Another day, another Marvel series, or so it seems. This one is actually coming to us courtesy of Fox, screen rights holders for all things mutant, and showrunner Noah Hawley, who gave us the exemplary TV iteration of Fargo. It’s his involvement that makes us prick up our ears, promising something a little different from the usual sturm und drang superhero angst and action.
Meet David Haller (Dan Stevens of The Guest and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast), long time mental illness sufferer and recent suicide attempt, currently confined to the Clockwork Psychiatric Hospital. He has a best friend, the substance-abusing, sardonic Lenny (Aubrey Plaza, great) but he doesn’t have a girlfriend – that is until a new inmate, the mysterious Syd (Rachel Keller) comes along, and David falls hard. Syd doesn’t like to be touched, and David is fine with that rule, up until Syd gets discharged and…
…well, that would be telling, but something catastrophic happens, resulting in the bulk of the episode being narrated by David under interrogation by a mysterious agent (Hamish Linklater) while nervous SWAT-types stand guard, guns at the ready. As it turns out, David’s visions and delusions of power may not just be symptoms of a troubled mind – or at least, not only that, and there are serious people who would much rather he not figure that out.
The subjectivity of experience seems to be the central thesis of Legion. Syd (whose last name is the rather-on-the-nose Barrett) states it plainly at one point: “What if your problems aren’t all in your head? What if they’re not even problems?” Or, more plainly, what if what makes you special is the same thing that makes you broken – a provocative, potentially dangerous area of exploration that is nonetheless tantalising to anyone who toils in the arts.
We spend a lot of time right in David’s head with him, and that invites the viewer to try and parse what is real and what isn’t, a mode heightened by the episode’s use of a fractured timeline and repeating frightening visions and (presumably) real displays of superhuman power. For a while there the jury is even out on whether Syd is a figment of David’s imagination (the smart money is on No, unless this show is playing a very long and interesting game). There’s more than a touch of Terry Gilliam going on here, with David’s eventual embracing of what could be, by the show’s own lights, insanity, reminiscent of Brazil, and the psychiatric hospital echoing 12 Monkeys. Indeed, that second point of reference is a bit of a problem; the show’s aesthetic edges right up to the precipice of “unbearably precious”, frequently stunningly imaginative in its compositions and colours, but flirting with “twee” a little too often. That this is part of Legion‘s depiction of mental illness is sure to grate on some – a well delivered cliche is still a cliche, and culturally we’re right in the middle of renegotiating how we perceive mental issues – it’d be nice if Legion was the first of the new guard in that respect, not the last of the old.
Thankfully we have some sterling performances to carry us through, chiefly Dan Stevens as Haller, who manages to combine charm, humour, self doubt, fear, keen intelligence and a certain level of outright intimidating power in one package. It’s really a bravura performance – even when the episode is over-egging the pudding with its choices, Stevens is there to anchor it.
Legion falters when it cleaves too closely to the expectations of the superhero/comic book genre. A big rescue/action setpiece closes out the episode, and it’s easily the weakest few minutes so far; we’ve seen this sort of TV-budget action a thousand times before and besides, we know how this is going to end up – the stakes are incredibly low. Our first hour and change in the company of David Haller sees him and us hooked up with a mysterious mentor figure (Jean Smart) and her team of armed and superpowered accomplices – easily the most obvious place for us to land, and a bit of a shame considering what has gone before. Legion isn’t perfect, but it shows a hell of a lot of promise. Hopefully the more workaday genre elements will fall away as we move forward, and we’re left with something really new and unique. We shall see.