and that pretty much nails it. I’ve never seen anything like this on television before.
The audio is just as great. The episode makes more interesting and aggressive use of surround sound than anything I’ve ever watched via broadcast.
Fortunately, this seems to be more than just a case of style over substance. The story is pretty intriguing as well (which puts it far above, for example, the USA network’s recent ‘Falling Water‘, a show that married fancy visuals to a dumb plot). I may have been confused by a lot during the premiere, but with Hawley at the helm, I’m sure the show will go to some very exciting places.
My only knock against the show so far is that I think the pilot tries a little too hard to confound viewers just for the sake of doing so. I also don’t imagine that future episodes will be anywhere near as expensive or elaborate as this one. Regardless, you can definitely count me in for more. This is without question the most promising new series of the year so far.